In late 1893 a rumor swept the world that a beautiful young Russian noblewoman had died in Paris, stipulating in her will that her body be placed in a glass coffin in an underground vault and that one million dollars be awarded any man who could spend a year there alone. The brave soul was to have an hour’s exercise daily, but no contact with anyone save the servant who was to bring him his meals. The Chicago Herald reported that many men had made the attempt, the only one lasting more than two weeks having gone insane.
Several bold and idle boys of Rome, Ga., read the story and were interested, but wanted to find out a little more before buying steamship tickets. They wrote to a hometown boy in a position to know, Clyde Shropshire, a Rome lawyer living in Paris and connected with the U.S. embassy. Shropshire wrote back to his young townsmen that the story was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated upon a credulous people… You would be surprised to know the number of letters I have received from Americans—almost every state in the union—all of them ‘swearing in the name of all the gods at once’ that they will live a year in anybody’s tomb—anywhere—for a cool million.”
While the young Romans were reading the disappointing news, a story with many parallels to the Paris hoax was drawing to its conclusion little more than a hundred miles to the south; a beautiful woman, an unburied corpse, and a fortune for persevering man.
Dr. George Martin was a well-known figure on the streets of Atlanta in the 1880s. Immaculately dressed, sporting the city’s most famous set of sideburns, decked with thousands of dollars worth of diamonds, the doctor had made a fortune in real estate speculation. When the south Georgia town of Cordele was established Dr. Marvin, sensing a good thing and wanting in on the ground floor, relocated. He founded the First National Bank of Cordele, was elected mayor, and, July 10, 1892, he died.
Mrs. Marvin’s grief was great. She said she wanted to live only long enough to settle her husband’s affairs and then kill herself. She arranged a large and elaborate funeral and had the doctor buried as she wished to remember him, dressed in the height of fashion with all his diamond jewelry on. Most of the businesses in Cordele closed for Dr. Marvin’s funeral and the procession to the cemetery was the largest in the town’s brief history.
A few nights later another procession went out to the cemetery, musch smaller and far more furtive. The members were a few close friends of the Marvins’, accompanied by W.D. Alverson, a New Orleans embalmer. They exhumed the doctor’s body and returned it to his widow’s house, where Alverson worked over it for the rest of the night. By the next day all that was mortal of Dr. George Marvin was neatly arranged in a coffin in his old home. Local gossip soon had it that Dr. Marvin’s body was laid out in a glass coffin in the front parlor, but a more plausible version said that the coffin was metal and kept in a securely locked back room.
Mrs. Marvin planned an enormous mausoleum surrounded by a park in memory of her husband and herself. She had apparently intended the first burial to be temporary, but friends had convinced her that the doctor’s diamonds would prove too tempting to graverobbers and that his remains would be safer at home. The passing months dulled some of Mrs. Marvin’s torment over the loss of her husband and she began to reconsider the mausoleum project, finally deciding that endowing a school would be a more fitting use of the doctor’s estate. And what was to be done with the doctor? Well, there was no rush; Mr. Alverson had done an excellent job.
Mrs. Marvin’s grief continued to recede; more and more she had to consider the management of the doctor’s complicated business affairs. For assistance she turned to the cashier of her late husband’s bank, Joseph E. Bivins. Mr. Bivins was quite familiar with his boss’ business and began to increase his familiarity with his widow as well. On Dec. 27, 1893, they were married in the parlor of the Marvin home, Dr. Marvin only a few yards away in the back room.
While the couple were in Florida on their honeymoon, Mr. Bivins made his first decision as man of the house. He telegraphed his brother in Cordele to buy a cemetery lot in Macon’s Rose Hill, and have the late doctor out of the house by the time he and his bride returned from Florida. On Jan. 12, 1894, after a year and a half, Dr. George Marvin’s remains finally rested in peace.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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