How an Embalming License Freed Sarah Corleto from an Abusive Husband

by Kami Fletcher, PhD


In November 1912, Saveria Fidance Corleto (later renamed Sarah) swore in a Wilmington, Delaware court that her husband of seventeen years, Anthony Corleto had “treated her with extreme cruelty.” Saveria testified that the physical abuse started in September 1910. She went on to state that Anthony frequently hit her, knocked her down and that the beatings were so severe that they left visible marks and bruises on her body.

Italian Funeral Director and first woman licensed as an embalmer in the state of Delaware, Sarah Corleto, decides to close her undertaking businesse and join the Army Nurses Corp (ANC) in 1915 during WWI. For the full article, see: The Evening Journal, February 15, 1915

In November 1912, Saveria Fidance Corleto (later renamed Sarah) swore in a Wilmington, Delaware court that her husband of seventeen years, Anthony Corleto had “treated her with extreme cruelty.” Saveria testified that the physical abuse started in September 1910. She went on to state that Anthony frequently hit her, knocked her down and that the beatings were so severe that they left visible marks and bruises on her body.

Attorney W.W. Knowles, Saveria’s lawyer, called mutual friends and members of her family to the stand to recall specific instances where they saw Anthony physically assault Saveria.  Their own son Gerard told the court that “he believed it to be unsafe for his mother to live with [his] father.” Gerard, their oldest living child and fifteen years old at the time, stood by his opinion on the matter because he said that he had not only seen his father “striking and beating his mother” but also that his father retaliated against him by knocking him right down when he tried to interfere and stop blows hurled at his mother. 

Violent abuse of wives at the hands of their husbands was a major issue during this time period in the U.S. Wife battering was legal under American common law.  Nineteenth-century feminists spoke out against wife battering by publicly denouncing it at the 1848 Women’s Conference in Seneca Falls. Common law was inspired by European tradition where an English judge, Sir William Blackstone explained that “the husband, by old law, might give his wife moderate correction; for, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, he ought to have the power to control her.”1

Despite the objections at Seneca Falls, wives suffering recurring physical abuse from their husbands was very common during the early twentieth century, leading some scholars, including David Peterson, to call wife beating an “American tradition.”2 Peterson complicates the narrative pointing to the fact that late nineteenth and early twentieth century women like Saveria fought back – and they fought back on multiple fronts.  It is strongly implied from the court record that Saveria used fisticuffs. A friend of theirs testified to seeing “several small scraps” between the wife and husband. Saveria herself also admitted that “she and her husband both had quick tempers.” Pressed further on the matter by attorney Reuben Satterthwaite, Anthony’s lawyer, she simply replied that “every snake has its own poison,” meaning that she used different weapons to fight her husband when needed. In addition, Saveria used the courts to fight by filing for divorce, at a time when this was not always a ready option for women.  

What’s important to understand about Saveria, is that she did not just suffer violent abuse for two years and then file for divorce.  Available sources indicated that she used strategy to not just leave Anthony but also to live a life of her own choosing.  By the time she filed for divorce in November of 1912, she had already put into place a plan to use death work as a way to free herself from her abuser.  Nearly a year prior (most likely October 1911) she signed up for a two-week course through the Boston School of Anatomy & Embalming.  Priced at $50 it was advertised as the most thorough and complete instruction in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts covering all known methods of embalming and undertaking. She was studious and four months later, all within one week in February, she applied for, took and passed the state exam in order to become a licensed undertaker in the state of Delaware. This made Sarah Corleto Delaware’s first woman to be licensed as an embalmer.  With her embalming license and years of experience in chemically preserving and preparing dead bodies for last rites, she was able to completely buck her rigid role of wife and mother, serving  her country as a battlefield nurse for the Red Cross in France during WWI.

SOURCE: The Evening Journal, February 7, 1912

Sarah Corleto Devises a Plan to Leave

Sarah wanted to change the trajectory of her life. She was born in Italy in 1881.  Three years later she immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler in tow of her parents.  At the age of fifteen she was married to the twenty-six-year-old Anthony Corleto.  Together they had thirteen children and by 1910 only four of the thirteen she birthed were living. 

By the age of twenty-nine, Sarah wanted to take control of her own life. She had known death and suffering and wanted to make meaning out of this death that engulfed in her life and informed her work.  She told a Wilmington Delaware reporter that, for a long time, she had made up her mind to go where she could make a difference. She told the same reporter that duty had called her to the colors of the Red Cross in Europe.3 Sarah Corleto wanted her life to have meaning and wanted to perform meaningful work. The fact that she had been thinking about her life, gives even more credence to the idea that she was planning and strategizing. In fact, she used her years as a Delaware undertaker to guide her to become the type of change agent that she desired.

Mostly likely, Sarah Carleto was an Undertaker’s Assistant for at least six years before she became a licensed embalmer.  Her ex-husband Anthony was a recognized undertaker in Delaware, and, as a matter of fact, he was the first Italian undertaker in the state and held his first funeral on May 31, 1906. It was common for wives to serve as Undertaker Assistants in the family funeral business. They learned the craft and became holders of specialized knowledge long before they were licensed. This is why it was probably easy for Sarah to take and pass the state exam in all of seven days. She had been doing the work of an undertaker and embalmer, acquiring the expert knowledge and skills, over a number of years.

SOURCE: 1913 Wilmington City Directory

In addition to her expertise, Sarah had access to money which was key not just to her leaving her abusive husband but her ability to be able to develop a plan that would allow her to live a life of purpose and meaning. Her money made her mobile, and served as a path to her independence. Access to $50 (which is equivalent to $1400 today) allowed her the opportunity to not just learn undertaking from her husband, but from out-of-state expert(s).  This could not have been easy. It required her to leave Delaware and live in Boston for at least two weeks. She had to have enough money to secure a room and board for this time period as well. Whether she lived with family or in a rooming house dedicated to single immigrant women, she still also had to secure childcare. In 1911, she had three children aged five-years-old and under in her care, not to mention sixteen-year-old Gerard.  In the event that they travelled from Delaware to Boston with her, it is highly unlikely that they sat in on the training and so arrangements had to be made for their keeping.

The planning and strategy paid off because it allowed her to build wealth and a reputation as the first woman embalmer in the state of Delaware. She placed many an advertisement in Wilmington’s News Journal touting her status as the “only licensed lady embalmer in Delaware.”  She was as proud as she was skilled. It is easy to imagine that with her embalming license and co-owned establishment with Anthony at 711 Jefferson Street, she saw herself building a legacy to be passed down to Gerard, Carmella, Mary and Nicola, even if she could not stay and fully raise them. By 1920, Carmela, Mary and Nicola (now named Nicholas) were all living with their father and new stepmother, Joanna. Even still, it is easy to imagine that she saw herself building generational wealth in the true fashion of the American Dream.

Sarah was not just a woman with nothing leaving an abusive husband. She was a licensed embalmer who left behind a bustling undertaking business in Wilmington, Delaware. That business is still running today; its website gives credit to Sarah for starting the business with Anthony. A powerful picture of her posed in front of her hearse speaks volumes to how much she truly contributed to the success and longevity of the Corleto Funeral Home firm.

Against the wishes of her family and friends, Sarah sailed to France in 1915 to work in a field hospital that was located only fifty miles from the front line. She chose to become a Red Cross nurse during WWI because she wanted the work of saving lives and contributing to fight for freedom. 

Sarah Corleto used death work to live an autonomous life by her own free will and accord in a time when women were often trapped by socially constructed gender roles and systematic oppression. Knowing her story and journey to becoming the first woman in Delaware to earn an embalming license transforms our historical understanding of women and death work.  In addition, it can tell us about all kinds of intersections into history as it relates to women’s rights and immigration, specialized knowledge/training and entrepreneurial business. Records are silent as to her activities once she landed in France and even after the war, but one thing is for sure: Sarah found the possibilities and adventure she wanted.


Notes

1. Sally Roesch Wagner, Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, Tennessee: Native Voices, 2001.
2. David Peterson. “Wife Beating: An American Tradition” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23: 1 (1992): 97-118.
3. In an article published February 15, 1915 in The Evening Journal Sarah Corleto told a Wilmington, Delaware reporter that she proudly felt duty -bound to join the Army Nurses Corp and made it clear that this decision was made of her own choosing because her family and friends strongly wished for her to remain at home.

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