Blog post by Randi Richardson
On October 28, 1902, the Bloomington (IN) Courier published a very interesting item from the Indianapolis Sentinel in which it was noted that John Blair, who in his old age, was digging up corpses from the “old Covenanter graveyard,” many of whom were friends and associates he had previously helped to bury. The article described the location of the graveyard “on the edge of Bloomington where Mr. Blair has lived all his life” on ground given originally by Mr. Blair’s father. According to John Blair’s death record, his father was James Blair.
During the course of his work, Blair said he observed many remarkable things. What struck him particularly was that “human hair will grow after death just as long as there is any substance in the body.” He remarked that the beard on the face of his unnamed brother-in-law“ had grown a quarter of an inch.”
Blair indicated that the first burial in the old graveyard took place 53 years earlier which would have been about 1849. That person was not identified by name. In fact, only two individuals were noted specifically by name. One was that of Rosanna Bratney who died 33 years before the disinterment, about 1869, and was well known by Blair when she was yet alive. Blair said of her that her hair had grown during in the years following her death “until it reached below the shoe soles and turned up clear over her feet in the bottom of the coffin.” On the other hand, “the body of Prof. James Woodburn, Sr., which had been buried 30 years ago, presented exactly the same appearance as when it was interred. Even the shirt front was immaculate, but when the air struck the body, it crumbled into dust.”
One might assume that the remains of the deceased were reinterred elsewhere, but there was no mention of that made in the article. Odd. Additionally, no corroborating documentation has been found related to the disinterments.
There is no evidence of Rosanna Bratney’s burial anywhere in Monroe County, but a tombstone for James Woodburn (1817-1865) is included among those at Rose Hill Cemetery. Woodburn, a native of Chester County, South Carolina, came to Monroe County in 1830 in a migration of Covenanters and Associate Reformed Presbyterians. After receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Indiana University, he taught at several schools and from 1853 to his death in 1865 was principal of the Preparatory Department at IU.
Like Woodburn, John Blair was strongly associated with the Covenanters and the Presbyterian Church. According to his obituary, he was an elder in the church for 50 years and a man of deep convictions both in politics and religion. After the death of his wife, he went to live with his son, James N. Blair on the outskirts of Bloomington. When he died in March 1908, at the age of 88, he was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery at the side of his previously deceased wife, Hannah.
Again, this seems odd. Six years earlier in 1902, John Blair would have been about 82 years of age. Certainly not an age that one might expect to find an individual digging up dead people. And why, if Blair’s affiliation with the Covenanter Church was so strong, was he and his wife buried outside of the church cemetery that has been reserved specifically for church members and their families. Unfortunately, these are mysteries that will probably never be resolved.
- Rose Hill Cemetery Index.
- James Woodburn, tombstone photo online at FindAGrave: Rose Hill, Bloomington, Monroe County, Indiana.
- James Woodburn Biosketch, Woodburn Family Collection, 1848-1978, Archives Online at Indiana University, available at http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAA2720.
- John Blair’s obituary, Bloomington (IN) Telephone, March 27, 1908.
- Disinterments at Covenanter Cemetery, Bloomington (IN) Courier, October 28, 1902.