Sunday, December 20, 2015

American History 101: The First Crematory in America

The subject of death and how America has dealt it with is a rich and fascinating subject.  Did you know that in 1861, when the Civil War broke out, the United States had no idea how to deal with massive amounts of death?  The Civil War brought ideas such as identification of the dead using dog tags, and a system by which the next of kin were notified by the government.  After over 600,000 Americans died in the war between the states, the images of the massive death, decay and disease were fresh in the minds of every American -- including Dr. Francis LeMoyne.  So when people in his community (Washington, PA) began to get sick with the same symptoms, and then die, Dr. LeMoyne began to search for the cause.  And the more he researched, the more convinced he was that the rituals used to inter and bury bodies was unsanitary, and the cause of the sickness and death.  He believed that when it rained, contaminates would run off from the burial sites into the rivers.  The people of the area would drink and cook with that water, and thusly would become sick from the tainted water.

LeMoyne looked to Europe as a solution for the problems sprouting in western Pennsylvania, he found that there were several crematories in Europe and felt that this was a more sanitary way to deal with the dead.  If the bodies of the dead were cremated, there would be no decomposition in the soil which caused the contamination of the local water supply.  LeMoyne approached the trustees of Washington and offered to pay for the construction of a crematorium on cemetery property but the trustees dismissed the idea out of hand.

Dr. LeMoyne believed in his idea so much that he not only put up his own money, but he set out to build the crematory on his own land.  In 1876, Dr. LeMoyne enlisted to help of John Dye, a local resident, and constructed a crematory on Gallows Hill based on only the most basic of information on how they were built in Europe.  Dye constructed a 30 by 20 foot building with two rooms at a cost of $1,500.  One room was a reception room for families to hold a funeral and reception, and the other was the oven room.  The oven room contained the oven in
which bodies were cremated.  The oven was designed by LeMoyne himself, and the flames would never touch the body.  The furnace was initially powered by coal, but later pipes were run and it was fueled by gas.

Baron de Palm was the cremated on December 6, 1876, becoming the first person to be cremated in the United States.  Baron de Palm was a recent immigrant from Austria, and thusly he was familiar with cremation.  When he passed away in New York, his remains were sent by train to Washington, PA.  The event was reported in newspapers all across the country.  Unfortunately, the cremation of Baron de Palm did not create acceptance of this new practice.  Quite the opposite.  LeMoyne was seen as a crazy old man with devilish ideas.  He was persecuted so much that he was eventually banished from his church.  LeMoyne did not take it all lying down, he even penned an essay that defended the practice of cremation that pulled from information found in the Bible to justify cremation as a valid way to dispose of dead bodies.  Even his citing the cremation of Saul and his sons wasn't enough to sway the heavily religious community.

By the time LeMoyne's crematorium was built and operational, the doctor was 78 years old.  In a twist of irony, Dr. LeMoyne passed away in October of 1878 and was the third person to be cremated here.  Today the small
unassuming building still sits on old Gallows Hill just off South Main Street in Washington.  It closed its oven in 1901 after 41 cremations and it maintained as a museum by the Washington County Historical Society.

LeMoyne's Crematory Today - Image courtesy of Patriot Portraits.
** The last image is used courtesy of George Neat and Patriot Portraits.  Please visit Patriot Portraits on Facebook.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel 

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