The Interesting Life of Emil Ambos, the Fisherman of Green Lawn Cemetery
At first mention, a visit to a cemetery in the midst of a pandemic might seem an uncomfortably morose thing to do. Who needs to be reminded of the frailty of our existence when the signs are all around us? On the other hand, cemeteries can offer a good alternative to overcrowded parks.
In fact, most American cities have at least one large burial ground that was designed just as much to be a place of leisure for the living as it was a depository for the dead. In Columbus, that place is Green Lawn Cemetery.
Founded in 1848, Green Lawn was part of a mid-nineteenth century shift from cramped, urban graveyards to rolling, manicured memorial parks. This was known as the Rural Cemetery Movement. The emphasis on beauty and scenery in such cemeteries make them a great place to take in nature, but they offer much more than that. Their stones, statues, mausoleums and crypts tell us who we were, who we are and how we wish to be remembered. Usually, this is done subtly with a symbol here or a phrase there, but every so often one encounters the grave of someone so dynamic that neither marble, granite nor bronze can contain the spirit of the person entombed within.
One of the best examples of such a monument in Green Lawn Cemetery is that of Emil Ambos, a fun-loving sportsman whose likeness is immortalized in bronze as he eternally engages in his favorite pastime, fishing. This life-affirming statue stands in stark contrast to the austere obelisks and mournful angels that commonly adorn gravesites of this era. It also says a great deal about the character of the person that lay beneath its feet.
Emil was born into what was considered South Side aristocracy in 1844. His father, Peter, arrived in Columbus from the Rhineland in 1832 and quickly made a name for himself by opening the city’s first candy shop. Following its success, he later rose to prominence as a leader in industry and finance, co-founding what is now PNC Bank in 1863. Emil’s mother, Dorothea, was the daughter of a pioneering German Village land owner and retired Captain in the Austrian Army, Christian Jaeger.
As a young man, Emil traveled to Gambier, where he studied botany at Kenyon College. Following graduation, the 22-year-old decided against a career in his field of study and moved back to Columbus to open a store specializing in the sale of fine liquors and imported foodstuffs.
Like his father, Emil proved to be a successful businessman and his store thrived. Rather than raise a family, he remained a bachelor and spent most of his adult life enjoying the finer things in his luxurious townhouse at 40 W. Town St. There he had a punch bowl carved from Mt. Vesuvius lava, statues of Italian marble and a bathtub lined with zinc. A second story bridge led to an alley stable where he kept his prized collection of nearly twenty horses and ponies.
While Emil clearly enjoyed surrounding himself in lavish decadence, he also had inherited his mother’s deep sense of empathy for those who were less fortunate. Each year, as the cold weather set in, he would march troops of poor and orphaned children into Lazarus, have them each outfitted in winter clothes, and then cheerily send them on their warm and merry way. He would direct this chaotic scene with his trusty gold-tipped walking stick, a cherished accoutrement he had been presented on New Year’s Day 1877 for having the finest and fastest horse on Town Street.
A few months before Emil was given that fancy cane, he interrupted his bachelor lifestyle to wed a young woman by the name of Clara Owen. Their marriage ended abruptly three years later, following intriguing allegations the newspapers of the day would only refer to as “rather racy in character.”
While the indiscretions which led to the couple’s divorce may have been kept private, one thing that wasn’t a secret was Emil’s love of fishing. It was said that he would jump at even the slightest suggestion to cast a line any time of night or day. After his retirement, at the age of 39, his desire to go angling only grew greater. To further indulge the hobby, he purchased an 116 acre country getaway with large twin lakes off Winchester Pike. He called this place Ambos Park.
Almost every day, Emil would recruit family and friends to join him for an afternoon of recreation and relaxation at the lakes. Some of his most frequent guests were impoverished children, which he would often gather for a brief escape from the polluted city slums and drudgery of their daily lives. To amuse the children, he constructed a “comic cabin” on one of the lake’s tiny islands, complete with a little well for water and a stuffed deer in the yard. He also acquired a menagerie of animals which served as a petting zoo and a fleet of “funny boats” so the children could ferry around on the lakes.
One of Emil’s most unusual acts of benevolence took place on Christmas Eve in 1896. That evening he hosted a party that would’ve been just as at home in a story by Roald Dahl as it would in anything written by Charles Dickens.
The festivities kicked off when 15 needy children were ushered out of the cold and into Emil’s opulent Town Street residence. For three hours that night, delighted guests looked on as the children engaged in games, sang, were fed a grand feast (but not before Emil pranked the young people by serving them water spiked with alum) and given gifts from under a Christmas Tree topped with a possum in a silk hat. At the evening’s conclusion, Emil remarked that these were some of the shortest and happiest hours that he had spent in years.
The next winter was less jovial. Following a brief illness, Columbus’ beloved “Uncle Ame” died from complications of the liver on March 26, 1898. He was 53 years old. His story doesn’t end there, though.
Keeping with his lifelong legacy of charity and generosity, Emil bequeathed the most attractive 30 acres of his country estate to the city for use as a park. While debating whether or not to accept this gift, one city council member had questions for the deceased, so a medium was hired to call forth Emil’s ghost. Once communication had been established, the ethereal voice of Emil Ambos told the councilman that from the vantage of the grave he could see what a lot of “short skates” the city council was and that he no longer cared for Columbus to have the land. Furious, the insulted man joined the council’s majority vote of dissension and Emil’s gift of the park was refused. Eventually the land was sold to a Grove City farmer before being developed into a golf course and finally the Berwick neighborhood which occupies the site today.
Another provision of Emil’s will was that $1,000 would be donated to Children’s Hospital, but not before interest accrued on the money was used to throw two jubilant fish fry banquets for his friends and fellow anglers. These events, one in 1905 and the other in 1908, saw a downtown meeting hall transformed into a wonderland of nature, complete with ponds stocked with fish, walls lined with trees, pitched tents on banks of sand and servers dressed as camp scouts. An eerily-lit, life-size photo of Emil surrounded by plants and vines presided over both celebrations.
Looking back one lawyer studying the elaborate 17-page will commented, “If anyone should ask me if there is someone else I’d rather be, I would say Emil Ambos. He seemed to have so much fun.”
In 2019 the statue which commemorates the short, but well-lived life of Emil Ambos was deemed historically significant by the Smithsonian Institution and at the direction of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association, the monument was completely restored, ensuring memory of its subject will live on for years to come.
To learn more about this and other tales of mystery concerning the University District and the city at large, venture out for an evening of dark tales from Columbus’ past offered throughout the year from Columbus Ghost Tours. Tickets and information available at www.columbusghosttours.com.