The University of Michigania, as it was called back then, was founded in 1817 by Augustus Woodward, the first chief justice of the Michigan Territory, and two holy men, Rev. John Monteith and Rev. Gabriel Richard. Predating Michigan’s statehood by 20 years, the promise of this founding was not practically realized until 1840, when the first students—six of them—got to take collegiate-level classes in Ann Arbor. One of the two professors who taught that very first class was Joseph Whiting, U-M’s first classicist. Whiting’s life was cut tragically short, and he died just days before his students from that first class of Michigan could graduate.
A monument to Whiting’s death, and the deaths of three other professors, was built in 1846, taking the form of a broken pillar to symbolize lives ended before their time. Whiting’s body was instructed to be interred under the original monument in what was then a campus cemetery right on the Diag.
Placed thoughtfully, the monument’s location proved something of an inconvenience to later campus-goers and was moved not once, but six different times. Time passed, and the monument faded into the background such that students and faculty began to pass by without even noticing it. (Despite its central location between the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Ugli, it's possible that you too may have walked right past the statue without noting it.)
Over the course of the 20th century, the plaques, which were in Latin, commemorating Whiting and the three others began to erode badly. Acid rain ate at them until the words were virtually, and then totally, illegible. For a long period, the broken pillar stood, an indecipherable mystery amid the bustling bodies of central campus.
“Translations of the original inscriptions were placed beside the monument in 1997,” says Ph.D. candidate John Posch. “But acid rain had rendered the original language unavailable except in notes. Now if you want to read the original, you have to dig around in the archives of the Bentley Historical Library.”
Posch took it upon himself to research the inscription in the hopes of making a classroom activity for the elementary Latin classes he taught in the Department of Classical Studies, but the mystery of the inscription led him further into Whiting’s story and legacy, including a series of other, slightly weirder mysteries. Who had recorded the Latin plaques before their erosion, for example? And where was Whiting’s body now?
Definitely Absolutely Not Aaron Burr
While researching the inscriptions on the broken pillar, Posch discovered the original notes from the 1930s that had led to the translations now accompanying the monument. Alongside these translation records were other articles, including some concerning the uncertainty surrounding the final location of Professor Whiting’s body. Contained in the archives is a note from the regents agreeing to a plan that would see the body moved from central campus, but there was no information on when or whether the plan was executed. So where was Whiting?
The notes belonged to Reuben Peterson, a professor of obstetrics at U-M in the early 20th century who had taken an interest in the pillar and in the cold case regarding the location of Professor Whiting’s remains. Not satisfied with what he observed in the University’s records, Peterson started a letter-writing campaign, contacting all of the relatives of Whiting that he was able track down.
He succeeded in contacting Whiting's granddaughter and her spouse, a Mrs. and Mr. Lund in Chicago, who, through an intermediary, informed Peterson of their connection to Professor Whiting. (This was in 1933.) They also mentioned to Peterson that they were in possession of a life-size oil portrait of Professor Whiting that they prized very highly. In response, Peterson asked for a record of the painting for the University and for posterity. That, Posch says, is where the paper trail ends.
Posch was intrigued. There were—or had been, at one time—descendants of Professor Whiting who knew and remembered his life and work, and who might still know something about where his body ended up. There was also a portrait, if it survived, of the professor out there somewhere.
He decided to keep digging.
Posch discovered Joseph Whiting’s great-granddaughter: Chicago’s Mrs. Lund had had one child, a daughter, who passed away in 1997. Any information she might have had about Whiting’s body was lost. The portrait Lund had mentioned to Professor Peterson was subsequently sold at an estate sale, but no one at the estate sale knew who the painting depicted. Art dealers made a great deal of guesses, some of which would have driven up the price of the painting a significant amount.
“There were guesses that it was Aaron Burr,” Posch says. “Some said it was one of the original presidents of Princeton. The last person they thought it could be was Henry D. Gilpin, the attorney general under President Martin Van Buren. There were a lot of big guesses.”
After locating the physical portrait, Posch tried to see if, maybe, he was wrong about the painting and its connection to Whiting, that he had the wrong man and the wrong picture. He brought up multiple images of Gilpin to compare to the image of the painting, and noted that the resemblance to other portraits wasn’t very strong. The art dealers had identified the artist who had done the portrait as Henry Inman. (Inman, an accomplished portraitist, also painted such imminent figures as President Martin van Buren and Chief Justice John Marshall.) An expert on Inman’s work told Posch that, no, it was highly unlikely that the picture in question was Gilpin since other portraits of him differed so greatly. But just because it seemed like it wasn’t Gilpin wasn’t confirmation that it was Whiting.
After a year of negotiations, LSA’s Department of Classics purchased the painting based on strong evidence that it was the U-M classicist pictured there. They discovered, on the back of the physical painting, proof positive of their guess. There was a name and address; Lund, it read. Chicago. The tag on the frame indicated that the picture had been framed in Chicago as well, giving vivid confirmation of the portrait’s subject and its authenticity, and recovering an important part of the College’s early history.
The Missing Professor
There was still the mystery of where Whiting’s body had been buried, though. Tracking each of the monument’s seven movements—and the possible movement of the body or bodies originally interred beneath it—was a daunting and often impenetrable task.
But, Posch says, there does exist a historical map that shows where the old burial ground was, which could lead to a discovery. Posch’s next project is to do a high-tech, non-intrusive survey of the area to search for “unexpected cavities,” any of which might reveal Whiting’s coffin and final resting place. He—Posch, not Whiting—is hoping to raise $5,000 to fund a search including ground-penetrating radar and magnetic imaging to find out if there is anything or anyone still under there.
Meanwhile, the portrait is home again and will hang in the library of the Department of Classical Studies, where Whiting’s visage can serve as a reminder of all those who have served the College and the cause of higher education—and of one who may still be nearby.