Wednesday July 6th 2022

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A Winter Tale of Friendship and Kindness


An earlier version of this story appeared in the December 2004 edition of the alley. It is a story about kindness and generosity, qualities that sometimes seem in short supply during these challenging times. Sometimes it’s good to remember good people doing kind things for strangers.Thanks to Tim McCall for providing additional information about Mr. Howard’s military service.

The story of Captain Samuel J. Howard’s death was front page news on December 20, 1908. The story of his death was a human-interest story—a holiday story about kindness and generosity, and a story about friendship between two strangers. Because of that friendship, Captain Howard, who had no known connection to the city of Minneapolis, came to be buried in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

Captain Howard was a 72-year-old Civil War veteran who was traveling from Olympia, Washington, where he lived in a veterans’ home, to Boston for Christmas. Although the newspaper referred to him as “Captain” Howard, that was an honorary title, a courtesy often extended to elderly veterans. On July 28, 1863, he had enlisted as a private and was discharged less than two months later, on September 15, 1863, due to disability. On October 22, 1864, he re-enlisted, serving in the 11th Massachusetts Light Artillery, and he mustered out as a private at the end of the war, on June 16, 1865.

The Tribune’s reporter described him as a “grey-bearded warrior,” who was “still proudly wearing the Union blue and prouder still of the little bronze G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic] button on his faded lapel.”

Samuel Howard’s military marker.

Harry Hurlburt, a mortician from Minneapolis, boarded the train in Miles City, Montana. He noticed Mr. Howard, huddled in a corner, surrounded by workmen on their way home for the holidays. Mr. Hurlburt persuaded the other passengers to make room so that Captain Howard could stretch out, and he bought him an orange.

An orange seems like such a small gift, but in 1908 an orange in December was a luxury that many could not afford. On the day that Mr. Howard died, the Tribune ran an article announcing the arrival of the first boxes of Christmas oranges from Arizona; they retailed from $6 to $7 a box. In comparison, ham cost 11 cents a pound, and a 98-pound bag of flour cost $1.90. In 1908, oranges were among the most prized of holiday treats.

When the train arrived in Minneapolis, Mr. Hurlburt ordered an ambulance for Mr. Howard and rode in it with him to City Hospital. Mr. Howard was still holding the orange that he had been too weak to eat. After getting him settled in at the hospital, Mr. Hurlburt told Mr. Howard that he and his wife would be back to visit after dinner. By the time that they arrived, Mr. Howard had died. The cause of his death was kidney failure.

Mr. Howard had made his own plans about where he wanted to be buried. Among the papers that he was carrying was a deed to a cemetery plot in Turnwater Cemetery in Olympia, Washington. He also had a list of people to be contacted in the event of his death, including the name of a son in Springfield, Massachusetts. For unknown reasons, none of the people on Mr. Howard’s list claimed him, so the arrangements for his burial fell to a man whom he’d known for less than a day.

Harry Hurlburt was only 27 years old when he met Samuel Howard. He lived for almost forty more years. Harry Hurlburt died on January 13, 1946, and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

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