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Jack Lessenberry

‘Boy Governor’ Won’t Stay Buried

July 9, 2010

Nobody in Michigan ever had a political career like Stevens T. Mason, who flashed across history like a comet, accomplishing more at a younger age than anyone could have dreamed possible and then burning out even faster.

He made Michigan a state, fought the Toledo War, won the Upper Peninsula, established public education, and otherwise put the mitten on the map before his career collapsed.

He died at a tragically young 31.

But his post-mortem life has been vigorous in its own right: Stevens T. Mason just can‘t seem to stay beneath the ground.

He departed this life on January 5, 1843, and was buried in New York City. Sixty-two years later they dug him up and moved him to Detroit. His ancient sister and surviving daughter watched as he was buried with pomp and circumstance beneath his statue in tiny Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. The body was supposedly lowered right below where his office would have been in Michigan’s first capital, which was then in Detroit.

The “boy governor,” Michigan’s first chief executive, was home at last.

For awhile, anyway. Fifty years later, they had to dig him up again; they were putting in a new bus station.

That 1955 event didn’t get much coverage; the local newspapers were on strike. Then, last month, it was time to dig him up once more. The city decided to renovate the tiny, neglected park, now sandwiched between downtown skyscrapers. Once more, they went looking for the governor. But this time, they couldn’t find him.

He wasn’t where he was supposed to be. They turned to the same family-owned funeral home that had handled the governor’s reburial in 1955. But records were sketchy.

“We didn’t know if we were looking for ashes or a body,” said David Kowalewski, the manager of Harris Funeral Homes. Finally, the excavators found a perfectly preserved steel casket, with a plate attached that read “Stevens T. Mason. DIED Jan. 4, 1843.”

Detroiters applauded when the casket was brought to the surface, and taken away. When the funeral director opened it up in a secure location, he found the governor’s nearly complete skeleton, with each bone stitched carefully to a mattress. “He was a pretty tall man,” Kowalewski said, showing me a photograph of the bones.

Indeed, he was an inch or two over six feet. But he was even more amazing in life. The bare facts themselves tell the tale.

Stevens T. Mason became territorial secretary and acting governor at 19. He was the driving force behind a territorial census that proved Michigan had enough people to qualify for admission as a state. He then became the architect of statehood.

Mason was the mastermind of the “Toledo War,” which led to Michigan’s losing Toledo, but gaining the entire Upper Peninsula.

Nor was that all. He was a young Democrat who defied his party’s powerful leader, President Andrew Jackson, and prevailed.

When an annoyed president removed him as territorial governor, enraged Detroiters pelted his successor with horse dung. The man fled, and Michigan elected Mason with more than 90 percent of the vote. Trouble is, Michigan wasn’t yet recognized as a state. So he got it done, and then got the people to elect him again.

Soon, he had started a system of public education in Michigan, and located the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Mason was handsome, tall, charismatic, and at the advanced age of 25, was a rising national political star.

Yet everything fell apart with the Panic of 1837. The state banking system he helped set up was a house of cards. Michigan had borrowed heavily to finance much-needed internal improvements; suddenly, it couldn’t repay its debts. Mason had become Michigan’s first politician ruined by a financial crisis, though he would be far from the last. Political disgrace followed.

He declined to run again and left the state. He moved with wife, Julia, and three babies to New York, where he struggled to pass the bar and find clients. Then, pneumonia, scarlet fever, or both, set in.

Within four days, he was dead.

Now, his body has resurfaced just when new attention is being paid to his career. “He was enormously important,” said author Don Faber, who is working on a full-length Mason biography.

“I don’t know how he would have felt about being reburied in Michigan, but I think he would have approved,” said Faber, who has written the definitive book on the Toledo War.

What isn’t yet clear is when Stevens T. will be reburied again, though it probably will be when the renovations to Capitol Park are complete later this summer. Actually, this time he won’t be placed in the earth, but in a sarcophagus above ground.

Jack Dempsey, vice president of the Michigan Historical Commission, said he didn’t know if a formal ceremony will be held.

What he does hope, however, is that this time Michigan’s first governor will be able to rest undisturbed. The funeral director, however, is hedging his bets.

“I’m taking lots of pictures,” he said. “So we’ll be ready when we do this again in 60 years.”

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

July 8, 2010 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , ,

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