Saturday, July 14, 2007
One famous corpse
Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm created a big stink in more ways than one in “Little Washington," Pa., in 1876.
The Austrian immigrant who died penniless in New York made national headlines that year when he became the first person to be cremated in a crematory in the United States in the small town named after the nation’s first president.
He had stated in his will that he wanted to be cremated in a style that would blend Eastern and Western traditions, but, it took his estate six months to carry out his wishes.
New York refused to burn his body at a time when the moral majority thought it would be a slap in Christianity’s face to do anything other than place the dead six feet underground in a cemetery.
De Palm was part of the early Theosophical movement that wanted to create an equal opportunity brotherhood of humanity to investigate the mysteries of nature. His friends made arrangements to make the long trip to Washington by boat, train and wagon after they heard about Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, and his crematory project.
LeMoyne was a physician, humanitarian, farmer, scientist and inventor who had earlier opened his home to the Underground Railroad. The over-achiever was among the first people to link death and illness to the pollution of groundwater from decomposing bodies at cemeteries.
So he built a 30-by-20-foot red brick building with two rooms for cremations at his property on Gallows Hill, where executions by hanging had once been carried out.
Journalists and onlookers gathered in Washington from around the world to witness De Palm's body turn to ashes. Strange-colored smoke rose from the chimneys, creating a putrid smell that later turned sweet because of the flowers, herbs and pine branches that had been placed around his body.
LeMoyne would become the third person to be turned to dust at the facility that closed in 1900 after 42 cremations.
Located on South Main Street at the edge of Washington, the building still stands, and is open for tours between 2 and 4 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month between May and September. It’s operated by the Washington County Historical Society, which uses LeMoyne’s stately stone house as its headquarters.