Thursday, January 30, 2014

John McCullough and Edwin Adams at Mount Moriah Cemetery

John McCullough
This is a continuation of last week’s Cemetery Traveler blog, a fine piece guest-written by my friend Julie Esty, entitled, “Death’s Playhouse” (a link to that blog is provided at the end). It is a brief account of the friendship between two celebrated thespians from nineteenth century America, John McCullough and Edwin Adams, who are buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. In the present article, I’d like to give you some “behind the scenes” information on their monuments and their grave sites.

McCullough monument, c. 1888 (ref.)
The McCullough monument is a grand affair, a large and ornate tower of Quincy granite rising 36 feet off the ground. It rests over the McCullough family plot in Section 122, on the Yeadon side of the cemetery, behind the hilly section where all the mausoleums are. The Adams monument is much smaller, and is on the Philadelphia side of the cemetery. While McCullough was likely held in greater esteem by many more people than was Adams, it is interesting to note that theatrical actors in general found greater favor with the American public as time marched on past 1865. Edwin Adams died in 1877, whereas McCullough died in 1885. With the assassination in 1865 of President Abraham Lincoln by the actor John Wilkes Booth, the American public, for a time, held actors in great disdain. (Edwin Booth, John Wilkes' brother, is considered by many historians to be the greatest American actor of the nineteenth century. Both John McCullough and Edwin Adams were members of Edwin Booth's acting company.)

Like the bond of friendship shared by Adams and McCullough, their graves are similarly forgotten and overgrown. The grave sites of these two celebrated stage actors, being inaccessible to the public, do nothing, currently, to help keep them in our memory. The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., will undoubtedly do something about that.

Regardless of the size and fanciness of one memorial relative to the other, both are hidden by the densely overgrown foliage. You would never find either grave without very specific directions. The McCullough monument, aside from having the large bronze bust of John McCullough removed, is in relatively good condition. It is fairly easy to discern through the Japanese knotweed in the winter time. In summer, the dense trees and other growth hide most of it, save its ascending granite flame, "typical of the aspiring soul in its escape from mortal encasement" (ref.).

Edwin Adams' grave site, Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I’ve known of the existence of the McCullough monument for some time now. With the help of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., I located Adams’ grave a couple weeks ago. It is in Section 203, in as much of a jungle of dense woods as is McCullough’s. Deer are probably the most frequent visitors to his grave, evidenced by the numerous beds and runs. The Friends’ group has not yet gotten back to this area to do any weed or tree cutting, but that’s just a matter of time. There is, however, work being done to access the area around the McCullough monument.

“The massive base from which it springs is adorned on its front face with a design of crossed foils, and the fasces of the Roman lictors, flanked on either side by the masks of Tragedy and Comedy, and crowned by the Scotch thistle.” (ref.)
Center pedestal where bust originally sat
 The McCullough monument is quite impressive for its sheer grandeur. When it was created in 1888, it cost $9300.00 (which equates to $232,000 in 2014 terms based on the Consumer Price Index). At this point the monument is easily accessible via the roadway behind the hill atop which the mausolea reside. The monument is actually situated at the highest elevation within the cemetery’s 240 acres (ref.). “Late in the summer of 1888 the granite monument, with a massive and splendid bronze bust of John McCullough, was placed at the actor's grave …,” so says William Winter in his 1889 book, “In memory of John McCullough ....” A cursory glance will show the bust to be gone – removed or perhaps stolen somewhere along the line. The bust appears to be very similar to the image at the very beginning of this article. A fascinating point that makes the McCullough memorial unique and notable is that “it is the first monument ever raised to the memory of an actor in this country, if not in the world (ref.)”

Following the death of his good friend Edwin Adams in 1877, McCullough was asked to supply an inscription for the late thespian’s memorial in Mount Moriah Cemetery.  McCullough selected this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5 –

Inscription on John McCullough's monument

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”

Edwin Adams (ref.)
John McCullough's own memorial, incidentally, bears the same quotation (which appears in the photo above). My principal reason for trying to locate Adams’ memorial was to see this Shakespearean inscription reputed to be on his stone. Unfortunately and after much searching, I discovered that the black marble Adams monument had fallen, and was being eaten by the earth. It appears to be about four feet long and about twenty inches square. Only about an inch of the stone’s back is visible, meaning that the inscription lies buried face down.

Edwin Adams' grave site, Mount Moriah Cemetery
With ground subsidence and maybe a little help from vandals, this small, yet elegant memorial has all but disappeared. The only thing left to be readily seen are the twin granite entry posts to the plot. Sometimes the family name is engraved on the steps leading up to the plot, but this does not seem to be the case here. All in all, this presents itself as a springtime project, i.e. excavating Adams’ monument so the inscription can be read. It will be another in a steadily progressing series of notables being brought to light in Mount Moriah, as Pennsylvania’s largest Victorian-era cemetery continues its renaissance under the direction of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc.

Front of McCullough family plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery
John McCullough was a serious actor, a tragedian, whereas Edwin Adams was a comedian. The former attained greater notoriety, and apparently, wealthier friends. McCullough’s friends’ names appear on the rear of the monument [most notably William M. Conner, who suggested having the monument built as a lasting tribute to his friend, shortly after McCullough’s death]. McCullough was something of a superstar in his own time. “Genial” John Edward McCullough “was one of the most popular and successful actors on the American stage, earning an average of $50,000 a year” (ref.). In the late 1800s, this was obviously an enormous sum of money.

“When the superintendent of Mount Moriah Cemetery, where rests the dust his great spirit once vitalized, could express profound surprise at the enduring longevity of the affection this man inspired, since the tomb of none other among the many silent occupants of his vast city of the dead, is ever sought out and inquired for with such abiding interest, such pathos of tender memory, as is that of the great actor today [in 1905, twenty years after McCullough’s death], a tribute is thereby paid to the majesty of a soul, which, in its passage through this world, briefly ‘pressed the earth but stained it not.’”                                                                                                                              -From the book, John McCullough as man, actor and spirit, by Susie Champney Clark, 1905.

John McCullough as Virginius
William Winter, in his book, In Memory of John McCullough ..., states:
“The McCullough monument stands at the head of the grave, over which the bust of the actor, in his favorite [Shakespearean] character [the ill-fated Roman centurion] Virginius, seems an image of perfect and noble repose, as calm and majestic as the day that it greets at its coming. The main fabric of the monument, imposed upon a commodious pedestal, is a huge block of polished granite. On this are reared four pillars, which support a stone canopy surmounted by an urn. Beneath the canopy stands the bust, which is of colossal size. The pillars are sculptured with vines of ivy. The top of the urn is thirty-six feet from the ground.”

The formal dedication of John McCullough’s memorial occurred on November 27, 1888:

"The scene at McCullough's grave when his monument was dedicated lacked no element of impressive simplicity. The day was somber and chill. A sad, gray sky brooded, as if in sorrow, over the still and melancholy landscape — of withered lawn and leafless trees, with, all around, the cold memorials of the dead. It was one of those pensive, soundless days when Nature seems to sympathize with the grief, the perplexities, the wistful anxiety of man." (Ref.)

William F. Johnson’s introductory address at the dedication:

"Heroes have had their last resting-places marked with imperishable marble, in admiration of their power to slaughter men and wreak misery upon their fellow-creatures; poets for the sweetness of their songs; rulers for their excellence in statecraft; but few are honored, as our dead friend is to-day, for personal worth, unostentatious charities, and a beneficent life." (Ref.)

McCullough family crypt cover
John Edward McCullough enjoyed national renown, having made his professional debut at the Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia, in 1857. He became more famous than his good friend Edwin Adams, both during and after his lifetime. McCullough’s ghost supposedly haunts the National Theatre in Washington, D.C, where he was shot and killed by a fellow stage performer in 1885. Maybe he hangs around there looking for his head. His wife Letitia had it autopsied after he died so maybe it’s not buried with the rest of him at Mount Moriah! Letitia is buried in the family plot with John; a large black marble crypt cover lies in front of the monument, on which are inscribed the names of later burials of the McCullough family.

References and Further Reading:
John McCullough as man, actor and spirit by Susie Champney Clark 1905
In memory of John McCullough ..., by William Winter, 1889, De Vinne press 
The Last Days of John McCullough, by Joseph Haworth, 1894
JohnMcCullough — The Ghost of the National Theatre? 

Death's Playhouse (Part one of the McCullough/Adams story on the Cemetery Traveler)
Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc.


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  2. I don't believe McCullough was shot to death. Most sources recount that in the summer of 1884 his behavior and memory grew erratic, until he broke down onstage in Chicago on 29 September, suffering from tertiary syphilis which had affected his mind. He went through a succession of asylums before dying in Philadelphia on 8 November 1885, six days after his 53rd birthday.

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