Happy Birthday Little Mary Ella

Perhaps Crown Hill’s most noted monument, certainly its most touching, is not the one for President Benjamin Harrison. Nor is it the prominent memorial for James Whitcomb Riley at the summit of Crown Hill. It is likely the monument for a girl who died at the tender age of 5 ½ years old, a statue that is the very likeness of Mary Ella McGinnis, born December 15, 1869.

Mary Ella was the daughter of George McGinnis and his wife Josephine, the fourth of their seven children, and as the only girl, she had a special place in their hearts. They had made their way from Ohio to Indianapolis in 1850, where George became a successful business owner, county auditor and commissioner, and in his later years, the city Postmaster. During the Civil War he had risen to the rank of Brigadier General.

George McGinnis was also a doting father and after Mary Ella’s death from lung congestion in 1875, a large photo of Mary Ella, a ribbon in her curls, wearing a frilly lace frock, sitting in a wicker chair, and staring into the camera, remained on prominent display in the parlor. But Josephine, a bereaved mom, wanted to do more in memory of their little girl and planned a surprise for her husband.

After saving a dollar here and there for almost 13 years, arrangements were made for a promising sculptor named Lorado Taft to sculpt a monument for Mary Ella. The photo and some clothes were surreptitiously sent to him in Chicago, where Taft prepared a plaster model. But Josephine was not pleased with photos she received of the design. “It don’t look like Ella,” she told her son Frank, who went to Chicago to confirm that the family was not satisfied. (Taft went on to become a very successful sculptor with many public commissions around the country, including the statue of Vice President and Hoosier Schuyler Colfax in downtown University Park.)

Next, according to family lore and likely true, the family sent a photo and some clothes to a sculptor in Italy, though there is some possibility it was an Italian working near Bedford. This marble statue of Mary Ella, the flowers in her hand and in her uplifted apron symbolizing a brief life, pleased Josephine, surprised George, and has touched the hearts of Crown Hill’s visitors, who have continued to leave flowers in her arms for over 130 years.

Mary Ella McGinnis (12/15/1869-8/6/1875)
Location: Section 16, Lot 23
GPS (39.8177397,-86.1742560)

Text adapted from “A Mother’s Love, Mary Ella McGinnis and Crown Hill Cemetery” by Douglas A. Wissing, from Traces Magazine, Summer 2014