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The Bones of Button Gwinnett

For this month’s podcast, we take a deep dive RIGHT into the grave of Button Gwinnett.

Button Gwinnett was one of America’s least illustrious founding fathers. Though his very brief political career put him in the right place at the right time to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he lived less than a year beyond the signing before challenging Lachran McIntosh to a duel. Lachran won.

No record of Button’s burial survives, but there’s no reason to doubt he would have been interred at Christ Church Cemetery, the only graveyard active in Savannah, Georgia at the time. His exact burial place was lost by the 1840s (the first time anyone made any real effort to find it), and there’s a rumor that the headstone ended up in use as a bar top at a Savannah grog shop.

Now, if they’d known where Archibald Bulloch’s grave was, they might have been able to find Button’s – Bulloch held the office of “president of Georgia” until his death in February, 1777, at which time the office fell to Gwinnett. When Gwinnett got himself shot to death three months later, it would be logical to bury him near his predecessor in office. Bulloch’s grave wouldn’t have been marked in the 1840s, either but  in 1921, it was announced that a strange grave marked only with carvings of snakes, known as “The rattlesnake grave” or “The Serpent’s Tomb,” had been identified as Bulloch’s – but no one figured out that it would be a good clue to Button’s gravesite for more than thirty years.

Here’s Archibald Bulloch’s grave, with the snake-eats-tail imagery. This symbol, known in Ancient Greece as an ouroboros, is typically a symbol of eternity and the cycle of birth and death, though early 20th century visitors seem to have assumed it was left marked only with the serpent because the person had died of a duel or something similarly shameful. There are a lot of people who fought in duels buried here in what is now known as Colonial Park.

Archibald Bulloch – “The Serpent’s Tomb.” Bulloch’s descendants identified it in 1921 and added the inscription… though I think the cemetery just took their word for it! If it’s not Archie Bulloch, the odds that the grave seven paces away is Button go down considerably.

In 1957, when high school principal Arthur J. Funk looked near Bulloch’s gravestone, he found an unmarked one that he suspected was Gwinnett, and had it exhumed. Early reports on whether the skeleton he found was Button’s were inconclusive, but Funk kept it in his guest room for five years before the city was ready to re-bury it. A new monument identifies the grave as being the probable burial place of Gwinnett.

Pictures of the exhumation, including a delightful one of Arthur Funk lying in the grave with the corpse, smoking a cigarette, can be seen at the Georgia Historical Society’s page! 

Arthur J. Funk enjoys a smoke in Button Gwinnett’s grave as he brushes dust from the skull. Georgia Historical Society.

The cemetery itself, now known as Colonial Park, is a lovely place full of live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Several gravestones have been defaced to make it look as though people lived improbably long lives or were married at 11 – it seems to be taken for granted that they were defaced by General Sherman’s troops during the Civil War, but I couldn’t find any reference to them even being in the cemetery that were written within about 50 years of the war. By the time of the war, in fact, the cemetery had been neglected for some time and was falling into disrepair – in the 1880s it was almost built over. The city bought it and turned it into a park in the 1890s, but as of 1919, it was said that it was mainly used as a playground for kids who went to a school across the street. I’d say the kids are much more likely to be the culprits here. Sherman’s troops DID set up a fort in a nearby Catholic cemetery, which might be the source of the legend, but, then again, Sherman tends to get blamed for everything broken or missing in some southern towns!

Here’s one of the altered graves, which makes it look like Muir was already married at the age of 11, among a wall where broken stones are propped up. The broken stones, too, are usually said to be Sherman’s handiwork, but I think it’s generally agreed that they broke of more natural causes, really. They were probably mounted on the wall in the 1890s after the city bought the long-abandoned cemetery from the church.

And Button Gwinnett isn’t the only person in the cemetery who fought in duels – Lachran, who fought him, is there, too, and so is this, “The Duelist’s Grave.”

“The Duelist’s Grave”

 

The epitaph is nearly illegible today, but, luckily, it was transcribed in The Century in 1906, and in Harpers in 1919:

“This Humble Stone

records the filial piety, fraternal affection

and manly virtue of

JAMES WILDE ESQUIRE
late District Paymaster in the army of the U.S.

He fell in a Duel

on the 16th of January, 1815, by the hand of a

man who a short time before

would have been friendless but for him:

and expired instantly in his 22nd year:

dying as he had lived

with unshaken courage & unblemished reputation.

By his untimely death the prop of a mother’s age

is broken:

The hope and consolation of a sister is destroyed:

The pride of a brother is humbled in the dust:

And a whole family happy until then

overwhelmed with affliction. 

 

Here’s Button’s new memorial:

Button Gwinnett’s supposed grave site, right where Arthur J. Funk found it, seven paces from Archibald Bulloch.

And here’s his old one, as pictured in the city of Savannah’s official report on the grave. A few markings are present, plus a letter or two that Funk speculated were “practice” carvings. This was probably the red sandstone end-stone of an “box” style gravestone, the top of which would, indeed, make a pretty good bar stone:

The remains of Button Gwinnett’s original grave, from the Arthur J Funk papers. Bulloch’s is in the background.

Funk also found this 1930s WPA photo of a “box tomb” that he thought may have been Button’s; we tried to find this one around the cemetery today and came up empty.

WPA photo of a stone that was no longer present when Funk started investigating; the red sandstone he found may be the end piece. Bulloch, again, is nearby. Somewhere along the line a brick base was added to Bulloch’s grave; Funk wasn’t sure when.

Of course, for more details, listen to the podcast above, or on Spotify, iTunes, etc.

Our song of the episode is “I Guess My Name is Button Now” by Dick Van Damen, who avoids the internet and has no webpage, but can often be found wandering the northwest side of Chicago, piano in tow.

Additional Voices:

John Piotrowski as Lachran McIntosh and Hugh McColl

Kitten McCreery-Navis as the archaeologist