Tales from the Presidential Crypts

Tales from the Presidential Crypts washington skelly

Tales from the Presidential Crypts

President’s Day is Monday, so today let’s look at some dead presidents—particularly stories of a few strange incidents at presidential tombs. Some 19th-century newspapers wrote about presidential graves suffering from neglect or disrepair like the overgrown grave of Thomas Jefferson in 1873, where student vandals had chiselled and chipped all the letters off of the granite monument or the once-popular tomb of William Henry Harrison, which was described as looking like a shabby bread oven in the 1890s. The tomb had been built on a hill overlooked the Ohio River. Steamboat captains would sound a reverential whistle and notify their passengers so that they could bare their heads at the simple brick vault, but the bricks were crumbling into dust by the time Harrison’s grandson came to the Presidency.

There have also been cases of genuine desecration of presidential graves: the infamous attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from his Springfield tomb, vandals uprooting a cross at the head of John F. Kennedy’s grave in January,1970 and more vandalism there in December of 1997. And this strange disturbance at President Reagan’s grave by a person whose hobby is apparently desecrating as many presidential graves as possible. Such things happened more often in the past than one might expect, starting with George Washington.

Relics of the Father of His Country were avidly collected. One disgruntled gardener tried to collect the skull of George Washington, but was foiled.  Below, a Washington biographer describes the old Washington tomb, which may still be seen today at Mount Vernon and also the condition of the General’s body.  Prior to this description, the author fumes at a sacrilegious daguerreotypist offering to take pictures of tourists with Washington’s original tomb, aggressively peddling his services to people getting off the excursion boats.

This vault and inclosure were erected many years ago, in pursuance of instructions given in the following clause of Washington’s will: “The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one, of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains, and those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault,) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited.”

The old vault referred to was upon the brow of a declivity, in full view of the river, about three hundred yards south of the mansion, on the left of the present pathway from the tomb to the summer-house on the edge of the lawn. It is now an utter ruin. The door-way is gone, and the cavity is partly filled with rubbish. Therein the remains of Washington lay undisturbed for thirty years, when an attempt was made by some Vandal to carry them away.  [1831]The insecure old vault was entered, and a skull and some bones were taken; but these comprised no part of the remains of the illustrious dead. The robber was detected, and the bones were recovered. The new vault was then immediately built, and all the family remains were placed in it. Mr. William Strickland, of Philadelphia, who designed the composition on the lid of Washington’s coffin, and accompanied Mr. Struthers when the remains of the patriot were placed in it, in 1837, has left a most interesting account of that event. On entering the vault they found everything in confusion. Decayed fragments of coffins were scattered about, and bones of various parts of the human body were seen promiscuously thrown together. The decayed wood was dripping with moisture. “The slimy snail glistened in the light of the door-opening. The brown centipede was disturbed by the admission of fresh air, and the mouldy case of the dead gave a pungent and unwholesome odor.” The coffins of Washington and his lady were in the deepest recess of the vault. They were of lead, inclosed in wooden cases. When the sarcophagus arrived, the coffin of the chief was brought forth. The vault was first entered by Mr. Strickland, accompanied by Major Lewis (the last survivor of the first executors of the will of Washington) and his son. When the decayed wooden case was removed, the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured. In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver coffin-plate, in the form of a shield, which was placed upon the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. “At the request of Major Lewis,” says Mr. S., “the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared, by the dim light of the candles, to have suffered but little from the effects of time. The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark, and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault, the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place ; the body, raised by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed from our sight on Saturday the 7th day of October, 1837. . . . The relatives who were present, consisting of Major Lewis, Lorenzo Lewis, John Augustine Washington, George Washington, the Rev. Mr. Johnson and lady, and Mrs. Jane Washington, then retired to the mansion.” The Illustrated Life of Washington, Hon. J[oel] T[yler] Headley, 1860 

This narrator claimed to have been present at the removal of the Washington bodies to their new tomb.

William H. Burgess, who lives in Alexandria, Va., assisted, in 1836, in building Washington’s new tomb at Mount Vernon. He says: “I was a lad then, but I remember that in removing the bodies of George and Martha to their present tomb we decided to open the coffin. I looked in and saw General Washington’s face. The body was well preserved, and the features were intact. There was nothing to indicate the time he had been dead. A minute after exposure to the air there was a collapse, and nothing was recognizable. The face looked like his pictures.” Repository [Canton, OH] 8 June 1889: p. 2 

Several decades after the gardener’s attempt to get a head, there was another dire rumor about Washington’s skull. 

WASHINGTON’S HEAD SAFE

No Truth in the Tale of the Tomb Desecration

[From our Regular Correspondent]

Herald Bureau,

Corner Fifteenth and G Streets, N.W.,

Washington, Sept. 29, 1887.

The story that the head of Washington was stolen from Mount Vernon and carried to Paris by curiosity hunters is pronounced by Dr. G.M. Toner as an unqualified falsehood.

The remains of Washington were removed from the old and original coffin about fifty years ago and placed in the marble sarcophagus made for that purpose, which was not only to keep out the air but so constructed and fastened that it would be next to impossible for anybody to violate the sanctity of the seals without having uninterrupted access to them for many hours.

THE SKELETON INTACT IN THE TOMB.

When the remains were transferred from the old coffin to the marble receptacle many members of the Washington family were present, with persons of prominence, and they all certified to the fact that the skeleton was all intact. After the sarcophagus was put in its place the iron grated door was locked and the key thrown into the Potomac. The old lock is still in good preservation and has never been tampered with.

During the Rebellion the grounds at Mount Vernon were held sacred and the hand of the vandal was never known to have desecrated any part of the tomb or its surroundings.

WATCHING NIGHT AND DAY.

The last resting place of Washington has been vigilantly watched ever since the present tomb was erected. Though some distance from the mansion, every device known has been used for many years to alarm the superintendent of the grounds. Now electric wires communicate with the house, making it impossible for any one to even attempt to open the iron doors.

The story, therefore, that the skull of Washington was ever removed or even profaned by the touch of vandals, Dr. Toner says, is utterly without foundation. In 1849 the Washington heirs loaned to Mr. Clark Mills the original cast of Washington’s face, made during life by the celebrated sculptor Houdon. It was never returned, but in its place, a copy which Mr. Mills claimed was in better condition than the original, was sent to the Mount Vernon mansion. It subsequently passed into the possession of Mr. McDonald, the sculptor, and is supposed to be in his possession still. Speculation was rife for a time as to who had the original. It was not, however, stolen, and is probably still in New York. New York Herald 30 September 1887: p. 6 

Those pesky, overwrought headline composers were at it again in this article about an incident at the McKinley vault. There was an actual event, but no attempt to blow up the tomb. 

VANDALS AT CANTON

Guards at McKinley’s Tomb Attacked

WANTED TO BLOW IT UP

That is What is Generally Believed. Great Excitement.

Dastardly Plot at Canton

Attempt Was Made Last Night to Blow Up McKinley’s Tomb.

Canton, O., Sept. 30 A strange story comes from Westlawn cemetery, where a company of regulars from Fort Wayne, Mich., is guarding the vault in which the body of the late President McKinley lies. It is to the effect that the guard on duty on top of the vault last night fired a shot at one man who refused to heed his challenge; that the shot was diverted by another man, who appeared from another direction, and that an effort was made to stab the guard.

Private Deprend was on guard duty on top of the vault at a point commanding the entrance below and the approach from the rear. Shortly before 7:30 o’clock  he saw what he took to be the face of a man peering from behind a tree about forty feet from his post. He watched it for twenty minutes, he says, and at 7:45 o’clock saw the man hurry to a tree ten feet nearer. He challenged the man to halt, but this was not heeded, and the fellow approached nearer. Deprend levelled his gun and aimed to shoot for effect, but just at that instant, another man, who came toward him from the opposite side, caught the gun, threw it up, and the bullet spent in the air.

This same man struck Deprend on the right side of the abdomen with a knife or other sharp weapon, cutting an L-shaped gash in his overcoat an inch and a half long each way, and a smaller one in his blouse. The flesh was not broken, but was bruised under the cuts in the clothing. Deprend, in the struggle, fell and rolled down the side of the vault.

Lieut. Ashbridge, officer of the day, was in front of the vault and rushed to the top on hearing the shot, but the men made their escape. All members of the company, on hearing the shot, hurried to the vault, and, besides searching the cemetery, the guard was increased.

Deprend is said to be an excellent soldier, and to have a fine record with his officers. He says the man who attacked him was masked, but that the first one he saw was not masked. He saw the latter carried a white package in his right hand and something that glittered in his left.

Since the incident stories have been told in camp of some incendiary conversations overheard in the crowds that have visited the cemetery, including one today, alleging that some stranger said: “Lots of people would like to see this whole thing blown up.”

Canton, O., Sept. 30. Eight prisoners broke from the county jail here Sunday by sawing out the bars of a window opening from a court between the jail and court house. They had five minutes start when discovered. Bloodhounds were immediately put on the trail.

Canton, Sept. 30. The city is astir today over the assault on Guard Deprend at the vault in which McKinley’s body rests. Some advance the theory that one man who broke jail here last night made the attack in an effort to secure a rifle, with which to protect himself against pursuing officers. The belief is general, however, that the attack was part of a plot to blow up the tomb. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 30 September 1901: p. 1 

A later article quoted a sentinel who described three men who had spoken to him as he was guarding the tomb. “One asked how long sentinels in front of the vault gates were kept on duty. I told him half an hour at a time. He asked me if there were other guards. I told him several on the hill, over the vault and at other places. The second man said he did not see the use of all this fuss: that no one would try to do any harm now.

“The third man said he was mistaken; that there were lots of people who would like to see the whole thing blown up.

“No, I had no suspicion that any of these men would have any interest in or would sympathize with any act of violence. I think they were speaking of the disposition of other classes who might be prompted to such acts.” Morning Herald Lexington KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8.  

One can see how this might have been twisted by an overzealous journalist into an actual attack on the monument, but the men’s remarks might equally seem suspicious: like reconnaissance for some dastardly mission. 

Other papers sneered at the event as the product of a nervous guard’s brain.

The marauder scare at Canton, as nearly as we can make out, was not caused by beings in the flesh, but by spirits which are supposed to haunt cemeteries. It is not likely that there will be any further difficulty with such uncanny presences, if the officer in command of the detail will carefully exclude spirits from the camp. The Evening Times [Washington, DC] 1 October 1901: p. 4 

In fact, “Particular inquiry was made as to Deprend’s sobriety. The time, it is said, established beyond all reasonable doubt that he had not been drinking….The most common belief is that the sentinel was over-wrought by the loneliness of his position; that his nerves were taxed, and that imagination contributed to some of the details related in good faith. The post is regarded as particularly isolated and depressing to a man guarding it at night.” Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8. 

There was definitely something to the notion of the job being particularly depressing. [See this post on Tombstone Madness.] Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found others, so the journalist may have exaggerated.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

Joseph Kashinsky, a private in Company H, Tenth U.S. Infantry, on duty at Garfield’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, has become insane, and has been taken to Detroit for cure. The peculiar form of insanity is melancholia, and a peculiar state of affairs came to light when the case was looked up. The men on the guard dread their duty, and several cases are reported of men committing offenses for the purpose of getting punished.

Anything or any device is used to get away from the ghostly array of mounds and tombs. This is said to have driven Kashinsky insane and his incoherent language and actions carry out the impression. One man, a veteran, said: “I dread the duty, although I am not afraid of it and do not complain, but on the younger the strain is intense. Many tricks are resorted to to escape the night watches.” Kashinsky is a young Pole, but ten months a soldier, twenty-one years of age, and until this trouble came a light-hearted, healthy young man. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune, 2 April 1883: p. 2   

Some newspapers attributed the young man’s insanity to the “Curse of Guiteau” (another post, another time), a malign hoodoo widely reported to have killed and driven dozens of people insane. 

There had been an attempt to snatch Garfield’s body before it was placed in the temporary tomb in Lake View Cemetery so guards were felt to be necessary. “The guards are almost essential to protect the tomb from the relic fiends as from the ghouls. The guards assert that were it not for their presence, and the wire screen or fence, which completely surround te tomb, that the crowds that visit it would chip off, break up and carry away vault, casket and all as relics. As it is they break twigs from adjacent trees, reach through the wires and pluck blades of grass, pick up pebbles or anything else they can seize upon.”  New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 14 February 1883: p. 1 

The Garfield tomb was a popular tourist attraction. In 1882 there were complaints of littering, theft, vandalism, and harassment of bereaved visitors  by the “picnic masher element.”  Lake View Cemetery decided to close its doors to the public on Sundays, except for “proper persons” who could apply for a ticket of admission. [Source: Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 August 1882.] 

There was much resentment expressed in some newspapers about the expense and the “farce” of keeping up a guard of soldiers at Garfield’s grave and eventually the guard was withdrawn July 1, 1886. With this event, as well as the finishing of Garfield’s permanent tomb, a story emerged about some genuine bodysnatching: 

When Secretary Endicott ordered the guard removed from Garfield’s tomb the family and friends of the dead President were alarmed. Detectives informed them that an organized band of body snatchers had plotted to desecrate the sepulchre. It was finally decided to remove the remains to an obscure vault in another corner of the cemetery. This was accomplished in darkness by a party of four chosen friends. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 February 1890: p. 1 

The article goes on to describe how four prominent Cleveland business men, friends of the Garfield family, got a key to the holding vault, got Garfield’s immensely heavy coffin out of its sarcophagus, and carried it in complete darkness to an obscure vault in a little-visited section of the cemetery. Then they resealed the sarcophagus, locked the door, and went home, sworn to secrecy. Apparently one of the men hurt himself so badly in carrying the heavy coffin that he never really recovered. The article goes on to describe how people paid their respects at an empty sarcophagus, little knowing of the “necessary deception.”   

Today Garfield’s massive monument at Lake View Cemetery is said to be haunted by mysterious lights and perhaps the apparition of the man  himself. 

Our last case concerns some truly odd events at the holding vault where the body of President Warren G. Harding and his wife were kept until the Harding Monument could be built.  

Harding’s Tomb Guards Are Annoyed

Marion, O. Jan. 3. Lieutenant R.H. Harriman, commander of the guard detachment stationed in Marion cemetery to guard the vault in which reposes the body of the late President Harding, supplement a previous order, today issued instructions to the twenty-six men in his command to make every effort to capture a marauder, who, since the formation of the guard detachment, has continually annoyed the perpetual guard of six men. Gruesome disturbances including bugle blowing at midnight, ghostly noises by prowlers and throwing of stones in the direction of the vault make up the offense with which the individual or individuals will be charged if captured.

  Several time soldiers have caught glimpses of a man and on several occasions have shot at him. Early one morning a guardsman chased a man for over half a mile.

  It is believed by Lieutenant Harriman that the continual disturbances represent an attempt to frighten the men and to break the morale of the detachment. It is also thought that possibly people came to the cemetery to rob the graves of flowers. Elyria [OH] Chronicle Telegraph 3 January 1924: p. 8 

An Associated Press story added that “at first it was thought it was small boys, but when the disturbances kept up, the guard took it more seriously.” So seriously, that Lieut. R.H. Harriman, the commander of the tomb guards, ordered his men to shoot directly at anyone causing a disturbance. The article said also “Riot guns have been sent from Fort Hayes, at Columbus headquarters for the guard detachment here, and these loaded with buckshot will be used if the disturbances continue.”  

It seems unlikely that flower thieves or pranksters would be flitting about the cemetery, risking being shot. The stone throwing and ghostly noises almost suggest poltergeist manifestations.  

It’s a curious thing that the stories about Garfield, McKinley and Harding all refer to events at holding vaults, rather than their finished tombs. Is there something about corpses in transit or bodies not yet laid to rest that encourages graveyard intruders? 

Any other stories of presidential tomb disturbances? Signal by dark lantern to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You’ll other tales of disturbed graves in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also found on Amazon and other retailers in paperback and for Kindle.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.