Thursday, October 31, 2013

Flesh off the Bone

Some friends of mine were fortunate enough to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York last week. I’ve seen the photos and I must go there! Looks like a fabulous place. Washington Irving’s grave is there, of, course – the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The headless horseman idea got me thinking about another odd, though true Halloween-appropriate tale. While not as riveting as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it nonetheless involves missing body parts.
I came across this story just a couple years ago when reading Allan Heller’s book, Philadelphia Area Cemeteries. The story concerns Mad Anthony Wayne, one of George Washington’s maniacal generals, a person to whom we owe our independence from Britain. Wayne is buried in St. David’s Cemetery in Radnor, Pennsylvania (near Wayne, PA, out side Philadelphia). Well, actually only half of him is buried there.

General Anthony Wayne (ref.)
Wayne's “fiery temper and battlefield bravado,” says Heller, earned him the title of “Mad,” and there was nothing he would not do to further the cause. His greatest triumph “was the capture of the nearly impregnable British fort of Stony Point, New York, in 1779 - "the beginning of the end of the American Revolution." (ref.). When General George Washington asked the brash general if he would be willing to attack the enemy stronghold, Wayne supposedly replied, ‘Issue the orders, sir, and I will lay siege to Hell.’” Now THAT’s patriotism. Or perhaps insanity. Or both.

American assault on British at Stony Point, NY (ref.)

"Mad" Anthony Wayne monument, Radnor, PA
When you’re standing in a graveyard, it is weird enough knowing that the bones of people are buried beneath your feet. And most of us assume there was flesh on those bones at the time of burial. However, Mad Anthony Wayne only had his bones buried at St. David’s Cemetery in Radnor, Pennsylvania. What happened to the flesh, you may ask? Or you may not think to ask (who would?). Well, this is such a juicy, creepy story that we must not let it go the way of Purgatory and Pluto - we must keep it alive. 

When Wayne died in 1796, his body was buried at Fort Presque Isle near Lake Erie, his final military post. according to, “He was buried in a plain coffin, his initials and date of death driven into the wood using round-headed brass tacks, at the foot of the blockhouse's flagstaff on garrison hill.” Twelve years after his death (1808), Wayne’s son Isaac decided that his father should be buried in the Wayne family plot at St. David’s (this graveyard actually pre-dates the Revolutionary War, having been established in 1715). So he traveled to the military base and paid to have his father’s body exhumed. He was met with a grisly surprise - twelve years after General Anthony Wayne’s death, his body was still intact! Remember, there was no embalming until much later, during the Civil War. (Embalming only became widely popular after Abraham Lincoln's embalmed body traveled from Washington, D.C. to Illinois, where at every train stop, thousands witnessed this new wonder of preservation.)

St. David's Churchyard Cemetery, Radnor, Pennsylvania

Isaac Wayne's "sulky" (ref.)
So an actual body presented a problem, as Isaac had only brought a small horse-drawn cart (known as a sulky) to carry the remains back to Chester County, PA, a 400-mile trek. A local physician, Dr. James Wallace (who had actually been at Wayne’s dying bedside), proposed to boil the flesh off Wayne’s bones, and give the bones to Isaac to be taken away. The flesh and the General’s uniform (along with Wallace’s surgical instruments) were reburied under the flagpole at the military base.

Then Isaac began his return journey, with his father's bones in a box in the back of the carriage. Along the rough road from Erie to Radnor, diagonally across the state of Pennsylvania, the box fell off a few times, supposedly scattering bones here and there. In 1809, the remainder of Mad Anthony Wayne’s bones were buried in the Wayne family plot you see in my photographs here, in Radnor, Pennsylvania. The story goes that every year on New Year’s Day - Mad Anthony Wayne’s birthday – “he rises from his grave at St. David’s and rides all the way across the state, looking this way and that for his missing parts.” (ref.)

Standing in St. David’s Cemetery, you are certainly tempted to believe this. The place has a “Sleepy Hollow” feel to it, and is a bit spooky in many ways. It’s old, it’s surrounded by woods, and seems to be away from civilization. The stone walls separating the nearby farmers' fields were standing while the War was being fought. You feel the spirit of the Revolution here. During a visit to this quite little graveyard last winter, I witnessed a fleeting spectral appearance inside the small church near Wayne's grave. I invite you to read about it in one of my prior blogs, "Anchored Souls in St. David's Cemetery.

Happy Halloween!

References and Further Reading:
Wayne Buried in Two Places

St. David's Episcopal Church website