Who’s Got Button’s Bones?

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Funk and his supporters reacted angrily. They pointed out that Newman had considered only one piece of their evidence; when they offered to let him examine the gravestone lettering and the plait of hair, he refused. They also marshalled evidence refuting his conclusions; for example, they declared that the source of Sanderson’s statement on height was Hugh M’Call, a Georgia historian who had made numerous errors on other facts pertaining to Gwinnett’s life. Finally, Funk passed the femur on to a Georgia ballistics expert, who declared that the wound had been caused before burial by a “device [that] was probably circular,” e.g. , a pistol ball.

By this time influential Savannahians were being drawn into the case. Faced with Newman’s adverse report of the femur and his refusal to examine any of the other evidence, Funk appealed to Mayor W. Lee Mingledorff for an impartial investigation. The Mayor turned the matter over to the Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission, an official arm of the city government chartered by the Georgia legislature in 1949. On September 28, 1959, the Commission issued a thirty-four-page report examining all material submitted by Funk in attacking the Smithsonian opinion and adding some findings of its own. Gwinnett, it reasoned, was almost certainly a small man; for one thing, he was part Welsh, and the Welsh are usually small. Contemporary observers had probably exaggerated his height because, as a Georgia historian remarked recently, “to the people at that time all the signers must have seemed seven feet tall.” The plait of hair, the report noted, established a strong presumption that the remains were those of a man, since in the eighteenth century, men, not women, wore their hair in that fashion.

“The weight of evidence before us,” concluded the Commission, was sufficient to establish that (1) Colonial Cemeierv was “beyond a reasonable doubt” the site of Button’s grave, and (2) the remains unearthed by Funk were “probably” those of Gwinnett.

Funk rested his case, but his critics, notably Dr. Waring, remained vocal. The doctor had been at the graveside when the disputed remains were unearthed, and his immediate response had been negative. Said Waring: “That looks like a woman’s skeleton to me.” “There is not a scrap of positive evidence,” Waring once wrote to a newspaper, “that the disputed remains are Gwinnett’s.” Arthur Funk paid little heed to Waring’s charges. “Waring was forever and eternally saying something, but he never offered any evidence,” Funk says. “He would simply lip off in the paper all the time. I didn’t give a damn.” Funk insists there was no personal animosity between him and Waring (who has since passed away), but admits having given his antagonist a “verbal dressing down and maybe a bit of a push” on the street one day.

With Savannahians still haggling over the authenticity of the bones, the city of Augusta decided to enter the contest. Augusta has the remains of Georgia’s other signers of the Declaration, Lyman Hall and George Walton, entombed under the granite obelisk known as the Signers’ Monument. What could be more logical than to have all three signers resting there side by side? Augustans argue now that the inter-city squabble was created largely by an Augusta newspaper reporter, Edith Bell Love, who saw a chance to turn dry history into live controversy. Mrs. Love did write some imaginative slories about the Gwinnett case, but Augusta’s Mayor Millard Beckum also jumped into it with both feet. Politicians, after all, are as anxious for headlines as are reporters. Beckum, in April of 1960, suggested that Savannah turn Button’s bones over to Augusta so they could rest with those of Hall and Walton. Savannah’s Mayor Mingledorff retorted, in effect, “Forget it.” Dr. Waring, in a show of local solidarity, also rejected the request, and made the obvious rejoinder that Augusta should send its bones to Savannah. “After all,” he pointed out, “Savannah was the capital while Augusta was a wayside stop in the Indian nation on the way to the coast.” An Augusta lawyer retorted that the “wayside stop” at that time “had two thousand horses and was visited by 700 traders a year, and Savannah couldn’t boast anything like that.”

Mayor Beckum produced an old newspaper story indicating that a place had been reserved under the Signers’ Monument for Gwinnett, whose bones had not yet been discovered when it was erected in 1848. Spokesmen for Savannah countered by quoting the 1895 contract which transferred to the city title to the Christ Church cemetery; it states that the hallowed ground shall forever be preserved as a “final resting place of the dead now buried therein.” Removing Button’s bones, Savannahians said, would therefore be illegal. Mayor Beckum then took his case to the Georgia secretary of state, Ben Fortson. One of Fortson’s duties is to guard the state’s historical treasures, which Beckum believed included the remains of Button Gwinnett. Fortson bucked the problem to the attorney general of Georgia, Eugene Cook, who ruled that he had no authority to force Savannah to relinquish Gwinnett—or whoever it was that had been dislodged by Funk.