My Kentucky: Memorializing Henry Clay

Men in uniform accompany a horse-drawn hearse.

A SCENE FROM HENRY CLAY’S FUNERAL in Lexington on July 10, 1852.

 

HENRY CLAY’S marble sarcophagus inside his tomb in the Lexington Cemetery.

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc.

 

July 10, 1852 – Twelve days after he died in Washington, D.C., Sen. Henry Clay’s body arrived in Lexington after being toured over 1,200 miles of America. Clay’s coffin was placed on a bier in front of his home, Ashland, and the Rev. E.F. Berkley, Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, conducted the service outdoors. The streets of Lexington were paralyzed with 30,000 people wanting to attend the rites. So great was the crowd trying to get into Lexington Cemetery that part of the fencing along Leestown Pike was removed.

In 1851, John Lutz gifted Henry Clay with a 44 x 44-foot block of lots in the cemetery, which Clay accepted. Clay realized that Kentucky state officials wanted to have his remains interred in Frankfort Cemetery where dozens of notables were buried. Days before he died in 1852, Clay informed U.S. Sen. Joseph Rogers Underwood of Bowling Green that he had no desire to be buried in Frankfort and specifying, “I wish to repose in the cemetery at Lexington, where many of my friends and connections are buried.”

The day after Clay died, his Lexington friends met to begin planning “a national monument of colossal proportions” to commemorate Clay. Fund raising went on for years and more than 100 designs were submitted. A cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1857 for a monument to be constructed at a cost of $43,920. The monument wasn’t completed until July 4, 1861 at a final cost of $58,000 with $10,000 contributed by the Kentucky legislature. A marble sarcophagus was carved

A STATUE OF CLAY stands atop a 130-foot tall monument marking his burial place in Lexington.

and donated by William Struthers of Philadelphia, the same artisan who had carved the tomb of George Washington. Clay’s body wasn’t moved into the vault until April 8, 1864, two days after the death of his wife, Lucretia.

The monument itself has been plagued with challenges since its completion. The original stone roof leaked and was replaced multiple times. On July 21, 1903 the monument was a casualty of a great storm that knocked the head off the statue, hurling the 350-pound head 130 feet to the ground, imbedding it 6 inches in the soil. A popular bit of folklore is that the storm causing the headless Clay statue was the same storm during which Clay’s cousin, Cassius M. Clay, died at White Hall. The latter Clay actually died during a storm on July 22. In 1908, the Kentucky legislature appropriated $10,000 for a new statue to replace the mutilated one; it was placed atop the column in May 1910. On September 19, 1910, lightning struck the new statue, breaking off the right hand, shattering the right leg, and damaging the body. The legislature appropriated another $10,000 for repairs. The monument continued to deteriorate causing concern that got little attention beginning in the 1930s. Finally, in the 1970s, Lexington Mayor Foster Pettit led the effort to completely restore Clay’s monument, which was rededicated in July 1976.

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