Deep in the abyss of the earth, lost remnants remain from a previous society, representing the human joy and strife, wants and needs, pain and healing of a population long faded from memory.
The remnants, when assembled together like scrambled pieces of a puzzle, tell a story of the people who built the foundation on which we stand.
These people constructed the first buildings and graded the streets of this sleepy little Mississippi River town. They ground the wheat into flour, which was essential for human sustenance. They birthed the children who populated the town, and buried their dead.
Jack Klotz is an interpreter in a sense, combining research with the artifacts he uncovers from long-abandoned privies, in order to tell the stories of Hannibal’s earliest residents.
While showing off the treasures he has found, he holds within his hand the individual pieces of fragile doll, retrieved from the depths of a downtown privy. The doll was once held together by a wire, allowing for the movement of arms, legs and head independent from the chubby little body. Featuring eyes which once opened and closed, and hair that is long lost to the earth, he at first imagined the despair of the child who might have dropped the dolly into the dark and rank confines of the privy, away from the house, in the midst of the yard.
But there were other artifacts within the privy which added to the story. In another layer of soil, nearer to the surface, he found a collection of whisky bottles. Had the child died, and was the dolly subsequently thrown into the privy in an effort to bury the pain of loss? And did the father or mother then turn to the bottle, in order to numb the pain?
Jack Klotz has been excavating old privies for half a century, beginning as a Boy Scout during his youth. During that time, he has gained a wealth of information about where privies were constructed and how they were maintained.
In communities out west where he previously lived, privies were typically located near the alleys. “Here in the Midwest, they were often out in the yard, sometimes by the barn,” he said. He would assume they would be downwind from the house, “but that wasn’t always the case,” he said.
Almost all privies were lined in some way, Klotz said. Some were lined with wood, which has long since deteriorated. Others were lined with either brick or stone. Typically, the bricks and stones were stacked without mortar.
The useful life of a privy was about 20 years. At intervals, it was common practice to pour lime into the privy hole in order to keep down the stench. If the lime completely covered the surface of the waste products, it hardened and formed a barrier. This barrier in effect protected any items previously thrown into the hole from further damage.
1st: Find the privy
Finding an old privy is the first challenge to his hobby. During the winter months, when he can’t dig, he researches. He uses old maps that often pinpoint where the privy was in connection to the house. Once he finds a likely spot for excavation, he contacts the property owner, in hopes of obtaining permission to dig.
Once the first two obstacles are overcome, he takes a specialized probe with a steel carbon tip out into the field where he believes the privy was located.
Then, he relies upon his own experience to lead him to possible dig sites.
“When I stick the probe into the ground, if a hole has (previously) been dug on the site, it will be softer than the surrounding soil.”
He also looks for clues as to what attaches to the carbon tip when he pulls the probe from the ground. Remnants of lime on the tip are a good sign that a former privy has been located.
A stinky job
A few years ago, Klotz excavated a number of privy sites in Quincy. “The Quincy sites are a lot more loaded with glass. Here, you can count (the number of bottles you find in a privy) on one hand.”
He found a “privy digging” book that led him a possible answer to the question of why.
“Dippers cleaned out the outhouses,” Klotz said. “They would sell the manure to Farmer John, recycle the glass and also get paid for the clean out.”
The cleaning process wasn’t appealing. “They would climb into the fresh outhouse and bucket it out by hand,” he said.
During the pre-Civil War years, Illinois was a free state while Missouri was a slave state. “In Illinois they couldn’t pay anybody enough” to get them to clean out the privy. “In Missouri, they told the slaves to do it.”
Old bottles are the key prize when Jack Klotz goes excavating. The colorful and embossed bottles he has collected over the years serve as colorful accents in almost every window of his house. He has his bottle collection sorted by category.
There are soda bottles, beer bottles and medicine bottles, from both Hannibal and Quincy. William McDaniel was a Hannibal confectionery, and Klotz has a soda bottle with McDaniel’s name embossed. There were scroll flasks dating from the 1840s to 1860s. He found a “carpet bowler,” which resembles a large marble, which he had professionally cleaned last year. Hannibal pharmacies sold medicine under their own embossed labels. He has bottles for cosmetics, hair tonics, smelling salts, colognes, syringes and quack medicine devises.
“All sorts of odd things show up,” Klotz said. “The doctor would make a house call, and leave the medicine and syringe behind, and it would end up in the out house.”
Oddities he has found include a breast pump, a cocaine mixture, smoking pipes, buttons, false teeth and tooth brushes, a half dollar dated 1872, a lice comb dating to the Civil War period, a Union Army belt buckle and an 1891 dog tag. “You name it, and it got thrown into the privy,” he said.
If someone had something he or she didn’t want to be found, the privy was the likely place to hide it. “I’ve dug up three guns,” he said, two of which were returned to the present property owners.
Most privies were about 10 feet deep, he said, but a recent dig uncovered one that was 15 feet deep.
Klotz: Hannibal found him
Klotz moved to Hannibal about six years ago. While living in Idaho, he saw a house advertised on Ebay, and visited Hannibal in order to see it. “I stayed at LulaBelles and did all the tourist things,” he said, before heading to the East Coast to visit relatives. He ultimately bought the house located at the corner of Maple and Center streets, where he now has his colorful bottle collection proudly displayed.
The neighbor kids call it the bottle house.
Privy digger Jack Klotz collects artifacts left behind by previous generations
Jul 30, 2014 at 10:03 PM