From steamboat and early railroad days, undertaking legacy continues
Smith Funeral Home on Broadway, Hannibal, 1953. The home was located directly to the east of the Marion County Courthouse at Hannibal. Otis Howell photo
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Standing reliably as a steady hand and level head during time of community bereavement, Robert Curts represented dignity and responsibility throughout his Hannibal funeral business career, which spanned from the 1870s when he was a teenager, until he sold his share of his business in 1911.
As a youth living under the same roof as his brother-in-law, respected undertaker Evans Fritz, Curts literally learned the funeral business from the ground up. And while it was only natural that Curts follow in the footsteps of Fritz – who was 16 years his senior – no amount of training and mentoring could ever have prepared Curts for the depth of fortitude that would be required to lift the populace – and himself - during times of greatest grief.
Evans Fritz was born in Pennsylvania in 1841, son of John G. Fritz, a master shoemaker, and his wife, Mary. At the age of 19, in Hannibal, he married Mildred Curts, the daughter of Charles W. Curts, a noted riverboat pilot and a boyhood friend of Mark Twain.
Fritz was an undertaker in Hannibal as early as 1870, according to the U.S. Census. The next year, Evans Fritz and his wife Mildred had a son they named Charles Evans Fritz. In 1871, Fritz was in businesses with Thomas Brice, dealer in furniture, in the Hickman Block, at 309 Broadway. In 1873, Fritz and family lived at 209 S. Fourth.
In 1874, Fritz’s undertaking establishment was located at 317 Broadway, under Brittingham Hall.
Fritz advertised in the Hannibal Clipper during November of 1874 that his firm was a dealer for Tayler’s patent corpse preserver, which eliminated the need to pack a body in ice. “These are the only Preservers that are safe, and free from any inside lining.” His establishment featured Steel Patent Burial Cases and Caskets, and he boasted that his funeral parlor was the only one in town, which kept a competent undertaker.
The 1877 Hannibal city directory listed E. Holman and E. Fritz together in business as Holman and Fritz, dealers in wood and metallic burial cases and caskets, 317 Broadway.
Gaining in both experience and reputation, Fritz became Hannibal’s coroner in 1884. The following year, in 1885, his brother-in-law Robert Curts, by now 28, went into business with him.
But despair was on the horizon.
The Quincy Whig, dated April 26, 1888, carried the news of Evans Fritz’s accidental and untimely death death.
“A dispatch from Hannibal says: Evans Fritz, of the undertaking firm of Fritz & Curtis, of this city, died at 8 o’clock this morning from an overdose of morphine. He was accustomed to taking the drug, and had frequently taken large doses. Mr. Fritz went home about 11 o’clock last night. About 12 he aroused his wife and told her that he was going to telephone for some morphine, as he could not sleep. Mrs. Fritz, instead of allowing him to send for it, produced the drug from the family medicine chest. Mr. Fritz took a teaspoonful of it and repaired to his sleeping apartment. Mrs. Fritz was aroused about 1 o’clock by the heavy breathing of her husband, whom she found in an unconscious condition. Medical aid was summoned, but Mr. Fritz died a little after 8 o’clock. He was a member of several secret societies.”
Curts, who learned his trade from his deceased brother-in-law, and who conducted funeral services and arranged for Fritz’s burial, took over the business.
Just as Robert Curts, when he was a teenager, had worked under the guidance of Evans Fritz, Curts took under his wing William M. Smith – age 17 in 1888 – following the death of Mr. Fritz.
The year 1903 brought with it extensive tragedy and mourning for the combined Fritz and Curts families.
On June 3, 1903, a Sunday School class from the Park Methodist Church embarked upon a riverboat excursion. The northbound Flying Eagle, loaded with 178 passengers, only made it a few hundred yards before striking the old railroad bridge at Hannibal.
Three young people tragically lost their lives, including Robert Curts’ teen-age daughter, Lonnie B. Curts. Mr. Curts chose a cedar coffin in which to bury his oldest child.
Later in the same year, Charles Fritz, the 31-year-old son of Evans Fritz, died in New York. The young man had left Hannibal soon after his father’s death in 1888, moving to Quincy where he played the piano in saloons and sporting resorts. He ultimately moved to New York, where his health deteriorated, leading to death on Nov. 23, 1903.
share of business
William M. Smith, the son of John T. and Sarah Splawn Smith of Ralls County, Mo., purchased a share of the business in 1909, and it was renamed Curts and Smith.
Smith and Mr. Curts continued in partnership until 1911, when Mr. Curts sold his interest to Robert Spaulding, the business renamed Smith and Spalding.
Finally, in June 1911, William M. Smith purchased Spaulding’s interest and the firm was renamed Wm. M. Smith Undertaker.
Smith moved the funeral home from 317 Broadway, where it had been located since 1872, to 902 Broadway, renaming the business Smith’s Funeral Home.
Crawford Smith, son of William, working under his father’s supervision, became a partner in the business on Jan. 1, 1936, and purchased the business outright Jan. 1, 1942.
The elder Mr. Smith died in 1960, and his son Crawford handled the funeral arrangements. William M. Smith is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Robert A. Curts died in 1931, at the age of 78. His widow and one daughter survived.
1963 to present
The current colonial style funeral home building still in use at 2619 St. Mary’s Avenue, was constructed under Crawford Smith’s supervision 52 years ago, in 1963.
The 902 Broadway site was demolished and now serves as a parking lot, to the east of the Marion County Courthouse in Hannibal.
Crawford Smith retired from the business in 1972, selling an interest in the company to Phil and Martha Smith. In July 2013, they sold the firm to Brent T. Massie and Elizabeth (Annie) Willett Massie.
Crawford Smith died in 2004, and is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Some information for this story obtained from the Hannibal Courier-Post’s New Home Edition, published in 1952.
Mary Lou Montgomery is a writer, speaker and researcher with a specialty in history. She is the former editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post.