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Rev. Brown, School’s Founder, Comes Home

When John Gore, Director of Alumni Relations and The Lawrenceville Fund, set out to include Lawrenceville’s former Head Masters – all of them, dating back to the School’s founding in 1810 – in the Bicentennial Celebration, he was distressed to find that the founding Head Master, Reverend Isaac Van Arsdale Brown, rested among knee-high weeds in Trenton’s Mercer Cemetery. The cemetery, established in 1842 and once a choice resting place for Trenton’s elite, was overrun with poison ivy and littered with fallen headstones. The future of the site was uncertain. John, in concert with Leigh Lockwood ’65 P’97 ’02, then president of the Alumni Association, decided it was time to bring the Rev. Brown back home.

Lawrenceville Cemetery, which sits atop a hill overlooking State Route 206 about a quarter-mile north of the School, is home to 100 plots owned by The Lawrenceville School. Three former Head Masters – Samuel McClintock Hamill (1837-1882), James Cameron Mackenzie (1882-1899) and Simon John McPherson (1899-1919) – are buried there, as well as School benefactors Henry ’40 H’59 ’62 and Janie H’40 Woods, legendary football coach and English Master Ken Keuffel H’59 ’61 ’89 ’90 P’79, and other faculty icons. Reading names on headstones on a walk through the cemetery is akin to conducting a genealogy of Lawrenceville School families – Cleve, Green, Dickinson, and so on. Here among other notable Lawrentians, concluded John and Leigh, was where the Rev. Brown belonged.

Thus began a year-long process that involved contacting descendants of the Rev. Brown, the assistance of a former New Jersey Superior Court Judge, and securing the services of a vault company, a funeral director and an archaeologist: Earl “Gary” Cilley ’54, great-great-grandson of Isaac Brown, solicited relatives to obtain unanimous permission; his classmate, the Honorable Paul G. Levy ’54 P’81 ’88, shepherded the complex permitting process; Pioneer Vault would move the original marker and perform the disinterment and reinterment; the presence of a licensed funeral director, in this case from the M. William Murphy Funeral Home, owned by Henry B. Murphy ’44 P’70 ’72 GP’06, is legally required for such proceedings; and the archaeologist, Rod Brown (no relation), would ensure the integrity of the remains.

Finally, all the paperwork was in place, the ground was dry enough to allow for the weight of a backhoe and flatbed trailer, and schedules were coordinated. A four-ton monument of granite, limestone and marble in six parts, 15 feet high with a multilevel base and eight-foot spire, needed to be removed and then reconstructed at the new location before disinterment could take place. According to the inscription, the Rev. Brown, his second wife, Jane, and a third person named Margaret Brown, age 29 and “wife of Alexander Dunn,” were entombed beneath the monument. The remains of all three would be moved. Margaret’s exact relationship to the Rev. and Mrs. Brown would remain unclear, at least temporarily.

Disinterment revealed new information about the Rev. Brown and raised a few questions. The burial vault was constructed of brick, with large slabs of bluestone covering each of four brick-sided chambers, an unusual and expensive practice for the mid-19th century. The plot had been purchased by the second Mrs. Brown (the first Mrs. Brown, along with a son, had died some 30 years earlier); was the apparent wealth his or hers? One of the four chambers was empty; for whom was it intended? And who was Margaret?

According to the monument, the Rev. Brown died in 1861, predeceasing Jane by six years, a fact borne out by the position of the remains, with two lower chambers side-by-side and two upper chambers directly above. The chambers on one side contained the Rev. and Mrs. Brown; the adjacent lower chamber contained Margaret, while the upper chamber remained empty. The discovery of a pewter name plate for Margaret, which identified her as Margaret Dunn and her date of death as November 11, 1872, strongly suggests that she was Isaac and Jane’s daughter; she would have been born in 1843, nine years following the death of the first Mrs. Brown. The monument inscription, “wife of Alexander Dunn,” suggests that the fourth chamber was ultimately intended for him.

Letters surviving from Lawrenceville’s earliest days and recorded in several histories of the School tag the Rev. Brown as being a gifted educator and pillar of the Presbyterian Church but imperious and quick to use the rod. Portraits depict him as slender, with craggy features and a stern countenance. Now, thanks to the expertise of archaeologist Rod Brown, we also know he was a tall man, most likely upwards of 6’2” and, in the end, was surrounded by family. Relocating his and their remains to the Lawrenceville Cemetery will ensure their future together.

Rev. Brown, Jane and Margaret were reinterred in a new vault on October 18 and a formal memorial was held on November 1.*  Their tomb overlooks the School section of the cemetery, the graves of Rev. Brown’s successors, and monuments to Lawrenceville’s most prominent patrons, an appropriate resting place for the man who started it all.

* Click here to read about the ceremony of remembrance for Isaac Brown.