NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
In the office at Fairview Cemetery, a leather bound ledger can be found ragged from age. Identities of those interred inside these grounds are recorded within the pages. For more than 170 years, this land has been the resting place for some of the most famous citizens of New Albany.
Yet the cemetery also houses some of the city’s least known inhabitants as well. Due to poor record keeping during the 19th century, the names of many buried here may never be known. Only basic, and sometimes strange, descriptions remain.
A Chocolate Soldier. Smoked Yankee. German Woman. A Strange Man.
According to the April 23, 1959 edition of the New Albany Valley News, phrases such as these were commonly found among the ledger’s list. No one is certain why.
“Most of the folk so oddly described originally came here from foreign countries and the East,” the newspaper said. “It remains a mystery why sextons in those days never recorded actual names.”
Not everyone from the eastern United States ended up with such a title. City founder Joel Scribner and his family now rest in the cemetery. Joel, who died in 1823, wasn’t originally buried in Fairview. Designated by the Scribners themselves, another cemetery at State and Elm streets existed during the river town’s earliest days.
Before too long, the living recognized a place for the dead should probably be moved to the outskirts of town. Land was soon bought and by 1841 the then called Northern Burial Grounds was created. A young body identified as “a Hatten child” was the first official internment of New Albany’s second cemetery. Due to the transfer of graves from the older burial grounds, visitors will note that the years on some tombs date back further than the cemetery’s creation.
During the 1800s, the death rate among children was alarmingly high. Some cities witnessed up to 30 percent of their infants die within their first year of life. Harold McCulloch, Fairview’s superintendent during the 1950s, noted that New Albany followed this trend. Originally designated as the Garden of Angels, a heart shaped plat of the property was created for infant burials. Lots are still available in the section today.
“One hundred years ago,” said McCulloch in the 1959 New Albany Valley News article, “about 70 percent of the interred were children. Now in this day and age only about one percent are children.”
Causes of death back then were also described differently. A June 1, 1972 Tribune story about the cemetery said head complaints, dropsy, brain fever, palpos of the heart and numerous cholera and measles epidemics could be found among the more “peculiar” explanations of illness in the ledger during this time.
“Fetched up river” came up regularly in the book as well, not too uncommon for a steamboat manufacturing river town. Many of the 14 Lucy Walker steamboat explosion’s victims buried here received this designation. Yet only one tombstone inscribed with the name A. E. Edwards marked the whereabouts of any of their final resting places.
Other poorer members of the public were interred in the pauper’s lot. A July 20, 1969 Courier Journal article by Bob Sculley stated that workers buried bodies up to three deep in the field with few markers. More than 500 “nameless souls” remain in its ground, many of whom were found on the old trails and riverbanks of the city. The cemetery also provided plots for other charitable organizations such as the Culbertson Widow’s Home and to pastors of community churches.
After renovations and additions in 1864 and 1875, the burial ground changed its name to Fairview Cemetery in 1896. At the time, cemeteries were undergoing a renaissance of sorts. “Rural” settings with trees and natural landscapes became preferred to the traditional rows of tombstones. With rolling hills and soft valleys, Fairview fit in perfectly and the name change hoped to reflect this. In 1896, the detailed iron archway was installed at an entrance.
All and all, more than 30,000 bodies lie within the cemetery, with many of New Albany’s most famous citizens making this their final resting place. Businessmen Washington S. DePauw and William S. Culbertson are interred here. Other notable residents include U.S. Speaker of the House Michael Kerr, Indiana Gov. Ashabel Willard, local artist George Morrison, the youngest person to have served in the Revolutionary War Richard Lord Jones, Rear Admiral George Bicknell and 12 members of the “Spencer Greys” who lost their lives in or following the Mexican War.
In the 1969 Courier Journal story, the Fairview superintendent at the time Benjamin Akers reflected on the legacy of Fairview Cemetery, which still accepts burial even today.
“Wherever I look,” Akers said, “there’s history around me.”