GREENFIELD — City officials recently marked the 100th anniversary of Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley’s death with a wreath-laying and commemorative copies of his poem, “Away.”
The upheaval when the Greenfield native died of a stroke in 1916 was on par with the death of a major celebrity, officials said, and the battle about where he was to be laid to rest lasted more than a year.
After the announcement of his death, President Woodrow Wilson sent his condolences to the family, said Brigette Cook Jones, coordinator of the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in Greenfield.
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Riley died at his Indianapolis home, and from there, his remains were carried by hearse to the state capitol building for a public funeral — an honor given to only two other men at the time, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ware Lawton, a respected Army officer, Jones said. The bereaved visitors included both the Indiana governor and the Indianapolis mayor, she said.
More than 35,000 people came to the public funeral for the poet, Jones said. Greenfield residents chartered an interurban trolley, a type of street car that used to exist along U.S. 40, to Indianapolis for the event.
After the funeral, Riley’s 1,200-pound bronze casket was carted by horse back to his Indianapolis home, and a private funeral was held for the family.
The Hancock Democrat newspaper reported July 24, 1916, the famed poet was to be laid to rest with this family at Park Cemetery in Greenfield, but that did not happen, Jones said.
“People in Indianapolis didn’t think Greenfield could handle the prestige or the number of people who were expected to visit Riley’s grave,” Jones explained, adding that grave-robbers also were a concern at the time.
Riley left no will, and so the battle over where he would be buried waged on for one year, two months and three days, Jones said. Finally, officials at Crown Hill Cemetery offered the mound, the highest point in the city, for Riley’s final resting place, and his sister accepted, perhaps because she and her children would eventually also be buried there, Jones said.
The plot was sold to Riley’s family for $2.50, and he was laid to rest Oct. 6, 1917. His family built an elaborate tomb at the cost of $10,000, which would be about $188,000 in today’s money, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jones said she organized the wreath-laying at Riley’s statue at the Hancock County Courthouse because she believes it’s important for Greenfield to remember its history and one of its most colorful characters.