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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

cemetery research

Tombstones Can Change a Book Forever

A reader has asked about my statement yesterday that the new edition of  Left by the Side of the Road will contain an alternative ending for Beyond All Price. “Why?” My correspondent wanted to know. The explanation is simple. The alternative ending was actually the first one I wrote – before history and facts caught up with me and forced me to change the entire manuscript. Here’s the story.   

 The first time you visit an online genealogy site, they ask you to enter the first and last name of the person in whom you are interested. Then they suggest you add as many other details as you happen to know. When I was starting the research for Beyond All Price, I entered a name (Nellie Chase), her birth state (Maine),and a year range for her birth (1835-1845). And I got results. 147 of them, in fact! Who would have guessed that there would be that many Nellie Chases in the world, let alone in a single state. The site suggested I could narrow my results by entering more information, but more information was what I was looking for. I didn’t know her parentage, her city, her death date, her husband’s name, or any of the other things they suggested.   

 Did I eventually find the Nellie I was looking for? Yes, I thought so. But it took years, and even then, I didn’t know who Nellie really was, or what happened to her after the war. That lack of information led me to turn her story into a novel, rather than a biography, and I had great fun creating a life for her before and after the war. I had let my imagination fly and had created an exciting and plausible end to the story. So far so good!   

 Then one night I received an e-mail from David Welch, who maintains the website for the Pennsylvania Roundheads Regiment. He had found two small tidbits of information about Nellie. A letter from another member of the regiment suggested that she was related to a prominent national figure. The other was an obituary that listed the man she married after the war and told of her heroic death during the Yellow Fever epidemic.    

 Her obituary, reprinted in a Reading, PA, newspaper, said that Nellie M. Chase had been living in Paris, TN, at the time of her death. (Gah! That was just a 100 miles or so from where I now live, and I had had no idea.) It also suggested that she and her husband ran the railroad hotel there. The obituary noted that both of them actually died in Louisville, KY. That information led to a local newspaper article about yellow fever deaths in Paris, TN. Other yellow fever articles led to a book on their employer, the L & R Railroad, which in turn gave the name of the cemetery in which Nellie and her husband were buried. After that it only took a quick inquiry to the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville to discover the exact location of their burial plots and to get a photograph of their joined headstones, which in its turn gave me their full names and exact birthdates.   

 My “exciting and plausible” ending was nowhere near as good as the real story. This was definitely a case of the truth being stranger than fiction. It also meant that I had to discard much of what I had written as well as segments throughout the rest of the book. The Nellie I had been writing about was the wrong one. Back to the records I went, armed with a new set of names and dates to be checked. It’s a good thing I enjoy historical research. The historian in me was excited; the writer, more than a little discouraged. An obituary from a local 1873 newspaper changed my first book completely.  So in the new short story collection, you’ll find some of the fascinating stories I had made up and then discarded – until now.

More Travels in South Carolina

Spent yesterday distributing books to outlets in Beaufort. (Note to the locals: "The Road to Frogmore is available at the MacIntosh Book Store on Bay Street or in the Visitor Information Center in the Arsenal.  Other distributors will have their supplies shortly.) We also did some preliminary research on the Leverett family for next book.  The 300-year-old Episcopal Church was great fun as we hunted for family gravesites.


























We also discovered that Mrs. Leverett's family home, pictured below, is now known as "Secession House" because it was in a meeting held there that the Beaufort delegates voted to support secession and immediately departed for Charleston to join the cause. 




Note: Even more interesting to me, I learned that this is the house that General Rufus Saxton used as his headquarters in Beaufort.  Saxton, of course, played a fairly large role in "The Road to Frogmore," and there are two scenes that are specifically set in his house, although I did not know exactly which house was his at the time I wrote the book.  Makes for a nice tie-in between the books, however.















Now I'm on my way out to Middleton Place, just outside Charleston, to do a two-hour book signing in the Museum Shop.  Stop by if you are in the area.  You don't have to pay general admission to get to the shop.  We'll be there from 2 to 4.

Tomorrow we head back to Memphis, so there will be a slight blogging break! See you on the far side!

The Conch Solution

We're still spending most of our time in the sun, but I've had time to do a little research.  We drove back out to the Union Army cemetery today to document what I had observed.  The first surprise was finding that someone had planted American flags for each soldier. The second was more disturbing. A huge limb of the live oak tree which sheltered many of the graves I had studied had fallen during Wednesday's high winds. Very sad and spooky-looking with the Spanish moss now draped over the tombstones. I've probably been reading too much Gullah folklore, but the limb almost looked like it had come down to protect the stones from further intrusion.



While I'm posting pictures, I want to include one of the hand-lettered stones so prevalent in this cemetery. This one is simply made of cement and lettered before it dried, probably with a pointed stick. It speaks powerfully of the need to remember the dead, even though there is no money for a proper stone.



But here's the real reason for this post -- an explanation of why some graves are decorated with conch shells.
In this image one shell lies on top of the concrete vault while another is on the ground next to the vault. In Gullah folklore there is a famous saying: "Da water brought we here; da water take we home." The first reference is to the slave trade that brought the Gullah ("'Gola") people to South Carolina from Angola. The second water reference reflects that death will take them home again. The conch shell is a strong symbol of water and therefore the shells that protect the grave are there to take the spirit of the dead home. (Remember when you were a kid? You held a conch shell to your ear and you could hear the ocean? It's the same symbolism.) I was moved to see these symbols on graves of people who died in the late 20th century. That ancestral longing is still powerful today.

A Touch of Cemetery Humor

While I recover from a slight case of food poisoning, (Never order a sandwich with sprouts in an unfamiliar restaurant!), I thought you might enjoy this little collection of tombstone humor.


Harry Edsel Smith of  Albany , New York :  
Born 1903--Died 1942. 
Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the Car was on the way down.
It was.  
============================= 
In a Thurmont,  Maryland , cemetery:  
Here lies an Atheist,
All dressed up and no place to go
=========================
On the grave of Ezekial Aikle in   East Dalhousie Cemetery , Nova Scotia : 
Here lies Ezekial Aikle, Age 102...
Only The Good Die Young..  
============================= 
In a  London , England cemetery: 
Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid  
But died an old Mann.
Dec. 8, 1767  
=============================  
In a Ribbesford,  England , cemetery: 
Anna Wallace  
The children of Israel wanted bread,
And The Lord sent them manna.
Clark Wallace Wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.  
==============================  
In a Ruidoso,  New Mexico , cemetery:  
Here lies Johnny Yeast....
Pardon him   For not rising..  
==============================  
In a Uniontown,  Pennsylvania , cemetery: 
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake. 
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.  
==============================  
In a Silver City , Nevada , cemetery: 
Here lays The Kid.  
We planted him raw.  
He was quick on the trigger 
But slow on the draw.  
==============================
  A lawyer's epitaph in  England :  
Sir John Strange.  
Here lies an honest lawyer,  
And that is Strange.  
=============================  
John Penny's epitaph in the Wimborne, England , cemetery
Passerby, if cash thou art in want of any,  
Dig 6 feet deep and thou wilt find a Penny.  
==============================  
In a cemetery in  Hartscombe , England :  
On the 22nd of June,
Jonathan Fiddle went  
Out of tune.  
==============================  
Anna Hopewell's grave in Enosburg Falls , Vermont
Here lies the body of our Anna, 
Done to death by a banana. 
It wasn't the fruit that laid her low,  
But the skin of the thing that made her go. 
==============================  
On a grave from the 1880s in  Nantucket ,Massachusetts : 
Under the sod and under the trees, 
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease. 
He is not here, there's only the pod. 
Pease shelled out and went to God.. 
==============================  
In a cemetery in  England : 
Remember man, as you walk by, 
As you are now, so once was I 
As I am now, so shall you be.. 
Remember this and follow me. 

To which someone replied by writing on the tombstone: 
To follow you I'll not consent. 
Until I know which way you went.  

Carved on a Rock

On May 5, 1868, General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order declaring that Union and Confederate war dead would be honored on May 30 with flowers laid on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery.  That was the origin of Decoration Day, or, as we are more apt to call it, Memorial Day. In cemeteries all over the country, small G.A.R. markers stand next to larger stones, and in May veterans and scouting troops plant a small American flag near each marker.   There's no better time to go looking for a Civil War burial site.

My mother's family had its own Civil War soldier to honor, and, when I was young, Decoration Day was the traditional day for the family to gather in North Sewickley Cemetery, right outside Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, for  a day of clean-up and family reminiscing.  Five McCaskey sisters, accompanied by picnic baskets, flower pots, rakes, hoes, grumbling husbands, and assorted children spent the day moving from gravestone to gravestone, not mourning but celebrating the good times they remembered.                       

I learned my family's history during those yearly excursions to North Sewickley. There was the marker of the family matriarch, who brought her seven children from Ireland to the hills of Pennsylvania in 1795, traveling first in steerage, and then on foot. The stone bore only the single word, "Nancy," but it still stands firmly rooted on that hillside.  A small stone marks the grave of  cousin Electa, believed to have died in the flu epidemic of 1918 (although the stone says 1917); another grave memorializes a tiny James McCaskey, a victim of diphtheria at the age of two in 1896.  By noon, the decorating crew had usually made its way to a circle of pine trees near the graves of the McCaskey sisters' grandparents. Lunch was spread on blankets while someone told the story of Sgt. James McCaskey, who died in defense of his country in 1862. Long before I found the official account of James's death, I knew the story of the brave young man left sitting up against a tree on the battlefield while he bled to death from cannon fire.

Cemeteries can prove to be a rich source for genealogical research.But as always, a researcher must accept any such evidence with a high degree of skepticism until it can be confirmed. Here are some suggestions for doing your own cemetery explorations.  

1. Gather as much information as you can before you actually visit the cemetery, unless, of course,  you're just curious and not looking for anything or anyone in particular.  Assuming you are interested in specific individuals, start by asking questions.  If you know the cemetery you plan to visit, check with the caretaker or sexton to see if there is a directory.  If the cemetery is no longer an active one, look for the pastor of the nearest church. Or try the local history section of the public library. 

2. An obituary from a local newspaper can tell you which cemetery to visit.  That's how David Welch and I eventually found the grave of Nellie M. Chase. Her obituary, reprinted in a Reading, PA newspaper, said she was living in Paris, TN at the time of her death. It also suggested that she and her husband ran the railroad hotel there.  The obituary noted that both of them actually died in Louisville, KY.  That information led to a local newspaper article about yellow fever deaths in Paris, TN. Other yellow fever articles led to a book on their employer, the L & R Railroad, which in turn gave the name of the cemetery in which Nellie and her husband were buried.  After that it only took a quick inquiry to the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville to discover the exact location of their burial plots and to get a photograph of their joined headstones. 

3. Take the right equipment with  you.  Plan to take notes on every headstone you identify, but also be sure to have a camera.  Notes have a way of perpetuating small errors.  You'll want a picture later to double-check the details. Traditionally, Christian graves are oriented toward the east; i.e., the headstone is  at the west end of the plot and the foot of the coffin at the east end, in preparation for Resurrection Day.  For that reason, inscriptions on a headstone will be clearer if the picture is taken in the morning.

4. Don't forget the insect spray.  Mosquitoes can be formidable guards against your investigations.  And unless the cemetery is very well maintained, take gardening gloves and pruning shears.  I really wanted to try to straighten Uncle James's headstone, but a crop of fresh poison ivy dissuaded me.  A spray bottle of water also comes in handy.  Inscriptions are easier to read when they are wet, and you may need to wash away soil accumulations.  

5. Be alert to the clues on the stones themselves.  Carvings on the headstone may provide clues to religion or military service. Children's markers are likely to have flowers or small animals.  I like to think this little figure on cousin Electa's stone is a rabbit. 

6. Tombstones frequently bear birth and death dates, although birth years are less to be trusted than death years. An inscription reading "Beloved Wife" usually means the woman's husband was still alive at her death.  Stones reading "Mother" and "Father" confirm the existence of children alive at the time of the parents' deaths.

7. Unmarried sons and daughters are more likely to be buried near their parents. The graves of a woman or a couple near small unmarked stones may indicate the deaths of unnamed infants. Death dates can tie a victim to a natural disaster such as an earthquake or an epidemic of influenza or yellow fever. 

8. Note the names on graves close to those of your own family members.  You may be looking at their friends and neighbors. Cemeteries have many stories to tell.  Let the stones speak to you.