As soon as the work crew saw the coffin, they knew they’d stumbled onto a mystery.
Workers had been excavating under a San Francisco home when they found the small bronzed cast iron casket, buried deep on the property. It was obviously old; subsequent DNA tests would date it to 1876.
There were other clues; the materials used indicated that the coffin was valuable at the time of burial. Inside, the body of a young girl was adorned with flowers: a red rose in her hands and lavender in her hair. There were two viewing windows on the 37-inch casket. The child was only three years old when she passed on.
And so the search began. The San Francisco media became obsessed with finding the identity of the little girl, or anything at all about her family. The Garden of Innocence project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing “dignified burials for abandoned children,” became involved in the search.
The search took shape fairly quickly.
Researchers from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz found records from an old cemetery that corresponded to the location of the coffin. The team had to cross-reference the plot records with newspaper obituaries, and that’s when they found a listing that seemed relevant to the case.
The “mystery child” seemed to be Edith Howard Cook, the second child of Horatio Nelson Cook and Edith Scooffy Cook. Because the girl’s body was extremely well preserved, researchers were able to get a DNA sample from her hair. They compared this to samples from a living Cook relative.
The samples matched, and then the next phase of the mystery began.
Researchers wondered about the family and began researching the Cooks. Horatio, Edith’s father, was the son of a sea captain. He owned a tannery and leather business, which supplied San Francisco with fire buckets and hoses. He passed away at the age of 48 after suffering a stroke.
“He was a man of sound and fine thought, pure and wholesome feelings, high and noble aims, clear perceptions, diversified knowledge, remarkable conversational gifts, and full of stingless wit and humor,” wrote the San Francisco Call.
His wife, Edith, was the daughter of a well-to-do Greek family, according to the San Francisco Gate. The couple would frequently make appearances in the local newspaper’s “Society” section, indicating that they were quite well received by the upper echelon of San Francisco culture.
One of the younger Edith’s siblings, Ethel, was famous for her good looks.
“[Ethel] is remarkably handsome, inheriting her exquisite coloring, patrician features and distinguished bearing from her noble Greek ancestors on her mother’s side,” wrote the San Francisco Call.
Meanwhile, Ethel’s brother, Clifford, also made a name for himself by persuading the municipal courts of Paris to let him sandblast City Hall, along with “many of the famous buildings of Paris.” These proved to be lucrative contracts, but Clifford returned to San Francisco in his later years to run his father’s tannery business.
The loss of the younger Edith was likely difficult for the Cook family, as evidenced by the flowers in the casket. The coffin has been re-buried in a new location; her headstone bears the name “Miranda Eve,” as she was called before she was definitively identified.
As for the Cooks, their family name lives on, and many of their descendants are still in the San Francisco area today; their business, the H.N. Cook Belting Company, is now known as the Hoffmeyer Company.