“One hour we saw him in full life, standing in the midst of us in the pride and vigor of manhood; the next, a helpless, inanimate corpse.”
— Rep. John Fairfield, Feb. 26, 1838, The Congressional Globe Index
This week, I’ve moved over to Elm Grove Cemetery to complete my series on these two Thomaston, Maine cemeteries. While Elm Grove has far fewer burials than Thomaston Village Cemetery, the stories there are just as amazing.
You’ve probably figured out that I often do my research when I’m in the process of writing a blog post. Not right after a cemetery visit. So it was with much surprise that I found out this week that one of my subjects had died fighting a duel.
The most famous (or rather infamous) person buried at Elm Grove is the Honorable Jonathan Longfellow Cilley, who served as a Congressman. That alone is noteworthy. He was only 36 when he died, his life snuffed out by a duel that set Washington, D.C. in an uproar for months afterward.
A native of New Hampshire, Cilley studied law at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine as a member of the class of 1825 with fellow students Nathaniel Hawthorn and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was also close with future President Franklin Pierce, who was a year behind them.
After college, Cilley decided to further his law studies in Thomaston with John Ruggles (who would later become known as the “father of the U.S. Patent Office”). He was admitted to the bar in 1828 and began practicing law on his own.
While boarding at the home of Hezekiah Prince, Cilley met and fell in love with his landlord’s daughter, Deborah. They married in April 1829 and would have five children, three that would live to adulthood.
Cilley also edited the Thomaston Register from 1829 to 1831, getting a taste for politics. He eventually represented Thomaston in the Maine House of Representatives from 1831 to 1836, serving as Speaker during in his final two years. His friend John Ruggles also served as a state representative from 1823-1831.
Cilley was elected to the 25th Congress as a Democrat in 1836 and began his duties in March 1837. During this time, majority Democrats were fighting with minority Whigs about the response to the Panic of 1837. Beneath this conflict was bitterness over President Martin Van Buren’s predecessor, Andrew Jackson, who chose not to recharter the Second Bank of the United States.
Whig editor James Watson Webb, at the helm of the New York Courier and Enquirer, was much disliked by Cilley, who thought Webb’s Congressional coverage was biased. While speaking on the House floor, Cilley indicated that Webb’s change from opposing to supporting the rechartering of the bank came about because Webb received loans from the bank totaling $50,000.
Stung by Cilley’s remarks, Webb asked Kentucky Congressman William J. Graves to deliver to Cilley a letter from Webb expressing his unhappiness. When Cilley refused to read the letter, Graves felt his own own honor had been insulted and challenged Cilley to a duel. Despite having no personal beef with Graves but rather Webb, Cilley felt honor bound to accept. This would be a deadly mistake.
The duel was set for Saturday, Feb. 24, 1838 at Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, just outside the border of Maryland since dueling was illegal in D.C. An estimated 26 duels were fought there, the most famous being in 1820 between Commodores Stephen Decatur and James Barron in 1820.
Pistols at dawn were usually the order of business in these matters. But because Graves was reputed as being a very good shot, Cilley requested the use of rifles instead of pistols at 80 yards. The time for the duel was 3 p.m., which seemed unusual until I read that Graves couldn’t even find a rifle at first and had to borrow one from his “second”, George Jones.
Cilley and Graves, along with their seconds, arrived at the appointed time. The first time they fired on each other, they missed. The distance was shortened a little before they fired again, missing each other again. That should have been the end of it but during a third exchange, Graves hit Cilley in the femoral artery and he bled to death in a matter of minutes.
The event sent shockwaves through Washington, D.C. The quote at the top of today’s post is from a speech given by Rep. Fairfield the Monday after the duel, one among many given by Cilley’s friends. The duel led to the passage of a congressional act of February 20, 1839, prohibiting the issuing or accepting of a challenge within the District of Columbia, even if the duel was to be fought outside the district.
Cilley was brought home for burial in Elm Grove Cemetery. Sadly, he had not yet seen his youngest daughter, Julia, who was born in Thomaston two months before he died. His wife, Deborah, died only six years later at the age of 36. It was a tragic end to a man whose political career was just reading a high point.
Across the way from the Cilley monument is the O’Brien family plot. You can’t miss it for the large statue of Edward O’Brien on the top. A shipbuilder, O’Brien was one of only seven millionaires listed in America at the time of the Civil War.
The son of an Irishman and an American mother, O’Brien was a focused businessman who kept a close eye on his affairs, from accounting to materials. Engaged in shipbuilding since 1825, he built upwards of 100 vessels. A financial crisis in 1857 could have crippled Thomaston but thanks to O’Brien’s financial help, the local bank remained in good standing.
In the 1850s, O’Brien moved his shipyard business from Warren to the area around Knox’s Wharf in Thomaston, becoming one of the town’s most prominent shipbuilders. According to an article on the Maine Memory Network, his ships were known around the world, distinguished by a broad unpainted “bright line, some six planks just below the deck beading kept unpainted and clear varnished.”
Finally, I’d like to share the story of the Creighton family. James Alexander Creighton was first a ship’s captain, then a shipbuilder and lime kiln owner. In 1874, he married Emily Jackson Meservey of Boston. Together, they would have eight children. Five would live into adulthood and have their own families, but three (James, Lizzie and Arthur) died in infancy/childhood.
These three children have their stones beside each other. The one that hits you right in the heart is the one for James Edwin Creighton.
Photographing little James’ marker hit me hard that day. My own son was nearby, roaming around the cemetery without a care in the world. When I was done, I grabbed him close and gave him a long, painful hug that he didn’t understand.
Emily Creighton was 40 when she gave birth to their last child, Arthur, on Dec. 8, 1870. She would die only 16 days later on Christmas Eve. Arthur died on Feb. 22, 1871.
James Creighton remarried in 1874 to Isabell “Belle” Lewis. He died of heart disease in 1893. Belle died in 1900. He is buried with both of his wives and several of his children in Elm Grove.
After we left Thomaston, we headed up the coast to Camden to find our little seaside cottage at Glenmoor by the Sea. We spent the late afternoon hours hunting for sea glass among the rocks on West Penobscot Bay. This is the kind of family time I treasure.