THE RESTLESS GRAVESTONE
OF FEDERAL HILL CEMETERY
This story is excerpted in part from
the book BEYOND THE GRAVE by Troy Taylor (Whitechapel Press, 2000). For
information on ordering the book, click here for the
One moving gravestone seems to be influenced by the spirit of the man who is buried beneath it. It is located in a cemetery in Bardstown, Kentucky and it has acquired a rather unusual legend over the last 150 years.
This stone is placed over the grave of John Rowan, one of historic America's most prominent men. He was a state judge in Kentucky, served seven terms in the legislature and was elected to the United States Senate. He was also Kentucky's Secretary of State and the chief justice for the court of appeals. His cousin, Stephen Foster, is probably the best remembered songwriter of the 1800's and Rowan's former mansion, Federal Hill, is now a popular tourist attraction. It was at Federal Hill that foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” and the house was given this nickname many years ago.
Tragedy plagued Rowan throughout his life. When he was a boy, he was so sickly that his family never expected him to live very long. Hoping that the robust country might invigorate the puny child, Rowan’s father, William Rowan, moved the family west to Kentucky. Here, enrolled in Dr. James Priestly’s school, John began to thrive and not only improved physically but intellectually as well. He became a brilliant scholar and studied law in Lexington and was a well-known lawyer by 1795. A few years earlier, Rowan met Ann Lytle and the two married. The land on which Federal Hill was constructed was deeded to Rowan by his father-in-law in 1794. Throughout the early 1800’s, the Rowans hosted a number of dignitaries, including Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James Monroe and others.
The house was also the scene of Rowan’s greatest heartbreak. It was here in 1801 that Rowan was forced into a duel with an acquaintance, Dr. James Chambers. Their disagreement began during a card game where the men argued over which one of them was more conversant in Latin. Witnesses stated that the spat deteriorated to the point that Rowan made a disparaging remark about Chambers’ wife. Chambers then challenged Rowan to a duel. Rowan admitted that he behaved ungentlemanly and made a public apology, but Chambers insisted on the duel anyway. The two men met on the field of honor, but only John Rowan walked away.
Tragedy came to Federal Hill again in July 1833 when four members of the Rowan family and 26 slaves died during a cholera epidemic. Rowan’s oldest son, John, had just been appointed as Secretary of State for President Andrew Jackson. He had stopped at Federal Hill to pay a visit to his family on the way to Washington. Unfortunately, he came down with cholera and died with the others.
When Rowan died in July of 1843, he expressly stated that he wished to have no monument or stone placed on his grave site. He felt that since his parents had been buried without grave markers, he would be disrespecting their memories if he were given an honor they had not received. He felt that his home at Federal Hill stood as more than enough monument to his memory. His family and friends ignored this request however, believing that such a great and prominent man deserved a suitable marker to grace his final resting place. He was buried in Bardstown Cemetery, then later moved to Federal Hill Cemetery (near his home) and a tall, obelisk-shaped stone was placed at the site.
A short time after work was completed and the monument was placed at the site, it suddenly toppled over for no apparent reason. Members of the family, already disturbed by the talk that had gone around about the controversial marker, quickly summoned a stonemason to repair the marker and put it back into place. The workmen were puzzled by how the stone could have fallen. Someone suggested that perhaps the ground had settled or that tree roots had knocked the stone over. They hesitantly agreed, but remained unconvinced. Soon after, rumors began to circulate about the stone’s mysterious movements.
Within a month or two, the masons received word that their services were needed once more. John Rowan’s gravestone had again fallen over. Several of the workmen refused to return to the cemetery. The stone was fixed, but soon after, it fell over again. It tumbled off its base and fell directly onto the ground where Rowan lay. More rumors began to spread that the unhappy spirit of John Rowan had returned and was knocking over the marker that he had not wanted placed there in the first place. It continued to fall over on a regular basis and finally, frightened stone masons refused to return to the cemetery at all. Repair of the stone was left in the hands of the cemetery workers.
Inexplicably, workmen and caretakers are still trying to keep the stone in place today. It continues to fall over for no apparent reason. Why? No one seems to know, but it’s just possible that John Rowan meant exactly what he stated in his will... that he forbid a monumental stone of any kind to be placed on his grave!
From "Beyond the Grave" by Troy Taylor
Bardstown is about thirty miles south of Louisville, Kentucky, which is just over the Southern Indiana border.
©Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.