OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA
BARON DE PALM’S cremation is the theme of the present chapter. I have related above the circumstances which led to my taking it upon myself and since it is historically important from having been the first public cremation in the United States and the first where a crematorium was employed, the details should be interesting.
The cremation took place December 6, 1876, at the small inland town of Washington, Washington County, Pennsylvania, more than six months after the body had been packed in carbolised dried clay at New York. It is very easy now to cremate a body, either in America or England, for efficient crematories are available and cremation societies exist, but then it was quite another thing. When I pledged myself to dispose of the Baron’s remains as he wished, there were no facilities, no precedents in my country to follow, unless I wished to adopt the Eastern method of open-air burning, which had
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 167
been once employed, and which, in the then state of public prejudice and the probable refusal of the Sanitary Board to issue a permit, would have been very difficult, not to say dangerous. My only practicable policy was to wait until the chance offered itself. In the year 1816, a Mr. Henry Laurens, a wealthy gentleman of South Carolina, ordered his executors to burn his corpse and compelled his family to acquiesce by the testamentary proviso that they should not inherit his estate unless his wishes were strictly carried out. Accordingly, his body was burnt on his own plantation in the Eastern fashion, on a funeral pyre and in the open air; his family and near relations being present. One other case of the kind is recorded, that of a Mr. Berry, the pyre being used in this instance also, if my memory serves me. But there had been no case of the disposal of human remains in a retort or crematorium constructed for the purpose, and so, as above said, I had no choice but to wait patiently the turn of events. I was not kept long in suspense, for one morning in July or August it was announced in the papers that Dr. F. Julius Le Moyne, an eccentric but very philanthropic physician of Western Pennsylvania, had begun erecting a crematorium for the burning of his own body. I immediately opened correspondence with him, with the result that (Letter of August 16, 1876) he consented that if he should survive the completion of his building, the Baron’s corpse should be the first one disposed of. At the time of the funeral the possibility of there being a subsequent cremation
168 OLD DIARY LEAVES
was not publicly announced but only whispered about; now, however, it was openly declared, my purpose being to give the authorities fair warning, so that if any legal obstacle existed it might be brought to view. Mr. F.C. Bowman, Counsellor at Law (Barrister), and I were elected a legal Advisory Committee of the Original N.Y. Cremation Society, to carefully examine the statutes and report whether or not a person had the right of choosing the way in which to dispose of his body. We found nothing to indicate the contrary; and, in fact, common sense itself would show that if a man has absolute ownership of anything belonging to him it must be of his physical body, and that he is free to say how it shall be disposed of after his death, provided that he chooses no method imperilling the rights or welfare of others. Under my private agreement with the N.Y. Cremation Society, and hence long before Dr. Le Moyne’s crematorium was ready, we made formal application to the Brooklyn Board of Health for a permit of removal for cremation, and the Board took counsel’s opinion.It agreed with Mr. Bowman’s and mine, and an
1Following is the text of the note in question:
NEW YORK CITY, June 5, 1876.
The undersigned, Executors under the last Will and Testament of Joseph Henry Louis, Baron de Palm, hereby apply for the delivery to them of his body, now lying in the receiving vault of the Lutheran Cemetery: the said body to be removed to a convenient point beyond the city limits and cremated, agreeably to the request of the aforesaid De Palm.
(Signed) H. S. OLCOTT,
H. J. NEWTON.
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 169
application, couched in officially prescribed terms, being made later when the crematorium was finished, the permit was duly granted. Thus the first important point was made, and no legal impediment existing, the advocates of cremation had only to meet theological, economic, scientific, and sentimental objections. Dr. Le Moyne and I agreed upon the plan of arranging for a public meeting with addresses from representative men, to take place immediately after the cremation, and for an evening meeting to discuss the merits and demerits of this mode of sepulture. We agreed that each public speaker should confine himself to a special branch of the subject, to avoid repetitions while covering the entire ground.
Owing to the neutral character of the T.S. upon all questions involving different religious opinions, it had been decided that my co-executor and I should carry out this affair in our personal capacities. It was also decided that there should be no further religious ceremonies. Both Dr. Le Moyne and I being strong advocates for cremation, we were fully convinced that the public interest demanded the giving of wide publicity to this event and the invitation of men of science and officers of Boards of Health, to be present and carefully scrutinise the process of reduction of the body by fire. “I agree with you,” writes the good old Doctor, “that the addresses are to be confined to the subject of cremation without branching out on other topics, however proper and right they might be in themselves and in their own
170 OLD DIARY LEAVES
place. I have never intended or expected that our programme should include any kind of religious service, but should be a strictly scientific and sanitary experiment, looking to a reform in the disposition of a body.” The American press, which had made fun of the T.S. for having too much religious ceremony at the Baron’s funeral, now abused us for having none at all at his cremation. However, we cared nothing for that, the praise and the blame of the ignorant being equally valueless. Dr. Le Moyne and I wished to settle the following points: (a) Whether cremation was a really scientific method of sepulture; (b) Whether it was cheaper than burial; (c) Whether it offered any repugnant features; (d) How long it would take to incinerate a human body. In pursuance of the policy of bold publicity, Mr. Newton and I, as executors, and Dr. Le Moyne, as owner of the crematory, addressed the following invitation to Boards of Health, individual scientists, selected principals and professors of colleges, clergymen and editors:
NEW YORK, November, 1876.
DEAR SIR: Upon the 6th of December, proximo, at
Washington, Pa., will be cremated the body of the late
JOSEPH HENRY LOUIS, BARON de PALM,
Grand Cross Commander of the Sovereign Order of the
Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem; Knight of St. John
of Malta; Prince of the Roman Empire; late
Chamberlain to His Majesty the King of
Bavaria; Fellow of the Theosophical
Society, etc., etc.,
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 171
in compliance with wishes expressed to his executors shortly before his decease. This ceremony you are respectfully invited, either in person or by proxy, to attend.
The cremation will be effected in a furnace specially designed for the purpose, and erected by E. Julius Le Moyne, M.D., as an earnest of his preference for this mode of sepulture.
The occasion being one of interest to Science, in its historical, sanitary, and other aspects, the Executors of Baron de Palm have consented that it shall have publicity. This invitation is accordingly sent you in the hope that you may find it convenient to be represented and, in case the general subject of cremation should be discussed, take part in the debate. The University of Pennsylvania, the Washington and Jefferson College, the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, other institutions of learning, and the Health Boards of Boston Philadelphia, Washington (D.C.), and other cities, have already signified their intention to send representatives. It is believed that the occasion will draw together a very large number of highly competent and influential scientific observers. Addresses appropriate to the occasion will be delivered.
Washington is a town in Washington County, in the State of Pennsylvania, twenty-five miles West of Pittsburgh, on the Chartiers Valley R.R., and about midway between the cities of Pittsburgh and Wheeling. Trains leave Pittsburgh and Wheeling for Washington at
172 OLD DIARY LEAVES
9 o’clock A.M., and at 5 o’clock P.M., every day except Sunday. The running time is about two hours.
The audience room of the Crematory being quite small, it is necessary that the number intending to be present should be known in advance. You are therefore requested to signify your determination by mail or telegraph to either of the undersigned at your early convenience.
The acceptances were numerous, the public interest being so thoroughly aroused that, as a gentleman (Mr. A. C. Simpson of Pittsburgh, Pa.), who had access to the exchanges of an influential journal, declares, “there is not a journal printed in the United States but has had more or less to say, not only about the Baron’s burning, but also about his theosophical religious views” (see Banner of Light, Jan. 6th, 1887). One of the most amusing things written about the case was the expression used by Mr. Bromley in a N. Y. Tribune editorial, that “Baron de Palm had been principally famous as a corpse.”
It was a great responsibility to take upon ourselves, for, if anything went wrong with Dr. Le Moyne’s furnace, there would have been a tremendous clamour againt us for exposing a human body to the chance of irreverential
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 173
scientific maltreatment.1 However, the object in view being so thoroughly humanitarian, we carried the affair through without flinching. To guard as far as possible against accident, the good Doctor first tested the furnace on a sheep’s carcase and, in a letter dated October 26, 1876, he reports to me that it had been “a complete success. A carcase weighting l641bs. had been cremated in six hours and it could have been done in less time.” He then had made a skeleton crate, or bier, composed of flat and round half-inch bars, the whole weighing about 40 lbs., in which to lay the corpse for putting it into the retort; and asked me to buy, if possible, a sheet of asbestos cloth to lay over it as a sort of fire-resisting shroud. This was not procurable at the time and I had to devise a substitute. Upon my arrival at the place, one peep into the heated retort showed me that any ordinary cerement about the corpse would be instantaneously consumed and the body be uncovered, so I soaked a bed-sheet with a saturated solution of alum and ventured that. It proved to be perfectly efficacious, and, I believe, has now come into general use.
I need not go into many details about the cremation, since they can all be found in the file of any American
1There was one risk to be provided against, viz., the possibility of the corpse being carbonised in the still air of an incandescent clay retort heated up to a temperature of 1500° to 2000°. To obviate this, Dr. Le Moyne, against the protest of his contractor, drilled an air-hole in the iron door of the retort and fitted to it a revolving flap which permitted of the hole being opened or closed at pleasure. In the sheep-cremation experiment this proved so thoroughly efficacious that the contractor was converted to the Doctor’s views.
174 OLD DIARY LEAVES
journal for the month of December, 1876: still, considering the historical interest which attaches to this first scientific cremation in the United States, a condensed narrative embodying the main facts had better be given by its responsible manager.
The Le Moyne crematorium is (for it still exists), in a small, one-storied brick structure divided into two rooms; the one to the left on entering, a reception-room, the other containing the furnace and retort. Exclusive of the value of the land, it cost Dr. Le Moyne about $1700, or say £340. Everything was very plain, repulsively so, one might say: there was no ornamentation within or without—just simply a practical corpse-incinerator, as unæsthetic as a bake-oven. Yet results have shown that it is thoroughly practical and can do its intended work as well as if its walls had been of sculptured marble, its partitions of ornately carved wood, and its doors and furnace poems in modelled bronze. Dr. Le Moyne wrote me that his aim was to give the poor a method of sepulture that would be far cheaper than burial, and offer more safe-guards against those violations of graves and those tragedies of premature burial which are unavoidable in the case of the prevaling fashion of sepulture. The theft of the corpses of the late Lord Crawford and Balcarres, of Scotland, and Mr. A. T. Stewart, of New York, not to mention the thousands of body-snatchings for dissectors, prove the reality of the former, while the alleged cutting up of poor Irving Bishop while entranced, and the instances where, upon re-opening a coffin, the
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 175
body has been found turned and with the flesh of its arms gnawed by the hapless victim in his agony of starvation and suffocation, give a fearful weight to the last-named suggestion. The pecuniary and sanitary ends in view were attained with the Le Moyne furnace, for even this first cremation in America cost us only about ten dollars, and proved that a body could be disposed of without unpleasant concomitants.
Mr. Newton and I reached Washington, Pa., on the 5th December, 1876, with the Baron’s remains enclosed in two envelopes—the coffin and an outer case of wood. Dr. Le Moyne and others met us at the station, and the corpse was taken in a hearse to the crematorium, where it lay until the next morning in charge of an attendant, the fireman who stoked the furnace. The fire of coke had been lighted at 2 A.M. that day and the retort was already at a dazzling white heat “hot enough” the stoker said “to melt iron”. The mechanical construction of the apparatus was simplicity itself. An arched retort of fire-clay, 8 ft. long by 3 ft. broad and the same in height, for receiving the corpse, was surrounded by a fire-flue communicating with a furnace beneath the retort; which had a tall chimney for making a draft and carrying off the smoke. An opening from the retort into the surrounding hot-air flue allowed the escape into it of the gases and other volatile products of cremation, where they were effectually consumed. A large iron door luted with fire-clay around the frame, was fitted into the front of the retort, and the swinging flap, above
176 OLD DIARY LEAVES
described, not only permitted of the introduction of cold air and the making of a slight draught through the retort at will, but also served as a peep-hole through which glimpses could be had of the progress of the cremation from time to time. As the corpse lay upon an open iron crate, swathed in its alum-saturated sheet, in a fire-clay box which effectually separated it from the funace-fire beneath, it will be seen that there could be none of that horror of roasting human flesh and bursting entrails which makes one shudder at an open-air pyre-burning, while, as all the lighter products of cremation, the gaseous and watery components of a body, were burnt up in the heat-flue that encircled the white-hot retort, there was none of that unpleasant odour that sometimes sickens one who drives past an Indian burning-ghât. The corpse simply dries into nothing save the ashes of its skeleton. When the retort was opened, the morning after De Palm’s cremation, there was nothing left of the once tall, stout body save a trail of white powder, and some fragments of osseous articulations; the whole weighing but some 6 lbs.1
1More fortunate than most innovators, I have lived to see several reforms that I helped in the cradle, become world-wide successes. Of these, cremation is one. Public opinion has now, after the lapse of seventeen years reached the point where a law-journal dares print the following praise of cremation:
“There is nothing surer than that in the not far distant future the cremation of dead bodies will be in universal vogue. It is now ascertained that earth-worms convey microbes of disease from cemeteries, and distribute them at their own sweet will. We have never yet been able to comprehend how about thirty thousand putrefying bodies in an acre or two of ground can be anything less than an
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 177
Our invitation to scientists and sanitary boards was accepted in many cases, and the following gentlemen attended the cremation: Dr. Otterson, of the Brooklyn Board of Health; Dr. Seinke, President of the Queen’s County Board of Health; Dr. Richardson, Editor of the (Boston) Medical Journal; Dr. Folsom, Secretary of the Boston B. of H.; Prof. Parker, of the University of Pennsylvania; three physicians deputed by the Philadelphia B. of H.; one who represented Lehigh University; Dr. Johnson, of the Wheeling, W. Va. B. of H.; Dr. Asdale, Secretary of the Pittsburgh B. of H.; a number of other medical men attending unofficially; and a swarm of reporters and special correspondents representing all the leading American and some foreign journals. I know it as a fact that the intention of the editors was to have the fullest details telegraphed to their papers, the N. Y. Herald, for instance, having ordered its reporter to wire at least three columns; but a
unmitigated danger to those living within a few miles of their influence. Earth is a pretty good deodoriser, but there are limits to its capacity. If anyone has studied the slow process of animal putrefaction, they know how revolting it is, and what a danger arises from the noisome gases which escape. Do the advocates of interment imagine that the gases from thousands of closely-packed corpses escape toward the centre of the earth? If so, they will have to learn that they easily permeate the few feet of earth, and have liberty to roam in the sunlight and poison those who happen to cross the path of their wanderings. Every malignant disease which curses mankind to-day is the admonition of law calling on us to improve our habits and live in accordance with reason, and the only hope of our ever being rid of epidemics is by the slow but sure process of education. The time will come when all putrefactive matter will be rendered harmless by the action of heat.”—Jury.
178 OLD DIARY LEAVES
tragedy occurred which changed their plans; the Brooklyn Theatre caught fire the same evening and some two hundred people were burnt alive. Thus, the greater cremation weakened the public interest in the lesser one.
The mummified corpse of the Baron being removed from the coffin and laid in the iron crate, enwrapped in my alum-soaked sheet, I sprinkled it with aromatic gums and showered it with choice roses, primroses, smilax, and dwarf palm leaves, and laid sprays of evergreens on the breast and about the head.1 From the N. Y. Times report I quote the following:
“When all was ready the body was quietly and reverently slid into the retort. There were no religious services, no addresses, no music, no climax, such as would have thrown great solemnity over the occasion. There was not one iota of ceremony. Everything was as business-like as possible. At 8.20 o’clock Dr. Le Moyne, Col. Olcott, Mr. Newton, and Dr. Asdale quietly took their stations on either side of the body, and raising the cradle from the catafalque bore it at once to the crematory retort, and slid it in with its unearthy burden head foremost.
“As the end of the cradle reached the further and hottest end of the furnace, the evergreens round the head burst into a blaze and were quickly consumed, but
1Visitors to Adyar Headquarters may see framed and engraved pictures of this and other scenes and details of the cremation taken from the N. Y. Daily Graphic.
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 179
the flowers and evergreens on the other part of the body remained untouched. The flames formed, as it were, a crown of glory for the dead man.”
The description is not quite complete, for as, the head of the corpse passed into the superheated retort, the evergreens that surrounded it took fire and a plume of smoke drew out of the door, as it if were a bunch of ostrich feathers, such as a lady wears in her hair at a drawing-room, or a knight of old bore in the crest of his helmet. The iron door of the retort was closed at once after the crate had been thrust in, then bolted and screwed up tight. At first all was dark inside, owing to the steamy vapour from the soaked sheet and the disengagement of smoke from the incinerating gums and plants, but this passed off in a few minutes, and then we could see what is well described by the Times correspondent in these words;
“By this time the retort presented the appearance of a radiant solar disk of a very warm rather than brilliant color, and though every flower and evergreen was reduced to a red-hot ash condition, they retained their individual forms, the pointed branches of the evergreens arching over the body. At the same time I could see that the winding-sheet still enfolded the corpse, showing that the solution of alum had fully answered its purpose. This answers one of the avowed objections to cremation--the possibility of indecent exposure of the body. Half an hour later it was plainly evident that the sheet was charred. Around the head the material was blackened
180 OLD DIARY LEAVES
and ragged. This was easily accounted for. It appears that in saturating the sheet with the solution of alum, Col. Olcott began at the feet, and that by the time he reached the head the supply was exhausted. All were, however, rejoiced to see that the heat was increasing rapidly.”
A REMARKABLE SCENE
“Just at this time a remarkable muscular action on the corpse, almost amounting to a phenomenon, occurred. The left hand, which had been lying by the side of the body, was gradually raised, and three of the fingers pointed upward. Although a little startling at the moment, this action was of course the mere result of intense burning heat producing muscular contraction. At 9.25 o’clock Dr. Otterson tested the draught in the retort by placing a piece of tissue paper over the peep-hole, some one having suggested that there was not a sufficient amount of oxygen in the retort to produce the necessary combustion. It was found that the draught was ample. At this time the left hand began to fall back slowly into its normal position, while a luminous rose-colored light surrounded the remains, and a slight aromatic odor found its way through the vent-hole or the furnace. An hour later the body presented the appearance of absolute incandescence. It looked red hot. This was the result of the extra firing, the heat of the furnace now being far more unpleasant than it was before, with the mouth of the retort wide open.”
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 181
CURIOUS EFFECTS NOTICED
“As the retort became hotter the rosy mist I have spoken of assumed a golden tinge, and a very curious effect was noticed in the feet. The soles of the feet were, of course, fully exposed to anyone looking through the peep-hole. They gradually assumed a certain transparency, similar in character to the appearance of the hand when the fingers are held between the eye and a brilliant light, but very much more luminous. At 10.40 o’clock Dr. Le Moyne, Col. Olcott, William Harding, and the health officers present entered the furnace-room and held a consultation with closed doors. On re-appearing they announced that the cremation of the body was practically complete. Anyone looking into the retort at this moment would think it ought to have been.
“The fiery ordeal through which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego passed on account of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image must have been a trifling experience compared with what the body of the Baron de Palm had gone through. Some experiments with sheep were made by Dr. Le Moyne when the furnace was completed, but Mr. Dye, the builder of the furnace, says the body was more thoroughly cremated at the end of two hours and forty minutes than the sheep were in five or six hours. About this time I noticed that the body was beginning to subside, that, though incandescent to a degree, it was nevertheless a mere structure of powdery ashes, which
182 OLD DIARY LEAVES
the lungs of a child might blow away. The red-hot filmy shroud still covered the remains, and the twigs of evergreens still remained standing, though they had sunk with the subsidence of the body. The feet too had fallen, and all was rapidly becoming one glowing mass of a white light and an intense heat. . . . At 11.12 o’clock Dr. Folsom, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Health, made a careful examination, so far as possible, of the retort and its contents. His announcement that ‘Incineration is complete beyond all question’ was received with universal gratification. The last vestige of the form of a body had disappeared in the general mass.”
I have given so much out of the scores of descriptions of the event that might have been quoted, because of the excellence of the narrative and its historical value. Another reason is that it shows how cleanly and esthetical this mode of sepulture is in contrast with that of burial. One feature of cremation must recommend it to the friends of those who die in far-distant 1ands,viz., that the bodies can be converted into dust, and thus easily, unostentatiously, an unobjectionably be taken home and laid in the family vault or in the cemetery, alongside the remains of relatives—
“Those that he loved so long and sees no more,
. . . . not dead, but gone before.”
On the afternoon of the same day, at the public meeting at the Town Hall, Dr. King, of Pittsburgh discoursed upon the deleterious and poisonous effects of crowded
THE FIRST CREMATION IN AMERICA 183
graveyards; Dr. Le Moyne upon the scriptural and practical issues of cremation; President Hays showed its unobjectionable character from the Biblical aspect; Mr. Crumrine expounded its legality; and I contributed a historical retrospect of the subject in ancient and modern times.
The furnace fire was, of course, drawn as soon as the body was thoroughly incinerated, and the draught-hole in the door stopped up, so as to give the retort time to cool down gradually as, if exposed to the cold air, it would inevitably have cracked. Dr. Asdale and I removed the ashes on the following morning and placed them in a Hindu urn that had been given me in New York for the purpose. I took them to town with me and kept them until shortly before our departure for India, when I scattered them over the waters of New York Harbour with an appropriate, yet simple, ceremonial.
And thus it came about that the Theosophical Society not only introduced Hindu philosophical ideas into the United States, but also the Hindu mode of sepulture. Since that first scientific cremation in America, many others, of men, women, and children, have occurred, other crematoriums have been built, and cremation societies have been originated in my country. British prejudice has been so far overcome that Parliament has legalised cremation, a society has been chartered, and it was in its crematorium at working, near London, that the body of H. P. B. was burnt, agreeably to her verbal and written request.
184 OLD DIARY LEAVES
In the abstract it matters not to me whether my “desire-body” be dropped through the saltsea to its amoeba-strewn floor, or left in the snow-locked Himalayan passes, or on the hot sand of the desert; but, if I am to die at home and within reach of friends, I hope that, like those of the Baron de Palm and H. P. B., it may be reduced by fire to harmless dust, and not become a plague or a peril to the living after it has served the purpose of my present prârabdha karma!