The Edinburgh memorial to an ‘Amiable American Stranger’

Woodward's grave is located in a secluded corner of St Cuthbert's Graveyard in Edinburgh. Picture: David McLean
Woodward's grave is located in a secluded corner of St Cuthbert's Graveyard in Edinburgh. Picture: David McLean
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AS our friends across the pond celebrate their day of independence, it seems an appropriate time to tell the story of Rufus Woodward, an extraordinary 19th century American ‘stranger’ who will be remembered in Edinburgh forevermore.

A little friendliness can go a long way. This was certainly true in the case of Rufus Woodward, a man whose all too brief time in Scotland was commemorated with a marble memorial at Edinburgh’s St Cuthbert’s Graveyard.

The marble slab dedicated to Woodward with a brief summary of his life. Picture: David McLean

The marble slab dedicated to Woodward with a brief summary of his life. Picture: David McLean

Born into a well-to-do Connecticut family in 1793, Rufus attended Yale College from the age of 18 to study science and philosophy. He was later described as a ‘student distinguished among his class-mates, for his diligence and solid attainments’.

Sadly, for much of his adult life, Rufus suffered from an acute ailment, the recovery from which would take priority over his career.

In November 1822, Woodward explained the deterioration of his physical health: “I left my tutorship in college last February, principally on account of ill health. I had not enjoyed good health for six or eight years; having had more or less of the dyspepsia (chronic indigestion). It originated I doubt not, in a want of exercise, and of due attention to my diet.

“From the time I left college, I have been devoting my time to the recover of my health.”

The (neglected) grave of writer Thomas de Quincey in St Cutbert's churchyard. Rufus Woodward's gravestone lies immediately to its left. Picture: TSPL

The (neglected) grave of writer Thomas de Quincey in St Cutbert's churchyard. Rufus Woodward's gravestone lies immediately to its left. Picture: TSPL

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Despite his illness, Rufus made the bold decision to set sail for Europe in July 1823 in order to ‘pursue his studies and restore his health’.

After spending some time in Liverpool, Woodward visited the great learning institutes of Glasgow and Edinburgh before moving on to London.

Everywhere he went, the American was met with a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm. His naturally affable disposition also saw him develop a number of close friendships.

But Woodward’s health continued to suffer, and with winter fast approaching, he was advised to temporarily relocate to the milder climes of southern France as an act of self-preservation.

Woodward returned to Edinburgh the following year and this time, having built up a fondness for the Scottish capital, he was intent on staying put during the winter months. Tragically, these winter months would be his last.

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Rufus Woodward had been in Edinburgh a matter of three weeks when he passed away on the 24 November 1824. He was aged just 31 years old.

Interestingly, Woodward’s death occurred within a week of the Great Fire of Edinburgh, a calamitous inferno which broke out on 15th November and consumed much of the city’s Old Town district over a period of five days.

The close band of friends Woodward had made within the Edinburgh scientific and spiritual communities rallied round and erected a small marble memorial to the American in the grounds of St Cuthbert’s in the centre of Edinburgh. Woodward’s grave lies next to that of Thomas De Quincey, the famous English writer.

The heartwarming inscription on Woodward’s gravestone paints a picture of an ‘Amiable American Stranger’ who was not short of friends when he met his untimely end.