Chapter 2: The Founding of the Cemetery.

Chapter 2: The Founding of the Cemetery. A group of Lexington's most prominent citizens obtained from the Kentucky General Assembly an act, approved on February 5, 1848, incorporating the Lexington Cemetery Company and authorizing it to establish a rural,

The Founding of the Cemetery

The time had come. Lexingtonians had no suitable, sacred place to bury their dead.  The old graveyards were filled or were disreputable.  None provided assurance that the dead would rest in dignity and peace for even a few short years.

"First hill," the burial ground of the pioneer settlement of Lexington, was rarely maintained properly and had little or no space left.  The old Maxwell graveyard on Bolivar Street had been desecrated by the town workhouse and the poorhouse, and many of its graves had been dug up.  The Episcopal Cemetery was small, as was the adjacent Catholic Cemetery, and nearly all of its lots were sold.   The Presbyterian Cemetery for some reason had quickly gained a bad reputation and public criticism.

People were coming to a realization that family graveyards on farms and even in the town itself were not satisfactory, for property often was sold.  Too, there was growing concern that burial of the dead in town created a menace to public health, contaminating wells and springs.

In the 1840s, when a new cemetery was so desperately needed, by fortunate coincidence a new concept in burial grounds had been developed in Boston and was being accepted in an increasing number of cities in the East and the Midwest.  These parklike burial grounds, laid out in landscaped sections separated by gravel driveways, were known as "rural" cemeteries-rural not in the sense that they were located out in the country but rather that they were placed at the edge of a town instead of within its built-up area.

The concept of a parklike cemetery, a "garden cemetery," which would have been the first of its kind in Kentucky and perhaps in a larger area, was in the proposed town of Hygeia, an idyllic city envisioned by an Englishman, William Bullock, in 1827.  To be located on the Ohio River in Kenton County, it never got beyond the map stage.  A plat of the town is included in Bullock's Sketch of a Journey, published in London.  It is laid out around a central circle which includes parklike planted areas, and between this center and the river are generous horticultural and agricultural gardens.  At the edge of the city is the cemetery, designed with curving lanes, a chapel, and trees and other plantings.  Bullock notes that it was inspired by the Pere la Chaise cemetery in Paris, France, which was the inspiration for the "rural" graveyards of the 1830s in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities.  These, in turn, inspired the founders of the Lexington Cemetery.

In 1843 a prominent British landscape architect, John C. Loudon, published a small book, On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries.  The Lexington Cemetery's first superintendent, Charles S. Bell, who came to America from England in the summer of 1842, surely was familiar with Loudon's reputation, and it is not unlikely that by the time he reached Lexington he had read Loudon's book.  Bell, like Loudon, was a native of Scotland who had worked in England.

Andrew Jackson Downing in 1841 published A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.  Although it did not concern cemeteries, his interest soon turned in that direction, and in July 1849, while the Lexington Cemetery was being laid out, he wrote an essay on "Public Cemeteries and Public Gardens."  He pointed out that "Twenty years ago, nothing better than a common graveyard filled with high grass, and a chance sprinkling of weeds and thistles, was to be found in the Union."  Two years later Mount Auburn, a rural cemetery near Boston, was created, "A charming natural site, finely varied in surface...and admirably clothed by groups and masses of native forest trees."

Since then, wrote Downing, many other cities had established rural cemeteries.  He added:

The great attraction of these cemeteries, to the mass of the community, is not in the fact that they are burial-places, or solemn places of meditation for the friends of the deceased, or striking exhibitions of monumental sculpture, though all these have their influence...The true secret of their attraction lies in the natural beauty of the sites, and in the tasteful and harmonious embellishment of these sites by art.  Nearly all these cemeteries were rich portions of forest land, broken by hill and dale, and varied by copses and glades...Hence, to an inhabitant of the town, a visit to one of these spots has the united charm of nature and art,-the double wealth of rural and moral associations...

Downing in July 1846 became editor of The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Taste, published in Albany, New York, and the magazine was available in Lexington through an agent, Colonel Caleb J. Sanders.  Among its readers locally was Henry T. Duncan, for whom Superintendent Bell first worked on arriving in Lexington.  In this and ensuing issues, Downing discussed rural cemeteries and their design at the very time when influential Lexingtonians were thinking of establishing a new burial ground for this community.

"It is not a little remarkable," he wrote in the October 1846 number, "that the Landscape Gardening taste of the country should, at the present moment appear most fully developed in our rural cemeteries.  In the main, they are admirably laid out and well kept.  The original growth of wood is well treated, and individual lots prettily planted with flowers and shrubs, and the general effect is parklike, or highly picturesque."  Downing and other writers also constantly argued against the common practice of erecting iron fences to enclose individual lots, a flight which C.S. Bell took up and eventually won.

Lexingtonians were not entirely unprepared for the creation of a parklike cemetery, for an interest in gardening and landscaping was held by some persons from the early days of the community.  In 1796, for example, Colonel David Meade came with his family and servants from Virginia to a farm on what is now the Catnip Hill Road in Jessamine County, near the Fayette line.  Wealthy enough to indulge his fancies, he developed a hundred acres around his residence into a fantastic garden and called the place Chaumiere des Prairies.  There he and his lady dispensed lavish hospitality; and his friends, as well as almost every important visitor to Central Kentucky, strolled through the sloping green lawn, the gardens and groves, and viewed the lakes and temples he had built.

Early in the nineteenth century John D. Clifford came, with his mother and two sisters, from Philadelphia to Lexington.  He married Mary Morton, a daughter of "Lord" William Morton, and he was active in virtually every cultural enterprise here.  He founded the Lexington Athenaeum, he was a trustee of Transylvania University, he gathered a collection of botanical, geological and archaeological specimens, and he wrote scientific reports for the Western Review, a periodical published in Lexington.  Clifford also arranged for the talented, eccentric Constantine Samuel Rafinesque to come to Transylvania in 1819 as professor of botany and natural sciences.

Rafinesque, besides traveling widely throughout the state in search of specimens, founded in 1824 the Transylvania Botanical Garden, a ten-acre tract located on the south side of Main Street in the vicinity of Ransom Avenue.  Some money was raised, garden paths and beds were laid out, and trees and flowers were planted.  Medicinal plants were to be used by Transylvania's medical school.  Unfortunately, many subscribers did not pay up, Rafinesque and the college came to a parting of the ways, and the garden area was returned to its former owner.  The naturalist died in 1840 and was buried in Philadelphia.  In 1924, however, his remains were brought to Lexington and placed in a crypt at the west side of the steps of Old Morrison on the Transylvania campus.

Henry Clay began the purchase of his Ashland farm in 1804, and during the next half-century, whether he was at home or in Washington, he was interested in increasing the beauty of his estate.  Letters and invoices are preserved which list flowers, shrubs and trees he ordered and planted there; and visitors from throughout the world viewed his spacious lawn and formal garden.

In 1842 the Rev. William Moody Pratt, upon arriving in Lexington, wrote in his diary: "Went to see Henry Clay's residence 1 mi east of Lex. one of the most romantic spots I have seen in the west.  Aged forest trees surround & are interspersed over the grounds on which his house stands."

One of Lexington's most popular gathering places of the period, Fowler's Garden, while not a garden in the usual sense, has been described as attractively landscaped and planted.  It was the scene of many social and political gatherings between the years 1817 and about 1860.

In 1829 Dr. Charles Wilkins Short, professor of material medica and medical botany at Transylvania, published in the Transylvania Journal of Medicine a "Florula Lexingtoniensis," or list of local plants.  This was expanded into his Catalogue of the Native Phaenogamous Plants and Ferns of Kentucky (1833).  He published articles on the cultivation of medical plants and the preservation of herbs.

That private individuals were interested in flowers and gardening is further shown by occasional articles in the local papers.  In July 1828, for instance, the Kentucky Reporter mentioned a night-blooming cereus in "Mrs. Dunham's valuable collection of Exotics" which was expected to bloom soon.  Mrs. Dunham was the wife of Colonel Josiah Dunham; together they conducted a successful school for girls.

In 1845, according to the late historian C. Frank Dunn, William Thompson, a maker of pianofortes, built a brick cottage on East High Street near Rose and there "planted a garden of flowers and fruit trees that was the show-place of Lexington" by 1862.  Thompson was in business in Lexington as early as 1824, and a piano made by him is in the Mary Todd Lincoln house-museum.

A group of Lexington's most prominent citizens obtained from the Kentucky General Assembly an act, approved on February 5, 1848, incorporating the Lexington Cemetery Company and authorizing it to establish a rural, or garden, cemetery.  The act also embraced an idea new to Lexington but surely desired by many of its people: the company was required to provide for perpetual care of the grounds and the graves.  No longer would the dead be laid in ground that at any time might be subject to desecration; no longer would graves be in constant danger of being plowed up and the contents cast aside.

A year passed before any effective action was taken to implement the charter.  At a chance meeting on January 23, 1849, four men-M.T. Scott, Benjamin Gratz, Madison C. Johnson, and Richard Higgins-decided to raise by subscription the sum of $12,000 to buy land and get the cemetery started.  In only a few days they had pledges of $500 each from twenty-four men, and on February 12 the General Assembly amended the charter to name most of these subscribers the incorporators.

These were influential men, successful in their businesses, noted for their generosity and their interest in the community.  They were men of various religious denominations and characteristics, and among them were some who had come to Lexington when it was little more than a village.  Of the organizers, Scott and Johnson were officers and later presidents of the Northern Bank of Kentucky; Gratz was a hemp manufacturer, attorney, and director of the bank; and Higgins was a prosperous merchant and later owner of Castleton Farm.

In addition to these men, the final incorporators were Stephen Swift, wholesale and retail grocer; Joel Higgins, planter and brother of Richard Higgins; David A. Sayre, banker and founder in 1854 of Sayre Female Institute; John Tilford, president of the Northern Bank; A.T. Skillman, bookseller; Emilius K. Sayre, attorney and nephew of David A. Sayre; Robert Wickliffe, attorney known as "The Old Duke"; Thomas Hemingway, a partner in the Oldham, Todd & Co. woolen mill at Sandersville; John B. Tilford, grocer, banker, and son of John Tilford; John Lutz, civil engineer and for a time acting president of Transylvania University; D.M. Craig, dry-goods merchant; A.F. Hawkins, with the Northern Bank; Benjamin Warfield, attorney; the Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and state superintendent of public instruction; Dr. Elisha Warfield, merchant and horseman, brother of Benjamin Warfield; George W. Sutton, hemp manufacturer; John Brand, retired hemp manufacturer and director of the Northern Bank; Henry T. Duncan, attorney and horseman; and Edward Macalester, merchant and son-in-law of John Brand.

The $500 subscriptions they made were loans, to be repaid from the proceeds of the sale of lots in the cemetery.  What they donated was their time, effort, and ability to establish a cemetery that would be secure, sacred, and beautiful long after they were dead.  Of them all it is probable that only one man, John Lutz, who laid out the new grounds and roads, stood to make any financial gain at all.  Payment for his work, however, was not in cash but in kind, in the form of cemetery lots.  Four of these lots he presented to Henry Clay.

The incorporators on March 15 elected A.T. Skillman as president, Richard Higgins as secretary, and M.T. Scott as treasurer.  Lutz, Duncan, Johnson, Gratz, and Macalester were chosen to complete the board of trustees.

The board purchased as the cemetery site Boswell's Woods, a forty-acre tract of land owned by Thomas E. Boswell and located on the Leestown Pike at the edge of the city.  They paid $7,000 for the heavily forested, somewhat mysterious area, which was a popular haunt of adventurous boys and hunters, and which, itself, contained a small family graveyard.  This unmarked graveyard of the Grooms family is preserved as part of Section A.

A year had passed between the 1848 incorporation and the January 1849 organization, but now development of the Lexington Cemetery  moved steadily and carefully forward.  This was to be a cemetery of the new kind, a landscaped, beautiful resting place for the dead, and the officers were determined the work should be done properly.

Charles S. Bell was a Scot who had been trained in his native land as a horticulturist, had emigrated to America, and eventually had come to Lexington as gardener for Henry T. Duncan at his Duncannon estate on the Paris Pike.  On April 1 he was hired as superintendent of the cemetery.  He and John Lutz laid out the roads, the sections, and the lots; and he had charge of the landscaping and horticultural work.  He was destined to hold the position of superintendent for fifty-six years as the fist of only four superintendents the cemetery has had.

On March 30, 1849, A.T. Skillman, the president, wrote the first entry in a new ledger: "To cash from E. Warfield $250," and this was followed the next day by a similar entry in the name of Ben Warfield.  Soon twenty-three more payments from subscribers were recorded, making a total of $5,750 in the treasury.

On April 14 the first expenditure was recorded, "By Cash pd T.E. Boswell $3500.00," half the cost of his forty-acre woodland.  On May 17 Charles S. Bell received his first paycheck, for $135.08.  Other payments went to Boswell for cutting cordwood-an indication, perhaps, that some of the dense woodland was being cleared-and for the purchase by Superintendent Bell of thousands of smaller trees and shrubs.

Bell was a methodical man a perfectionist, and a study of the early record books show that he and the trustees had no intention of opening the cemetery until they felt the grounds were sufficiently prepared.  Work had just begun in mid-May of 1849, only a month after the purchase of Boswell's Woods, and even though a cholera epidemic struck the community in June, the requests that surely were made for burial spaces in the cemetery were denied.

On May 9, 1849, Skillman had advertised for "Sealed proposals...for the erection of the GATEWAY and BUILDINGS connected therewith, of the Lexington  Cemetery Company..."  The plan and specifications apparently had already been drawn by John McMurtry, and they were available at the office of Madison C. Johnson.  Proposals were to be opened on May 19.  McMurtry, noted as both a builder and an architect, made the successful bid and must have begun work promptly, for on June 26 he was given an initial payment "in part for Gateway" of $500.

By mid-July Bell and the trustees had made sufficient progress to run the following advertisement in the Lexington Observer & Reporter:

Lexington Cemetery
The Public are hereby informed that a part of the Cemetery grounds, being Section No. 1, containing 52 lots, and Section No. 2, containing 18 lots of various sizes (both Sections being very desirable and beautiful parts of the ground) are now offered FOR SALE.

The original subscribers who have the privilege of the first choice of lots, are invited (if they wish to get lots in the Sections now ready) to call on Mr. Bell, the Superintendent, and make their selections.  Mr. Bell will likewise show the lots to any person wanting to purchase.

A.T Skillman.
July 13.  Chairman Board of Trustees

Apparently there was no great rush to buy lots, unless some of the subscribers selected theirs, for the first sale mentioned in the Skillman account book was dated August 18, 1849, when A.B. Colwell bought a lot in which, on October 2, the first burial in the new Lexington Cemetery took place.  The body of Robert S. Boyd, a merchant tailor and Colwell's partner, was interred there.  He had died in June of cholera and had been laid in the Episcopal Cemetery until his reinterment was arranged.  In the new grave with him was placed the body of his infant son, whose date of death is not known.

There was a fairly steady sale of lots, the records show, but apparently not enough to meet the financial needs of the company.  This probably inspired John Lutz to write a letter to the editor of the Observer & Reporter, published in the March 16, 1850, issue, which not only explained the operation of the cemetery but announced a special inducement to lot buyers:

D.C. Wickliffe, Esq.:

Dear Sir-As one of the Trustees of the Lexington Cemetery, I request you to admit to your columns the following statements concerning the charter and the financial affairs of this institution, which, as I believe, are not generally known to our community.

Two or three years ago some of our citizens obtained a charter for a Cemetery Company, and subsequently, twenty-four subscribers obligated themselves to loan each $500 to this company, for purchasing the necessary ground, and for improving and ornamenting it.  These loans, bearing legal interest (six per cent) are to be repaid to the subscribers out of the proceeds of the sales of cemetery lots, or the creditors may take out their claims in lots, at the price at which they are sold to the public.  By means of this loan and thro the efforts of an efficient chairman, the Lexington Cemetery bids fair to become an ornament to our town and a gratification to admirers of scenery.

The charter of the company provides that every one, owning a lot in the cemetery, shall thereby be a member of the company, that he shall extend a joint ownership over all the unsold land and the improvements, and in fact, that the whole premises, together with the management thereof by means of trustees, shall belong to the owners of the lots,  without however allowing them to make it a matter of speculation, since the profits derived from the Cemetery cannot be divided among the members of  the company.  The charter further provided that each owner of a lot or lots (without regard to size or value,) shall have one vote for the election of trustees, and that the whole of the cemetery ground, as well as the separate lots, shall be free from any liability in regard to creditors.

As to the prices of Cemetery lots, I have been informed, that in the Eastern States, they sell from 50 to 75 cents per square foot, and, that at Frankfort they sell at 25 cents per foot.  The latter price was originally  adopted for the Lexington Cemetery, but desiring to meet in time the heavy expenses lately incurred, this price has been lowered to ten cents per foot until the 10th day of next April, when it will be raised to its original standard.
Yours truly,

Skillman offered a further boost to prospective lot buyers in a newspaper advertisement of April 3.  On April 10 a public auction of lots would be held at the cemetery, with a minimum price of ten cents a square foot, and after that date "the price will be enhanced."

All the while, Charles Bell, John Lutz, and the trustees were laying off and beautifying new sections, and the sale of lots and the interment of bodies were proceeding at an increasing rate.  By early June the trustees deemed the grounds ready for dedication, and elaborate plans were made.

The Kentucky Statesman of Wednesday, June 26, 1850, described the ceremony:


On yesterday at 9 o'clock, A.M., our citizens in great numbers, together with the Masonic Fraternity, the Odd Fellows and the Sons of Temperance in full regalia, and the Union and Adelphi Societies of Transylvania University, repaired to the ground of the new Cemetery near this city, for the purpose of witnessing the ceremony of dedicating this City of the Dead to its solemn uses. The thoughts and feelings inseparably associated with the place, the solemnity of the occasion, and the grave deportment of the numerous and respectable audience of both sexes, made the scene, altogether, highly impressive and imposing. The business houses of the city, suitably impressed with a decent respect for the occasion, were generally closed...

The exercises opened, according to the paper, with a prayer by the Rev. Dr. Miller of the Methodist Church; and an ode which Professor P.S. Ruter of Transylvania had composed for the occasion was sung by a choir.  The sentiment of its five stanzas was summed up in the final lines:

O thou God! our Friend and Father!

May the names these grave-stones bear

When we all shall rise together,

In thy Book of Life appear.

The pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Breckinridge, one of the most eloquent and noted clergymen of his denomination, delivered a dedicatory address, and the ceremony ended with a prayer by the Rev. E.F. Berkley of Christ Church Episcopal.  Dr. Breckinridge must have held forth at considerable length, for according to the Statesman, the ceremonies "occupied about three hours' time" before the congregation "formed a procession and marched back to the city."

Construction of the entranceway was still in progress when the dedication was held, but six sections of the cemetery were ready and contained graves.  There already had been eighty-six burials, including reinterment of remains from several other graveyards.  The sections then were those now designated as A, C, D, F, K and I; and before the year was over two more, B and H, were opened.  Visitors to the cemetery will find in these sections the earliest tombstones and monuments.

John McMurtry completed his part of the construction of the gateway in October at a cost of $2,735.23 .  The next month H. Moore received $14 for "cutting stone sills for gateway," and in December W. H. Newberry, a blacksmith, was paid $254.15 for making the three iron gates.

The structure was more than a mere gateway.  The central vehicular entrance was flanked by narrower pedestrian gates, and on either side of these were reception and office rooms.  Above the east gate was inscribed "Lexington Cemetery, Founded A.D. 1849," and over the west gate were the words "The City of the Dead."  This name was frequently used for many years by the newspapers and in burial records.  A similar but smaller gateway, also by McMurtry, still stands at the entrance to the Paris Cemetery in Bourbon County.

The Lexington Cemetery received widespread publicity in July 1852, when the funeral of Henry Clay attracted many thousands of people, including national dignitaries, to the city.  Newspapers and pictorial journals throughout the country reported the event.  Additional publicity during the 1850s resulted from plans for the erection of a "colossal" monument to Clay's memory and the building of the memorial.

During this decade the superintendent continued the development of the new sections, G and H in 1850, L in 1851, J in 1852, E in 1854, and O in 1859.  Altogether, a large part of the forty-acre Boswell tract was now opened.  In each section narrow alleys ran between the lots, so that the workmen could drive a cart through to remove earth while digging graves.  Many years later, when the lanes were no longer needed for this purpose, the strips were divided into small lots and sold, which accounts for the fact that new markers with recent dates are found in the midst of older stones and monuments in some sections.

The charter of 1848 limited the size of the cemetery to 100 acres, and only 40 had been included in the original purchase.  Bell and the trustees, while developing the Boswell tract, were looking to the future.  They envisioned the City of the Dead as Lexington's principal burying place for many decades, perhaps even centuries, to come.  In February 1859 they purchased a 5.7-acre tract of land, known as the Grooms property, on the east side of the cemetery, and in December 1863 they added 13 acres.  Other and larger purchases would be made later.

At the same time, Superintendent Bell was pursuing his dream of creating a parklike, landscaped cemetery, inspired by his experience in Scotland and his admiration for the new "rural" concept in Boston and a few other cities.  Earlier graveyards in Lexington, as elsewhere, consisted of land divided into family or individual lots surrounded by fences, low walls, or stone curbs, with each owner responsible for the maintenance of his own area.  Some lots were well kept, some overgrown with grass and weeds.  An advertisement for such a graveyard, which fortunately was not opened, appeared in the Kentucky Gazette on October 17, 1822.  It was described, in part, in these words:

It is intended that the graveyard shall be laid off into lots of fifteen feet square, with alleys running through so as to give free access to each.  The several lots to be marked out by posts at proper distances with a rail of cedar between each two posts and the number of each lot inscribed on one of the posts, in a conspicuous manner.

The description would fit a stockyard.

Bell was diligent and successful in persuading lot owners not to erect fences and curbs and to remove those which were built.  This absence of obstruction not only gave the cemetery a clearer, more parklike appearance, but enabled the company's workmen to mow the grass and maintain the lots more easily and neatly.  All the lots received the same care, included in the price paid by each buyer of a lot.

Bell's keen interest in horticulture and his desire to beautify the cemetery also are shown by his erection of a greenhouse in the winter of 1854.  He opposed the raising of tall and unduly large monuments, believing that lower, less ostentatious markers fit better into the landscape and were more lasting.  But this hope was doomed.  In fact, the first sizable monument was erected in 1850 by the president, A.T. Skillman, who did not die until 1858.  Another of Bell's ideas, which was not carried out because of opposition from lot owners, was that all markers and monuments should face east.

The cemetery had one disadvantage, which surely had been anticipated by its founders, and that was a ravine which crossed West Main Street just east of the cemetery property.  Through this ravine ran the tracks of the Lexington-Maysville and Lexington & Danville railroads, and contemporary accounts say that funeral processions sometimes were delayed or "cut in half" by the passage of trains.  Yet another difficulty was the steep ascent from this ravine to the cemetery gate.  In September 1852 the trustees petitioned the City Council "to grade the Hill this side of the cemetery and also to have the sidewalk paved with brick."  The record does not show whether either was done.

Newspaper of the time report that horse-drawn omnibuses ran, at least occasionally, to the cemetery, and that undertakers provided carriages for funerals.  Undertaking was an outgrowth of cabinet making and the furniture business, and in the 1859 city directory two firms advertised their services.  In the 1838 directory, in fact, James March's "Fashionable and General Furniture Establishment" had announced that it was "prepared with a fine New Hearse, to attend to Funeral Calls at any hour, day or night, either in town or country."

The September 27, 1859, edition of the Kentucky Statesman contained not only the advertisement of Joseph Milward & Son that they had acquired "a very beautiful carriage for the dead," but also an editorial comment on the cemetery itself:

THE CEMETERY.-We were most agreeably surprised in walking through the

Cemetery a few days ago, to notice the improvement which was manifest throughout the grounds.  Mr. Bell, the competent superintendent does his duty well, and it is no small consolation to those who have friends or relations interred there, to witness the interest displayed in keeping everything neat and in perfect order.  The City of the Dead, is certainly one of the most beautiful spots we have ever visited, and we love to go
out and wander among its peaceful walks, or sit beneath the shade of those glorious forest trees which are still standing, and we trust will stand for many a day to come.