Friday, July 1, 2011
Jeffrey Scott Holland: Transy’s cemetery –
a secret you probably don’t know
By Jeffrey Scott Holland
It’s an unfortunate fact that if you excel in too many fields at the same time, the net effect is that people’s minds will shut down trying to take it all in. There have been many modern-day renaissance men in the last 100 years whose genius overlaps into many different subjects, from botany to electronics to philosophy to religion, and they rarely get their deserved due from the public, who tend to prefer that you pick one realm of research and stick to that.
(It can be even more of an annoyance for someone such as myself, who frankly excels at no one particular practice, but nevertheless enjoys dabbling in everything from microbiology to photography. It’s hard to tell someone that you do all these things without sounding like someone with delusions of grandeur, but hey, I never said I was good at any of these things – I just don’t let that stop me from doing them!)
Take Constantine Rafinesque for example. He was a self-educated polymath and a polyglot who made great breakthroughs in the fields of zoology, meteorology, geology, anthropology, linguistics, and more — but was officially honored by academia for none of his accomplishments during his lifetime.
In 1819 Rafinesque became professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, and also tutored in French and Italian. His erratic personality and ahead-of-his-time views, however, kept him in constant trouble with the University and with his peers in the scientific community. In 1826 he and Transy parted ways after a heated argument with its president, Horace Holly.
Some versions of the story say he was fired, others say he walked out. Either way, Rafinesque announced he had placed a curse on Transylvania University and Mr. Holly, a threat which no doubt elicited little more than droll chuckles around the faculty lounge. But then Holly himself was ousted from power by his own board, and soon thereafter died of Yellow Fever. And two years later, the Transy administration building was destroyed in a fire. Some may have, at that point, asked themselves if there wasn’t something to the mad professor’s curse.
Perhaps in a move to pacify Rafinesque posthumously, it was arranged after his death to bring his remains back to Transy to be interred in a crypt room inside Old Morrison Hall. For many years having his remains here was a point of pride for the school. But then, even in death, Rafinesque messed with them once more: it was recently discovered that they got the wrong body. Allegedly, a campus secret society known as “The Hemlock Society” had been charged with the task and mistakenly exhumed the corpse of a woman named Mary Ann Passamore from a pauper’s graveyard in Philadelphia instead of Rafinesque’s. Oops.
In addition to Rafinesque’s supposed grave, St. Saveur Francois Bonfils is also interred here. He was a French language/literature professor at Transy who had previously been an officer in Napoleon’s army. He succumbed to the Cholera epidemic in 1849 and was buried in Christ Church Graveyard, then was subsequently dug up and moved to Transy’s administration building in 1939 for reasons not entirely clear to me.
Transy’s secret indoor cemetery is generally off-limits to the public, but if you ask nicely at the front desk as I did during a slow hour, you might get a peek. Inquire.
Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal — and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at email@example.com.