James P. Ashford, Undertaker, A Vintage Vignette

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James P. Ashford, Undertaker
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 25, 2007

In the early 1900s, Madison’s undertaker was known for wearing a top hat with a frock coat as he carried the deceased to their final resting place in a horse drawn hearse. His funeral home was beside the saloon that he ran on Main Street. Later memories of today’s older residents place the funeral home in what was Hughes Hardware. The undertaker was James P. Ashford, born in 1866 in Mississippi. He was a “junior”, with his father born in Mississippi in 1836. His mother Catherine J. Bradford was born in Alabama, and she married the senior James Ashford in Madison County in 1860. The 1880 census shows that the family lived in Madison, with James Jr. having sisters Mattie C. (age 18), Kate L. (14), and Mary J. (11). All of the children were born in Mississippi, but Kate died of typhoid fever at age 23 in Madison. Mary J. was listed as Mazie J. in census records and on the license when she married William S. Russell in Madison in 1896. Mattie married Burwell Clinton Lanier in 1881 and Wesley Hall in 1897 after Burwell’s death in Madison.

James P. Ashford Jr. married widow Lucy Harris Wise in 1894. Lucy was the daughter of Thomas B. Harris, who died in 1869 of a wound received at the Battle of Manassas. His grave has the earliest death date on any tombstone in the Madison City Cemetery. Thomas was a son of Madison’s doctor Algernon Sydney Harris, who is also buried in the city cemetery. In 1884 Lucy married James Arthur Wise, a brother and business partner of Madison merchant George Washington Wise. The 1900 census shows Lucy and James Ashford with three Wise children listed as stepsons in their household, which also included widow Mattie C. Lanier, a sister of James Ashford. James’ occupation in 1900 was given as “saloon keeper”, and his household included two boarders – one of whom was a telegraph operator and the other was a saloon clerk.

The 1910 census shows James Ashford and his sister Mattie Lanier in the household of William and Mazzie (Ashford) Russell. Both were widowed, but this census listed the occupation of James as “undertaker”. In 1920 the census has James Ashford at age 53 as a merchant, with his wife Francis (Berg) at age 32. Francis was born in Indiana of parents who were also born in Indiana. James and Francis were married in Madison in 1915. By 1930 the census showed James as a merchant in a furniture store in Madison. However, Francis was listed as a clerk in a grocery store. Their household included two boarders, Binford L. Canterbury and Kyser Stewart. Canterbury was age 24, a grocery store merchant, while Stewart was age 17, listed as a miller in a grist mill. Next door was the family of James A. Stewart, age 28, who was probably an older brother of Kyser.

The odd thing about undertaker James Ashford is that his walled family plot in the old section of the city cemetery has no evidence of any graves within it. There are no grave depressions or tombstones to indicate any burials there. Some older residents say that a dog was buried in the plot. It has also been said that the Ashfords moved away from Madison, but that James came back here before his death. Even if these things are so, it is still unknown where the undertaker is buried today.

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