Some Historic Lexington Cemeteries
The establishment of the Lexington Cemetery in 1849 would solve a problem that had concerned the people of the community almost from the beginning. Lexington was founded on April 17, 1779, when a party of pioneers from Harrodsburg began construction of a blockhouse at what is now the southwest corner of Main and Mill streets. The frontier outpost grew slowly but steadily; cabins were erected within a log stockade and soon were being built outside it. When it became necessary for the inhabitants to locate a burying ground, they chose a sloping area a short distance from the stockade, where the First Baptist Church on West Main Street now stands. As George W. Ranck relates in his History of Lexington (1872), "the settlers killed by the Indians, in the summer of 1780, were sadly and reverently carried, by an armed band of their surviving companions...to what the garrison called the ‘first hill.'"
In the organization of the town government and the division of the land into streets and lots, this ground was designated as the graveyard and as the location of Baptist and Presbyterian churches. Only the Baptists took advantage of this offer and in 1789 built a small log house of worship there.
A second early burial ground, known as McConnell's, was situated between present-day West Main Street and the railroad tracks, approximately opposite the entrance to the Lexington Cemetery. It derived its name from the McConnell family, among the earliest hunters and settlers, who had land in the vicinity. "There," Ranck says, "many of the pioneers...rest in obliterated graves." This graveyard was not far from a spring where, in 1775, a party of hunters camped and named the place "Lexington" in commemoration of the battle fought in Massachusetts. This site became known as McConnell's Spring, and one of the members of the hunting party was a Scotsman named John Maxwell.
Maxwell, who owned a large tract of land south of the town, including the famous Maxwell Springs on the older part of the University of Kentucky campus, became a prominent resident of Lexington. At an early date he set aside a plot of ground on what is now Bolivar Street west of Upper as a graveyard which he deeded to the town with a provision, it is said, that the tract would revert to his family if it ever ceased to be used as a burial place. There Maxwell buried his mother in 1804 and his wife Sarah in 1811. He was interred beside them in 1819.
The Rev. Caleb W. Cloud, A Methodist minister, bought a tract adjoining Maxwell's cemetery and made it available to the public. Many prominent residents of the community were laid to rest in one of these two early plots.
In 1834, two years after Lexington was incorporated, the City Council bought property on Bolivar Street, annexed the graveyards to it, and built there a workhouse and a poorhouse. Burials continued, and part of the area, probably farther to the west, was used for pauper burials.
Some of the local churchyards also served as graveyards, and in at least a few instances there were burials in the yards and gardens of private residences within the town limits. Family graveyards were common on farms. When the Catholic Cemetery on East Third was opened is not definitely known-perhaps as early as 1800, perhaps 1812, when a small church was erected there.
The adjoining Episcopal Cemetery dates back prior to December 31, 1832, when approximately four acres were deeded to trustees named by Christ Church. Many of the lots were sold by November 1837, when a plat was recorded in the county clerk's office.
A graveyard larger than any of these was established in 1835 by four Lexington men who bought the entire block bounded by Limestone and Upper, Sixth and Seventh streets, and named it the Presbyterian Burying Ground. They advertised lots for sale in the Observer & Reporter of September 9, 1835, and advised that it was "not designated exclusively for the use of Presbyterians." Eight years later they sold it to trustees of the First and Second Presbyterian churches, and it became known as Waverly Square.
The First United Methodist Church on West High Street occupies the former site of a small German Lutheran Church built on property bought in 1799 from Edward West, pioneer inventor and silversmith, and his wife Sarah. At the rear of the church was a graveyard in which many of the early German residents of the town, as well as others, were buried. Edward and Sarah West lived on the northwest corner of High and Mill streets, and both were buried in the garden behind their house. Their bodies were later moved to the Presbyterian Cemetery.
Of these numerous graveyards, only the Episcopal Cemetery and some family burying plots remain. What became of the others?
The "first hill", generally known as the Baptist graveyard, was used until Lexington's terrible cholera epidemic of 1833 filled it beyond capacity. Apparently it was rarely kept in good condition. As early as 1810, for example, the Kentucky Gazette carried a letter which stated in part:
It cannot be unknown to anyone of the citizens of Lexington, that the only general depository for the dead attached to this town, has for a long time been in the most exposed and ruined state...lying as it does in so conspicuous a situation, on the most public street. It has long been open to the most sacrilegious intrusion of all, and to the depredations of everything that ought to be excluded-many of the monuments...have been removed, injured, or destroyed-The venerable meeting house, and demolished walls, still serve to designate the place where the remains of our citizens & friends were deposited...in its present unprotected situation all will soon be removed from us by the ravaging hand of time, assisted by the mischievous, and by animals of every description, which are now permitted freely to traverse the sacred spot.
From time to time the people, and later the city, put up or repaired a fence or a wall to enclose the cemetery. After the Lexington Cemetery opened in 1849, the remains of some persons buried on the "first hill" and in the other graveyards were reinterred in the new City of the Dead. In February 1859 the City Council decided that title to the first burial ground was vested in the Baptist Church, which wanted to erect a new building there. Remains that were not claimed by relatives and removed were" to be decently buried under the Church."
McConnell's was apparently used for only a short time, and no trace of it remains. Its precise location is unknown.
The "Old City Graveyard," which included the Maxwell and Cloud tracts, suffered the most degrading fate of all. It had its share of cholera victims, but burials continued until the opening of the Lexington Cemetery. Nevertheless, the city ignored John Maxwell's provision that the ground should revert to his family if not used for burial purposes, and in 1884 the City Council sold the land for the use of spoke and wheel factories, followed in 1899-1900 by a tobacco factory.
Citizens and newspapers voiced repeated protests when workmen dug up graves and disposed of the remains in ditches and the foundation of a street. In comparatively recent times an iron coffin containing the intact body of a boy was bulldozed up and reburied in the Lexington Cemetery. Fragments of bone are still occasionally uncovered in the area.
This macabre desecration contrasts sharply with the constructive actions of an important group of Lexingtonians. Jews have been a part of Lexington's history since its early days; and Benjamin Gratz, who came here from Philadelphia in 1819, was one of the community's wealthiest, most influential citizens. Although the Lexington Jewry was not large at first, its size gradually increased, and soon after the Civil War members of the faith felt a need for a burial place of their own.
On July 28, 1872, at a meeting of Jewish citizens, the Spinoza Society, named for the famous Dutch philosopher, was formed. A fund of $350 was subscribed and officers were elected: Julius Speyer, president; H. Loevenhart, vice president; Moses Kaufman, secretary; and Joshua Speyer, treasurer. Two weeks later the society bought an acre of land three and a half miles from town on the "Mt. Taby Dirt Road" (Mt. Tabor Pike), and the cemetery was established.
A short history of the society, written by Moses Kaufman in 1887, states that it soon "was discovered that a grave error had been committed in locating the cemetery so far from the city. The road was found to be almost impassable in the winter," and it was difficult "to keep the place in suitable order and under proper supervision." The society, therefore, purchased from the Lexington Cemetery Company, on December 2, 1884, an entire section which was, as Kaufman wrote, "set apart for the perpetual and exclusive use of the Jewish dead." When spring came, the thirty bodies that had been buried in the first graveyard were removed to the new Spinoza section, and the abandoned acre was sold.
The Lexington Daily Press, under the heading "A Good Move," reported, "The Jews in this city have purchased a lot in the Lexington Cemetery and will remove their dead, now buried in the Hebrew Cemetery...to the new location, and in the future all interments will be made in the Lexington Cemetery." The area acquired by the Spinoza Society was Section E-1, and it sufficed for more than ninety years. The society then realized that additional space would be needed, and in 1977 a nearby section, E-2, was secured.
The Catholic churches in 1874 established Calvary Cemetery on the Leestown Pike, and the City Council the following year passed an ordinance banning burials in the Third Street Catholic Cemetery. The Lexington Dispatch of April 20, 1875, stated that St. Peter's and St. Paul's churches would pay for the removal of remains to the new cemetery if family members or descendants requested that this be done. In the summer of 1975 the churches and the Fraternal Order of Police converted the Third Street plot into a neighborhood playground.
The Episcopal Cemetery continued to permit burials for a number of years after the Lexington Cemetery opened, and some remains, too, were removed to the new cemetery. After a time, however, like the neighboring Catholic graveyard, it fell into disarray and suffered badly from vandalism, and many tombstones were stolen or broken. Members of Christ Church in 1947 began a restoration program, reerecting fallen stones, clearing the underbrush, and safeguarding the grounds. Today the cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by a strong fence and a guard dog.
A dispute over Lexington's Lutheran graveyard erupted in 1907 when members of the Hill Street Methodist Church, as the First United Methodist Church was then known, were planning the erection of their present building. Descendants of some of the people buried there contended that the plot had been allowed to deteriorate and that it was used for gardening. In the end, however, the matter was settled amicably.
The Presbyterian Cemetery, probably opened as a result of the cholera epidemic, had several thousand burials, according to newspaper accounts. Nevertheless, as early as the time of the Lexington Cemetery's founding, Waverly Square was criticized for its unkempt appearance and lack of protection, and about 1879 the city prohibited burials there. The cemetery had been used for the interment of both black and whites. In the late 1880s the Presbyterian churches agreed to sell the property to three Lexingtonians who wanted to develop it for residential use. Litigation resulted, and while it was in progress many persons were having the remains of family members removed. The court approved the sale, with the stipulation that all graves be excavated and the remains transferred. A plat of the Waverly Square Lot Co. appeared in an advertisement in July 1894, and work on six houses was begun the next month.
All of these graveyards, with the exception of Spinoza and Calvary, were established before the Lexington Cemetery Company was incorporated in 1848. One other significant nineteenth-century Lexington burying ground, established by the United Benevolent Society No. 2, is of historic interest. This cemetery exclusively for blacks opened in 1869 on East Seventh Street between Chestnut and Shropshire. Although it continued in use until the 1970s, with a gradually diminishing number of burials, the United Benevolent Society had ceased to exist, and there was no regular maintenance of the property.
In response to strong criticism, the city in 1973 employed an Owingsville company to clean up the cemetery and to locate and identify as many graves as possible. It found 4,916 graves, of which 1,200 could be identified. Five years later the Urban County Government and black civic leaders organized the African Cemetery No. 2 Corporation to restore the graveyard and provide for its continued maintenance. The sum of $140,000 was obtained, $125,000 from federal grant funds and $15,000 in public donations, and work started in June 1980. After its completion, dedication exercises were held on May 21, 1981.
The fortunes of Lexington's early burial grounds may be termed varied at best. Some, like McConnell's and the old pioneer burying ground, have vanished altogether, while others, such as the Episcopal Cemetery with its charming sexton's cottage, have somehow survived both abuse and neglect. Two cemeteries, the Jewish and Presbyterian, were removed thoughtfully, the former retaining its identity through a carefully managed relocation at the Lexington Cemetery. Those best preserved and cared for have been those with established traditions of ongoing management, such as the Catholic denomination's Calvary Cemetery and the Lexington Cemetery.