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, and was later removed to Philadelphia, to lie in his family’s plot.

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 One of these was the young widow, Susan Decatur, who had withdrawn from society and devoted her life to charity.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 a monthly payout of $630 for the rest of her life. A small frame house near Georgetown College gate became Susan Decatur’s residence.

(Circa 1827 it had been Father Van Lommel’s School for “colored boys”, taught by the pastor of Holy Trinity Church. (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)

Decatur lived out her days on this annuity in this cottage on the college campus, and when she died in 1860, at age 84, she was laid to rest on the campus, just steps from where she had resided, in what was called the College Ground.

(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. 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)

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.12; “Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves at Georgetown U.”, Evening Star, January 24, 1931, p.14)

No mention of Susan Decatur was made in 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; they were quietly reburied in Holy Rood Cemetery, which was also University property. Her tombstone, mentioned in the 1953 article, was not part of the transfer; the new grave in Holy Rood was unmarked.

Thirty years later, when Georgetown University began to contemplate commercial development of Holy Rood––and was taking steps to anticipate potential repercussions––Susan Decatur’s grave was once again a problem.

In 1988, Susan Decatur 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.”

A representative of Georgetown University was in attendance that day to express satisfaction at having brought about this reunion in death, and to inform Philadelphia ––Washington was not notified of the good deed––with no apparent sense of irony, that the cemetery where Susan Decatur had previously lain buried had been “neither notable nor beautiful”.

(”Reunited, A Naval Hero And His Belle”, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 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.)




 Carlton Fletcher

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