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Ellen and Sir Joseph Francis

Before Lakewood was founded in 1871, Ellen Francis and Sir Joseph Francis stood on a bluff on the east side of Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun). They gazed at the lake in front of them. Ellen expressed to her husband Joseph that it was perhaps the most beautiful place she had ever been. She wished to spend eternity there, she told him.

When Lakewood Cemetery opened on the site in 1872, Ellen’s wish became a possibility. Joseph and Ellen purchased a lot immediately. The following year, Ellen passed away and was laid to rest on the site at which she stood at so many years prior. This site was labeled as Section 1, Lot 1.

The grave of Ellen and Sir Joseph Francis.

For the next 20 years, until he joined her in eternal rest, Sir Joseph Francis was a well-known figure around Lakewood. His 1893 obituary indicated that he achieved mild celebrity status for his consistent presence at Lakewood. “…Every summer Mr. Francis visited [his wife’s] grave and placed flowers on the [grave]. He was a familiar figure at Lakewood, and virtually made his headquarters at the cemetery,” the paper reads. In 1875, Francis planted a very special willow tree on his wife’s grave. The slip of the willow was cut from the tree that adorned the grave of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sir Francis tended the tree and his wife’s grave religiously.

Sir Joseph Francis was most known for his dedication to Lakewood, but he certainly made a splash elsewhere. “…It was as a devoted worshiper at the tomb of his wife in Lakewood that the Minneapolis public has chiefly known Mr. Francis,” reads his obituary, “but his name is known in king’s palaces for the services he has rendered mankind.”

The long inscription on Francis’ grave tells of a long life dedicated to human welfare. “Joseph Francis,” the inscription reads, “the father and founder of the United States life-saving service, founder of the American Shipwreck society, 1842. Inventor of the corrugated metallic life car, lifeboat, etc. Received the thanks of the Forty-ninth congress. Honored by the Fiftieth congress for services to humanity. Honored, decorated, rewarded and knighted by the crowned heads of Europe. Born March 12, 1801. Died May 10, 1893.”

Born in Boston without much money, Joseph Francis began working in a relative’s boat shop as a child. At age 11 he built his first boat. Living in a port city, young Francis witnessed many shipwrecks, which were common at the time. He noticed that the most dangerous part of a ship’s journey was the ship’s arrival at the dock, and that even the wooden lifeboats were often tragically dashed against rocks.

Francis knew that safer maritime travel must be possible. He invented a modified version of the lifeboat in 1819, and in 1945 invented the corrugated, galvanized iron “life-saving car.” This lidded lifeboat, which was towed from wreck sites to shore on a rope shot by a cannon, presented a lighter yet sturdier alternative to wooden lifeboats.

A patent drawing of one of Sir Joseph Francis’s “Life-cars.” Source: James L. Pond, “History of Life-Saving Appliances, and Military and Naval Constructions…” 1885.

At first his lidded watercraft was the subject of ridicule. But over the decades that followed, his 23 life-saving patents (including the “life-car”) were credited with saving many thousands of lives.

Francis received recognition and praise across the world for his accomplishments. He received medals, honors, and was even knighted by Napoleon III of France in 1860. Yet as maritime safety increased, his fame waned. Once celebrated as an international hero, he aged in relative obscurity in the United States.

Finally, at age 90, Francis got some comeuppance in the United States. In 1890 he was given a Congressional Medal of Honor from President William Henry Harrison. The solid gold medal was four inches in diameter, and ⅔ of an inch thick. At the time it was the largest Medal of Honor that had ever been created, and cost an equivalent of nearly $80,000 to produce. The medal boasted Francis’ face on the front side, with the inscription “…to Joseph Francis, Inventor and Framer of the Means for the Life-Saving Service of the Country.” The back of the medal had an image of a distressed ship with a lifesaving crew and devices nearby. During the award ceremony, President Harrison recognized the United States was “tardy” in their gratitude to Francis.

In 1893, at age 92, Sir Joseph Francis died in Otsego Lake, New York, where he spent much of the year. His body was returned to Lakewood, Section 1, Lot 1. Here, he was laid to rest besides Ellen — on the site where they decided they would spend eternity so many years prior.

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