Flanner & Buchanan isn’t a street intersection — it’s a funeral business — but the great Indianapolis undertaking firm is a veritable crossroads of the capitol city’s history.
“Dig Indy?” (Pun intended.) How about the story of the company’s founder, pioneering Hoosier mortician Frank W. Flanner, who came to a strange and tragic end in 1912? Here’s a bit on the Fabulous Flanners, one of Indianapolis’ most colorful families.
Born in 1854 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, Francis William Flanner came from a line of Quakers. His father, Henry Beeson Flanner, was a Quaker botanist and fiddler. In fact, Henry and his wife Orpha loved flowers so much that they named their first son Linnaeus after the great Swedish botanist. Quakerism’s pacifist tenets notwithstanding, Henry Flanner died of illness while serving as a substitute in the Civil War and the family sojourned for a while in Missouri. Having first come to Indianapolis around 1863, aged nine, Frank grew up helping his widowed mother, who ran a boardinghouse at the corner of New York and Meridian.
Though he had trained to be a Latin teacher, in the 1870s the young Frank Flanner apprenticed with Charles Kregelo, at that time Indianapolis’ foremost undertaker. In 1881, Frank used part of his mother’s Civil War pension to start up his own undertaking business and begin a city ambulance service. Ambulances, like carpentry, were traditionally linked to undertaking. Charles Kregelo ran a speedy “taxi” service transporting the sick, dead, and wounded by wagon to city hospitals. The distinction of who began Indianapolis’ first ambulance is in dispute, though Flanner definitely operated the first motorized ambulance in the city.
John Hommown, listed as a “city hack driver” in newspapers, was Flanner’s first business partner. In 1884, Frank’s brother-in-law, Charles J. Buchanan, bought out Hommown’s partnership, thus beginning the firm of Flanner & Buchanan. The rapid growth of Crown Hill Cemetery, first laid out during the Civil War (partly to ward off grave robbers from medical colleges), as well as major advances in the art of embalming, helped the new business flourish.
In 1886, the successful funeral pioneer married Mary Ellen Hockett, a “lovely schoolteacher” and fellow Quaker from Muncie. As a child, Mary had aspired to be a theater actress, an ambition never realized, though she wrote and recited poetry and actively promoted the arts in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. The Flanners lived on North Pennsylvania Street and later in a spacious country house with a cherry orchard out back at 4020 North Meridian Street, which later served as the abode of bicycle pioneer, Indy 500 co-founder, and fellow Quaker, Arthur C. Newby. After Frank’s tragic death, Mary Flanner carried on his philanthropy, which included his work with the African American community at Flanner House, city parks, the Indianapolis Art School, and the Vacant Lots Committee, an initiative to alleviate hunger through urban gardening.
Frank and Mary had three incredibly talented daughters — Marie, Hildegarde, and Janet. At a time when burial by Flanner & Buchanan was socially de rigueur and with their father’s fortunes booming, the Flanner daughters grew up among Indianapolis’ “well-heeled Protestant elite” — though it seems Frank, a spiritual wanderer, eventually moseyed into Christian Science. Marie went on to become a poet and composer. Hildegarde was once a well-known poet, essayist, and conservationist in California. But of the three daughters, Janet Flanner is the most fascinating. Novelist, war correspondent, and The New Yorker’s art and literature critic in Paris, where she lived for fifty years, Janet (under the pen name “Genêt”) helped introduce artists and writers like Picasso, Georges Bracque, and Jean Cocteau to American readers and was well-known among the gay and lesbian community in Europe and New York at mid-century. She was also caught in the middle of the notorious 1971 fight between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show. Janet chafed against Indianapolis — perhaps yearning for her non-conformist Quaker heritage as her father drifted away from it — but briefly wrote for the Star as its first cinema critic in 1916.
Frank’s prosperous mortuary business, originally located on Illinois Street, continued north from there — from “No. 72” (the old Miller Block) in the 1880s, to a brick mansion at No. 172, and eventually up to No. 320 before heading out to Fall Creek Parkway after his death. He had already become Indiana’s first licensed embalmer when in 1904 he also built the second crematorium in Indiana, with a columbarium (urn-depository) attached to it. A 1901 article from the Indianapolis Journal that heaped praise on the firm’s “great work” says that Flanner & Buchanan had buried 10,000 people — equal to a third of all burials at Crown Hill. Flanner owed his success partly to fraternal lodges, which entered into an agreement with him to get their members a special rate for burial services, “saving many widows and orphans from burdensome debt for funeral expenses.” His ambulance service also profited from working with railroad companies to get injured rail workers to quick medical help.
Two further “amenities” provided by the enterprising business helped them push out the competition. In the 1880s, most families did not want men handling the bodies of women and children. Nor did most morticians really want women encroaching on their business! Flanner, one of Indianapolis’ most progressive citizens, hired its first “lady embalmers,” a novelty at the time. Pioneers in their field, Ann Murphy and Nettie Thomas provided the special “woman’s touch.” Flanner told the Journal in 1901 that he “hardly sees now how they ever got along” without the “delicate attentions” of these two ladies. Nettie Thomas, who started working as an embalmer in her late 20’s and was much admired for how she handled her sacred craft, retired from the job just after World War I.
Dick Snow and Jack Frost, two white Arabian horses, replaced around 1901 by the young studs Dandy and Dude, also rounded out the staff. The white horses pulled a white funeral carriage, “the finest in the State,” featuring “eight columns furnished from designs by Mrs. Buchanan.”
Sadly, in 1910, the ambitious Frank Flanner lost money on an invention, “something like a teletype machine.” The news of his financial loss came to him in Germany, where he had taken his wife and daughters to vacation on the Starnberger See near Munich. Abruptly coming back to Indianapolis, Frank grew distraught and his health gave way to “nervous prostration.” There was even a story, reported by his daughter Janet’s biographer Brenda Wineapple, that the distracted man led a funeral procession up a one-way street. Misfortune and illness suddenly seemed to stalk Flanner. When an African American boy, the son of the family’s laundress, killed a man in a quarrel, the mortician tried to help him out in court. The judge condemned the boy to hang, prompting the distraught Flanner to jump up in the courtroom and cry “Goddam you, judge!” (He was fined $10 for contempt of court.)
On February 17, 1912, Frank Flanner, aged 58, stopped at different downtown druggists, buying separate items at each one. When he got to his funeral home at 320 North Illinois, he told his nephew, Paul Buchanan, that he was tired and was going to go lie down. He then went into the mortuary chapel, where he guzzled a concoction of carbolic acid, strychnine, and morphine. His nephew discovered him dead there half an hour later.
The story hit the front page of the Indianapolis News. His daughter Janet later memorialized Frank Flanner in her own fashion — as the character James Poole, a “kind and intelligent” philanthropist, in her 1926 novel, The Cubical City, a chronicle of Jazz Age New York.
FURTHER READING: Brenda Wineapple, “Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner” (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.)