Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Franz Lee Rickaby (1889–1925), a bone-thin man of thirty-five, was a much-loved professor of English and drama at Pomona College in Claremont, California, when he died of rheumatic fever. An adventurous wanderer, he left a respected historical legacy with folklorists when Harvard University posthumously published his collection of songs of the Midwest lumberjack, Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy (1926). After he died, his wife Lillian had his body cremated. He was one of only about sixteen thousand Americans, or less than 2 percent of the population, cremated in 1925. Cremation was slowly coming to the United States, having begun in the small community of Washington, Washington County, Pennsylvania, when a local doctor, Francis Julius LeMoyne (1798–1879), ignited a firestorm of controversy in December 1876 with his private crematory. Today there are 2,121 crematories throughout the nation and nearly one hundred in Pennsylvania alone.

LeMoyne had a reputation for strong opinions, principled positions, and a tough skin, but that December many of his neighbors thought he had gone much too far. Born and bred in Washington, he was a member of a well-respected family. His father, John Julius LeMoyne (circa 1760–1847), a French physician of noble background, had immigrated to America to avoid the threats of the French Revolution. He first settled, with fellow French émigrés, in Gallipolis, Ohio, and later moved to Washington, a rural community on one of the many streams that feed into the Monongahela River, southwest of Pittsburgh. He married the nineteen-year old daughter of Scots-Irish immigrants, Nancy McCully (circa 1778–1858), in Washington in 1797. He opened a pharmacy, provided medical care to patients he reached on horseback and, together with his wife, operated one of the four taverns in Washington serving the steady stream of settlers moving west. Their only child, Francis Julius, was born on September 4, 1798.

Supremely confident and irrepressibly independent, the younger LeMoyne became a physician like his father (and Parisian grandfather), as well as an ardent activist, invariably supporting the downtrodden and the oppressed. One neighbor said he was “always on the unpopular side of things.” He graduated in 1815 from Washington College (which became Washington and Jefferson College in 1865), located in his hometown, and later served on its board for several decades. He apprenticed under his father in medicine, studied at the Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia, and then returned to “Little Washington” where he lived the rest of his life.

In 1823, he married Madelaine Romaine Bureau (?–1879), daughter of French friends of his father’s. They had eight children, including five girls whom he wanted to be as well educated as his sons. In his thirties, LeMoyne helped establish the Washington Female Seminary. He later spearheaded the building of a library and reading room in Washington’s new Town Hall to “provide rational amusement … and educate our whole people to a higher standard of useful knowledge.” He intended the Citizens’ Library “to withdraw out young men and boys from questionable places of resort during their unoccupied hours.” But it was his early support of the abolitionist movement that first provoked the ire of his neighbors.

In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), one of the most articulate and radical opponents of slavery, and Arthur Tappan (1786–1865) who, with his brother Lewis (1788–1873) opened the first successful credit-rating service, predecessor of Dun and Bradstreet, cofounded the American Anti-Slavery Society. They were joined by sixty like-minded individuals, male and female, black and white, in the formation of the society. In existence until 1870, the society’s prominent organizers included African Americans James Forten (1766–1842), a wealthy businessman, and Robert Purvis (1810–1898), an heir to his father’s considerable fortune, both of Philadelphia. Purvis, incidentally, was the last surviving member of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Two years after the society’s founding, LeMoyne became president of the Washington branch. An estimated nine out of ten Washington County residents supported slavery, and they were outraged with the formation of the local chapter. One night several local residents even hurled rocks and stones at the building where LeMoyne and the abolitionists met. Undeterred by the assault, LeMoyne not only filed charges against the vandals, but offered his residence as a stop on the Underground Railroad, sometimes protecting as many as twenty-six fugitive slaves at a time. In 1870, he donated $20,000 (the equivalent of $340,500 today) to what is now known as LeMoyne-Owens College in Memphis, Tennessee, for freed slaves. He ran for governor of Pennsylvania as a candidate of the Liberty Party, an abolitionist ticket, in 1841, 1844, and again in 1847. He was an original member of the Washington County Agricultural Society, in which he remained interested until the end of his life. From 1866 to 1867, he served as president of the National Wool Growers Association.

To some he was an individual of “exceptional force, high culture, and broad humanity,” but to others he was merely a “fool.” Recognized as a consummate, life-long radical, LeMoyne might have been unpopular for his unorthodox beliefs but, as his tombstone epithet records for posterity, he was “A Fearless Advocate of the Right.” A physician, man of science, visionary, and philanthropist, he also staunchly subscribed to the value of cremation.

Cremation was hardly new; many ancients practiced it as did Greeks and Romans. Native Americans believed in it. Christians, however, believed death was temporary and that the resurrection of the body would occur at the time of the last judgment; as Christianity spread, cremation ended in Europe, except in times of war and disease. It remained so until a Professor Brunetti of Padua, Italy, displayed a model crematory, accompanied by a glass box of ashes, at the Vienna International Exposition of 1873. He argued — and made manifest — the process for quick and thorough disposition of a corpse by burning it. He caused a sensation.

The following year Sir Henry Thompson (1820–1904), Queen Victoria’s personal physician, influenced by the Italian professor, published The Treatment of the Body after Death. Thompson explained how to dispose of bodies quickly and safely without unpleasant side effects. “The answer may be practically supplied in a properly constructed furnace,” he wrote. “The gases can be driven off without offensive odour … the gases will … be consumed by plants and trees. The ashes … may be preserved in a funeral urn or … scattered on the fields, which latter is their righteous destination. No scents or balsams are needed. … Modern science is equal to the task of thus removing the dead of a great city without instituting any form of nuisance. …”

Thompson’s publication provoked lively and contentious debate which swiftly crossed the Atlantic, arriving in the United States about ten years after the end of the American Civil War. Nearly seven hundred thousand Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives during the war, causing horrifying and logistical complexities. Although embalming occasionally was used during the Civil War, primarily for officers, it was often performed quickly and carelessly. After President Lincoln was assassinated, undertakers embalmed his corpse with great care, using the best dyes and chemicals. This slowed decomposition, putting color back into the president’s skin and making it possible for him to lay in state in numerous cities, including Harrisburg. But most Civil War casualties were not treated that way. In The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust describes the impact of six million pounds of dead human bodies and animal carcasses that lay on the field after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. “Haste and carelessness frequently yielded graves so shallow that bodies and skeletons reappeared, as rain and wind eroded the soil sheltering the dead, and hogs rooted around battlefields in search of human remains,” she writes.

With such grisly Civil War memories still fresh in the public memory, health concerns about sanitation after burials burgeoned; rotting graves were seen as pollutants but cremation fires were seen by some as purifying. The public health concerns dovetailed coincidentally with new views of spirituality and together they spurred support for cremation.

Progressive Protestants and many medical doctors endorsed the practice as an efficient and clean method of disposal. In response to this growing interest, individuals organized secular societies to advance cremation, three major cremation magazines commenced publication, and in 1874 the New York Times alone published seventeen articles about the subject. Prominent and well-educated Americans, among them Andrew Carnegie and John Jacob Astor, endorsed cremation, but no one was actually building crematories. “A single cheap crematory would do more to convert the public … than all the interminable arguments,” opined the New York Tribune.

Enter Joseph Henry Louis Charles, Baron De Palm (1809– 1876). A richly titled but penniless Austrian aristocrat, he arrived in New York in December 1875, eager to explore the ideas of the newly inaugurated Theosophical Society. Founded by Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), a Russian émigré, and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a distinguished New York lawyer and the society’s first president, they believed all religions had value. They embraced many tenets of Eastern and Western philosophies, including the value of cremation, just as Hindus and Buddhists did. Olcott was impressed by De Palm’s credentials, as well as his “engaging manners” and appointed him to the governing council of the Theosophical Society. Baron De Palm died in New York in May 1876, leaving instructions to Olcott, his executor, to have him cremated.

Hoping De Palm’s funeral might help raise awareness of the Theosophical Society’s ideals and increase its membership, Olcott organized the obsequies at New York’s Masonic Temple. With two thousand attendees cramming the hall — many the elite of New York – Olcott modeled the simple service after an ancient Egyptian funeral, complete with incense, a cross with a serpent, and candles on the ebony and silver coffin. Without Christian clergy present, Olcott eulogized De Palm with references to Egyptian gods, Hindu writings, and Charles Darwin. The press went wild. The funeral received such notoriety that Olcott was left on his own to arrange cremation. He had the baron’s body embalmed and stored for six months in a vault at the Lutheran Cemetery at Williamsburg, New York, before learning about LeMoyne’s crematory. He then arranged for the transport of the corpse to the crematorium in Washington.

According to Stephen Prothero, author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (2002), “LeMoyne’s hometown was not the most auspicious place to hold cremation’s coming out party. A ‘dry’ town of 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants nestled in the lower foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, Washington was dominated, in the words of a [New York] Times newspaperman, by ‘old-fashioned Presbyterians, who regard the waltz as an invention of Satan and a game of cards as sure destruction.’ A [New York] Tribune writer emphasized ethnicity rather than religion, but his point was the same. Washington’s citizens, he wrote, ‘belong, as a rule, to ancient Scotch Irish clans, who make a god out of precedent and walk in the narrow but excellent path of their fathers from the cradle to the death-bed … they will not be likely to fling themselves out of that bed into a heterodox furnace.’”

LeMoyne had been interested in cremation for many years and, as he grew older, followed the debate with growing interest. Convinced that the dead should not jeopardize the health of the living, he petitioned his community to build a crematory, but Washington’s conservative Calvinists and stolid Presbyterians considered cremation heretical and rejected his petition. In his inimitable and forceful style, he built a crematory on his own property, ironically named Gallow’s Hill. It was a simple, one-story brick building, topped with corrugated iron and three chimneys. It contained a room where several witnesses could observe the proceedings. Olcott even described the crematory as “very plain, repulsively so. … Just a practical corpse incinerator, as unaesthetic as a bake-oven.” Others considered it an architectural travesty, deriding it as “a large cigar box.”

LeMoyne assumed he would be its first client, but that was not to be. De Palm’s body, wrapped in a white shroud and sprinkled with fragrant spices, arrived in Pittsburgh by train and was then taken to Gallow’s Hill by a horse-drawn carriage. LeMoyne greeted Colonel Olcott and twenty-five doctors, ministers, and journalists from throughout the country, all of whom were eager to witness the procedure. The small building, however, could accommodate only a half-dozen individuals. The coal-stoked furnace had taken four days to heat to a sufficient temperature and took about four hours for the corpse to be reduced to ashes after it was laid in an iron cradle and slid head first into the retort. On December 6, 1876, the cremation movement in the United States began.

The next client was Jane Bragge Pitman, a Cincinnati, Ohio, art teacher who reportedly declared “there’s no religious nonsense in my house and there should be none at the cremation.” She was incinerated on February 15, 1878, an event that was covered by many newspapers, including the New York Times which published an article entitled “An Unceremonious Rite.” According to a correspondent for the Times, “it was just 1:58 [p.m.] by Pittsburg time that Mrs. Pitman’s body was put in the retort. The alum-soaked cloth that covered her body did not cover her entire head, and the upper part of her head was swathed in cloths that had not been wet with alumwater. As soon as the head was within a foot of the open door of the retort these unwetted cloths took fire, burning the hair and head. In an instant, almost, both rooms were filled with the sickening odor of burning hair and flesh. A dense black smoke immediately poured out of the retort before the door could be closed, and this remained in the building for 15 minutes notwithstanding the opening of the windows. The same kind of smoke poured from the chimney of the retort in dense clouds, filling the air about the building with the odor.” Cremation, however, was not off to a propitious start. Local residents threatened to destroy LeMoyne’s crematory. Traditional Protestants resisted the notion. Catholics vehemently opposed the practice. Threatened by the possibility of competition, undertakers and coffin makers argued against it. Many individuals, even those who were predisposed to accepting cremation, found statements by unsentimental cremationists disrespectful. They did not want to think that their loved ones would make good fertilizer (even though Benjamin Pitman scattered Jane’s ashes “at the roots of a rose-bush, that the blooming and fragrant rose may bring brightly before his mind the memory of his loved and faithful wife.”)

Cremation remained primarily conceptual with few individuals actually practicing it until 1892, when the Asiatic cholera epidemic struck the United States and interest in it skyrocketed. Within several years, twenty-four facilities in the United States were cremating nearly two thousand bodies annually, far outstripping the numbers in England and Italy where modern cremation had begun.

As cremation slowly but steadily continued to gain acceptance, if not wholesale popularity, proponents of cremation shifted their strategy from defending the practice to increasing its occurrence. The Cremation Association of America, now the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), was established in Detroit in 1913 to advance and improve the practice.

Fred Rosen, author of Cremation in America, argues the number of cremations nationwide grew steadily until March 1916. Then supporters of Pancho Villa in northern Mexico attacked an army post in New Mexico and were subsequently hunted down, killed, and their bodies burned. Grisly photographs of the charred corpses appeared in newspapers throughout the nation, casting cremation in a poor light and temporarily thwarting the movement. By 1922 the number of cremations in the United States had increased to 15,563, up from just 1,000 in 1900, a dramatic increase, although still a tiny minority. When social arbiter Emily Post published Etiquette in 1923, she devoted twenty-one pages to funerals, but mentioned not a word about cremation.

Initially, cremation had been seen as an end in itself, but gradually the ritual became less important and crematoria owners sought to add dignity to the procedure. Dr. LeMoyne had built a viewing room in his crematory and that became a standard feature of the early facilities, but it was not long before operators of crematories covered the peepholes in furnace doors and installed balconies to accommodate grieving family members and friends.

Where cremains were stored also became more important than how the corpses were reduced to ash. San Francisco, California, excelled in that regard. In 1885, the local chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows hired Bernard Cahill, a British-born, San Francisco-based architect, to design a magnificent crematory and three years later an elegant, neo-classical columbarium adjacent to it. With colorful mosaics, stained glass windows by Tiffany Studios, and eighty-five hundred niches for urns on four floors, all under a resplendent bronze dome, the Odd Fellows columbarium set the bar for elegance and dignity throughout the nation and around the world.

Today cremation is commonplace and growing in popularity. In 2008, 885,000 Americans, or 36 percent of those who died that year, were cremated. In Pennsylvania, nearly 30 percent of those who died in 2007 were cremated. CANA estimates that by 2015 nearly half of the deceased, including Roman Catholics — whose church leaders no longer object — will be cremated.

Crematoria themselves have come a long way since Dr. LeMoyne’s coal-stoked facility closed in 1901 after forty-two cremations. Today most are gas-fueled, many are computerized, and all have eliminated smoke. Corpses are cremated in boxes or simple coffins and the ashes of those containers are separated from the bone fragments, which do not burn. The bones are pulverized and given to the families who have numerous options for the cremains. Some individuals scatter their loved ones’ ashes on golf courses, off mountaintops, under apple trees, and out of airplanes. Families of veterans can ask the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy to help scatter ashes at sea. Many, of course, are interred in memorial gardens and traditional cemeteries.

After Dr. LeMoyne died of diabetes in 1879, he was cremated as he had hoped and planned. His family succeeded in keeping the funeral simple, private, and virtually out of the press. As for Franz Lee Rickaby, he would have been pleased that his wife chose cremation for him; likewise, he probably would have admired her for donating her body to science when she died in Kennett Square, Chester County, fifty years later.


For Further Reading

Forrest, Earl. The House of Romance. Washington, Pa.: Washington County Historical Society, 1964.

McCullough, Margaret. C. Fearless Advocate of the Right: The Life of Francis Julius LeMoyne, M.D., 1798–1879. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1941.

Prothero, Stephen. Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Quigley, Christine. The Corpse: A History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 1996.

Rosen, Fred. Cremation in America. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004.

Stotz, Charles Morse. The Architectural Heritage of Early Western Pennsylvania: A Record of Building Before 1860. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966.



Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 by the U.S. Department of the Interior — one of less than two hundred in the Keystone State — the F. Julius LeMoyne House in Washington, Washington County, was built two hundred years ago, in 1812, by physician John Julius LeMoyne. The National Park Service of the Interior Department recognized it “for its association with the antebellum anti-slavery reform movement as a center of anti-slavery activity and a safe station on the Underground Railroad.” The period of significance begins with the doctor’s son Francis Julius LeMoyne’s joining the Washington Anti-Slavery Society in 1834 and concludes with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The younger LeMoyne served as president of the society from 1835 to 1837.

The house was bequeathed to the Washington County Historical Society on the death of Dr. LeMoyne’s youngest daughter Madeleine LeMoyne Reed at the age of one hundred on October 26, 1943. It is operated as a historic house museum, furnished with period decorations, objects, and artifacts. Also on the property is the nation’s first crematorium, erected by the doctor in 1876. LeMoyne was assisted by John Dye, a Washington resident, who was inspired by the first modern crematory, built by Frederick Siemens in Germany. LeMoyne designed a revolutionary oven in which the flames would never touch the corpse. The crematory was used from 1876 through 1901. As the body of Baron De Palm, the first cremation in “Little Washington,” was being placed in the furnace on December 6, 1876, at 8:20 a.m., a writer for the New York Herald reported “there was a dead rush to the furnace room from the dirty boys and rough country folks outside, who flattened their noses against the window panes to be able to enjoy this delectable spectacle.” LeMoyne was the third of forty-one individuals cremated in the small brick building.

To visit the F. Julius LeMoyne House, write: Washington County Historical Society, 49 E. Maiden St., Washington, PA 15301; telephone (724) 225-6740; or e-mail wchspa@verizon.net. Information about visiting hours, directions, and admission fees is online at www.wchspa.org. Guided tours are conducted throughout the year.

Also located in Washington is the 1788 David Bradford House, the home of David Bradford (1760–1808), a leader of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Acquired by PHMC in 1959, the historic property, named a National Historic Landmark in 1983, has been managed since 1972 by the Bradford House Historical Association. To learn more, telephone (724) 222-3604; e-mail bradfordhouse@verizon.net; or visit www.bradfordhouse.org.


The editor acknowledges and thanks Clay Kilgore, collections manager for the Washington County Historical Society, Washington, Pennsylvania, for graciously providing images to illustrate this feature.


Gretchen Dykstra grew up in Haverford, Montgomery County, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is a writer and consultant to nonprofit organizations. Franz Lee Rickaby, her grandfather, died when her own father was only four years old.