On July 4, 1809, an unusual reburial ceremony took place at the Wayne family burial grounds in Radnor, Pennsylvania. For 12 years, the remains of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero and former congressman, had rested 400 miles away on the shores of Lake Erie.
But on that early summer day, Mad Anthony’s remains were going home—well, most of them were going home. Legend has it that the bumpy Pennsylvania roads on the way to Radnor jostled the cart carrying Mad Anthony’s body so violently that some of his bones bounced out and were never seen again. Another story has it that the cart tipped over causing the congressman’s skull to roll away and disappear. In either case, Mad Anthony—or what’s left of him—is said to haunt the trails and backwoods of the Keystone State.
Mad Anthony Wayne may have become legend in death, but he likely loomed even larger in life. He was George Washington’s trusted lieutenant in the Continental Army, a friend to the Marquis de Lafayette, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, a Representative from Georgia, the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, and triumphant defender of the Northwest Territory. In fact, his reburial that day in 1809 was complete with full military honors and attended by a congressional delegation and luminaries like General “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Virginia.
In 1776, Wayne led the Pennsylvania militia, known as the Pennsylvania Line. Under Wayne’s leadership the Line soon became one of General Washington’s most reliable divisions. Around this time General Wayne earned the nickname “Mad Anthony.” Reportedly bestowed by an angry former confidant, the moniker stuck and Wayne’s men embraced it. In May 1779, Washington ordered Mad Anthony to storm Stony Point, New York (a fortified peninsula on the Hudson River), and Wayne replied with gusto, “Issue the order, and I’ll storm hell!” Many consider the battle at Stony Point to be a decisive victory in the northern front against the British. For his heroics and masterful strategy (an attack which included a surprise midnight bayonet attack), Wayne received a Congressional Gold Medal.
After the Revolutionary War ended, General Wayne received a tract of land in Georgia as a reward for his service. At the urging of a family friend, he ran for election to the U.S. House in 1790. However, his tenure was brief as Wayne became embroiled in one of the first contested elections in the House. Former Representative James Jackson challenged Wayne’s residency qualifications and also asserted that ballots were improperly counted. The House Committee on Elections in the 2nd Congress (1791–1793) declared the election null on March 21, 1792. While embarrassed by the incident, Wayne emerged unscathed by his foray into politics: President Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox named him General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army.
Sent to secure the Northwest Territory (modern day Ohio and Michigan), Mad Anthony fortified the American borders against Native Americans and British troops for four years. Returning to Philadelphia from the Ohio Valley, Wayne fell ill in late November 1796. Two weeks later, he succumbed to his illness at a military post in Presque Isle (Erie, PA). On his death bed, he requested “to be buried at the crest of the hill near the flagpole.” The old soldier’s body rested peacefully under the flag pole for 12 years.
In 1809, the Society of the Cincinnati contacted General Wayne’s family and suggested that the body of the Revolutionary War hero be returned to the family burial plot in southeastern Pennsylvania. Wayne’s son, Isaac, set off to retrieve his father’s remains.
The story goes that when the body was exhumed those in attendance were stunned. The Major General was found to be perfectly preserved in full uniform. This presented a transportation problem since Isaac had brought a very small cart. The doctor in charge, J.C. Wallace, made the gruesome recommendation to remove the flesh from the bone by dismembering the body and boiling it in a pot. Once the ghastly task was completed, Wallace reinterred the knives, pot, and assorted other remains in the original grave site, and gave Isaac Wayne his father’s bones.
On his way home, somewhere along the route from Erie to Radnor, Mad Anthony Wayne crossed that fine line between history and legend.
Sources: Paul David Nelson, Anthony Wayne Soldier of the Early Republic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1985; Noel Gerson, I’ll Storm Hell: A Biographical Novel of “Mad Anthony” Wayne (New York: Doubleday), 1967; Joseph Fox, Anthony Wayne, Washington’s Reliable General (Chicago: Adams Press), 1988. Richard Knopf, ed., Anthony Wayne: A Name In Arms Soldiers, Diplomat, Defender of Expansion Westward of a Nation, The Wayne-Knox-Pickering-McHenry Correspondence (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press), 1960.Follow @USHouseHistory