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vol. 4, p. 28
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 4 (1875-1878)


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< Baron de Palm Cremated (continued from page 4-27) >

burning on the shores of the Mediterranean in 1822, the burning in 1871 of the body of an East Indian Prince who died in Florence, the cremation in a temple of his own design, about a year ago, of the body of Alberto Keller, of Milan, and the burning in the same year of the body of Lady Dilke and that of am[1] eminent German physician, have been the most conspicious. In the United States, the only recorded instances of cremation, except the burning alive of prisoners at the stake by savages, are those of the burning of Henry Laurens, about 1816, and of Henry Berry, in Marion-County, S. C., last July. It remained for the late, or rather present, Joseph Henry Louis, Baron de Palm, Grand Cross Commander of the Order of the Holy-Sepulchre at Jerusalem, Knight of St. John at Malta, Prince of the Roman Empire, late Chamberlain to His Majesty the King of Bavaria, Fellow of the Theosophical Society of New York, &c, to dictate the new cremation which has just been accomplished.

This nobleman’s life was a romance of which his đeath, embalming, preliminary funeral in New York and cremation in Pennsylvania are strange sequences. He was a member of that diplomatic corps which includes in every European capital the brightest, the best-educated, the most accomplished of men, but he wearied of courts, possibly because the expenses of German diplomatics could not keep расе with those of English ambassadors. With a failing income and a stout heart he emigrated to America, and landed in New York in 1858, a bachelor of some fifty years. He pushed on to Chicago, and there from time to time, in company with associates who are well known among merchants, he engaged in various business enterprises and real estate operations. They proved unfortunate. Towards the close of the year 1875 he returned to New York, bringing a letter of introduction to Colonel Henry S. Olcott. Colonel Olcott is one of the most ingemons of men. It was he who exposed the iniquities of the Eddy spiritual manifistations in New England ; it was he who founded the New York Theosophical Society, and he it was who, among persons outside of newspaper offices and lunatic asylums, took a deep interest in the subject of cremation. His new friend, the aged Baron de Palm, grew to be aware of his preference for that mode of doing away with the body after death.

In the course of time the aged Baron, terribly impecunious in New York, fell sick. His enterprises, his speculations, had all gone wrong ; he was despondent and prostrate. He proposed to have him self taken to a public hospital. Colonel Olcott would not consent to this, and took the Baron to his own home. There for wheeks before his death, on the 20th of last May, he was carefully nursed and attended to. Finally he insisted on going to a hospital, and said to Colonel Olcott :

"Before I go I shall make my will."

“ Very good," said the Colonel.

“ I am going to leave all my property to you.”

The Colonel was staggered. “ My dear Baron, I don't want anything of yours."

“ You are the only who has ever been kind to me in this way. You have taken me in, as Americans say, and done for me, I insist."

“ But your relations abroad,” protested the Colonel.

“ There are none for whom I care or who care for me ; there are none whose places you have not usurped in this my extremity.”

“ Ваron,” urged the Colonel, “ I would do for any other human creature what I have done for you ; there is the Theosophical Society, you are a member of it ; leave what you have to it.”

“ I will leave what is mine,” firmly responded the nobleman, “ all to you.”

A lawyer was summoned and it was done. Colonel Olcott and Mr. H.J. Newton were appointed his executors, and the Baron died. Among his last wishes were these : That his funeral rites should be conducted by no clergymen, but by Colonel Olcott personally, after ancient forms ; that his body should be burned (cremated) and not buried. His property consisting of real estate from which he derived no income, was found to be extensive. An old will describes him as Seignior of the castles of Old and New Wartansee, on Lake Constance. He owned 20,000 acres in Wisconsin, thirty odd lots near Chicago and seven or eight far Western mining claims.

Colonel Olcott, having accepted the office of the Baron de Palm’s executor, had no choice but to obey his will. The funeral in New York, on the 28th of last May, was Act I. It was held in the Masonic Temple in Twenty-third street. An altar was erected, from which clouds of incense rose colling up to the high ceiling. To the right of the altar stood the Egyptian tau (a cross deprived of its upper area, and resembling the letter T). with a serpent twined, around it, symbolizing immortality. Even candles were arranged in the form or the pentacle of Solomon. The sword of the knight was laid upon the coffin, and a parchment patent of the Order of the Sepulchre, of which the Baron was a member, with the great waxen seal appended, lay under the sword. Seven priests in black robes and dearing palm branches appeared. The liturgy, arranged by Colonel Olcott, embodied the ancient ideas of immortality. Orphic hymns were sung, the Vedic manuscripts und Codex Nazarenus were cited, and at last an oration was delivered by the conscientious chief executor, who sang forth the antique, ideals of human life, its possibilities and responsibilities.

It being impracticable just then to burn the late Baron as he desired it to be burned, it was embalmed and laid in a receiving vault to await the соmрletion of the present crematory by old Dr. Le Moyne, of Washington, The doctor bad been immensely pleased with The World's articles on cremation, and declared that if nobody else in America would construct a furnace for the reduction of human ore he would. He built it, therefore, and tried several sheep in it. They panned out handsomely, and Baron de Palm’s executors decided some time ago upon the extraordinary proceeding which has been consummated here to-day.

Of the exhumation of the body and its progress here from New York, I telegraphed you briefly last night. Yesterday morning it was conveyed from the depot to the crematory, a mile from town, where a mixed and curious crowd had assembled, morbidly hoping to look upon it. The embalmer indulged himself for some time with descriptions of the beautiful condition of the object, but it is credible to Colonel Olcott that when the box was opened which contained the remains of his venerated and eccantric friend he ordered it instantly to be closed. No spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes, and the crowd was dismissed forthwith. It was immediately determined that on the morrow there should be public exposure, but that the body should be sheeted from sight before its consignment to the fire.

Early this morning Act II. began. Scientific persons and newspaper reporters from various cities had arrived in the little city of Washingon, whose inhabitants were mostly of the opinion that a revelting performance was going to come off on neighboring hill. The site of the crematory is a pleasant one, though it looked bleak enough on this winter day. The building itself is hideous. There is nothing in its exteriour or interiour to relieve the ugliness of to-day's doing. It is a brick parallelogram, roofed with iron, and is divided into two rooms. One apartment designed for the first reception of corpses and the accommodation of guests, has a long table for coffin to rest on and a columbarium for funeral urns. A common coal stove stands at one side, and chairs are distributed about. The next room is occupied by the furnace, and what its inventor is pleased to call his “ retort.” It is loathesomely cheap and plain for its purpose. Coarse bricks and fire-bricks from the walls ; the furnace door below and the door of the fire-clay oven above it are of unornamented iron. The front of the furnace resembles that of any common furnace for melting iron or reducing ores. A sooty feeder of the fire stood in front of it this morning, rather fatigued by a vigil of thirty-six hours since the fire began to burn.

Dr. Le Moyne himself, a filthy old man in bad clothes and red-checked comforter, soon appeared. It seems that he is Radical in soveral respects. He has twice been candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, and was once (in 1835, I think) candidate for Vice-President of the United States. He hates custom and state as he does the devil. Among his theories is one that the human body was never intended by its Creator to come in contact with water. As to cremation, he explained his preference for it in a nutshell : “ What it takes nature centuries to accomplish at vast risk to living human being, I would accomplish in a few hours.” I asked the doctor, who is suffering from chronic rheumatism and expects to be cremated soon himself, whether he proposed along with cremation to do away with all sentimental and religious considerations in the presence of death. “ Well, sir,” he answered, “ we physicians, are accustomed to carve and cut up human bodies, and I don't suppose we have as much regard for ’em as many other people have.” I should think not.

Before any guests were admitted, the body had been taken from the coffin, completely wrapped in a white sheet and laid upon an iron crate which stood on wooden trestles in the centre of the reception-room, according to the old Greek and Roman custom. It was injected and surrounded with cinnamon, cassia, frankincence and myrrh. About 8.30 o’clock Colonel Olcott approached and saturated the sheet which swathed it with a solution of alum, designed to prevent the instant withering of the sheet and consequent exposure of the remains before the furnace could be closed.

<†> Having done this, he and Mr. Newton, his fellow-executor, spread upon the sheet a quantity of roses, primroses, arbutus, smilax, palms and evergreens, as typical of immortality.

Wille these gentlemen performed their office some forty other persons were in the room. Among them were Dr. Folsom, Health Officer of Boston ; Dr. W. J. Arsdale, Secretary of the Board of Health of Pittsburg ; Dr. Ottarson, President of the Board of Health of Brooklin ; Dr. Geo. P. Hayes, President of Washington and Jefferson College here ; Dr. Jas. King, of Pittsburg ; Drs Johnson and McCord, also of Pittsburg ; Dr. Huff, of Wheeling, W. Va.; Dr. Jno. A. Wells, of Massachusets ; Dr Clemmer, of Brownsville, Vt. ; Mr. Harding, of Washington, and Drs Ulrich and Olcott, of Wheeling. Newspaper reporters were present from various parts of the country, and even from France and Germany. The Bien Public, of Paris, and the Nurenberg Anziegers Bainern were represented. Jests were frequent and free and easy manners were liberally indulged in. Everybody kept his hat on, and for all the ceremony that was observed by any except the late Baron’s executors, one might have supposed that the company had been assembled to have a good time over roast pig. One reporter surreptitiously lifted the sheet and took a hasty note of the appearance of the “things” underneath it. Anothe coolly used the face cover as a temporary desk for his note-book, on which he scrawled some memoranda of the appearance of the Baron’s face. Altogether the levity inside and the worse levity of the crowd outside the building were in keeping with the generally prosaic character of the performance.

Finally the furnace-room was cleared. The door of the long oven was thrown wide, and the throng in the reception-room was compelled to divide between the corpse and the intervening doorway. The bearers, Colonel Olcott and Mr. Newton at the head, and Drs. Le Moyne and Arsdale at the feet, removed their hats but retained their overcoats, and this example was followed by several other gentlemen. They took the crate and bore it slowly into the furnace-room, and without ceremony or ado shoved it and the shrouded shape lying upon it headforemost into the red-hot oven. As it went in, a sprig of palm upon the forehead burst into a plume of flame. As it went in, however, I went out, and I am indebted to a more dutiful observer through the peep-hole of the oven for the following veracious account of what occurred during the next few hours :

At 8.45, soon arter the oven door was closed, the vapors cleared away, and the body, with the saturated sheet corvering it and not consumed, was plainly visable against a background of red fire. Every sprig of evergreen and the form of every flower was visible, though all had been instantaneously reduced to ashes. At 9.15, that part of the sheet at the head which had not been saturated with alum stood up clawed, black and ragged, but still acted as a veil, concealing the features. A starting appearance was observed of the left hand rised with three fingers pointing upward. At 9.25, it having been suggested that there was no enough oxygen admitted into the retort, Dr. Ottarson tested the draught through the peep-hole. He found it ample. The arm had fallen across and colored light surrounded the remains. The vent delivered forth what by some was described as a slightly aromatic and by others a peculiarly disagreeable odor. At 10.25 the body was wholly incaudescent. The ashes of the shroud dropping from before the feet showed them to be semi-transparent, as one’s hand looks when held up before a lamp. The iron crate was by this time red hot. The blower was puffing at the furnace, and it was apparent that the late Baron was decidedly overdone. At 10.40 Dr. Le. Moyne, the three Health officers, Mr. Harding and Colonel Olcott went into the furnace-room, closed the door and held a consultation. All agreed that the cremation was practically completed. Indeed Mr. Dye, the builder of the furnace, said the body was better cremated than the sheep had been. Still they decided to keep the fire blazing at full heat for another hour. At 11.12 Dr. Folsom, having partially cooked his eye-ball at the peep-hole, announced that the cremation was accomplished beyond question. The pelvis, which had bitherti kept its shape, had now fallen and nothing remained but a confused mass of ashes in the buttom of the retort, over wich was spread the ashes of the shroud ; but above the shroud the ashes of the twigs of evergreen still remained in air, and enthusiastic cremationists accepted this fact as a bright omen. It was afternoon when the fires were drawn from the furnace and the whole oven left to cool. The Hindoo urn which was placed above the brick-work awaits the ashes, which will be removed to-morrow when the retort has time to cool. <... continues on page 4-29 >

<†> The ...

Editor's notes

  1. So in text.