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For the week of Oct. 27, 1999 through Nov. 2, 1999

Skeleton in a drawer: a Bellevue mystery

Remains used for Odd Fellows initiation rites


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Remains discovered in a built-in wardrobe drawer by new Odd Fellows building owner during the historic structure’s renovation. (Express photo by Ron Soble)

The international Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which for centuries has been endeavoring "to improve and elevate the character of man," according to its literature, might not have any skeletons in its closet, but the Bellevue charter has one in a drawer.

The Odd Fellows chambers on the second floor of Bellevue’s historic Odd Fellows hall is a lonely place these days. With the building recently changing ownership, and only a handful of Bellevue’s Odd Fellows still alive in the no-longer-active group, the vacant chambers have begun to collect dead flies, dust and cobwebs.

Even during a warm afternoon, the three-feet thick masonry walls of the century-old building retain the previous night’s chill. The curtains are drawn on rooms outfitted with the austere stateliness of a military museum, and only a thin shaft of light or two illuminates the red and black carpet, the dark-stained cabinetry, and the organization’s three-letter motto, "FLT," which is painted prominently in three linked rings on the wall. The letters stand for Friendship, Love and Truth.

Before a building can be sold in Idaho, the seller must disclose any murders or suicides that have happened on the premises, the building’s new owner said recently during a tour.

The owner requested that his name not be used in connection with this story.

"I got a call from my lawyer," he said, grabbing a drawer handle at the bottom of a built-in wardrobe, "who told me there was a skeleton in the closet, literally." He yanked the drawer open, and sure enough, a dusty, wired-together, brittle-looking skeleton, screeched into the harsh florescent light.

"My wife’s not too happy about it," the owner said.

It’s not a very big skeleton. Perhaps the bones of a woman or an adolescent. It rests in what appears to be a home-made coffin, and someone has propped its head up with newspaper.

Rumor has it, the owner said, that an individual of Chinese descent drowned in the Big Wood River and someone wired the bones together. The Odd Fellows used the skeleton for Halloween. He added he didn’t know what the legal ramifications of finding the skeleton were and that he hadn’t yet decided what to do with it.

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The Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization that does charitable work on various projects in the community. According to a pamphlet provided by the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge in Caldwell, "the origins of Odd Fellowship are shrouded in the mists of antiquity," but "the seed of Odd Fellowship" was planted on American soil in 1819 by an English immigrant.

Today, Idaho Grand Secretary Bill Stephen said in a telephone conversation from Caldwell that lodges are found in every state of the U.S. and in "all the free nations."

When an Odd Fellow joins, he must swear to "visit the sick, relieve the distressed and bury the dead," among other things, the pamphlet says.

Halbert Hatch, 92, is one of the few remaining members of the Bellevue charter of Odd Fellows. He recently moved to Bridge View Estates, a retirement home in Twin Falls.

In a telephone interview, he was reluctant to discuss the skeleton, saying cryptically that "it has a meaning to it" and that the public doesn’t care about the internal workings of the fellowship, only about the charity it does.

He said that the Bellevue Odd Fellows has sponsored the Boy Scouts, donated a ball field to the city and donated $10,000 to the Bellevue museum.

"We’re strictly a beneficent organization," he said, "for the betterment of mankind. Our belief is do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

He said that the skeleton is used during one of the three degrees of Odd Fellows initiation and that every lodge has one.

"You look at it," he said, "and they explain life. We have the joys of life, and sooner or later, we become that."

It was all taken from the Bible, he said, adding that "it made you wonder."

He said that he didn’t know where the skeleton came from, then added that "today, it would probably be illegal."

Asked why, he said, "Maybe it’s not illegal. I don’t know."

When asked how old he thought it was, he said, "Hell, I wouldn’t have any idea." Then he said, "It’s from the 1880s, I’d imagine. I’ve never been that curious about it."

Hatch also said that it was a Chinese person who drowned in the river. He said that birds had picked the bones clean and that someone in the Chinese community either sold it or gave it to the Odd Fellows.

"I don’t think the Chinese were too fussy," he said.

When asked if he ever thought someone was killed for the purpose, he said, "I would doubt it. That would be a little bit too much of a story."

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Even though the drawer had a padlock on it until just a few weeks ago, the skeleton is hardly a secret.

Hailey Library director, Wynn Bird, 45, said that she can remember seeing it hung in the Odd Fellows window during Halloween when she was a kid.

Some say it was found in a mine. Others that it was found in the gravel pits south of Bellevue.

Russ Mikel, who has been Blaine County Coroner since 1982, said that he has never heard of the Odd Fellows skeleton, but "hopefully, there would be a document or permit that says, ‘this is the authority by which we hold this.’"

He said that he has never had to deal with this kind of situation. "Where do we start from here?" he said. "We’re going to have to find out a lot of things."

What’s more, he added, "under current laws, if you have knowledge of a deceased person, you have an obligation to make a report to either the sheriff or the coroner."

Sometimes it is possible to identify a person’s remains, even when they are very old, he said. When he was a coroner in Kellogg, the county reasonably identified a 40-year-old skeleton found in a river. The county was able to match scraps of clothing to a missing persons record.

But, he added, to identify a skeleton that has been used for ceremonial purposes, "not a chance."

Obviously puzzled, he said, "Just the simple fact of putting a skeleton back in skeletal form took some doing."

When asked what the county’s obligation is, he said, "I’ll have to think about that a little bit more."

Then he added, "I’m surprised real skeletons are used for that."

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.