A President’s Restless Corpse May Be on the Move Again in Tennessee
NASHVILLE — It is the latest chapter in one of the more tangled stories of an American presidential corpse — a tale of love and cholera, betrayal and real estate, honor and probate law.
But having been interred in three different places since his death in 1849, James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States, now faces the prospect of having his sleep disturbed yet again.
A new proposal making its way through the Tennessee legislature calls for digging up the bodies of Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, both of which have been buried on the grounds of the state Capitol for more than a century. They would then be relocated to a final resting place at a Polk family home and museum in the small city of Columbia.
Supporters say the move will properly honor an unjustly overlooked president, a man who expanded the territory of the United States by a third, signed a law establishing the Smithsonian Institution and created the U.S. Naval Academy.
Opponents, including Teresa Elam, 65, a distant relative of Polk’s, are calling it nothing short of macabre, and an unsavory effort to promote tourism in Columbia, a city of 37,000 about 50 miles south of Nashville that is otherwise known for a colorful yearly celebration of its mule-breeding industry.
“They’re desecrating a grave,” said Ms. Elam, who has walked the halls of the Capitol with a sheaf full of historical documents, making her case to lawmakers. “It’s been on the Capitol grounds four about 124 years. It’s dishonor and disrespect.”
The relocation of a president’s body after death is not unheard-of. In 1858, the remains of James Monroe, the fifth president, were moved from New York to his native Virginia, at a time of rising sectional tension. And the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln has been moved around his burial spot in Springfield, Ill., at least 17 times, by one count, including a bizarre thwarted effort in 1876 to steal his body and hold it for ransom.
In Nashville, the prospect that the presidential remains could be moved yet again has prompted rare fits of passion on the topic of Polk, a man historians have called “priggish” and “colorless,” and one whose legacy is often overshadowed by his larger-than-life mentor, Andrew Jackson, who is buried at the Hermitage, his family plantation, a major tourist draw here.
Indeed, when President Trump, who often likens himself to Jackson, visited Nashville this month, he laid a wreath on Mr. Jackson’s tomb, honoring him in a speech as a president who “understood that real leadership means putting America first.” If Mr. Trump knew where Polk’s tomb was, he did not let on.
On Monday, the State Senate is expected to vote on a resolution that would be the first step in an approval process for relocating the bodies. Disinterring the remains will also require the approval of the state House of Representatives, the governor, the Tennessee Historical Commission and a local judge.
The Polks’ grave, which is currently tucked away on a grassy patch, was designed by William Strickland, the noted Greek Revival architect who designed the state Capitol and George Washington’s sarcophagus at Mount Vernon in Virginia. A handsome cenotaph framed by classical columns notes that Polk “planted the laws of the American union on the shores of the Pacific.” The grave is dwarfed by a nearby equestrian statue of Mr. Jackson.
State Senator Joey Hensley, a Republican representing Columbia and the sponsor of the bill, said the grave seems overlooked in its current spot. “I honestly served up here 14 years and had never seen the site,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not handicap accessible. It’s not really talked about much when they do the Capitol tour. Not many people visit it. It’s just not a very good place to honor his legacy.”
Much drama preceded the grave’s ultimate location. Polk had numerous ailments. An operation for urinary stones as a teenager is likely to have left him sterile or impotent, and may explain why he did not have children, according to John Seigenthaler, one of his biographers.
Polk left the White House in 1849 after serving just one term, as he had promised, and returned that April to Nashville, where he had previously served a two-year term as governor. But the city was in the midst of a cholera outbreak, and Polk contracted the disease and died in June at age 53.
Tom Price, the curator of the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, said that by city ordinance, cholera victims at the time had to be buried at the municipal cemetery on the edge of town. By May 1850, however, Polk was moved, with much pomp and ceremony, to Polk Place, a grand home a few blocks from the Capitol that he had bought in 1847, anticipating a long retirement.
His wife, a formidable woman who did much to shape his career, remained in Polk Place, celebrated as one of the nation’s most famous widows, until her death in 1891. Then things got complicated.
In a will he drew up five months before his death, Polk, a lawyer, stipulated that both his body and that of his wife should be buried on the premises of Polk Place. He also stipulated that after his death and his wife’s, the property should be held in trust by the state, which must always allow a blood relative to live there.
Upon the death of Polk’s wife, a number of heirs filed a lawsuit arguing that the will was invalid. According to Bill Carey, a local researcher and writer, the court ruled in their favor, on the grounds that the will violated the common-law rule against perpetuities, which limits an owner’s ability to leave property to unborn future generations.
Polk Place was sold, and the manse torn down; today, there is a boutique hotel on the property. On Sept. 19, 1893, Polk’s body was moved to the Capitol, where he was buried alongside his wife. “In my mind,” Mr. Carey wrote in 2015, “the reinterment of President and Mrs. Polk is one of the most disrespectful deeds ever committed by the state of Tennessee.”
Critics of the new plan include Carroll Van West, the state historian. “When Polk left the White House he came home to Nashville, and his wife stayed there for decades afterward,” Mr. Van West told The Nashville Scene this week.
Other family members appear split on the issue. In Columbia this week, supporters of the idea seemed mildly astonished that they had caused such an uproar.
On Wednesday, Mr. Price, the curator of Polk House, gave a tour of the state-owned historical property. It was late afternoon and there were no other visitors in sight.
The handsome Federal-style home was built by Polk’s father in 1816. Polk lived in it as a young man from 1818 to 1824. Today it is furnished with much of the furniture from Polk Place. A gift shop sells jars of Polk Pickles and bottles of President’s Choice wine.
Mr. Price acknowledged that it was difficult to get students, even from schools around Columbia, to tour the home because Mr. Jackson’s famous Hermitage is so close by. But he insisted that the proposal to move Polk’s body was not about tourism, as much as it was about honoring a president’s wishes.
“He wanted to be buried at home,” he said, and this was as close as Polk could get.