He made his way to Michigan, where he settled in 1851. He married Olive Jane Holmes on April 19, 1874, in that city, a woman born a Michigander on Oct. 6, 1853.
The couple moved to Conklin, in Chester Township, Ottawa County, purchasing a parcel of land on Coolidge Street, between 24th and 32nd avenues. A farmer and junk peddler by trade, Joseph came to be known as a penny pincher — of the worst kind — when in February 1892 authorities learned he buried his teenage daughter himself to save a few bucks.
Joseph's daughter, Louisa I. Pfeiffer, buried in a simple casket constructed by her father, is still on that property today.
The Chester Township website mentions Louisa's grave being on private land.
“Louisa I. Pfeiffer, daughter of Joseph and Olive (Holmes) Pfeiffer, died as a young child, some time after 1884, and was buried on her parent's property between 24th and 32nd Avenues,” the website reports. “Two lilac bushes, planted at the head of her grave, were the only markers for the grave.”
According to records, Louisa was born in 1875. When she died is a bit mysterious, as is the story itself, which broke in local newspapers at the tail end of January 1892. The Grand Haven Tribune published three short articles on the matter.
The first article published in the Tribune, on Feb. 5, reflected emerging concerns about the disappearance of Louisa. The article featured a small headline that read: “A Strange Rumor.”
“A report gained currency this morning seemingly well substantiated that a farmer living near Berlin (MI) had a daughter die under suspicious circumstances,” the Tribune reported. “She (Louisa) was taken ill and came home, but the father neither allowed medical assistance for her and as an outcome she died, and was buried by the father in a rough box without services of any kind and unknown to the neighbors.”
The item states Louisa had a job in Grand Rapids and departed there when she became too ill to stay at her parent's home in Conklin — indicating she wasn't a young child and her death had been recent. Louisa was 16 at the time.
The Tribune article stated that Ottawa County Sheriff Edward Vaupell and Dr. Arend Vander Veen departed the morning of Feb. 5, 1892, to pay a visit at the Pfeiffer residence in Conklin. A second Tribune article, which followed the next day, reported Vaupell and Vander Veen had been joined by Dr. Wyllis S. Walkley and prosecuting attorney Peter J. Danhoff.
The foursome was at the Pfeiffer property to uncover if there was any truth to the rumor Louisa had died under suspicious circumstances or “foul play.” Her body was exhumed and examined on site by the two doctors, who acted in the capacity of coroners.
“After a thorough examination (of the remains) they came to the conclusion that death was caused naturally, but hastened by the inhuman-like action of the parent allowing no medical assistance,” the Tribune reported.
In other words, Joseph Pfeiffer hadn't asked a doctor for help, and Louisa died from what news reports called neglect.
“The father, to save funeral expenses, made a coffin and buried the body without services of any kind,” the Tribune reported. Then, noting extreme miserly behavior, the Tribune wrote, “When the coffin had been taken up, (Joseph) Pfeiffer implored officers to open it carefully, lest the cover and nails should be broken and put him at more expense.”
While he was never charged by authorities with anything, the court of public opinion tried and convicted him of parental neglect and being a colossal cheapskate.
“The man Pfeiffer of Conklin, who by his stinginess caused the death of his daughter … is getting a notoriety more than local,” the Tribune wrote on Feb. 9. “Not only state but national papers publish long articles relative to the case.”
Joseph died at age 76 in 1913 and wife Olive died at age 72 in 1926. Both received the proper burial their daughter did not — in McNitt Cemetery in Conklin.
“It is common knowledge in Chester Township and that yes, (Louisa) is still buried there,” a Wright Township historian said. Thus, because of her unusual final resting place, Louisa may be gone — but 121 years later — she is not forgotten.