Before The Lexington Cemetery
In 1848, Lexingtonians did not have a suitable sacred place to bury their dead. At a time when Lexington was experiencing rapid growth, the dead were either buried in family burial grounds, crowded church graveyards, or “First Hill,” the burial ground of the pioneer settlement of Lexington. These traditional graveyards did not have enough capacity to support future burials, and some of the church cemeteries allowed only members to be buried in their grounds. People were concerned that these types of graveyards were a menace to public health, contaminating wells and springs. One of the disadvantages of private cemeteries was that deceased members of families buried in family burial ground were left behind if families eventually decided to sell their land.
At the request of a group of Lexington’s most prominent citizens, Kentucky General Assembly approved an act on February 5, 1848 that incorporated the Lexington Cemetery Company and authorized it to establish a rural, or garden, cemetery. The act required the cemetery to provide perpetual care of its grounds and graves. Almost a year passed before any effective action was taken to implement the charter. 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, twenty-four men each pledged $500. On February 12, 1849, the General Assembly amended the charter to name most of these subscribers.
The founders included:
- M. T. Scott, officer and later president of the Northern Kentucky Bank (treasurer)
- Madison C. Johnson, officer and later president of the Northern Kentucky Bank
- Benjamin Gratz, hemp manufacturer, attorney and director of the bank
- Richard Higgins, prosperous merchant and owner of Castleton Farm (secretary)
- Stephen Swift, wholesale and retail grocer
- Joel Higgins, planter
- David A. Sayre, banker and founder in 1854 of Sayre Female Institute
- John Tilford, president of Northern Bank
- A.T. Skillman, bookseller (president)
- Emilius K. Sayre, attorney
- Robert Wickliffe, attorney known as “The Old Duke”
- Thomas Hemingway, partner in the Oldham, Todd & Co. woolen mill at Sandersville
- John B. Tilford, grocer and banker
- John Lutz, civil engineer and acting president of Transylvania University
- D.M. Craig, dry-goods merchant
- A.F. Hawkins, employee at the Northern Bank
- Benjamin Warfield, attorney
- 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)
- John Brand, retired hemp manufacturer and director of the Northern Bank
- George W. Sutton, hemp manufacturer
- Henry T. Duncan, attorney and horseman
- Edward Macalester, merchant (son-in-law of John Brand)
The board purchased a forty-acre tract of land owned by Thomas E. Boswell (known as Boswell’s Woods) which was located on Leestown Pike at what was then the edge of the city. They paid $7,000 for the heavily forested land that had been used as hunting grounds. When it was purchased, Boswell’s Woods contained a small family graveyard. These graves are preserved as part of Section A.
Laying out the grounds
Prior to the chartering of the cemetery, a prominent British landscape architect, John C. Louden, published a small book, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries. The first general manager of The Lexington Cemetery, Charles S. Bell, was familiar with the information contained in Louden’s book.
Bell came to the United States from Scotland in the summer of 1842, and was hired on April 1, 1849. His dream was to create a park-like, landscaped cemetery. Inspired by his training in Scotland as a horticulturist, Bell brought to Lexington a new “rural” concept that originated in Europe and practiced in Boston, Massachusetts.
By May 1849, Bell and one of the cemetery founders, John Lutz began to lay out the grounds including the roads, sections and lots. It was the responsibility of Bell to complete the landscaping and horticultural work. Bell’s keen interest in horticulture was apparent by his initiative to erect the cemetery greenhouse in 1854.
It is said that Bell was a methodical man and a perfectionist. Consequently, Bell and the trustees maintained their position not to open the cemetery until the grounds were sufficiently prepared.
By mid-July, after Bell and the trustees felt that they had made adequate progress, an advertisement was placed in the Lexington Observer & Reporter on July 13, 1849 informing the community that there were lots for sale in of The Lexington Cemetery.
The First burials
The cemetery corporation sold its first lot on August 18, 1849 to A. B. Colwell, a community businessman who bought the lot for Robert S. Boyd, a merchant tailor and Colwell’s partner. After his death in June from cholera, Boyd had been laid to rest in the Episcopal Cemetery until his reinterment into The Lexington Cemetery was arranged. He was interred in the newly opened Section A with his infant son, whose date of death is unknown. The Lexington Cemetery erected a monument to commemorate the first burial in the garden cemetery, which took place on October 2, 1849.
Eighty-six burials had been conducted by the end of 1850, including reinterment of remains from several other community graveyards. The sections then opened were those presently designated as A, B, C, D, F, H, and K.
Gateway to “The City of the Dead”
On May 9, 1849, A. T. Skillman solicited bids for the erection of the Gateway and Buildings connected. The plan and specifications had already been drawn by John McMurtry. By October, 1850, McMurtry completed his part of the construction of the gateway at a cost of $2,735.23. The next month, H. Moore received $14 for “cutting stone sills for the 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 entrance was flanked by narrow 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.” Over the west gate were the words “The City of the Dead.”
The death of Henry Clay
At 74 years of age and in failing health, The Honorable Henry Clay wanted to return to Washington, D.C. to use his influence as “The Great Pacificator,” in an effort to stop the trend toward civil war. While in the capital city, his health deteriorated and he died on June 29, 1852.
Prior to his death, Clay received a letter from John Lutz, who offered him a 44 x 44 foot block in Section I. Lutz received these four lots for his work in laying out the grounds of The Lexington Cemetery. Clay graciously accepted the space in letter from his Ashland home on May 26, 1851. In the letter Clay commented, “…by your generous gift, you have provided a beautiful spot for the repose of my mortal remains.”
Ten days elapsed from the date of Clay’s death and the day he was buried. Many admirers and even former political foes wished to pay tribute to the Great Pacificator. Several services were conducted during those ten days of mourning. The first memorial service occurred in the Senate chamber in Washington. He was then taken by steam boat and train to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and Frankfort. Finally on July 9, 1852, Clay reached Lexington by train.
Clay’s procession began at his Ashland home where his casket was placed on a bier in front of his residence. A service was conducted there, and then began the slow solemn procession of national, state and local dignitaries, military units and family west on Main Street to the cemetery. Buildings along the route were draped and an estimated 30,000 people from Lexington and afar were assembled for the rites. The cemetery found it necessary to take down part of the fence along Leestown Pike as a result of the mass of people. Upon arrival at The Lexington Cemetery, Clay was placed in a receiving vault until a few days later when he was interred in the lot provided by John Lutz.
Newspapers and pictorial journals throughout the country reported the funeral that attracted national, regional and local dignitaries.
On June 30, 1852, just one day after the death of Henry Clay, a group of his friends met at the Fayette County courthouse to adopt a resolution to build a “NATIONAL MONUMENT OF COLOSSAL PROPORTIONS” in The Lexington Cemetery, to “commemorate the virtuous deeds of his long and glorious life.” A committee was organized to raise money for the creation of the memorial.
By 1857, the committee raised enough money to advertise for designs for the monument. More than 100 plans were submitted. The successful bidder was John Haly of Frankfort who agreed to build the Clay monument, furnish all materials and hoisting apparatus at a cost of $43,920.
The cornerstone was laid on the Fourth of July, 1857 with a public ceremony, followed by programs at the Agricultural & Mechanical Association grounds (now the University of Kentucky campus). The monument was completed in 1861, but because of the onset of the Civil War, Clay’s body was not placed into the monument until April 8, 1864 at which time, the bodies of both Henry Clay and his wife were placed in the vault side-by-side upon her death.
The monument stands on an small hill, the only structure in Section M of the cemetery, with the statue facing eastward toward Clay’s home, Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.
Nature took its toll on the Henry Clay Monument during the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1903, a terrific storm knocked the head off the statue and sent it hurtling 130 feet to the ground. In 1908, the General Assembly appropriated $10,000 for a new statue. It was carved by Charles S. Mulligan of Chicago. Another storm damaged the new structure in 1910, when lightning struck it, breaking off the right hand, shattering the right leg, and causing some damage to the body. The legislature paid $10,000 for repairs once again.
For the next half of the century thereafter, the monument deteriorated from weather and other corrosive elements. Since the Clay Monument Association no longer existed and The Lexington Cemetery Company had deeded the land to the association, no one had an obligation to care for the monument. Finally in the early 1970s, after numerous outcries from civic leaders, the Fayette Circuit Court vested ownership of the “orphan” monument to the city. Through the government’s initiative, the Henry Clay Monument was completely renovated in 1976.
The Lexington Cemetery rededicated the monument on July 29, 1976, and tribute was paid to those who had worked so long and hard to restore it. Today, visitors from throughout the United States admire the beautiful and magnificent structure that memorializes one of the most notable citizens of Lexington and the United States.
In 1999, Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government transferred ownership of the Henry Clay Monument to The Lexington Cemetery.