Pioneer Freemason Joshua Pilcher's Curious Return From The Dead
Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR
Born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1790, Brother Joshua Pilcher, like so many others, moved to the Louisiana territory to seek the opportunities afforded in the western frontier. An ardent Freemason, in 1815 he was instrumental in the formation of Missouri Lodge #12 and later became its first Master. A well-connected businessman, he was a good friend of such influential Missouri pioneers as General William Clark and Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and was a cousin of Thomas F. Riddick, who eventually became Missouri's first Grand Master. He also held the rank of Major in the US Army.
In 1820, Pilcher co-founded the Missouri Fur Company, a trading group associated with Freemasons. He played a key role in the founding of the Grand Lodge of Missouri and may have been one of those under consideration as its first Grand Master. In 1838, he succeeded General Clark as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and had such a strong friendship with Senator Benton that he served as Benton's second in his infamous duel with Charles Lucas.
Brother Pilcher passed away in early June of 1843. The evening before his death, he attended an extravagant banquet with his friend Senator Benton, and his body was discovered the following morning in his bed. The funeral of the founder of the Missouri Fur Company and a true pioneer of the west was an auspicious affair. He was buried in Christ Church Cemetery in St. Louis in a special metal casket imported from Europe.
Nearly a half-century later, November 30, 1892, the good people of St. Louis woke up to read a headline in the St. Louis Dispatch, which screamed, "IT IS WEIRD!"
The article said on the previous day, men working near the old Christ Church Cemetery had discovered a highly ornamented metal casket. The casket contained no nameplate, but it bore the trademark of an English manufacturer. The article went on to say the remains inside the casket were surprisingly well-preserved, but "withered" a short time after being exposed. The discovery caused a minor stir in town and subsequent research on the curious finding led to other newspaper articles and speculation about the identity of the body.
Dispatch reporters eventually determined the body was that of Warren Pilcher, who had died following a banquet attended by Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Reports continued to unfold and chronicle the life of Warren Pilcher.
In the meantime, Warren Pilcher himself, the grand nephew of Brother Joshua Pilcher, watched the story develop with great amusement. He let the case of mistaken identity rage on until one report claimed Warren had at one time been a debtor and died owing back rents. At this, Warren Pilcher appeared at the offices of The Dispatch and revealed that the body was that of his great uncle Joshua, who had founded the Missouri Fur Company.
Great speculation followed concerning the life and death of Brother Pilcher, including reports that some unnamed scoundrel may have murdered him with robbery as a motive. Warren even reported that at his death, Joshua's servants had come forward claiming to know who was involved, but demanded to be given part of his estate before giving details of the dastardly plot. Pilcher's relatives refused to play along with the scheme and the matter died.
Brother Pilcher's body was reburied in Bellefontaine Cemetery where it rests today after its brief, but adventurous return from the dead.