Saturday, October 27, 2007
Doctoring the dead
The nation’s first crematory, built on Gallows Hill in Washington, took shape because of a country doctor’s disturbing work with exhumed bodies, some of which went to their graves still breathing.
Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne would argue that his crematory was an experiment in improving public health, but he really built the oven because he feared waking up six feet underground after his own funeral, a professor theorized.
“He built it for his own reasons,” said Stephen Prothero, chairman of religious studies at Boston University and an expert on the history of cremation in the United States.
The venerable physician would become the third person to be reduced to ashes at his crematory following his death at 3 p.m. Oct. 13, 1879. Upon LeMoyne’s death at 82, his body was placed in a plain rosewood coffin and carried by his sons and grandsons to the crematory amid speculation that he had more bizarre plans for his funeral.
His demise, however, would be forever overshadowed by the first cremation on the steep hill overlooking Washington and its many staunch, conservative Presbyterian families.
The decomposing body of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm arrived in Washington on an especially frigid Dec. 6, 1876, to become the first cremation in the New World.
De Palm paraded himself as an Austrian nobleman when he joined the ranks of New York’s Theosophical Movement, whose members wanted to create an equal opportunity society and investigate the mysteries of nature.
De Palm died penniless, but had expressed a desire in his will to be cremated, plans that were executed by another modern thinker from New York, Col. Henry Steel Olcott.
De Palm’s body was packed in “potter’s clay and crystallized carbolic acid” in an attempt to preserve his corpse before better embalming techniques were invented, Prothero found. But it took six months between the time De Palm died and LeMoyne completed his crematory before the body arrived in the backwoods town of Washington, followed by curious newspaper reporters from across the United States and Europe, scientists and physicians.
“It wasn’t like it was in New York City, some cosmopolitan city,” Prothero said in a telephone interview. “The reaction was something you would expect in Middle America; it was un-Christian, shocking.”
Prothero included a chapter about the cremation in his book, “Purified by Fire,” which revealed LeMoyne as a man of many contradictions.
At Washington County Historical Society, which makes its home in the historic stone LeMoyne House on East Maiden Street, the physician is revered as a tireless advocate of the unfortunate. He was a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement, and had opened his home to slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
He believed in equal rights for women, too, and founded the Washington Seminary long before he got the idea to build the crematory on the hill, which also had been the site of public executions.
But Prothero uncovered reports that some Washington folks had looked upon LeMoyne as a filthy, unkempt old fool who had been excommunicated from First Presbyterian Church for his unconventional beliefs.
It was true that LeMoyne had the notion that soap and water not only removed the dirt, but it also washed away the “spiritual essence of the body,” Prothero said.
To mask his scent, LeMoyne splashed himself with cologne he made from roses and herbs that grew in his garden, said Jim Ross, director of the LeMoyne House, which keeps De Palm’s ashes in a jar in the physician’s office.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Ross said.
Rather than focus on LeMoyne’s fears of a premature burial and worries about the theft of bodies at Washington Cemetery, everyone at the historical society refers to him as a brilliant visionary.
But LeMoyne had no way of predicting the high jinks and farce that would accompany De Palm’s cremation, Prothero said.
Hundreds of people were standing outside the simple, one-story, two-room crematory when the baron’s body arrived. The affair resembled a public execution at a time when people were still fascinated by “macabre entertainment,” Prothero said.
There was nothing fancy about the reception room, which was furnished with two bentwood chairs, a hand-carved table for the coffin, a hutch and cast-iron heating stove. Its walls were whitewashed. There were no curtains on the window. One side door led to the furnace room in the 20-by-30-foot building that was built for $1,500 and designed by LeMoyne, who tested the oven with dead sheep from his farm.
It was a man named John Dye who did the construction and maintained the coking coal that fueled the oven, Ross said.
“Everything was plain, repulsively so, one might say,” Olcott wrote in his book, “Old Diary Leaves,” about the De Palm cremation. “Just a practical corpse incinerator, as unaesthetic as a bake-oven ... with none of that horror of roasting human flesh. The corpse simply dries.”
At least 100 people crowded inside the red brick building, where one person lifted the shroud covering De Palm’s body, which had shrunk from 175 pounds to 92 pounds, to examine the condition of his loins.
The body was then dusted with herbs and spices and outlined with pine branches to add a sweet scent to the smoke that was about to rise from the chimney. The body was placed head-first on an open grate into the 3,000-degree oven in such a manner that it didn’t touch the flames.
Some took turns looking through a peephole in the heavy, cast-iron oven door before the cremation was over, two-and-a-half hours later.
One observer, Prothero noted, remarked that the evergreens and De Palm’s hair were the first to catch fire like a “crown of glory for the dead man.”
Another claimed to have witnessed De Palm’s left hand rise up with three fingers pointing to the heavens in what a physician dismissed as involuntary muscle contractions, the professor’s research showed.
At the time, LeMoyne had also begun to wither; his aging body so pained by arthritis that he witnessed the events while hunched over in a chair.
And the spectacle that accompanied the De Palm cremation apparently haunted the physician until the time of his death, which was followed by a funeral that was anything but spectacular.
Before he died, LeMoyne dictated to a secretary his final arguments for cremation while “under the embarrassment of infirmities of old age, and under the depressing influences of a fatal disease.”
He believed that a body was of no use to God once its soul was removed, and that burials were the most “barbarous and disgusting” methods to deal with the dead.
As for science, LeMoyne knew that decomposing bodies polluted the ground water and made people deathly sick if they drank from wells near cemeteries.
The physician also said cemeteries were resting places for the vain and rich to be remembered in the sinful custom of marking graves with expensive, magnificent monuments.
Jan Pitman of Cincinnati, Ohio, agreed with LeMoyne. Her corpse became the second body to reach his crematory on Feb. 15, 1878, and she was recorded as the first woman in the United States to be cremated. The wife of Benjamin, who designed a phonograph system, wished that her ashes be buried and transformed into a rose for her husband.
In all, 42 bodies were cremated at LeMoyne’s crematory, where a prince was treated the same as a pauper before it closed in 1901.
The LeMoyne Crematory survives in remarkable condition and is identical to the way it appeared when the first cremation took place there in 1876. To this day, the building on South Main Street in Washington has no electricity or heat.
The simple building is maintained by the Washington County Historical Society, which offers limited tours of the building on the second Saturday of each month, between May and September. Special school tours can be arranged by calling 724-225-6740.
Taken from the pages of the target="_blank">Observer-Reporter