IN 1900, WITH SPACE IN the 46-square-mile peninsula of San Francisco quickly becoming a premium, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to reclaim some room from the dead. First, they ceased further burials within city limits. Then, in 1914, on the back of a developer publicly valuing cemetery land at $7 million, the city began the arduous and ramshackle process of evicting the deceased.
Over the next 40 years, nearly 150,000 bodies were exhumed and relocated a few miles south to the city of Colma; currently, dead residents outnumber the living there roughly 1300-to-1. But the relocation process wasn’t as fastidious as you’d expect. Records were transferred incorrectly, family plots were split apart, body parts were transposed and mixed with others, often in mass graves.
On May 9, 2016, as construction crews were renovating a home in the city’s posh Richmond district, they struck something with their shovels. Under the garage floor was a tiny coffin made of lead and bronze, its most prominent feature a pair of glass windows that allowed workers to peer inside. They saw the preserved remains of a three-year-old girl. She was dressed in white, with ankle-high shoes, and grasped purple flowers that’d also been woven into her hair. A rosary and eucalyptus seeds had been carefully set atop her chest. There were no markers indicating who she was or when she died.
A city medical examiner cracked the coffin to find more information, but in doing so, broke the airtight seal that had long kept the body from decomposing. Time became an issue. A burial had to take place soon, but who would pay?
The city felt it was the burden of the homeowner, Ericka Karner, who was quoted prices between $7,000 and $22,000 for the burial, which she understandably balked at. “I understand if a tree is on your property, that’s your responsibility. But this is different,” Karner told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “The city decided to move all these bodies 100 years ago, and they should stand behind their decision.”
After nearly two weeks, Karner got in touch with Elissa Davey, founder of the nonprofit Garden of Innocence, which works to name unidentified dead children. Along with the Odd Fellows, they fronted the cost of the new cherry wood coffin lined with a violet interior, and for the girl’s second burial.
On June 4, 2016, more than 100 people took the trip down to Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma for a short service to the mystery girl. She was buried under a heart-shaped granite headstone that read:
Miranda EveThe child loved around the world“If no one grieves, no one will remember.”
That name was meant to be temporary, given to the dead girl by Karner’s own two young daughters, to be replaced when Miranda’s identity was finally discovered. See, before her second burial, researchers extracted DNA from the corpse, first to make sure that there was no foul play, then for clues.
The samples suggested Miranda had been weaned from breast milk a year before her death, putting her age between two and three-and-a-half years old when she died. They also hinted at a diet change that took place a few months before death, which suggested she died from a longer illness, not trauma. An analysis of her hair concluded she died of marasmus, or severe malnutrition, likely due to an infection.
Researchers also used the physical properties of the coffin and burial location in an effort to determine her identity. They superimposed an old map of the Odd Fellows cemetery atop a contemporary map to pinpoint where Miranda’s plot would have been; they traced the unique, dual-windowed casket to the only undertaker in the city making them at the time. Volunteers searched through 29,982 burial records, and were left with only a pair of possibilities. One had a distant, 82-year-old relative living in nearby Napa, who agreed to have his DNA withdrawn for testing alongside Miranda’s.
After months of waiting, the results of the DNA test were announced in April of 2017. It was an official match.
“WE FOUND MIRANDA!!!” announced the Garden of Innocence website. “Miranda Eve is Edith Howard Cook. Born November 28, 1873 and died October 13, 1876.”
Armed with a name, archivists dug through Edith’s history and discovered a trove of information about the family. Edith was the first daughter, and second child, of Horatio Nelson Cook and Edith Scooffy Cook, a prominent San Francisco family who came west during the Gold Rush. Horatio had a hide-tanning business which lasted until 1980, when it merged with a similar business in nearby San Leandro; he was also the city’s Consul to Greece. Their next daughter, Ethel, was a city socialite talked about in the tabloid rags; a Russian nobleman once called her “the most beautiful woman in America.”
With the mystery of the little girl in the coffin finally solved, on a sunny Saturday in June 2017, another hundred or so people went to Colma for one last ceremony. This time, the headstone included Edith’s real name, her birth and death dates, a computer-aided image of what she may have looked like, and a message to those random passersby who happen to find themselves at this odd grave.