19 Mar 2024


Lost Capitol Hill: Unearthing Clinton

When we last looked at the 1908 exhumation of Vice President George Clinton at Congressional Cemetery, we had gotten as far as the removal of the grave marker. It was now time to find the actual coffin.

This turned out to be much more easily said than done. Newspaper accounts at the time disagreed as to why there was such difficulty: Some accounts stated that his coffin was seven feet underground, while others stated it was 20 feet. All agree, however, that iron rods had to be pushed into the ground in order to find the casket.

While the outer, wooden, casket had rotted away, the inner lead box had survived, and so had Clinton’s body, in the main. While most sources agree that he was in a remarkable state of preservation, a lengthy description of the process published in the July, 1908 edition of Olde Ulster: An Historical and Genealogical Magazine added that:

An aperture was found to have been made in the casket, presumably by the pressure of a root, which had let into it water and rotten black walnut wood from the coffin, with mud, which had formed a lye and which lye had disintegrated the remains partly.

The Vice President’s mortal remains were taken to the Naval Hospital, and an autopsy was done by Dr. Robert O’Reilly. His head was measured, and his body was examined closely. According to the New York Tribune:

The upper portion of the body was found to be in a better state of preservation than the lower, but, considering the fact that the body had been in a coffin for nearly a century, all agreed that the lifelike appearance was remarkable.

Another physician, Dr. Lamb, also noted that the corpse had suffered from rheumatism, as Clinton had been known to during his lifetime. Dr. O’Reilly also stated that Clinton had died of pneumonia.

Clinton’s coffin leaves the Congressional Cemetery chapel (LOC)

With that, the body was placed back into its lead coffin, which was in turn put into a copper one, and finally one of polished wood and returned to public vault at Congressional Cemetery.

While the Vice President languished there, workmen were busy building a foundation with room for the coffin and reinstalling the monument in the Old Dutch Churchyard in Kingston, New York.

On May 27, the casket was moved to the chapel in the cemetery, and, after a brief ceremony, taken past the Capitol, where Congress went into recess to pay their respects, and on to Union Station, where it was met by hundreds of women dressed in white. The procession then continued to the Pullman funeral car Olympic, in which the trip north was made. It was accompanied by Chaplain Rowland R. Hoes, who had been in charge of the whole procedure.

The train ride ended in Jersey City, where the casket was transferred to a revenue cutter and taken into and through New York City to the City Hall, where thousands paid their respects. From New York, the casket was taken up the Hudson by gunboat to Kingston, where Clinton was finally put to rest.

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