The Race to Save Benjamin Franklin's Cracked Gravestone

Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

The Pennsylvania Gazette published the morning of April 21, 1790, was rimmed in black. Flags across the city, and on the ships in the harbor, fluttered at half mast, and some 20,000 people crowded the streets.

“On Saturday night last departed this life ... Dr. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, of this City,” the paper read. “His Remains will be interred THIS AFTERNOON, at four o'clock, on Christ-Church burial ground.”

It was the largest funeral the city had ever seen; nearly half of Philadelphia’s population had come out to view the beloved Founding Father’s funeral procession.

It began at the State House (now called Independence Hall), where Franklin had served as Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention three years earlier, just as his health was beginning to weaken. Clergy of all faiths came first, followed by Franklin’s casket, which was carried by some of Pennsylvania’s most important men—the president of Pennsylvania, the former mayor of the city, and the president of the Bank of North America among them. Next was Franklin’s family, and finally, there were printers, members of the fire company and the Philosophical Society, judges and state assemblymen, and politicians.

Church bells were muffled and tolled as the procession wound its way from the State House to Christ Church Burial Ground at the intersection of 5th and Arch Streets. As Franklin was lowered into the ground, the militia fired their guns. The grave was filled with dirt. Some time later, a blue marble ledger tablet, weighing over 1000 pounds, was laid on top.

Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's grave marker sometime before 1858.
Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's grave marker sometime before 1858.
Library Company of Philadelphia

It was exactly what Franklin had wanted. Though he had written an elaborate mock epitaph as a 22-year-old (which began, “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents Torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms”), he outlined something much simpler when he updated his will in 1788. Franklin wrote that he wanted to be buried next to his wife, Deborah, in the family plot. He asked that “a marble stone,” made by mason David Chambers, “6 feet long, 4 feet wide, plain, with only a small moulding round the upper edge,” reading “Benjamin And Deborah Franklin 178-” be “placed over us both.”

For the next 70 years, the Franklin family plot was hidden from view by the brick wall that enclosed Christ Church Burial Ground (which, at that time, was closed to the public). Then, in the 1850s, an article lamenting the condition of Franklin’s gravesite, and its lack of access, ran in newspapers across the country. “A dilapidated dark slab of stone … marks ... the spot where rest the remains of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin,” it read. “So well hidden is THIS grave, and so little frequented, that we have known many native Philadelphians … who could not direct one to the locality where it may be found.”

In response to pleas from the public, Christ Church eventually replaced a section of the wall next to the grave with a wrought-iron fence in 1858. This may have been when the Franklins’ marble marker—which some felt was too simple a memorial for such a great American—was placed in an elevated granite platform to give the site more of a monument feel.

Little boys look over Franklin's grave circa 1900.
Library of Congress

Making Franklin’s grave visible from the sidewalk was great for the public, but not so great for the condition of the Founding Father’s ledger tablet. As decades passed, thousands of visitors stopped by, and when his name became attached to an idiom he never actually said—“a penny saved is a penny earned”—people began tossing pennies on the grave. In the 1950s, the Church made repairs to the tablet and covered the grass surrounding the graves with red bricks. All the while, the public continued to toss coins and mementos onto the grave, creating pockmarks and pitting in the tablet’s surface, while moisture gathered beneath it in the granite base.

And then, one day—no one is quite sure when—a crack appeared, running right through the K in Franklin.

The staff at Christ Church Burial Ground monitored the crack for decades until, in 2016, they knew they had no choice but to act. Growth of the fissure was still accelerating, putting one of the most important gravesites in the United States at risk of being lost forever. Keeping the crack from getting worse would require the expert work of conservationists, funds from the public—and a little help from a rock star.

 


 

There are more than 4000 people interred at Christ Church’s 2-acre burial ground, which is located in Philly’s Old City neighborhood not far from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There are five signers of the Declaration of Independence and two signers of the Constitution interred there, but Franklin is by far its most popular resident: Hundreds of thousands of people file by the fence next to his grave each year, and 60,000 pay an entry fee to come into the burial ground itself to pay their respects.

Also watching over Franklin is John Hopkins, who has served as caretaker of the Christ Church Burial Ground for 15 years. In addition to maintaining the stones and deciding which will be fixed, Hopkins manages a staff of tour guides, runs the tourism program, deals with upkeep of the grounds, and handles interactions with descendants of the people interred there. By his estimation, he’s spent more time with Franklin than the people who knew the Founding Father when he was alive. He’s a bit of a Franklin obsessive, able to drop idioms and facts at random. There’s an incredibly detailed Franklin action figure, which holds a hawk feather, on his desk. (It’s joined by photos of Edgar Allan Poe, a banner bearing the names of burial ground residents, and a red fedora adorned with the Phillies logo.)

Hopkins has had his eye on the crack from the moment he became caretaker. “Every year, I’d get a ruler and measure it,” he says. For most of his tenure, growth of the crack was slight but steady, “enough to cause concern.” The Franklin marker had long been on his list of stones to fix, but because it wasn’t a safety issue—“repairing any stones that may fall and hurt a visitor” is the number one priority, he says—Hopkins had to put it off.

John Hopkins examines a grave in Christ Church Burial Ground.
John Hopkins in Christ Church Burial Ground.
Lauren Spinelli

Materials Conservation, a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in restoring architecture, art, and gravestones, works its magic on about 20 Christ Church markers chosen by Hopkins each year. Marco Federico, senior conservator at the company, became concerned about the fissure in Franklin’s tablet around five years ago. Based on what he and his team knew about historic materials, he says, they explained to the Christ Church Preservation Trust that the combination of marble ledger tablet and granite base was a very bad one. “Marble is calcium carbonite, a metamorphic [rock], and it needs to breathe. When it’s wet, it needs to dry out,” Federico says. “Granite, which is an igneous rock, does not readily allow moisture to pass through it.”

Marble, he explains, expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry. When the stone can fully dry out, it’s not a problem—but when the top of the marble dries and the bottom half is still wet, it causes the stone to warp. “If only half the stone is drying out while the bottom continually remains saturated,” Federico says, “fatigue failure will eventually occur and it will shear in half.”

Which is precisely what happened with Franklin’s marker: Much like a bathtub, the granite base the tablet sat in was holding water, and with no way to drain, that water sat until it dried up on its own—which could take weeks or months. The water kept the marble from drying out completely until the stone was so warped and stressed that it cracked. With repeated wet/dry cycles, Federico says, “we knew that crack would start to get bigger and bigger.”

And get bigger it did. In the past couple of years, growth of the crack accelerated—and it became clear to Hopkins and Federico that the time had come to deal with it, or risk the damage becoming too great to save the stone.

The Christ Church Preservation Fund secured $70,000 worth of grants to repair the tablet, but it wasn’t enough to cover the full costs; they’d need an additional $10,000 to get the job done. That’s a lot of pennies, but Hopkins had an idea about how to get the funds.

In the early 1750s, Franklin managed a lottery to fund the construction of the building’s steeple, selling tickets to Philadelphia’s citizens until the church had enough money. “Some of us jokingly believe he probably had some ulterior motives, to do some experimenting with the electricity and the height of the building,” Hopkins says. “There were a lot of people involved in the lottery, but Franklin was the big loud guy that could talk you into buying the tickets.”

Franklin, Hopkins reasoned, had been the ultimate community guy, one who was "kickstarting" long before Kickstarter—so why not follow his example and start a GoFundMe to raise money for the restoration of his grave?

The campaign went live in November 2016, and the public stepped up right away, leaving messages along with their donations. “The embodiment of freedom and enlightenment. Thank you Ben Franklin for inspiring the ages!” wrote one supporter. “A true Philadelphia landmark that should be preserved!” wrote another. (Our personal favorite: “Fart proudly, neighbor!” Franklin loved a good fart joke.) Even the Philadelphia Eagles got in on the action, donating $1000—which delighted Hopkins, an enthusiastic Philly sports fan.

But the single biggest donation came from a seemingly unlikely source: New Jersey-born musician Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea. “I didn’t realize he was a big history buff,” Hopkins says. “He gives a lot of money to different organizations in Philadelphia. The fact that he was interested in our project was really cool and brought more attention to it.”

The GoFundMe reached its goal in just a day, eventually raising more than $14,000. The restoration was a go—which meant that Federico and his team had to get to work.

 


 

Before they could get started, the Materials Conservation and Christ Church teams had to come up with a plan of attack. They decided that, after lifting the marker, they’d sand down the edge of the granite base and add weep holes for water to drain; raised granite plinths would be placed on the base, and the tablet set back on those—leaving a small gap between the underside of the marker and the granite base. Water would drip off the tablet or drain through the weep holes, allowing the marker to fully dry out.

“We want to do as little as possible, basically,” Federico says. “We don’t want to do 100 percent restoration and have a brand-new-looking stone—we want to conserve the object as it is, and allow this historic resource to have a vastly increased lifespan.” Without the restoration, Federico estimates that the tablet would have cracked completely in three to five years. The restoration could allow the stone to remain on view for another 100 years.

Federico wasn’t sure how bad the crack was—there was no way of knowing until they had lifted the tablet—but he knew there was a chance the tablet would break as they were removing it from the base. He believed he could get under the stone via two broken corners, which provided the most access, and bridge the crack with a piece of stainless steel, then block the tablet up on wood a little bit at a time: a sixteenth of an inch at a time and then a quarter-inch at a time.

That’s exactly what Federico’s team tried—until the stone, still saturated, began to bend at the crack.

The team changed their approach. They fabricated stainless steel s-hooks and used compressed air to blow out debris (mud and “dirty little pennies”) from the area under the stone. They slid the tiny steel levers between the gap of the ledger tablet and the granite base. And then, they began to lift.

Federico kept his eye on the crack as two assistants used levers and a fulcrum to lift from the side. They proceeded carefully, lifting in small increments. Finally, after a tense hour, they had hoisted the ledger tablet high enough to slip a 2-by-4 piece of wood under each end, which allowed them to lift while spreading the load over the crack. “Once we were able to do that, it just became standard procedure,” Federico says. They lifted again, added a piece of wood, lifted again, added a piece of wood, until the tablet was raised around 8 inches off the granite base, supported on either end by a stack of wood.

But they still weren’t finished. The next step was to bolt two longer pieces of wood to the lateral pieces on either end, creating a frame—which is what they’d lift when they moved the tablet for real. With that task finished, they took off for the weekend, leaving the tablet sitting on foam-wrapped wood. The final piece of heavy lifting would happen on Monday.

Federico has conserved many gravestones during his 10 years as a conservator, but none are quite like this one. “If you’re looking for, like, the most iconic figure in American history, it’s hard to top Franklin,” he says. “There is only one Ben Franklin, and there’s only one Ben Franklin marker, and the way that Philadelphians and tourists interact with that marker—there's a very public connection. I wouldn’t say there was extra pressure, because we’re used to working on objects and materials of tremendous historical and cultural significance. But it’s not like the run of the mill thing, either.”

Finally, the day came to really lift the tablet: April 17, the anniversary of Franklin’s death. A green tarp had been secured over the wrought iron fence that faced the street, but Federico and his team still had an audience—the Bon Jovis. “I hate having an audience when I think that there's a chance for catastrophic failure, because no matter how many precautions you take, things break,” he says. “Catastrophic failure can happen at any time for any number of reasons.”

Redundancy is your friend when you’re dealing with a very heavy priceless object, so all of the equipment used to lift Franklin’s marker was built to handle as much of a load as possible. “Usually when you’re lifting a load, you want to be sure that all your straps, chains, and clevises, are rated for twice the load you’re lifting,” Federico says. “It’s better to be at triple knowing you have an audience and your mistakes could easily turn you into an eternal meme for failure!”

The goal was to lift the frame holding Franklin’s marker off the wood blocking and place both frame and tablet safely on a nearby metal frame table. Using a chain hoist on an I-beam, they slowly lifted the tablet and swung the stone 3 feet to the side. Federico was “hyper-aware, with every sense of my being focused on the slightest movement.” Then they carefully lifted it 3 feet off the ground.

The crew at Materials Conservation carefully lifts Franklin's grave marker.
John Carr, Materials Conservation

Success. They wheeled the table underneath the marker and safely set it down. The whole process took about six hours. “When Benjamin Franklin’s grave marker is dangling by a chain and you acknowledge that chain’s performance will define your life’s work, yeah, it feels good to know it’s safe and sound on a table,” Federico says.

Plus, it was pretty cool to have Bon Jovi there. Not only did it give Federico’s team an excuse to really take their time, but “Mr. Bon Jovi was really as low-profile about it as he could have been,” Federico says. “He was very interested in how the tablet was made, and what the conditions were, and how we were going to repair it and what it would look like when it was repaired. His interest is really sincere and genuine, and so we appreciated that.”

 


 

It’s a gray day in late April, and the tarp is still up over the fence at Christ Church Burial Ground. The barrier gives the Materials Conservation team privacy to get their work done. “The most common question we get when we’re working in the graveyard,” Federico says, “is ‘Are you digging them up?’” (For the record, the answer is always no.) A worker uses a wet saw with a diamond blade on a track to precisely cut down the edges of the granite base, one-sixteenth of an inch at a time; at one end of the base—where the top of Franklin’s tablet used to sit—is wet granite dust and three-quarters of an inch of milky water from yesterday’s rain.

The granite base where Franklin's tablet sat for decades.
Lauren Spinelli

The site where Franklin's tablet is being restored.
Lauren Spinelli

A few feet away, under a tent, Franklin’s tablet sits on a 4-by-4 wood frame. Federico has spread sample pucks full of composite repair mortars in various shades of gray on top, which he’ll eventually use to fill in the crack. “We’re going to match the composite mortar to the lighter color of the tablet,” he says, “and then we’ll use a mineral stain to go over the lighter area to continue these dark striations.”

The conservator has his work cut out for him. When they lifted the tablet out of its granite base, the team realized that the slab was cracked all the way through up until the bottom third of the stone. In addition to stabilizing the crack, Federico will also need to repair the two corners that had broken off, and treat the stone with a consolidant. “We look at stone as a monolithic thing, but it’s actually sort of like grains within a matrix,” he says. “The stone consolidant works its way into the matrix and strengthens these intergranular bonds.”

Federico began the restoration by treating the underside of the tablet with composite repair mortar, a cementitious material that he applied using a brush while lying on his back under the tablet, “like painting the Sistine Chapel.” Then he carefully drilled into the tablet on either side of the crack—“on the underside,” he jokes, because “it’s Franklin, not Frankenstein”—to make holes for seven stainless steel sutures that will sit flush with the tablet and bridge the crack to keep it from getting wider.

Franklin's tablet had cracked all the way through.
Lauren Spinelli

Marco Federico points out the sutures that will be used to stabilize the crack.
Lauren Spinelli

A piece of marble loose in the crack.
Lauren Spinelli

Next, he’ll need to clean the fissure. “You can see all the dirt in there—this has been open for a long time,” he says. “Not just water, not just dirt—little things crawl in there and make their homes. I don’t know who’s going to fall out of there when we open that up.” He also needs to remove and reset a big chunk of marble that’s currently sitting loose in the crack.

Then, using a syringe, he’ll fill the voids beneath the surface of the stone with a lime-based injection grout. The bottom “is so small that I can’t fill it,” Federico says, “but the top part of the crack will get filled. The underside has already been prepared, so whatever we inject will just flow down to that side and sit in there.” Finally, he’ll apply composite repair mortar on top of the grout with a micro spatulum and use the mineral stain to make it match. “The crack will still read as a crack, if you know where to look,” Federico says, “but it’s going to be greatly reduced in visibility.”

The crack runs directly through the K in Franklin, and Federico will fix that letter, too—but he’ll have Franklin’s final wishes in his mind as he does it. “I want to mess with this inscription as little as possible,” he says, “because as far as we know, this has not been recarved, this has not been touched up. The spacing of the lettering, all those marks are from when they were cut back in 1790.” After he’s filled the crack there slightly, he’ll go back during aesthetic integration and use mineral stain to do what he calls in-painting. “Once we treat it with mineral stain,” he says, “it’ll look and shade just the way the K initially had.”

But even once the crack is stabilized, and the tablet is back in place, it won’t be out of danger entirely. “The pennies!” Federico says. “God help us, the pennies.”

 


 

Those who pay their respects to Franklin by throwing pennies on his grave are doing it in honor of a phrase he didn’t even coin. (Sorry not sorry for those puns.) Variations on “a penny saved is a penny earned” date back to the 1600s; Thomas Fuller, for example, wrote “a penny saved is a penny gained” in 1662. Franklin put his spin on it, “a penny saved is a penny got,” in his 1758 issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and by the late 1830s, was erroneously credited as the originator of the quote “a penny saved is a penny earned.” (Nevermind that, as Blaine McCormick and Burton Folsom point out at Forbes, Franklin—an experienced businessman—“knew that a penny unspent in the competitive marketplace could never be equivalent to a penny earned in revenue.”) Two decades later, Christ Church opened up the wall beside Franklin’s grave, and, at some point, the penny throwing tradition began—and now, that tradition is having disastrous consequences for the tablet.

Marble, though it’s stone, is actually pretty soft. “That’s why [artists] carve things out of it,” Federico says. Get him started on the pennies, and he quickly becomes heated. “If you were to walk into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and just start throwing pennies at things, it would be completely unacceptable,” he says. “For us, it would also be completely unacceptable to be throwing any object at a historic monument like a grave marker.”

Marco Federico points out pitting in Franklin's stone caused by the penny-tossing tradition.
Lauren Spinelli

It might be hard to tell from afar, but up close, it’s easy to see, and to feel: The surface of Franklin’s tablet, especially the side closest to the street, is pockmarked and pitted from years of impacts—not just from pennies, but from nickels and quarters, souvenirs and mementos. “We can’t really protect the stone at night,” Hopkins says. “People use sticks to try to steal the pennies off the tablet.”

The tablet didn’t crack because of the pennies, but they do damage nonetheless. A close inspection of the stone reveals bright white flecks, evidence that the surface is degrading. Sadly, there’s nothing that can be done about that damage. “There's no good way to treat all of the pitting on the stone,” Federico says. “You just hope it weathers well and that it doesn’t continue to happen with such intensity that you cause areas where the water pools up on the stone, because as people continue to throw pennies on this, eventually that’s what's going to happen.”

Hopkins says that he removes between $3000 and $4000 worth of pennies from Franklin’s grave annually, funds that go right back into the preservation of the graves in the burial ground. But the benefits of the tradition don’t outweigh the cost. “As the caretaker of this burial ground, I take it very personally,” he says. “None of these other stones we even let people touch, let alone throw something on.” Tour guides who aren't affiliated with the Church stand by the fence and encourage people to throw pennies. “This is one of the greatest Americans of all time, and that’s all you can say about him?” Hopkins says. “And you don’t even mention his wife? I take it personally.”

So Hopkins is trying to educate the public in the hopes that they’ll quit throwing pennies. And if they don’t, the situation will one day reach a point of no return: “Once water starts pooling on top of it, with that crack, it’s really going to shorten the lifespan of the marker,” Federico says. “That’s when we may have to say, ‘Time to take it out of public view.’ And nobody wants that to happen.”

 


 

When he died at the age of 84 in 1790, Philadelphia’s Federal Gazette called Franklin a “FRIEND OF MANKIND” who possessed “singular abilities and virtues,” writing, “it is impossible for a newspaper to increase his fame, or to convey his name to a part of the civilized globe where it is not already known and admired.”

That was not exaggeration: Across the ocean, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau proclaimed to the French National Assembly that Franklin was “a mighty genius” who “was able to restrain alike thunderbolts and tyrants.” The Frenchmen wore black armbands; at home, members of the House of Representatives wore mourning colors for a month.

From the devices he invented to the republic he helped create, it’s impossible to quantify all that Franklin has given us. With this conservation, the team at Christ Church and Materials Conservation have done their part to keep the Founding Father’s legacy alive, and his ledger tablet around for generations to come. “I can rest easily in the grounds knowing that [his tablet] is going to be preserved beyond my years,” Hopkins says.

But how the tablet fares after this is up to the public. So the next time you're walking down Arch Street and pass Franklin's grave, stop to honor the man, admire the hard work that went into preserving his final resting place—and keep those pennies in your pocket.

Interactive Version of a Classic Color Manual Used By Charles Darwin Is Now Available Online

iStock
iStock

Scientists who study the natural world do more than tally numbers. Sometimes making an accurate scientific observation comes down to finding the perfect word to describe the shade of dried lavender flowers or the breast of a screech owl. In the 19th century, naturalists had Werner's Nomenclature of Colours to refer to—and now anyone looking to expand their color vocabulary can access the book's contents online, Fast Company reports.

Published in 1814, painter Patrick Syme designed the guide based on the work of geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. It features 110 distinct hues, each with a name, number, and a list of the animals, plants, and/or minerals that feature it in nature. Prussian blue, for example, naturally occurs in blue copper ore, the stamina of bluish purple anemone, and the spot on a mallard drake's wing, while wine yellow can be found in the saxon topaz, white currants, and the body of a silk moth. The book was used as a handy reference guide by researchers recording observations the field, including Charles Darwin.

Now, using free scans of the book from the Internet Archive, designer Nicholas Rougeux has transformed it into an interactive digital experience. The original color swatches and descriptions are included, as well as some modern additions. Click on a color and the entry will expand to show photographs of the plants, animals, and minerals mentioned. Rougeux has also made posters based on the manual available on the website.

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours may have been the color bible of its time, but it still covers just a fraction of all the shades that have been named. After exploring the digital guide online, continue to grow your knowledge with this color thesaurus.

[h/t Fast Company]

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

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