The Unquiet Grave of Susan Decatur

 

Susan Wheeler Decatur (1776-1860), circa 1803, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William F. Machold, Georgetown University Archives.

 

Stephen Decatur’s exploits, on the shores of Tripoli and elsewhere, earned him the adulation of his country; but the naval hero also disparaged the honor of a fellow officer, who killed him for it in a duel. Decatur was buried in the Barlow family mausoleum at Kalorama.

In 1824 a miraculous cure is said to have occurred in Washington, which resulted in a wave of conversions to Catholicism by genteel Protestant women. One of these was the young widow, Susan Decatur, who had withdrawn from society and devoted her life to charity. Susan Decatur converted to the Catholic faith in 1828.  (Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers, Georgetown University)

 

Private Residence for Sale: having retired to the country I wish to dispose of my house and lot, late my residence on Gay street, Georgetown, now occupied by Mrs. Decatur. ––Thomas Plater.  (National Intelligencer, March 1, 1828)

 

In 1834 Susan Decatur advanced $7000 (circa three million dollars today) to Georgetown College, which was in dire financial straits, in return for which Decatur received an annual payout of $630 for the rest of her life. A small frame house at about P and 36th Streets where she lived out her days was either put at her disposal, or rented to her, by Lucretia Hobbs, who would appear on her will as one of her executors. (The house may have had a connection to to Holy Trinity Church, as it had previously been Father Van Lommel’s School for “colored boys.”)

(William W. Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1960; Deaths, Holy Trinity Church – Beginning 8th of December 1818, Holy Trinity Church Archives, p.106, July 21, 1860; Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers, Georgetown University; Georgetown College Journal, Vol.5, No.7, p.73-4, April 1877; Vol.6, No.3, p.34, December 1877; Vol.6, No.5, p.52, February 1878; Hilary Russell, The Operation of the Underground Railroad in Washington, D.C., c. 1800–1860, Historical Society of Washington D.C./National Park Service, 2001. Efforts by Georgetown College to extricate itself from debt also led to the 1838 sale of 272 slaves: Rachel L. Swarns, “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”, New York Times, April 17, 2016, p.1)

 

Susan Decatur, who died in 1860, was laid to rest a stone’s throw from where she had resided, in what was called the College Ground. “On the 21st of July, Mrs. Susan Decatur, in the 84th year of her age, relict of the late commodore Stephen Decatur. Her funeral will take place from her late residence, Third and Lincoln [i.e. Lingan] streets, this (Monday) morning at half-past nine o’clock.”

(“Deaths,” National Intelligencer, July 23, 1860, p. 1; “Georgetown,” Evening Star, July 24, 1860, p. 3)

 

What Susan Decatur’s Protestant in-laws had made of her conversion to Catholicism is not known; but it is safe to surmise that they saw no need for her to be moved to a Protestant cemetery.  This was confirmed in 1904, when William Decatur Parsons––the author, in 1921, of The Decatur Genealogy––came to Georgetown to supervise the restoration of Susan Decatur’s tomb, and to express his view regarding its future. “It is deemed more appropriate that the remains of Mrs. Decatur be permitted to remain undisturbed here than to have them transferred to Philadelphia, even though her husband lies there.”

(“Restoring The Tomb Of Susan Decatur––Descendant of the Admiral of National Fame in Georgetown for That Purpose,” Washington Times, November 3, 1904, p. 13)

 

In the course of construction of White-Gravenor Hall in 1931, the “forgotten graveyard” was in the news. “Among the graves recently discovered while workmen were excavating for the new building at Georgetown University were those of Susan Decatur, widow of Commodore Stephen Decatur… and Jane Brent, daughter of Robert Brent, first Mayor of Washington. Many other graves… were found in the forgotten graveyard… Some of the gravestones were decipherable, but on most of them the inscriptions were so weather-beaten they were not readable.” There was also an offer to remove the bodies. “Cedar Hill Cemetery, where it is proposed to reinter the bones of these old Washington residents without charge to Georgetown University… is located in Maryland… in line with the extension of Pennsylvania avenue southeast. P. W. Calfee, one of the officials of the cemetery, has written a letter to Georgetown University, offering to remove the bodies.”

(“Reburial Of Susan Decatur’s Body, Recently Found, Offered,” Evening Star, February 19, 1931, p. 18)

 

By then, no one could remember why the grave of Susan Decatur was in a Catholic burial ground. “[Stephen] Decatur was buried in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia, but Mrs. Decatur, for some unknown reason, was interred in the local cemetery.” The author of a weekly local history column in the Star lamented the situation. “It was too bad that the remains of Mrs. Decatur were not placed beside those of her illustrious husband in the Philadelphia cemetery.”

(“Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves At Georgetown U.,” Evening Star, January 24, 1931, p. 15; John Clagett Proctor, “Old Georgetown in History of District,” Evening Star, March 27, 1932, p. 68)

 

No further mention of Susan Decatur’s grave can be found until 1953, when Georgetown University removed the College Ground to make way for expansion. The public was given to understand that the number of graves that would need to be moved was negligible: parish records were said to show that exactly one hundred and eighty-nine persons buried there. This disarmingly precise figure cannot be taken seriously, as the College Ground had been the only parish cemetery available between 1818 and 1833, and the number of parishioners that died in those years, according to the death register of Holy Trinity Church, was about nine hundred. When it is taken into account that burials in the College Ground continued for decades after that, the total number of graves there is likely to be nearer to a thousand. As the official record of the transfer of remains from the College Ground to a mass grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery states that it consisted of “fifty bodies, more or less”, it seems safe to estimate that ninety-five percent of the College Ground graves were lost.

(“GU to Transfer Ancient Graves“, Washington Post, April 17, 1953; Deaths, Holy Trinity Church – Beginning 8th of December 1818, Holy Trinity Church Archives; Interments, Mount Olivet Cemetery)

 

Only the remains of Susan Decatur––an American hero’s widow, and Georgetown’s benefactor in its time of need––were spared this indignity; at some point they were quietly transferred to Holy Rood Cemetery, which was also University property. Her tombstone, mentioned in the 1953 article, was not part of the transfer, and the new grave was unmarked.

Thirty years later, when Georgetown University began to contemplate commercial development of Holy Rood, Susan Decatur’s grave was a problem that needed to be resolved. In 1988, she was exhumed again, and buried for a third time, this time in Philadelphia, at the foot of 30-foot granite column that marks the grave of her husband. “And today, in the quiet yard of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the reunion of the hero and his belle will be completed. At 11 a.m. in a private ceremony, members of the clergy, university officials, a Navy admiral, Decatur descendants and guardians of Philadelphia’s maritime history are scheduled to dedicate Susan’s “final” resting place, beside that of her husband.”

Georgetown University’s vice president for administration, was in attendance that day to express satisfaction at having brought about this reunion in death, and to inform the Philadelphia Inquirer, with no apparent sense of irony, that the cemetery where Susan Decatur had previously lain buried had been “neither notable nor beautiful.” (Georgetown Magazine’s article about the good deed was noticed by the Washington Times, but not by the Washington Post.)

 

Jordan Baker (C’90), “History,” Georgetown Magazine, Summer, 1988

 

(Address of Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration and Facilities, Georgetown University, on the occasion of the internment [sic] of Susan Wheeler Decatur at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Memorial Day, May 30,1988, Georgetown University Archives; “Reunited, A Naval Hero And His Belle,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1988; Jordan Baker (C’90), “History,” Georgetown Magazine, Summer, 1988; Judy Franks, “Decatur’s Triumphs; Saga of His Widow,” Washington Times, September 22, 1988, p. 50.)

 

___________________________________________________________

 Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.