An excerpt from
Digging Up the Dead
A History of Notable American Reburials
In pride, in reas’ning pride, our error lies,
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America from February 1861 until its collapse in April 1865, died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, at the age of eighty-one. Five days later, following a frenzy of local and regional arrangements, Confederate veterans and many others packed an immense procession that accompanied the body to Metairie Cemetery for what turned out to be temporary burial in a vault guarded round the clock, awaiting a decision about the erstwhile CSA president’s permanent interment (fig. 1). Bells tolled from every church tower in New Orleans to accompany the long and solemn parade to Metairie. The issue of his final resting place, however, had actually begun on the very day that Davis died and swiftly became what we now call a “hot button issue.” Although his reputation revived during the 1880s, he had been reviled by white Southerners after the Confederacy fell and he fled from Richmond only to be apprehended by Federal troops in Georgia. During his lingering last illness he wisely said to his wife, Varina, “You must take the responsibility of deciding this question, I cannot—I foresee [that] a great deal of feeling about it will arise when I am dead.”
Davis understood the delicate situation all too well. Southern press coverage of his death signaled swelling admiration and pride in the former leader—utterly inconceivable less than a generation earlier, at the time of unbearable defeat. Six Southern cities each hoped to “host” the body into eternity, above all Montgomery, Alabama, where Davis had reluctantly assumed the presidency, and they all intensively lobbied the quickly created Jefferson Davis Memorial Association (JDMA). The decision belonged entirely to Varina and her children, however, and they waited more than eighteen months before choosing a prime site at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, where the Davises had lived for four years and where a great many honored Southern dead already lay buried. The civic leaders of New Orleans, feeling bitter disappointment at surrendering a prized symbol of states’ rights and resistance to Northern aggression, decided to build a monumental memorial to Davis that would equal in scale the ones already erected to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield and just recently conceived for Ulysses S. Grant in New York City. Their ambition, however, wildly exceeded their collective or potential purse.
Necessary fund-raising and the complexity of related preparations meant that the Richmond reburial would finally be scheduled for May 31, 1893. On May 27 Davis’s coffin was removed from the Metairie vault and opened to make certain that the JDMA really had the right body, which then was placed in a brand-new hand-carved coffin and loaded onto a specially designed railroad car with oversized glass windows. A mournfully decorated locomotive hauled the ensemble of passenger cars. Each step in this meticulously planned event was taken, as the press reported, with “every possible mark of respect.” That word will recur in many episodes in the chapters that follow. Relocation and reburial (or “translation” of a body, to use the traditional, Latin-derived word) are invariably all about the resurgence of the reputation of and hence respect for someone whose lamp and visage had dimmed in some way.
As the leading authority on Davis’s demise has observed, “Southerners grew increasingly anxious as the departure date neared for what was expected to be one of the most elaborate and ceremonious funeral processions in American history.” Intensifying the precedent and coverage of Davis’s death in December 1889, newspapers across the South and quite a few in the North reported every step in lavish detail. Many sent their top reporters to accompany the special train on its mournful but politicized mission to the Old Dominion’s distinctively honorific grave.
The train coursed along at a top speed of sixty-two miles per hour, slipping smoothly across and then sloping eastward down the Piedmont like a child’s coiled Slinky, pausing at major state capitals so that the coffin could be viewed for a few hours by dignitaries and large throngs of worshipful citizens. In Atlanta, the delegations from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi failed to adjust from Central Time, which had only recently been regularized, so thirty members of the honor entourage accompanying the cortège were unhappily left behind when the train departed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The embarrassed laggards caught up in Greensboro, North Carolina, on a regular train. Even though Southern pride was displayed with Confederate flags throughout the journey, talk of the bygone secession was already giving way to sentiments favoring national reconciliation. Although that seems to have been most true in progressive Atlanta, capital of the New South, it was manifest elsewhere as well. As early as 1886 one former Southern general had referred to the “circle of a new nationality.” Others soon echoed that refrain.
Massive crowds in Richmond attended services followed by the huge procession to Hollywood Cemetery for final interment; there a specially brick-lined, extra-deep grave waited on a spacious hillside, a site of unusual beauty overlooking the James River (fig. 2). Jefferson Davis rolled to his ultimate resting place on a bed of roses: en route to the cemetery the caisson carrying the coffin rumbled over a continuous carpet of flowers, strewn by young women and girls in white who preceded the line of march. Mourners insisted upon their loyalty to the Union—their support for reconciliation and American nationalism—even as they displayed the Stars and Bars alongside Old Glory. Yet in this instance state pride seems to have been an even stronger emotion than sectional pride, because certain rebel states still rankled with resentment that they had not been chosen for the final entombment—despite elaborate offers and schemes to build a very special monument in Davis’s honor at local expense.
The JDMA recognized that a major monument, inevitably to be erected in Richmond, should be a gift from all of the former Confederate states rather than a local memorial from Virginia and for Richmond. The committee hoped to raise a million dollars so that the monument “should be a grand thing indeed,” with a “shaft so high that the birds could not fly over it.” It might even dwarf the Washington Monument. Despite earnest desires to undertake “the patriotic and pious work” of building an “everlasting memorial,” reality and inertia set in soon after the funeral. The ambitious goal of erecting a temple in Davis’s honor soon faded. Finally, on June 3, 1907, the Jefferson Davis Monument would be dedicated: an eight-foot bronze statue standing on a five-foot pedestal with a sixty-foot column adjacent. Its installation did not generate a great deal of apparent interest.
Davis’s moment of glory, verging upon sanctification, had peaked between the time of his Southern farewell tour in 1886 and his Richmond reinterment seven years later. With that the South seems to have spent its capacity for intense retrospection about the failed leader. The Lost Cause may very well have lived on, but its former president very gradually receded from view. A lingering apotheosis of sorts occurred in 1916, when Gutzon Borglum began carving Davis’s visage on Stone Mountain, not far from Atlanta, alongside those of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. After that, however, while Lee and Jackson remained as iconic immortals, Davis’s profile began to dim, becoming spectral in public memory.
Historically considered, reburial has come to mean a figurative form of resurrection—primarily the resurrection of reputation, at least for a while. It has also meant, with the passage of time, renewed honor and frequently some form of reconciliation, or at least movement in the direction of reconciliation—familial, sectional, and above all national. That will be true of many of the episodes to be considered in the six segments of this book. While there have been some significant differences in the particular dynamics of individual situations, there have also been numerous similarities between “translations” and reinterments in America and elsewhere. The complexity of repatriation, a revived reverence for reputation, and the resolution of differences are constant themes that supply this book with much of its focus, which I call the cultural politics of exhumation.
The project is primarily about pride, as the opening epigraph from Alexander Pope is meant to suggest—different levels and layers of pride. National pride, for example, in the case of John Paul Jones’s reburial at the Naval Academy in 1905–6. Sectional pride when we witness the instances of President James Monroe and John Brown. State pride in battles over the decomposed bones of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene (Georgia versus Rhode Island) and the renowned scout Daniel Boone (Kentucky versus Missouri).
Regional pride is at stake in the burials of Revolutionary rifleman Daniel Morgan and bank robber Jesse James; local pride with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore, where he lived, and died versus Philadelphia, where he wrote his most famous works) and Frank Lloyd Wright (Taliesin East versus Taliesin West as burial sites); and family pride coupled with patriotic pride in the Revolutionary War cases of Dr. Joseph Warren and General Richard Montgomery (both killed in battle in 1775) and the much later contretemps involving F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Catholic Church. Finally, we also encounter ethnic and racial pride in the exhumation stories of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and later Matthew Henson, an African American who assisted Admiral Richard Peary in first setting foot on the North Pole in 1909.
When groups of people, cities, privately owned cemeteries, or states contested where the remains of a celebrity should most properly repose, pride of place was often at stake. And when small bands of men came in the middle of the night to covertly dig up a body and steal it away, pride of possession became the prize. Matters of pride often caused but alsoresulted from intense rivalries—between regions, states, and families. Then add the commercial competition of newly established cemeteries seeking to become tourist attractions as well as profitable investments. People must buy burial plots, and often they like to be interred where celebrities have already been situated. I have in mind such sites as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, a new cemetery in 1840 that crassly vied for the skeletons of not one but two Revolutionary leaders who had earlier been buried privately in family plots.
Readers should not be surprised to encounter a particularly lugubrious manifestation of pride that recurs with notable frequency in these pages: people handling or even taking personal possession of skulls belonging to figures they greatly admired, even revered in some instances. The historical origins of this practice can be traced back to medieval and early modern times, when the skull served as a reminder of life’s earthly transience. Skulls also had religious significance, of course, because the contemplation of death as a spiritual exercise was recommended by the Jesuits and would be enhanced by the use of a skull, especially apparent to us in iconographic symbolism that survives. Paintings often depicted saints at prayer with a skull nearby. One thinks of Francis of Assisi, hermit saints (most notably Jerome), and Mary Magdalene as a penitent. Skulls were also used in a more secular context to symbolize Melancholy, one of the four temperaments.
In our nineteenth-century American episodes, however, religious or even spiritual reasons for contemplating skulls seem less significant or meaningful than physically holding the skull of a famous individual as the ultimate act of possessive connectedness to the deceased—most certainly an expression of secular admiration and pride, as we shall see with figures as different as Daniel Boone and Edgar Allan Poe. The latter-day disciple could boast, “I once held in my hands the very skull of … ” (though the honor was not always voiced in quite those words). In the case of evangelist George Whitefield, however, actually displaying a skull at the vault of his tomb does hark back to premodern sentiments about holy relics, whereas holding up a skull for a kind of photo op in 1904, as with James Smithson, had more to do with declaring that “we’ve really found our man and here’s proof positive.” The skull resists decay longer than any other part of the body. Quite often it was the sole surviving puzzle piece still intact and deemed recognizable—sometimes because of teeth or, as with the skull of Jesse James, a bullet hole.
One might very well say that this project is written in a major key—call it Pride, public and collective—yet the work intermittently modulates to a minor key, the somewhat secularized version of veneration for sacred relics among the Christian societies of medieval Europe and early modern times. For illustrative episodes of the latter, we will consider the burial and subsequently the ritualized uses of evangelist Whitefield in the Congregational Church of Newburyport, Massachusetts (formerly Presbyterian); of John Paul Jones in a new and elaborately decorated chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis; and of Augustus Lord Howe in several rebuilt incarnations of St. Peter’s Church in Albany. If the body of a venerated person can serve in some sense to consecrate a secular site, an already consecrated site can effectively elevate the status of a civil figure’s mortal remains.
The narratives here differ in time, by place, and by circumstance. The preponderant majority, however, are American, and they manifest certain clear patterns, never identical, because (as it is said) history does not repeat itself even though historians often do. Although I will touch upon different cultures, different eras, even different countries, most of the episodes that I explore clearly involve the desire to enhance respect for someone deceased, the variability of reputations, and the complexity of restitution or repatriation. Intensely felt sentiments of pride emerge on multiple levels. And they reveal that the symbolic significance of possessing “sacred relics,” even in secular settings, has incalculable potency—yet often provides pleasure as well.
The compelling need to do the right thing with dead bodies has proved to be more than merely symbolic, though that significance has been notably present on many occasions as well. Moving the remains of deceased figures has mattered in social, cultural, and political ways—often in varied combinations. Moreover, we are contemplating a phenomenon at least as old as recorded history in the Western world. Two examples from antiquity should suffice. They provide precedents, of a sort, but also suggest contrasts with our modern narratives.
Herodotus tells us that after countless defeats by the Tegeans during the reign of Croesus, the Lacedaemonians consulted the oracle at Delphi, who advised that in order to prevail they must relocate the bones of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. With a mix of luck and savvy they found a ten-foot coffin, “opened the grave, and collecting the bones, returned with them to Sparta. From henceforth, whenever the Spartans and the Tegeans made trial of each other’s skill in arms, the Spartans always had greatly the advantage; and by the time to which we are come now they were masters of most of the Peloponnese.”A second illustration, also situated in classical Greece, comes to us from Plutarch and bears a striking resemblance to the narrative of Orestes’ efficacious exhumation. Early in the fifth century, when Cimon led Athenian forces against Persia, he successfully conquered the strategic island of Scyros. He then learned that
the Athenians had once been given an oracle commanding them to bring back the bones of Theseus to Athens and pay them the honours due to a hero; but they did not know where he was buried, since the people of Scyros would neither admit that the story was true nor allow any search to be made. Cimon, however, attacked the task with great enthusiasm and after some difficulty discovered the sacred spot. He had the bones placed on board his trireme and brought them back with great pomp and ceremony to the hero’s native land, almost four hundred years after he had left it. This affair did more than any other achievement of Cimon’s to endear him to the people.
Although the consultation of oracles had long since ceased to be normative in nineteenth-century America, despite a certain predilection for séances in some Victorian circles, necromancy or supernatural guidance would have come in very handy when the grave sites of venerated heroes were unknown or uncertain, as I shall note. Evident among these stories is a vocation that is more valuable than an oracle or a spiritualist in calling attention to neglected burial sites. As it happened, journalists took the initiative in launching the quests to move John Paul Jones and D. H. Lawrence from France to rebury them in America, more than a generation apart. Church sextons have also played particularly useful roles.
Although quite a few of our incidents are more instructive or amusing than tragic, and reveal far more about human nature than they do about nature morte, one rather likely musical accompaniment might be Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor with its marche funèbre. Processions and audiences have heard it played time and time again during reinterments. At the end, however, when we come to comparisons between the United States and other cultures, we might very well bear in mind that the expression “whistling past the graveyard” is an idiomatic American usage meaning the effort to remain cheerful in a dire situation. I cannot claim that Americans whistled more than Europeans when they reburied people, but I do submit that a great many of the occasions we will visit were more celebratory than sad.