Monday, July 28, 2014

Ellen Herndon Arthur

With its tall bronze angel and polished black sarcophagus, the monument of Chester A. Arthur is easily the most famous in the Albany Rural Cemetery.  Small metal markers throughout the Cemetery point the way to it and annual wreath-laying ceremonies honor the 21st President of the United States.

President Arthur isn't - as a few visitors (and authors) have mistakenly assumed - buried inside that black stone sarcophagus.  His grave is actually just behind the massive monument.  And that is where the delicate white marble sarcophagus-style headstone of his wife is located.

Ellen Herndon was born in Culpeper Court House, Virginia in 1837.  She was daughter of Captain William Lewis Herndon, a Mexican War veteran and Naval explorer who headed an expedition to the then largely uncharted Valley of  the Amazon in South America.  Herndon was hailed as a hero when he went down with his mail steamer, the SS Central America.  When the ship was crippled during a hurricane near Cape Hatteras, Captain Herndon arranged for over a hundred and fifty women and children to be transferred to another vessel before Captain Herndon went going down with his ship on September 12, 1857. 

Chester Arthur, then a promising young lawyer, proposed to Ellen on the verandah of the U.S. Hotel in Saratoga Springs in 1856 and they were married in New York City three years later.  The couple had three children;  William Lewis Herndon Arthur who was named after the Captain, Chester Arthur II, and Ellen, known as Nellie. During the Civil War, Ellen quietly sympathized with the South because of close family ties in her native Virginia while her husband served as Quartermaster General of the New York Militia.

Ellen Arthur, known to those close to her as Nell, died at the age of forty-two on January 12, 1880.  She had caught a cold while waiting for her carriage after a benefit concert in New York City which quickly developed into pneumonia.  She died before Arthur could reach her bedside. 

Ellen was buried in a family plot at the Rural Cemetery originally purchased by her father-in-law and her grave was marked by a sarcophagus-style monument of white Italian marble on a bluestone base. It was erected in early 1883 by William Manson who was also responsible for creating the Fireman's Monument, the Col. Mills monument, and the massive granite monument in the William Appleton lot. The top of this sarcophagus is carved with a cross which runs the length of the monument.  During Chester Arthur's lifetime, the lot in which Nellie was buried was beautifully landscaped with rose bushes, geraniums, and ornamental trees. At the time, this area, rather near the western edge of the Cemetery, was known as “Sunset Lawn.” 

When Vice-President Chester Arthur became President after the assassination of James Garfield, he had freshly-cut flowers in front of Nell's portrait every day and he had a stained glass window depicting the “Annunciation To The Shepherds” installed as a memorial to her in the south transept of St. John's Episcopal Church which he could see from his White House windows, especially at night when the church was kept lit. A talented singer, Ellen Arthur had been a member of that church's choir during her youth.

A year after his own Presidency ended, Chester Arthur died in 1886 and was buried near Ellen in the family plot. 

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