Who’s Got Button’s Bones?

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Arthur Funk, meanwhile, was getting himself elected to the state legislature. Some say he did it primarily to secure a public appropriation for a Savannah monument honoring Gwinnett. Men have gone to legislatures for less noble reasons, but Funk insists it just isn’t so. “I never even put the appropriation bill in the hopper,” he says testily, “nor did I vote for it. I couldn’t have cared less about a monument, and when they suggested my name be mentioned on it, I vetoed that quick as hell. Only one name belonged on any monument, I told ’em, and that was Button Gwinnett’s.” In any event, a bill providing $5,000 for a monument passed both houses, with Augusta’s own senator, the present governor of Georgia, Carl Sanders, among those voting for it. Senator Spence Grayson of Savannah took the opportunity to poke a little fun at his hometown colleague. Speaking in support of the monument bill, Grayson told the rules committee dryly, “I want to get those bones out of Arthur Funk’s living room.” “Grayson had better watch how he goes shooting his mouth off,” retorted Funk. “Button Gwinnett did it once too often, and look what happened to him.”

Funk did not have the bones in his living room. He had them in his guest room. When the remains were exhumed by archaeologist Larson on December 2, 1957, Funk became concerned about where they would rest during subsequent investigations. He placed them in a new, copper-lined oak coffin and put the coffin in the guest room of his home. He left it there for five and a half years. During that time, he says, no other guests shared the room. When he took a six-week European vacation, he transferred the coffin to a fireproof vault but reclaimed it as soon as he returned home. “It was talked about as a hush-hush thing,” Funk commented recently. “People said, ‘He’s got the bones in his garage, and he won’t let anybody see them.’ That was ridiculous. They were in the guest room, and nobody ever asked to see them.”

In 1958, Savannah’s Buttonites left their own probing long enough to challenge the authenticity of a portrait of Gwinnett that had turned up in Atlanta. Since no true likeness of Gwinnett was known to exist, this painting, signed “Jeremiah Theus” (a colonial portraitist), stimulated considerable interest. It was purchased by Atlanta’s Fulton Federal Savings and Loan Association from a New York gallery for $5,000. Fulton Federal thought it was making a fine community gesture, but the president of the Atlanta Art Institute had hardly had time to clear her throat and say “We are indeed grateful …” before Savannahians, zealous custodians of all things Gwinnettian, began calling the portrait a phony. They pointed out that there was no mention of a portrait in the detailed inventory of Button’s estate and that the work had been signed “Charleston S.C., 1769,” a time when the city was known as Charles Town and the initial S was not used as an abbreviation for South. Moreover, the Savannah partisans argued that the bank’s portrait had the signature on the back, whereas in an authoritative list of Theus portraits none was mentioned as having been signed on the back.

Fulton Federal, buttressed by the assurances of the experts it had hired, refused to back down. It gave away pamphlets which included a color reproduction of the painting and the assertion that this was “The only known portrait of Button Gwinnett.” And it defiantly hung the original in its lobby. It shows a tight-lipped, rather blank-faced man posing with his hand tucked, Napoleon style, into a green waistcoat.

The appropriations for Savannah’s Gwinnett monument ended Augusta’s hopes of adding his remains to its own little pantheon. Mayor Beckum took defeat like a trooper, but couldn’t resist pointing out that his city of course wouldn’t want the bones anyway unless they were indisputably those of Gwinnett. Just where Augusta would have put them, nobody knows: the plot beneath its three-grave Signers’ Monument is filled to capacity, for Lyman Hall’s wife lies beside her husband in the spot that was originally intended for Gwinnett. To make room for Button, Augustans would have had to uproot their obelisk and turn Mrs. Hall out into potter’s field, hardly the way to treat an old lady. Anyway, says Arthur Funk, “none of them belongs in Augusta. Gwinnett and Lyman Hall lived in Liberty County, and George Walton lived in Chatham County. Why Augusta, in Richmond County, gets all fussed up about their bones, I don’t know.”