by Jennifer Stucker, Gouldsboro Historical Society, Gouldsboro, Maine
Prologue: One sunny afternoon in 1964, a group of young college boys were driving the back roads in rural Massachusetts when they stopped to “answer nature’s call.” In the process, one of the young men noticed an interesting looking flat stone, leaning against a nearby tree. When he tipped it upright, he discovered it was a broken off fragment of a very old slate headstone! But there was no cemetery anywhere near the wooded area where they had stopped. Seeing that it had some interesting carving, he decided to “rescue” the stone and take it home. He kept it safe as he moved through college, first apartment, first house, next house, etc. Eventually, he and the headstone ended up here, when he retired to Maine. For most of that time (over 50 years!), the stone was kept indoors, sheltered from the New England climate. So even though it was broken off at the bottom, the stone remained in very good condition and quite legible…
The Present: In 2016, when it was time to make his next move, our protector of tombstones was pretty sure that by holding onto her stone, Hannah was somehow jinxing his house sale prospects. The headstone needed to go. Here’s where I came in, offering to take custody of the stone to try and find its rightful home. Of course, back in 1964, that would have been a daunting task for Hannah’s finder. Like Maine, rural Massachusetts is littered with cemeteries large and small, and there were few resources then for searching cemetery records unless you had some hint where the family lived or died and a lot of time on your hands. But today, with online inventories like Find A Grave and Ancestry.com, the process took just a few minutes -- less than the time it took the wet slate to dry after being rinsed off on my front porch on a warm September day, to be precise.
By searching on Find A Grave for Captain Joseph Ware, I quickly located his grave, complete with photo, in Old South Cemetery, Sherborn, Massachusetts, several miles west of where Hannah’s stone was found by the side of the road in 1964. There is a burial record there for Hannah as well, but of course no stone, though the stone does exist in a 1905 inventory available online through the Sherborn Library.
Not surprisingly, Hannah's stone appears to be in much better shape than the Captain’s. Nevertheless, except for the names, the stones are identical, clearly executed by the same carver, with the same winged death head depicting a grim human face rather than a skull, and the reference in the inscription to ye. Memorable Mortality (this unusual phrase refers to a deadly plague that swept through the area in the early 1750's, causing severe respiratory symptoms and wiping out a large percentage of the population).
Intrigued, I contacted the only person I knew who might have the 2-volume “bible” for researching this sort of thing (Jim Blachowicz’s From Slate to Marble 1770 – 1870: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts), Ron Romano, of course! He noodled around a bit without much luck – that winged face was odd -- deliberately primitive in a stone that had no other primitive features. So Ron directed me to the Farber Gravestone Collection, a fascinating online archive of over 13,500 images of historic New England gravestones, indexed by numerous characteristics, stone type, date, location, carver, etc., for further noodling on my own.
Provenance: My first attempt was to search for Slate, Massachusetts, winged face. That narrowed the field to 2,192 -- considerably fewer than 13,500, but still too many thumbnail images for browsing. Then I took a chance that maybe the carver was just goofing around with this style in 1754 (see alternative theory below on this subject). That narrowed the crowd to 15!
And there it was – on a 1754 stone for Solomon Park of Holliston, Massachusetts, the same disturbing face staring back at me and the carver was John New…
From the other images of the Solomon Park stone, I could see that the border carving on the sides was different, but the lettering style, numbers, wording were all very close. Same shop if not same carver. So once I had the carver’s name, I searched the Farber Gravestone Collection again and found a total of 125 images of John New’s work. Browsing through those images revealed all of the components on Hannah’s stone -- including some fabulous lettering!
Timothy Harrington's 1749 stone is basically the same blank and in much better condition than Hannah’s, so you can see what her stone would have looked like with less weathering. James Eager’s 1755 stone is more ornate, but has a similar composition…
New worked in the Sherborn area for just a few years, coinciding with the Memorable Mortality, but he was the only carver of the time (whose work is illustrated in the Farber Collection) to use that distinctive, haunting face, depicting a chain-like collar below the mouth. Based on the Farber images, the winged face with the choke-collar only appears on stones from 1749 - 1761, when the plague was raging through Massachusetts, while examples of much more elaborate heads, cherubs, etc, appear on his work throughout the entire range of his career, 1742 - 1785. Of particular interest is the stone he carved for James Eager’s wife Tabitha (shown below), who died just a few months before James in 1755. Atop the angel’s wings on Tabitha’s stone is a neatly carved portrait head. Above the same wings on James’ stone is the choke-collared skull.
For an in-depth look at John New’s career and life, see Vincent F. Luti’s scholarly article, “Eighteenth Century Gravestone Carvers of the Narragansett Basin: John and James New.”>1 In it, Luti refers to the winged head on stones like Hannah’s as a “third-rate skull,” which it was, but unlike Luti, I do not believe it was simply a step in New’s development as a carver.
I have a different hypothesis. In “The Pursuit of a Pestilence,”2 Ernest Caulfield described the epidemic which swept through Massachusetts in the early 1750’s known as the Memorable Mortality, as a deadly flu-like "pleuritic fever" which spread rapidly, causing respiratory infections that literally strangled its victims, killing them in just a few days.
New was a skilled carver. He knew perfectly well how to execute an elaborate skull or face, winged or otherwise, as evidenced by the other stones he was carving during the same period when he was also using the “third-rate skull.” Without knowledge of who the specific victims of the Memorable Mortality were, we cannot be sure, but it seems more plausible that New used that particular face for its victims, like Hannah and Capt. Joseph Ware. Their stones and a few others in the area also bore the 31-character phrase, “Died in ye. Memorable Mortality.” But at the time, using the choked skull would have conveyed the same message to survivors in the know.
Hannah Ware’s Prospects: Obviously, when I contacted Town officials in Sherborn about the recovery of Hannah Ware’s stone and my plans to deliver it to them this summer, they were ecstatic. From my perspective as someone who has spent a fair amount of time involved in cemetery preservation efforts, there was really only one question left to be answered – what will Sherborn do with the stone, once it is returned?
Fortunately, they responded with the “right” answer -- Sherborn has a restoration fund for damaged historic stones like Hannah’s. So before returning it to its rightful place next to Cap. Joseph in Old South Cemetery, the stone will be “professionally restored.” It’s their stone and their Town history. So I’m trying really hard not to ask just what that means.
By the way, the week after Hannah’s headstone left his house, my friend received two offers and sold it.
1 Luti, Vincent F. “Eighteenth Century Gravestone Carvers of the Narragansett Basin: John and James New.” Markers XVI (1999): 6-103.
2 Caulfield, Ernest. “The Pursuit of a Pestilence.” Paper presented to the American Antiquarian Society. http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44807204.pdf.