A Grave Affair


After external restoration of Apse at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster City, Lancaster, PA
Before external restoration of Apse at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster City, Lancaster, PA
Inscription reads: “Ann Caroline Coleman Daughter of Robert and Ann Coleman”

Recently the LimeWorks.us Technical Install Crews completed a project in Lancaster Pennsylvania at St. James Episcopal church, and while we were there we walked among the graves at the rear of the building, reading the placards and faces of several stones. We stumbled upon several graves closest to the church where the Coleman family lay to rest. Judging by the size and number of the graves, we assumed they were of significant importance and most likely wealth. At this time we were told by one of the local masons who had been around during the job that there was a story buried with that of Ann Coleman, daughter of Robert and Ann Coleman. A story that involved our fifteenth president, James Buchanan. And so it begins.

Robert Coleman, Ann’s father, migrated to America in 1764 and ironically, the Coleman residence in Ireland was just about twenty miles from the ancestral homestead of the Buchanans. Robert Coleman would become an iron-master capping his fortune through his marriage to the daughter of the then famous iron-master of Reading, Ann Old. Robert came into possession of several iron properties in southern Lancaster County. After 1800 he served Lancaster greatly through his service as associate judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a trustee of Dickinson College, and a warden of St. James Episcopal Church where he himself would come to be buried. Robert had been acknowledged as one, if not the wealthiest man in Lancaster and perhaps even one of the wealthiest men in the state by around 1819. In being self-made, Robert Coleman became very self-conscious of his wealth and suspicious of those who might be looking to exploit it.

James Buchanan came to Lancaster in 1809, at the same time when Robert Coleman had settled there with his nine children and wife Ann. The Jacobs 600px-Presidents_James_Buchananfamily, another wealthy family in the Lancaster area were James Buchanan’s connection to the young Ann Coleman. Cyrus Jacobs had worked alongside Robert Coleman when they worked for James Old as laborers. Just as Robert had married James Old’s daughter Ann, Cyrus married Old’s other daughter Marguaretta, making the Coleman and Jacobs children first cousins. Cyrus Jacobs had a son who carried his name and would later study law in Buchanan’s office in 1818. One of Jacobs’ daughters, Eliza Jacobs, became the sweetheart of Buchanan’s law partner, Molton C. Rogers around 1818, and around the same time Buchanan began to gain interest in Eliza’s cousin Ann Coleman.

ColemanIn 1819, Ann Coleman had the eyes of Lancaster due to her wealth and social position. Her friends often characterized her as proud, gentle, full of sensibility, lovely in person, tender and affectionate, and intelligent and thoughtful. James Buchanan had built for himself a significant reputation in politics and law around this time, so much so that he was making around $8,000 a year, a fortune in that day. In the summer of 1819, James and Ann got engaged. Serving the typical role of a father, Robert Coleman examined all things James Buchanan. He researched family history, education records, and even the backgrounds of past associates. Robert found instances where he did not approve but unfortunately for Buchanan, he wasn’t perfect, and because of that Robert Coleman was not a man to ease the path for his daughter, although there was no record of hostility against Buchanan from Ann’s father.

Autumn of 1819 became a nightmare to property owners and the lawyers who handled said property. Panic reached its peak in august and James became extremely busy. Not only was James overwhelmed with the case which had ramifications in Philadelphia, which required his presence every so often, but the political scene was also in trouble. The local Federalist party was going to the wayside and as a leading young federalist, Buchanan was needed to remedy the damage. When you think his troubles were over you are wrong, the Missouri question was consuming the nation at the same time, and Buchanan was appointed to a committee to prepare official resolutions to instruct district congressman that would represent the sentiment of voters in Lancaster on the question of slavery in Missouri. To say James Buchanan was busy would be an understatement, and because of his legal and civic responsibilities, Ann Coleman took second place in priorities. Unfortunately for James, his engagement prompted the town’s observation of his every act, exposing him to special scrutiny.

James Buchanan’s final resting place at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA

James Buchanan’s most favorable traits became an unfair judgement in regards to his persistent ambition to become financially successful and his unfailing good manners. These manners in particular, which to some, seemed to take the form of affability towards young ladies. Gossip swarmed upon these observations and eventually landed on two ideas that would misrepresent Buchanan; Buchanan loved the Coleman fortune, and he did not love Ann Coleman. Ann caught wind of these rumors and so did the whole Coleman household, and her parents did nothing to convince her otherwise. Over time Ann became convinced of the rumors and she wrote James, telling him that his object was her riches rather than regard for herself. Upon reading the letter Buchanan was hurt deeply, especially his pride and self-respect, and because of these same traits he was unable to solve the problem in direct terms. He answered Ann’s note politely, but came to no explanation. Since there was no formal break in their bond, matters still could happily be resolved, although another incident involving false assumptions arose. Buchanan had to go out of town on business and before the trip was over he casually dropped in to see Mrs. William Jenkins, whose husband was one of James’ intimate friends. Mrs. Jenkins’ sister, Miss Grace Hubley informed Ann of James’ visit and she became ridden with jealousy. She penned an angry note and released him from his engagement. James received the note while in the Court House and persons who saw him receive it observed him turning pale upon reading it. Buchanan only saw Ann’s large fortune as an issue if he were to try and persuade her to reconsider her breaking of engagement.

Ann Coleman’s resting place at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster City, Lancaster, PA

Ann became low in spirit and was encouraged by her mother to go to Philadelphia to ease her depression. Ann brought along her younger sister Sarah and caught a cold on her way to the city on December 4th. They both stayed with their sister Margaret who lived on Chestnut Street. A series of plays and operas served as a distraction for Ann. Buchanan on the other hand immersed himself in business. He successfully concluded a case on December 6th and was winding up some details, which served as a huge triumph for him, although it most likely paled to rescue his pride from the upset of his marriage plans.

Ann Coleman died on December 9th shortly after midnight. Judge Kittera of Philadelphia who knew the Colemans relived the events in his diary where he mentioned she had been engaged to be married and that some unpleasant misunderstanding occurred. He said that the circumstance was preying on her mind. Kittera also summarized daily happenings including fits of hysteria that later after night turned into strong convulsions which caused Ann’s sisters to send for doctors who though that it would soon end, and it did although her pulse continued to weaken until midnight when she died.

The news did nothing less then drown Lancaster. No one could explain exactly what happened. As for the friends of Ann, they all looked on Buchanan as her murderer and the Colemans felt the same way. When Buchanan received the news he wrote an anguished letter to Mr. Coleman asking for permission to see the corpse and walk as a mourner. His letter never reached the Coleman home, in fact it was refused at the door and returned unopened. In the letter, James wrote that he and Ann had been much abused and the he felt happiness had fled him forever. Ann Coleman’s body arrived in Lancaster on Saturday December 11th, and the next day it was buried in the churchyard of St. James Episcopal Church. At that time the church was under construction and lay half dismantled, described as a symbolic depiction of the life of Ann Coleman and the wreckage it now lay in.  James tried to get back to work but he simply could not do so. Buchanan disappeared for a few days before his return to Lancaster where he prepared himself to start again. He would never marry but would hold onto Ann’s letters throughout his life implying that he never recovered from her tragic death.


This story is an abridged version created from the cumulative research of Dr. Philip Shriver Klein, Head of the History Department of the Pennsylvania State University from “James Buchanan and Ann Coleman”. To read the complete work with complete citations from several sources including George Tichnor Curtis, Franklin Ellis, and E. C. Watmough, visit: https://journals.psu.edu/phj/article/viewFile/22321/22090