Century-old cremains create Modesto mystery

12/24/2013 7:39 PM

12/24/2013 8:37 PM

About once a month, a person dies in Stanislaus County and no one arrives at the coroner’s office to claim the body.

Often, these are people who have been on county conservatorship, or have relatives who live far away or whom they haven’t talked to in decades. For most, next of kin can be located with a little research, but Deputy Coroner Tom Killian got a case last week he knew wouldn’t be quite as easy.

Rose Lyons, born Nov. 19, 1836, died in San Francisco about a week after the massive 1906 earthquake. During her 70 years, Lyons lived the Bay Area and Los Angeles; Killian is trying to determine how her cremains wound up at a south Modesto storage facility.

Derrel’s Mini Storage on Mariposa Road changed ownership two years ago, but it wasn’t until last week that the current owners brought in three urns that had been left behind.

Urns left in storage units defaulted on by their renters aren’t uncommon.

Killian said the coroner’s office usually gets about 10 a year, but he has never had to look for the family of someone who died more than a century ago. The ashes of those delivered with Lyons’ were that of a man who died in 1993 and an animal from a pet cemetery.

The three cases were divided among the deputy coroners, and Killian right away started looking for Lyons’ family.

“To me, it is very intriguing,” he said.

Killian received cremation records from the Chapel of the Chimes in Hayward and learned Lyons died of a stroke. Further research by Killian turned up Lyons on a genealogy website and indicated she was related to James Edgar Hoffman. Lyons was the sister-in-law of Hoffman, a captain of the steamship Locust Point. It collided with another ship in 1864, killing 19 people.

“The ill-fated vessel was standing on her course and the Matanzas was steering to the northward,” according to a New York Times article that chronicled the event. “The Matanzas struck the Locust Point on the Starboard side, abreast the forward part of the cabin, and literally cut the little steamer in two.”

On the genealogy website that linked Lyons to Hoffman, Killian learned her granddaughter was Pearl Partridge. Living in Oakland at the time, Partridge was listed in cremation records as the recipient of Lyons’ ashes in July 1906.

But what happened to them after that remains a mystery.

On the genealogy website, Killian found a distant relative, Janice Levitan, living in Illinois. He gave her a call.

“I expected his next sentence to be, ‘And if you send me $500, I will tell you how to get her estate,’ ” Levitan said. “I thought it was a scam.”

But Killian went on to mention other family names, like that of Hoffman. Levitan is a descendant of Hoffman’s wife, Caroline Newton Hoffman.

She said it is family lore that the night before Hoffman’s death, Caroline Hoffman had a party at their home, during which a large mirror fell to the ground and shattered. The next day when she awoke, all her hair had turned gray and she received word her husband went down with his ship overnight.

Levitan is willing to take possession of Lyons’ ashes and even give her a proper burial, but both she and Killian want to find closer kin; perhaps even the person who left them behind in a storage unit.

“Her remains have survived all this time somebody is going to want them,” Killian said.

Lyons’ family or anyone with clues about her family can call the coroner’s office at (209) 567-4500 and ask for Deputy Coroner Tom Killian.

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