The nation had endured its bloody civil war. Great change had come since the actor, author and statesman John Howard Payne passed away in Tunisia in April 1852, though the politics of the post-bellum Reconstruction and Jim Crow kept much the same. The American worker was marching steadily away from the farm towards the factory, and the world we live in, complex, technological, fast, deeply interconnected, was being born. From a novel of Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s, we know the time as the Gilded Age.
Still, people were people, and nostalgia for times past, when “life was simpler,” came as it does now. William Wilson Corcoran, a millionaire banker, philanthropist and art collector from Georgetown, Washington, D.C., recalled having seen John Howard Payne perform at every opportunity when he was a boy in 1807.
“Whenever I could get twenty-five cents to pay for a seat, I went to see and hear the tragedian, and my memory of his appearance and action is now fresh and clear, after a lapse of seventy-three years,” Corcoran told Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in March 1883. It would be an honor to repay Payne for the joy he’d provided from the stage to audiences throughout Europe and the United States.
When Payne died, his body was interred 4,000 some odd miles from home at St. George Cemetery, Tunis, beneath a marble slab inscribed with the most noted of his accomplishments.
Corcoran, at his own expense, arranged for Payne’s remains to be repatriated to the United States from Saharan Africa. Despite Payne’s lifelong association with New York, Corcoran chose to have the remains interred at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, founded by Corcoran in 1848 from lands purchased from George Washington’s descendant Lewis Washington. The site was not entirely unfitting. According to “John Howard Payne: A Biographical Sketch of the Author of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’” Charles H. Brainard’s biography of Payne, the poet frequented Parrott’s Woods with his lady friends. Brainard’s poetic description of the spot: “This charming sylvan retreat he frequently visited in company with several lady friends, and on such occasions gave enthusiastic expression to his admiration of the beauty of the spot, and the picturesque scenery which surrounded it; little dreaming that after his mortal remains had rested in the soil of a foreign land for more than thirty years, they would be brought thither ... to be consigned to their last resting-place beneath the very trees in whose shadows he once loved to wander.” Its land is split in modern times between Oak Hill Cemetery and Montrose Park.
Payne’s final journey is accounted in the March 24 and 31, 1883, editions of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Payne’s remains were disinterred at St. George “in the presence of a dozen Europeans and several Arab gentleman.” A simple ceremony was thereafter held, Payne’s “Home, Sweet Home” played upon the church organ and sung by an American expatriate as the desert’s evening light filled the church. Payne’s remains were placed into a new casket and held at the United States Consulate in Tunis until the completion of his monument at Oak Hill. The casket finally departed Tunisia aboard the French steamer Burgundis for a stopover in Marseilles, France, before arriving in port at Brooklyn, New York, on March 23, 1883.
A delegation representing Corcoran met the Burgundis in port in Brooklyn, and the coffin, draped with the American flag, was placed in a hearse drawn by four white stallions outfitted in black cloth. As crowds along the streets looked on, the hearse proceeded to New York City Hall, where several thousand people, including most of the city’s officials, were gathered. A black pall was placed upon the coffin, the American flag placed atop the pall. Payne would lie in state in the Governor’s Room until the following morning, when the coffin would be transported aboard a specially prepared train donated by the Pennsylvania Railroad to Oak Hill Cemetery’s receiving vault to await the funeral.
Payne’s funeral, held June 9, 1883, was a grand affair, organized by a committee that included Union General William T. Sherman. The procession gathered outside the Corcoran Art Gallery, proceeding down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House on the way to Oak Hill. Gabriel Harrison, one of Payne’s biographers referenced in an earlier part of this account, served as a pallbearer. Counted in the procession were President Chester A. Arthur, the president’s cabinet including Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, the chief and associate justices of the United States Supreme Court and the D.C. Supreme Court, the chief justice and associate judges of the U.S. Court of Claims, members of Congress and, not least, the poet’s niece, daughter of Thatcher Taylor Payne.
A meticulous account of the funeral rites afforded Payne is included in Brainard’s biography, including transcriptions of the Scriptures read, poetry recited, the eulogy by Washington bar member Leigh Robinson and the prayers as the casket was lowered into the soil.
Payne’s solemn stone monument stands at Oak Hill today, the rear of the tombstone inscribed with the words of poet Robert S. Chilton, who wrote the poem read at Payne’s funeral: “Sure, when thy gentle spirit fled to realms above the azure dome, With outstretched arms, God’s angels said, ‘Welcome to Heaven’s Home, Sweet Home!’” The weathered slab which covered Payne’s grave in Tunis rests in the ivy nearby the current monument.
Payne’s time here in Georgia may have been short, his famous song less remembered now than in his own century when it was on the lips of many a Union and Confederate soldier, but his work on the Cherokees, much of it preserved at the Newberry Library, Chicago, is invaluable as a part of American history.