Americans love celebrities—and if the celebrities are dead, well, that hardly matters. If it were otherwise, nobody would visit Ben Franklin’s grave, tour Elvis’ Graceland or gawk at the former Hollywood mansions of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart.
In the 1850s, civic leaders in West Chester recruited a local dead celebrity—Maj. Isaac D. Barnard, a hero of the War of 1812—to help persuade locals to bury their dead at Oaklands, a new cemetery on the borough’s northern outskirts. Barnard’s bones were removed from an unmarked grave at a Quaker burial ground and re-buried with great fanfare at Oaklands.
“Since Barnard had left no immediate family to object to the removal, it was a done deal,” wrote West Chester historian Douglas R. Harper.
The event was a signal that, for dead West Chestrians, Oaklands was the place to be. Sales took off at the new cemetery in the wake of Barnard’s relocation. Over the next few years, many families disinterred their dead from the town’s old burial grounds and moved them to family lots at Oaklands. Today, those former burial grounds are covered with houses.
Born in Delaware County, Barnard spent his youth on a farm near Chester, where his father served as sheriff at the county seat. In 1800, James Barnard was appointed clerk of the county court, and the family moved to the borough. Young Isaac quit school at 13 to clerk in his father’s office. After his father’s death, Barnard continued clerking until 1811, when he began to study law.
In March 1812, Barnard received a captain’s commission in the 14th U.S. Infantry. Anticipating war with Great Britain, the federal government was increasing the size of its army. Barnard’s first assignment was to go to West Chester and enlist 70 men.
The War of 1812 was not popular in the Northeast. War meant a virtual shut-down of international trade, which hurt bankers, manufacturers and ship owners, of which the Philadelphia area had more than its share. So, Barnard’s placement of ads in the Chester & Delaware Federalist newspaper headlined “Soldiers? Soldiers?” got some notice—and, apparently, not all in a good way.
“The war was entered into by the persons in power more for the sake of supporting the tottering and declining popularity of [their party] than from patriotic views,” wrote the paper’s editor.
But he refrained from blaming Barnard who, he conceded, hadn’t used deceitful recruiting tactics and did not flog those he signed. In the end, Barnard got his 70.
In 1813, Barnard was present at the Battle of Fort George, in which U.S. troops captured a British fort on the western shore of Lake Ontario. Things went less well at the subsequent Battle of Beaver Dams, in which a portion of Barnard’s regiment and most of its officers were captured. That left him in command of what remained of the unit—and promoted to major.
In the highlight of his military career, at the Battle of Lyon’s Creek near Niagara Falls, Barnard led 900 Americans in a frontal assault against 1,200 British grenadiers, who fled. “All did their duty,” reported Barnard’s commanding officer. “But the handsome manner in which Maj. Barnard brought his regiment into action deserves particular notice.”
After the war, Barnard declined a permanent position with a downsized army. Admitted to the bar in 1815, he soon found —as veterans often do—that other vets are prepared to help pave the way for their own. Col. Cromwell Pearce, elected Chester County sheriff in 1816, saw to it that Barnard was appointed deputy district attorney. In 1820, he was elected to the state senate.
On the side, Barnard was colonel of the Chester County militia; led the effort to erect a monument that still stands at the site of the Paoli Massacre; participated in ceremonies welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824; was a director of the Bank of Chester County; and served on a committee to commemorate the landing of William Penn. All of which can be taken as proof that Barnard was well liked.
In 1826, Barnard was appointed to the governor’s cabinet. The next year, the legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate, where he was a supporter of Andrew Jackson, another veteran of the War of 1812. There was talk of Barnard running for governor in Pennsylvania. But his health began to fail.
Barnard resigned from the Senate in 1831 and died in West Chester three years later. His obituary in the American Republican mentioned his “uprightness and purity of purpose,” his bravery, his honesty and his patriotism. But it didn’t specify a cause of death. Barnard—whose ancestors had been Quaker, though he was not—was buried at the Friends burying ground on North High Street.
And there he lay for 20 years.
Meanwhile, West Chester was growing. And its burial grounds—most of them in the southwest corner of the village—were filling up fast.
The “rural cemetery” movement reached West Chester later than the big cities. It began in 1831, when Boston opened Mount Auburn Cemetery, whose founders believed landscaped rural locations were better suited to commemorating the dead than tightly packed urban graveyards.
Perhaps this was pure Victorian sentimentality. Or perhaps it was a convenient rationale for urban leaders with other plans for scarce land. In any case, the trend spread. Philadelphia opened Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1836. Fifteen years later, West Chester was ready. In January 1851, several leading citizens called a public meeting at Cabinet Hall to discuss burial grounds.
Cabinet Hall was home to the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences, a local version of the Franklin Institute. The organization was founded by an Enlightenment-oriented physician, Dr. William Darlington, and several other physicians were members. It’s likely they were the source of a report to the British government, warning about the health hazards of burial grounds, which a cabinet member shared with the gathering.
“The deleterious gas or miasma escaping continually from all graveyards affords another reason why it is incumbent on us to provide a more remote as well as retired spot for a depository of the dead,” the report said.
That, plus a lengthy recitation of ancient burial practices and a review of the new cemeteries opening elsewhere, was enough for the local thinking people. In April 1851, Oaklands was incorporated as a nonprofit and purchased 23 acres of land about 1.5 miles from the center of the borough. The burgesses then moved quickly, announcing in July that an 1844 ordinance prohibiting burials in the center of town—Matlack to New Street, and Barnard to Chestnut Street—would be “rigidly enforced.” (It didn’t require bodies already buried to be exhumed.)
This wasn’t universally popular. Some Catholics believed Protestants had gotten special consideration, as the Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist and Quaker burial grounds were all outside the so-called forbidden zone.
Still, Catholic Christ Church was within the proscribed boundaries. And not long after the burgesses acted, one of its families secretly buried their mother next to the remains of their deceased father. A constable caught them, and those responsible were fined. Even so, illegally buried Mom stayed where she was.
Oaklands tried to ease the transition. The cemetery even set aside sections for the exclusive use of the various churches. But there was continued grumbling that those involved were out for profit. “It seems that West Chester cannot even bury its dead with unanimity,” lamented the American Republican.
Burials seem to have continued in the old places, even as Oaklands was dedicated in December 1853. There was a hint of desperation from the managers, who pleaded at the dedication, “We hope that the different religious congregations will take means to prevent burials in their graveyards, and that every family having ability will at once become interested in our new cemetery.”
Meanwhile, Oaklands was in the red. And it was probably the cabinet members who decided it needed a little help.
In July 1854, Darlington chaired another public meeting to propose that Isaac Barnard’s remains be moved to Oaklands, which had donated a suitable parcel. A committee began fundraising for a monument on Barnard’s new grave.
There was precedent for this sort of publicity stunt. In 1838, the remains of Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, were moved to Laurel Hill Cemetery from the Harriton House burial ground in Bryn Mawr. (Doubt remains, however, about whether workers got the right bones from Harriton’s unmarked graveyard.)
The moving date was set for Oct. 19, the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Lyon’s Creek. In anticipation, Barnard’s remains were dug up and placed in a new walnut coffin.
At least, that was the story. In 1906, Capt. Benjamin H. Sweney, a Civil War veteran, told the Daily Local News that he’d been present at the exhumation and went home with souvenirs—“a fine lock of the general’s hair (which soon crumbled to dust) and a brass hinge off the old coffin.” Factor in other souvenir hunters, and who knows what went where?
But the ceremony was fine—with a military procession, followed by the hearse, clergy, relatives, the organizing committee, surviving War of 1812 veterans and the citizenry. All marched to Oaklands, where Barnard was laid beneath a new marble obelisk while Darlington extolled his deeds and the “beautiful rural repository of the dead.”
Business picked up nicely at Oaklands. When its managers assembled for their next annual meeting, they reported 52 burials, including 36 transfers from other graveyards. The power of celebrity at work.
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.