Using probate records, wills, bond documents, account lists, and inventories, the author attempts to trace the work of various stone carvers during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries.
Remember me as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you will be
Prepare for death and follow me
Covered in snow and leaves, thin slabs of slate protrude proudly. Against the winds and rains the seemingly silent sentinels stand bravely, one of the most tangible links with our nearly forgotten past. Walk into most any old cemetery and beautiful examples of Puritan art will greet your eyes. The ancient art of gravestone carving, and the way it changed over the years, can tell us much about our history. What sort of men carved these stones? Did stone carvers serve just their community, or can their work be seen all over? If we can listen quite hard, the stones can speak.
Puritan carving can be divided into three distinct stages, the first of which is the grim death’s head. This design, simply a grinning skull with wings, flourished early on when the flame of fanatical Puritanism was still burning brightly. It’s main focus is on the body.1 You are all mortal, it says mockingly, and any day now you could die. Stark Puritanism was in some ways far too stark, especially in its creed that only the few “visible saints” were destined to be saved. Slowly the fervor faded off. The change can be seen in the design of the death’s head. Wings became feathery and almost delicate, and other small touches are added such as jewelry, hair, more lifelike eyes and pupils, and details as if the skull is wearing clothes.2 The epitaphs of the time also brought focus on death. Most started simply ‘Here lies.’ As seen by the poem at the top of this paper, stones often warned of impending doom.3
Just a few steps form the gloomy skulls, smiling faces offer more hope. This is the second stage in gravestone design, the cherub. The cherub, or soul effigy, is usually a fat face surrounded by graceful wings. The mouth is sometimes smiling, sometimes in a pensive heart shape. This symbol is almost an icon, which orthodox Puritans would never have accepted.4 The epitaphs are also greatly different form the death’s heads. Many begin with ‘Here lies the of/what was mortal of/the corruptible part of .’ In most cases it’s focus on the fact that only the body lies below the stone.5 The soul has gone to its eternal reward. What could have led people to, rather suddenly, nearly abandon one symbol and style of inscription and take up a series of others?
Puritanism at its height was a churning tempest of reform and devotion. It led people to abandon home and neighbor for a strange, new world. Gradually, as people began to settle in, and perhaps because of the lack of opposition, the fervor died. The hard log that was Puritanism became “split and splintered with much of the theological doctrine of the early church fathers no longer adhered to by nay of the parties,” according to David E. Stannard.6 Even the belief that some were predestined to be saved had been replaced by the idea that good works could get one to heaven. Likewise, even those who were not visible saints were allowed membership to Puritan churches. This softening of Puritan ideals led to the new fire of the Great Awakening, lasting from the 1720’s to the 1760’s. The Great Awakening, started by Jonathan Edwards and later taken up by George Whitefield, stressed the personal connection between god and man. It brought back some of the fire. It also allowed carvers to accept a new design. In many places, notably in the Cambridge Cemeteries, the cherub took a strong hold. In others, such as Ipswich and North Andover, new designs were created that were indicative of the general softening of Puritan codes.7
The final stage of gravestone design came with the urn and the willow. In this design an urn appears, sometimes quite elaborate, with a willow standing or bending over it. Occasionally a stone will appear with just a willow or just an urn, but this is uncommon. The willow represents both sorrow over the grave and resurrection, especially when it is paired with grapevines to symbolize the last supper and sacraments.8 Some willows are highly stylized, especially in later years, and are shown only bending in one direction directly over the urn. Early stones tended to have a willow just placed next to an urn with a natural overhang. This design was meant as a commemoration of the deceased. By he time it gained popularity, both orthodox Puritanism and the renewed fervor of the Great Awakening had died down. Religion was becoming more secular and Unitarian. People no longer wanted exclusively religious symbols on their stones. Inscriptions of this time often commemorated the accomplishments of the deceased and often began ‘In Memory of…’ or ‘Sacred to the Memory of…’ Sometimes these stones didn’t even have a body underneath them but were simply meant to preserve the memory of someone who had died far from home or even at sea.9
While it is easy to distinguish the basic design of most tombstones, at first they all seem the same. This is especially true with death’s heads which were often clung to as traditional symbols and not altered much. Telling the work of one carver from another cane be a difficult ordeal, or a fun challenge if one knows what to look for. The easiest place to look on cherub’s and death’s heads are the wings. Some carvers favored angling wings high over the head of the design while others preferred gently sloping wings. Some made wings very plain, but many made elaborate feathering marks. There are differences within the feathering marks as well. In death’s heads it is also a good idea to look at the nose and mouth. Some carvers had clearly defined teeth, but a few left the mouth closed. The nose can range in shape from a pyramid to a T to many variations on a triangle. With the urn and willow designs, both the urn and willow can be indicative of the carver. Urns especially vary greatly in design. Willows generally come from one of two schools, one which carves a very realistic willow with long lines representing leafed branches, or one which makes the tree look more like a long piece of grass with clearly shaped leaves bending over the urn. The style of the border and additional ornamentation can help in all designs. Just standing back and looking at the elaborate details or simplicity of the design can also be of aid.
To find evidence of the stone carver’s identity, the first step is to simply walk into a good number of cemeteries with no purpose at all but to look. I takes a bit of practice before similarities between stones will jump out. When the researcher feels that she has a good grasp of identifying and grouping stones, then it is time to start writing down the names, dates, and attributes of stone groups. Pictures do help, but it is difficult to get the full effect with a flat picture so it’s best to take notes. Once stones have been grouped, the docket numbers of those stones whose owners have left behind papers can be found, which can eventually lead to their probate documents.
Probate packets of the 16 and 17 hundreds were a bit different than the wills of today. The will is the best known part of this packet, but it is by no means the only important thing. Inventory lists were drawn up at the time of death by a committee of respected men of the community. It included all things which were owned by the deceased and any debts that others owed the estate. Shortly after that, an accounts and administrations document was drawn up to illustrate what money of the estate had been spent, what was left and to whom the estate owed money. It is by examining this document that we can, sometimes, discover who the stone carvers were. This is made difficult, however, by the fact that many people did not leave documents of any kind. Even those who did often did not have an accounts and administrations document included in their packet. When all of those people have been eliminated, only a few of the remaining names state what was paid for a gravestone. It is possible that I just had horrendous luck in this, but of the 235 stones that I surveyed, only 10 groups had identified carvers. Of the total, 41% had documents of any kind, 22% had administration and accounts documents, and 4% had the name of the carver(19% of those who had administrations and accounts documents). Part of this, especially in the Suffolk county cemeteries, is due to bad record keeping. To find a will, one must first look up a docket number in a series of large books, then use microfilm to find the volume and page numbers of the documents, then find those numbers on another microfilm. Many of the numbers are dead ends. Essex county was also difficult at times due to the fact htta a number of volumes of microfilm were missing. Middlesex county was a bit easier because only the docket number was needed to find a probate packet. In her book, Forbes mentions carvers leaving signs or signatures on their stones, but I did not notice these at the time. If this project were done again it would be a good idea to expand the search to encompass more than 235 stones.
When a name was found, it was most often Parks. In particular it was Thomas Parks. He lived from 1745-1806. He and his brothers were born in Glasgow to the Scottish stone carver, William Parks. Thomas enjoyed doing more elaborate work than his brothers or father.10 Stones by him with probate documents were found in Abbot St. Cemetery and two Ipswich cemeteries. It can also be assumed that at least one of the groups of the Conant St. Cemetary stones was carved by him by their similarity to other proven groups and he was likely carving for Topsfield as well. He liked using elaborate borders, such as swirling grapevines, and favored the bent willow tree with defined leaves. His carving was clear, concise and neatly done exclusively in slate.
One of the first things listed in many probate packets is the occupation of the deceased. This can be found on wills, bond documents, accounts lists, and inventories. When a list of occupations was drawn up and the Park’s stones separated, there was quite a range of occupations. Most of the people he carved for were farmers (the called yeomen), shopkeepers, millers, weavers, coopers, bricklayers, cordwainers, and other such ordinary sorts. Others were children, single women or widows. Still others were gentlemen, esquires, or deacons. The broad range of occupations present who used his stones suggests that there was not too much in the way of class distinctions in the cemeteries, or that he carved for many different price ranges. The prices I found listed for his stones ranged from $4.83 to $21 in American dollars and from L1.16 to L2.2 in British pounds. This would seem to suggest that he carved for a large portion of the population.
The other carvers I found evidence for were not nearly as prolific in the cemeteries I surveyed. Unfortunately, the only other probate evidence centered on the Old Burial Ground in Harvard Square, Cambridge. There was a severe lack of documentation on the people observed in this cemetery and in Copp’s Hill, son it is not possible to examine the occupations of the people buried under each carver’s stones. One design that was shown with great abundance in Cambridge was a cherub with heavily feathered wings and steeply upward away from the oval face and stemmed five petal rosettes extending over the face from the wings. The carver listed for this was a member of the Stevens family, an important family of Rhode Island carvers. Most likely the carver was John Stevens who lived from 1702-1778, though the other members of the family also could have been involved. Like most carvers, this family stuck to the old familiar designs at first, but later began to improvise, specializing in small cherubs with high, elaborate wings. They are also known as coat of arms, though I did not observe this.11
Another carver observed in Harvard Square was James Clark. His designs were death’s heads with a peculiar touch. Above the grinning skull were concentric circles with long wavy lines following the curve of the tympanum down to another set of concentric circles which served as finials. The borders were often scroll-like. The wings sloped slightly downward with none of the high curves of the Stevens family. The teeth were set in a grimace instead of a grin with a double triangle nose. The prices given ranged form L10 to L7. No information was available on this man and Forbes does not mention him anywhere in her book. I do not know how to account for this, but his name appeared for gravestones in two administrations and accounts lists.
The other well defined group found listed money paid for stone by Lampon. This name is very close to Lamson, a family known for it’s stone carving. Taking into account the poor readability of the document involved, it will be assumed that the name was meant to be read Lamson. The design of these stones was indicative of the change from death’s heads to cherubs. Above the basic death’s head was a canopy of wavy lines, hinting at the progression of the willow tree. Some stones in Conant St. Cemetery shared these wavy lines, but there is not enough evidence to firmly link them with the Lamson family. The price of the stone with documentation was L2.5 in British pounds.
A last carver will have to remain anonymous for now. None of the stones found led to any information on who he might have been or how well he was paid for his work. His stones stand out against the more usual progression of death’s heads, cherubs and urns and willows. They are a good example of what happened widely around the Great Awakening. Not all carvers went directly to cherubs. Some created their own folk designs. The circle carver, as I have come to call him, was one of those. His designs consisted of a circle with a rough face flanked on either side by other banded whorls. In a few cases crude wings appear around, but not touching the circle face. This design appeared quite widely in North Andover and Ipswich.
Why is any of this important? What purpose does it serve? More importantly, what does it all mean? It is important for many reasons, satisfying scholarly curiosity being only one of them. Increasing curiosity and knowledge is surely the most important. In an age when relics of our past are ignored at best, and destroyed at worst, something must be done to save what we still have. We cannot afford to lose more cemeteries to parks, streets, or parking lots. One has to wonder what the carver of the epitaph at the top would think if one of his stones was paved over. The easiest way to prevent this is through knowledge. The more people know about the worth and the interest of cemeteries, the more there will be to pretest destruction and neglect of historical landmarks. One voice can easily lost, but many raised in unison can make a difference.
As for what all this means, it is somewhat difficult to say with the little information available. From what is available it would seem that stone carving quickly became somewhat a exclusive profession, with many stone carvers working in the larger city areas at the same time and a few itinerant carvers working around Essex county. This would make sense. There were more people to bury in the larger cities and therefore more work available or several different carvers workshops. Smaller towns in Essex such as Beverly, Ipswich, North Andover and Topsfield provided less work and a couple of shops could serve all of those communities. Stone carving must have been fairly profitable, or it seems unlikely that a family would keep at it for several generations as most did. This project needs to be expanded to find more carvers responsible for some of the beautiful works of everyday art present in graveyards. Stones do indeed have tales to tell, if we have the patience to listen.
If virtue, honesty, and truth could save
He lives in realms of bliss far, far, beyond the grave 12
Gravestones of the Stevens Family
|# of stones: 13|
Gravestones of the Lamson Family
|# of stones: 15|
Gravestones of James Clark:
|# of stones: 9|
Unknown Circle Carver:
|# of stones: 14|
Gravestones of Thomas Parks:
|Solomon Gidding||1788||deacon, yeoman|
|Joseph Gould||1803||gent. esq. major|
|Caleb Dodge||1798||gentlemen, capt.|
|Edmund Giles||1786||cooper, capt.|
|# of stones 52
# of stones with occupations: 33
% (with occupations) for children: 18%
% (with occupations) for common workers 24%
% (with occupations) for farmers: 21%
% (with occupations) gentlemen etc.: 24%
% (with occupations) widows/singlewomen: 12%
Melvin G. Williams, The Last Word ( Boston: Oldstone Enterprises, 1973), p 6.
David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study In Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p 163.
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten ( Garden City: Anchor Books, 1977), p 71.
Melvin G. Williams, The Last Word ( Boston, MA: Oldstone Enterprises, 1973), p 9.
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten ( Garden City: Anchor Books), p 72.
Harriette Merrifield Forbes, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them ( New York: Da Capo Press) p 75-77.
Harriette Merrifield Forbes, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them (New York: Da Capo Press), p 93.
Edmund Vincent Gillon, Jr., Early New England Gravestone Rubbings (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), n.p.
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1977.
Forbes, Harriette Merrifield. Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them. New York: Da Capo Press, 1967.
Gillon, Edmund Vincent Jr. Early New England Gravestone Rubbings. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Burnham, Thomas. 1793. Docket #4183, Volume 384, page 316.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Champney, Samuel. 1746. Docket #4244.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Dodge, William. 1778. Docket #8001, Volume 363, page 553.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Gidding, Solomon. 1788. Docket #10865, Volume 384, page 258.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Kidder, Samuel. 1718. Docket #13252.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Kinsman, Pekatiah. 1797. Docket #1412, Volume 365, page 493.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Marrett, Amos. 1747. Docket #14663.
Probate Record, Will. Accounts and Administrations List. Ober, Sarah. 1796 Docket #19957, Volume 365, page 11.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Account List. Reed, James. 1734. Docket #18521.
Probate Record, Will. Administration and Bond. Thisttle, Abigail. 1785. Docket #27412, Volume 357, page 141.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Baker, Simeon. 1800. Volume 368, page 18.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Batchelder, Josiah. 1749. Volume 366, page 150.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Burnham, Samuel. 1772. Docket #4165, Volume 348, page 433.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Dexter, Richard. 1783. Docket #7647, Volume 357, page 47.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Dodge, Caleb. 1798. Volume 366, page 156.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Dodge, Hannah. 1795. Volume, 383, page 474.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Elliwood, Ebenezer. 1771. Docket # 8695, Volume 347, page 112.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Giles, Edmund. 1786. Docket # 10910, Volume 358, page 419.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Gould, Joseph. 1803. Docket #11400, Volume 371, page 76.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Lovett, Ebenezer. 1778. Docket #17110, Volume 353, page 410.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Ober, Peter. n.d. Docket #19944, Volume 358, page 92.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Ober, Richard. n.d. Docket #19949, Volume 360, page163.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Ober, William. n.d. Docket # 19959, Volume 359, page 194.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Perkins, Stephan. 1790. Docket #21413, Volume 366, page 135.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Thissel, Jefry. 1794. Docket #27426, Volume 363, page 542.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Wade Mary. 1785. Docket #28635, Volume 104, page 199.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Woodbery, James. 1786. Docket #30420, Volume 358, page 486.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Woodbery, Josiah. 1789. Docket #30450, Volume 361, page 10.
Probate Record, Will. Inventory List. Woodbery, William. 1789. Docket #30529, Volume 361, page 9.
Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Williams, Malvin G. The Last Word. Boston: Oldstone Enterprises, 1973.