Monday, September 20, 2021

The Lady In the Iron Fence: Mary Finley

We had a great audience and wonderful weather for the 17th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour --- "The Lady in the Iron Fence and her Neighborhood" --- on Sunday afternoon, so thanks to all who attended but especially to our cast of five, including Alicia McGee, who portrayed Mary Finley, first on the program.

The annual event is a project of the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission. Current commissioners are Alyse Hunter, Melody Wilson, Florence Heacock, Dave Edwards and Frank Myers.

Here's the Finley script and I'll share the other four, too, as the week passes.


Welcome to the Chariton Cemetery! My neighbors have asked me to greet you first this afternoon because my son, Harry, and I have occupied the area enclosed by that cast-iron fence down there for as long as there has been a Chariton Cemetery --- 157 years. We have witnessed it all, welcomed everyone who rests near us and know their stories.

I am Mary Finley, in my 22nd year when I died as summer began in 1857, an Iowa pioneer claimed by complications that followed childbirth on southwest Lucas County’s unbroken prairie at a time when medical attention was not readily available.

But I am a native of Ohio, my birth occurring at my parents’ farm just east of the village of Triadelphia in Deerfield Township, Morgan County, where my mother, Eliza, died when I was 10.

My father, Jacob Wycoff Stanbery, was a man of influence in our neighborhood, an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Triadelphia and a staunch abolitionist. He was a founding member of the Deerfield Township Anti-Slavery Society in 1836 --- the first organization of its kind in southeast Ohio --- and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

When I was a child and then a young woman, our home often offered sanctuary to former slaves who had fled the South and were making their way north to safety in Canada. So I think it appropriate that several of my neighbors here are the sons and daughters of the formerly enslaved.

FATHER HAD ENSURED that I was well educated and equipped to teach, so I was in no hurry to marry, but on the 5th of June 1856 I wed Henry Finley, a young man I had known since childhood, at the home of my father and stepmother.

Henry was a farmer by trade, working as a hired hand for his father and neighbors when we married. We lacked the funds to buy a farm of our own in Ohio, so the West beckoned. In Lucas County, Iowa, at that time, land could be claimed, staked and then paid for in the land office at Chariton at the rate of $1.25 per acre.

In the late fall of 1856, after the crops had been harvested in Ohio, we gathered our belongings and set out by riverboat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi at Cairo, then upriver past St. Louis to Keokuk. That part of the journey passed quickly.

In Keokuk, we bought the tools needed for farming, a few household goods and supplies, a heavy wagon with canvas cover and a yoke for four oxen.

After fording the Des Moines River at Eddyville, we arrived a few days later at Chariton, then a dusty little place huddled around a patch of grass where your modern courthouse now stands, in early November. We then traveled another day down the Mormon Trail to Union Township to stake a prairie claim just west of where the village of Derby now stands.

WHILE OUR NEW NEIGHBORS helped Henry build our cabin, we enjoyed the hospitality of John and Nancy Throckmorton, who had moved into their double log cabin --- the biggest home in the area at the time --- the previous April. It was there that I met young Tom Throckmorton, then a boy but later a distinguished physician, who remembered me when writing in 1907 as follows: “Perhaps you have noticed the lone grave with an iron fence about it in the northwest corner of the Chariton cemetery; well, this is Mrs. Finley's grave, the woman who was so cheerful, so kind to my mother, and won my boyish heart; she peacefully rests there, a martyr to the new country, waiting the resurrection and the gathering home of friends from far and near, yes, from the remotest parts of the earth."

OUR SON, HARRY, was born prematurely during February of 1857. This should have been a joyous occasion, but Harry was a sickly child and the birth had been a difficult one --- I did not rally as I should have and my health began to deteriorate further.

During June, our physician --- Dr. Charles Fitch --- advised Henry to bring Harry and me into Chariton to a boarding house in the hope that regular medical attention and skilled nursing would benefit us both.

But that was not to be. I died in Chariton on a Thursday --- June 18 --- and was buried the next day in the village’s pioneer burial ground just southwest of the square on the hilltop where your Columbus School now stands. Two months later, little Harry died in his father’s arms in Union Township and Henry brought his remains into Chariton and buried him beside me.

WITH NOTHING to hold him here after our deaths, Henry sold our possessions and our prairie claim that fall and retraced his journey of the previous year to Ohio. There, within a year or two, he remarried and began a new family. He brought his new wife and their children back to Iowa and for a time they lived near Glenwood in Mills County, then removed first to California and then to the Pacific Northwest. He lived a long life, and died during 1927 at the age of 89 in Walla Walla, Washington.

BY 1864, just a few years after our deaths, it had become evident that Chariton’s pioneer graveyard was too close for comfort to the living and had too little room for expansion as houses were built around it. So during June of that year, 19 investors organized the Chariton Cemetery Co., purchased 80 acres overlooking the Chariton River valley and founded what became the beautiful cemetery that is the setting for today’s tour.

Everyone buried in the old cemetery was disinterred that winter and reburied here. Those who had relatives to speak for them, were reinterred in choice locations on the highest ground. Harry and I, without an advocate, were reburied in what then was, and remains, an obscure corner. But we were not forgotten.

Among those who remembered me was my brother, Elias Millen Stanbery, three years my senior, who had prospered in his profession as an attorney and amassed a fortune in real estate, banking, business investments and railroading. By the turn of the 20th century, as he was approaching 70, he was considered to be the richest man in Morgan County, Ohio.

As the years passed, my brother’s determination to ensure that Harry and I were not forgotten grew and at some point --- in the 1880s I believe --- he traveled to Chariton by train and met Dr. J.E. Stanton, who by this time was sole owner of the cemetery. Dr. Stanton led him to our grave site.

Before he returned to Ohio, Elias ordered the tombstone that still marks our grave as well as the iron fence that surrounds it. Cemeteries were not neatly manicured in those days and Elias thought the fence necessary to protect our grave.

IN THE YEARS that have passed since Harry and I were interred here, our neighborhood has welcomed some of Chariton’s richest dead --- and some of its poorest, ranging from self-identified patricians to the sons and daughters of former slaves. During the 1930s, the disinterred and unidentified occupants of an entire cemetery were brought here from Whitebreast Township.

I’ve enjoyed telling you something of my story, but there is little more to say. It’s time to move on and allow some of the others to share their stories, too.

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