Person Place

An Hour in Greenlawn: Sketch of Sexton McNeal

“A Times reporter paid a visit to Greenlawn this week for a stroll through this beautiful city of the dead.”

“We found the venerable sexton as full of life and activity as a man of forty, although he is now in his 79th year.”

John McNeal, the well-known sexton of Greenlawn, is a remarkable man, whose life has been indeed a checkered one. Never having been blessed with children of his own, he has reared three families of children -few such great-hearted men are to be met in a year’s travel.”

“He was born at Kittanning Court House, Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, May 28th, 1805 being the son of Dr. John McNeal, a prominent physician in his day. When the subject of this prefatory sketch attained his fifteenth year, life with a step-mother became irksome, and he started out in the wide world for himself. He struggled across the mountains, and by slow and tedious travel, drifted to Young’s old furnace, in Adams County, Ohio, where he learned to be a collier, with one Carey, with whom he lived until he became of age. For a quarter of a century he worked in coalings at the old Franklin Furnace, and on Munn’s Runn and Carey’s Run, the two latter places making charcoal for the Gaylord Rolling Mill. His last work as a collier was at Buffalo Furnace, Kentucky. From there he removed to northwestern Illinois, but he tired of that state after three years, removed to this city, purchased lots and erected two houses on Mill street, just above Chillicothe which he sold to advantage and went to Gallia Furnace, where for two years he was second, or under manager. He then served one year as a manager of Boone Furnace, Kentucky, then for three years had charge of Gallia Furnace Station, and when Harrison Furnace assigned George A Waller, Esquire, he took charge of that furnace and worked up its stock.”

“From that time until 1874, with the exception of two years service as Street Commissioner of Portsmouth, he was engaged in farming pursuits and in turnpike contracting, building four miles of the Vanceburg and Tollesboro, Kentucky, pike, two miles of the Buena Vista, and one and one-half mile of the Haverhill pike, when on the 29th day of April 1874, he was elected Sexton of Greenlawn Cemetery, a position he now fills and has filled for nearly ten years with signal faithfulness. He was married to Mrs. Ann Johnson, widow of the late Jesse Johnson, December 31, 1841, who is hale and hearty, although but one year his junior.”

“As we walked along beneath the beautiful evergreens, most of which have been set out and tended with his own hand, and watched him trim a dead twig from a rose bush planted by some loving hand on the grave of a dear one, cut off a sprout from this spruce tree or cut up a mullen from that border, we thought how watchful he is that this wide area of nearly forty acres, shall be clear of anything to mar its beauty.”

“What a vast number of dead lie within the precincts of Greenlawn moldered into kindred dust. The old sexton could not form an idea, he said, as to how many lie buried beneath the evergreens and under the sod. When the bodies were disinterred in the old burying ground down town, they were buried thirty and forty in a grave. Jesse Farley was sexton. ‘In digging one grave,’ said Sexton McNeal, ‘we exhumed sixteen skulls, and had to fill it up and go elsewhere.”

“The potter’s field has many little graves in it,’ we said. ‘Oh yes. Strangers and those unable to buy lots must be buried in Potter’s field. But there are many more children buried here than adults. My dear sir, I have put as high as three and four in one grave. Some day the parents may be able to buy a lot, and when they have one child buried in Potter’s field, and have another, and there is not room to bury it by the side of the first, they want it in the same grave where they can keep them together and mark it. Then there are a great many illegitimate infants, children of poor girls and loose characters, who bring them here for us to bury in Potter’s field.”

“How many persons have you buried since you have been here?”

“When my ten years are up next years,’ said the old sexton, ‘I will probably have buried at least 1500 persons. They have all got to come out here,’ said he, as he stopped to cut down a thick clump of dead sage grass along the walk.”

“Among the monuments that mark the last resting place of the Portsmouth dead in the short stroll we took through the cemetery, for we did not have the time then to note them all, the beautiful one which attracted us first was that of Charles Parker Tracy. It will be ten years next month since the writer chronicled his death at prayer. How time has fled since this good man died.”

“The large freestone monument put up this year beside the granite monument at the vault of the Captain William Moore lot, is a handsome, although plain pile of gray, blue, and red freestone.”

“It is a fine granite monument that John H Doty has reared to the memory of his father, and a place is reserved by the slanted mound for the mother to rest when death has knit up the ravelled chains of care.”

“The small American black mottled marble stone that directs the visitor to the graves of the late Dr. Giles Samuel Booth Hempstead and wife, is of his own selection. ‘He told me,’ said the sexton, ‘I have visited many of the marble houses of this country and non suited me as well as this. I want something to show that I was an abolitionist and that people will know it when they see it.'”

“The monument to Samuel Booth Hempstead is very attractive with its archwork supported by four small columns and under the arch a life-like bust of the deceased.”

“The William Stephenson monument, which is of Dayton limestone, is cracking from base to summit, and clearly indicates that it will not stand in this climate at least. It is a pity, too, for it is massive and pretty.”

“Mrs. Schwab has had a very artistically carved marble figure of the Blessed Mother, with a cross, on the monument to her late husband, Dr. Louis Schwab, put in place last week.”

“The monument to James Orin Murfin, who died in All Saints Church this year, is a beautiful dark granite, and under the name is a richly carved Knight Templars’ badge, and in a semi-circle over it is the motto of the order -In hoc signo vinces – under this sign thou shalt conquer.”

“A heavy limestone base is laid for an imposing granite monument, now coming from Italy by ship, to commemorate the virtues of Mrs. John Armstrong, who died recently. Bowman & Kirby have the contract. It is to be erected this month.”

“A dark American marble monument of recent erection, marks the grave of Mrs. GH Heinisch.”

General Joseph Lucas Hibbs lot, in which his parents are buried, has a most imposing monument of Boston granite. The remains were removed from the old family burying grounds a few years ago, and the body of the General’s mother was petrified. ‘I have disinterred as many as 200 bodies,’ said the aged sexton, ‘and this is the only one I ever saw that turned to stone.'”

“A very neat marble stone, with cross and scroll overrun with carved ivy and fern, marks the resting place of Lillie Ray, daughter of a well-known uptown Magdalena. The grave indicates many visits from the mother, who has strewn the slanting mound with many mute tributes of affection, shells and artificial flowers predominating.”

“The grave of Mollie Radford was pointed out by the old sexton, who informed us that she was soon to have a monument. Mollie was well known as having lived a life of gentle dalliance. ‘Her last wish,’ said the sexton, as he plucked an alien spear of grass from the now grassless grave, ‘was the request that no grass should ever be permitted to grow on her grave.’ It is laid with Ohio river and seashells, and rock moss is beginning to overrun it.”

“A church is to be erected in the center of Section 15, so that funeral services may be held in the cemetery in favorable weather, where it has not been done in the city. The work of reburying the soldiers in this section will begin next week, the privilege having been grated Bailey Post, GAR, by the Cemetery Board.”

“The addition to Greenlawn known as Holy Redeemer Cemetery addition, is indeed beautiful. Where two years ago stood a cornfield, are not handsomely laid out walks and lots, with evergreens and ornamental shrubs, and many imposing marble gravestones and small monuments.”

“The father of Mrs. TM Lynn, Jesse Cockerill, with his two first wives on his left, have recently been disinterred near Lucasville, and lie in Greenlawn. His third wife re-married, and by agreement with her present husband, has left a place in Greenlawn where she desires to be, and will be buried when her summons comes.”

“In the Holy Redeemer addition, the parents of M Stanton were reinterred a few days ago, with four children, three of his brother John’s and one of his sister’s children, the remains having been disinterred at Berlin. A handsome monument will shortly be erected on the lot where they have been buried for the second time.”

“Much more might be written, but with only an hour to spare, we reluctantly left, and thanking Section McNeal, promised to accept the invitation to come and spend a longer time.”1

  1. An Hour in Greenlawn. (1883, December 08). Portsmouth Times, p. 1.

(1) Comment

  1. […] removing three bodies from Lucas Cemetery to Greenlawn last week, the sexton found one almost wholly petrified, Mrs. […]

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