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The mystery of Dr. Charles Crane

JULIE LANE PHOTO It’s Dr. Charles Crane’s marker, but is the inscription true?
It’s Dr. Charles Crane’s marker, but is the inscription true?

It’s a story every American knows.

On April 15, 1865, 150 years ago next Wednesday, the greatest figure of the age, mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head while attending the theater with his wife, was carried across the street and placed in a bed at the back of a nearby house. A crowd of people packed into the small room around the deathbed.

Not many Americans can name the mourners who were present when Abraham Lincoln died, and few Shelter Islanders know that an Islander was there and is buried here, in the Nicoll Family Cemetery in Mashomac.

Or is he? It’s a mystery that is still unsolved.

Dr. Charles Crane, a former U.S. Surgeon General, was not only in the room when the Great Emancipator breathed his last, but later, when his body was transferred to the White House, Dr. Crane was present at the autopsy.

There’s a grave marker for Dr. Crane, a former U.S. Surgeon General, at the Nicoll Family Cemetery that reads: “Remains interred at Arlington National Cemetery.” But James Polychron, a local amateur historian, has found evidence disputing that. Which leads to the question — where is Dr. Crane’s final resting place?

What is indisputable is that on July 18, 1861 Dr. Crane married Islander Sarah Payne Nicoll on Shelter Island. While his career took the couple to Washington, D.C., they returned each August to spend the month at Sachem’s Neck.

Just two years after becoming Surgeon General, Dr. Crane died of cancer on October 10,1883 at his house in Washington, D.C. The marker was placed in the cemetery in Mashomack noting his burial at Arlington.

But an inquiry made by Mr. Polychron elicited a response from Arlington record keepers that, “Surgeon General Dr. Charles Henry Crane is not buried at Arlington National Cemetery.”

The U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History reported that Dr. Crane was buried on Shelter Island. A New York Times obituary also reported that after funeral services in Washington, D.C., Dr. Crane would be buried on Shelter Island.

In Patricia and Edward Shillingburg’s book, “The Nicolls of Sachem’s Neck,” they report that Dr. Crane was buried at the family’s cemetery in Mashomack, but that Sarah Payne Nicoll Crane had the marker placed saying her husband was buried at Arlington.

The Shillingburgs offer no explanation why that decision might have been made.

Assuming Dr. Crane was, indeed, buried at the Nicoll Family Cemetery, why does the tombstone say he’s buried at Arlington? Was it Sarah Payne Nicoll Crane who made the decision to deceive? Might it have been because Nicoll family members didn’t want attention drawn to a national figure being interred in the tiny, off-the-beaten-track private cemetery?

What attracted Mr. Polychron to examining the mystery was his interest in American history and “a fondness for hiking,” he said. Finding the family cemetery is in some ways solving a puzzle, since although it’s only about 20 yards from a major intersection of trails, it’s enclosed in trees and hidden away up a rise.

But having come across the grave marker, Mr. Polychron curiosity was piqued and he began his own research.

Besides writing to those record keepers at Arlington, he dug up the New York Times obituary and the U.S. Army Medical Department information that revealed Dr. Crane’s involvement in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s shooting.

He discovered that among the reasons Dr. Crane won the appointment as Surgeon General was, at least in part, a result of the his involvement in Mr. Lincoln’s case.

Dr. Crane had obtained his medical credentials from Harvard University, a concurrent masters degree from Yale and ultimately was commissioned in the U.S. Army. While the Surgeon General’s post eluded him until just two years before his own death, he was known among those in top positions as the doctor who could be depended on to do work beyond what would have typically been his assignments.

For several years, he performed the responsibilities of assistant surgeon general without the title.
“Crane combined remarkable executive ability with sound judgment and a delicate sense of justice and right,” according to the US. Army Medical Department’s assessment.

Once he won appointment as Surgeon General, Dr. Crane “showed the same patient, earnest and punctilious attention to the business of the office which for years he has shown as assistant,” the document said.

He was only 58 years old at the time of his death. And he’s buried — well, that’s still open to speculation.