Essex Mass. Cemetery

Essex, Mass. - Cemetery

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The Old Burying Ground, Essex, Mass.
I. Description and History

by Kurt Wilhelm

(unfinished, work in progress)


  1. Establishment and additions to the burying ground.
  2. Grave robbery
  3. Move to Spring Street
  4. Burial records
  5. Restoration and maintenance
  6. The gravestones
    1. Number and age of gravestones
    2. Lost gravestones
    3. Positioning of the head and foot stones
    4. Types of gravestones, motifs, carvers
    5. Notable epitaphs and verses
  7. Notable people buried there
    1. War Veterans
    2. Ministers and officials of the Church
    3. Professionals
  8. The hearse house
  9. Map of the burying ground, showing the location of numbered headstones
  10. References

The Old Burying Ground, Essex, Mass.
I. Description and History

  1. Establishment and additions to the burying ground.

    The section of Ipswich, known as Chebacco, was first settled in 1634 by William White and Goodman Bradstreet, who made their homes in what is now the northern part of town. During the next 46 years, the dead of Chebacco were carried on "a bier upon the shoulders of men" for the four or more miles to Ipswich center for burial. Chebacco had no family burial plots, as it was the custom of those who settled in Chebacco to inter their dead in one burial ground which served the whole community. {5}

    In 1680, one acre of ground was granted to Chebacco Parish for a burial place. This was a period during which Chebacco Parish was being organized as the Second Church in Ipswich. Rev. John Wise was called to preach in 1680, but the Second Church was not granted permission to organize until 1682, and was established in 1683. The first meeting house was built in the northern end of town, on what is now John Wise Avenue.

    The land for a burial place was given by Mr. Cogswell, on a knoll which was later called meeting house hill. A road from Ipswich to Gloucester had run past Mr. Cogswell's house, then over a bridge to Billy's Point on the other side of the Essex River. The bridge did not stand for very long, probably carried away by flooding and ice. About the time that the burying ground was granted, a new bridge was built where the present bridge across the Essex River now stands. Although the burying ground was sited on the new route that connected Essex center to South Essex, it was not placed near the church, nor near the common. As was typical in 17th century New England, the graveyard was municipal property, not connected directly with the church.

    The burying ground was improved and expanded in 1838, most likely with a small portion added behind the house lot to the left of the hearse house, and another small piece of land added behind "the Legion yard" (now the Shipbuilding Museum yard) at some later date.

  2. Grave robbery

    Underneath the hearse house is said to be a common grave for the empty caskets of "not less than eight bodies" which had been disinterred and used for "anatomical purposes" by a doctor Thomas Sewall over a period of time. His heinous activities were discovered in 1818. Although the consistency of the historical records vary in relating of details concerning this infamous incident, a sermon published at the time seems to contain the most accurate information {1}. An emotionally charged narrative by Maidee Polleys {3}, presents a romantic, 20th century view of this scandal. {2}

  3. Move to Spring Street

    By 1850 the graveyard had been filled several times over. Rufus Choate estimated that during the 171 years of service as the only burial place in Essex, as many as 2,000 people had been buried there. A new cemetery, Spring Street Cemetery, was opened in 1852. Some family plots at the Old Burying Ground continued to be used after 1852. Some bodies were disinterred and moved to new family plots at spring Street.

  4. Restoration and maintenance

    In the early 1930's there was renewed interest in the Old Burying Ground. On the gate at the entrance a marker was placed by the town tercentenary committee in 1930. It reads: "Ancient graveyard, 1680. Within are graves of Rev. John Wise, Rev. Theopilus Pickering, Rev. John Cleveland, first three pastors of Chebacco church 1683-1799, also many noted Revolutionary Soldiers." Maidee Polleys wrote reports on the graveyard, which were published in the local newspaper about 1932.

    In 1991 cemetery survey by Roseanne Atwood. All the stones were cleaned, and some stones which had fallen or had a severe lean were reset at this time.

    The grounds of the Old Burying Ground are maintained by the Essex Department of Public Works. Speical projects, such as stone resetting, have been conducted under the auspices of the Essex Shipbuilding Musem. Setting out of memorial day flags is performed by the town Veteran's Agent.

  5. The gravestones

    1. Number and age of gravestones

      There are 619 head and foot stones, of which 374 are headstones memorializing 424 people. The oldest stones, dated 1708/09, are for John Burnham [B 542] and Job Giddings [B 543].

      Of the 397 people whose death date is known, one third (130) died between 1825 and 1849. The most recnt burial was that of Eliza A. Burnham [B 598], who died in 1897.

    2. Lost gravestones

      The following deaths were reported in the Essex Vital Records through 1849, with reference to burials in the Old Burying Ground, and for whom no marker now exists.

      Burnham, Joanna Burgess
      Burnham, Mary
      Giddings, Thomas
      Harlow, Eunice
      Lufkin, Aaron
      Lufkin, William
      Lufkin, Patience
      McIntire, Edward
      McKenzie, Albert
      Story, Lucy
      Wells, Ebenezer
      Juno - slave

    3. Positioning of the head and foot stones

      Up until the early 1800's, graves were marked by pairs of headstones and footstones, with the deceased laid to rest facing east to rise again at dawn of Judgement Day. Footstones are distinguished by their small size, and lack of complete inscription, usually containing initials and year of death. The gravestone pairs resemble a bedstead for the sleeping dead, with the carved inscription facing west, away from the interred position. {5}

    4. Types of gravestones, motifs, carvers

      The gravestones in Essex display examples of both the sophisticated urban style typical of Boston carvers, and fine examples of the animated vernacular work of carvers John Hartshorne, robert Mulliken, Jonathan worster, Holliman, Park and Joseph Marble, found throughout Esex county. Most gravestones originating from Boston are of dark grey, striped purple, or other high-quality slate, which typically appears brand new. Essex County venacular stones are carved in a grey schist, a granular stone which weathers poorly.

      A good example of a "Boston" stone, was carved by the Lamson family of stonecutters in Charlestown in the early 1700's for Capt. Jonathan Cogswell [A 137]. Another typical Boston-carved stone is the grave marker for Deacon John Andrews [B 459]. A typical Lamson detail, which resembles two bulbous commas, or balloons, facing each other can be found on many footstones throughout the Essex graveyard.

      There are 15 gravestones in Essex carved by John Hartshorne (1650-1738), the earliest known of the Essex County (or Merrimack River) school of colonial gravestone carvers, and step-brother of Joseph Lamson. This collection of stones, along with the 67 still extant in the Ipswich graveyard, represents the major repository of Hartshorne-carved stones in Massachusetts. The stones in Essex are:

      Andrews, Thomas1718B 487
      Andrews, William1716B 488
      Choate, Ebenezer1718A 086
      Choate, Humphrey1718A 084
      Choate, John1718 
      Choate, Nehemiah1718A 089
      Choate, Susanna1717fs.
      Cogswell, Adam1710A 160
      Cogswell, Benjamin1720A 133
      Cogswell, Joseph1720A 135
      Cogswell, Stephen1720A 132
      Eveleth, Mary1714B 493
      Low, Thomas1712A 166
      Marshall, Benjamin1716B 474
      Tomson, Mary1717B 387

    5. Notable epitaphs and verses

    The verse on the gravestone of Ebenezer Burnham, who died at age 45, reminds us that we may be called at any time [A 009]:

    The rising morning cant insure, / That we shall end the day; / For death stands ready at the door / To snatch our lives away

    On a gravestone is found the reminder [A 200]:

    Remember man as you pass by / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so you shall be / Prepare for death and follow me.

    and [B 280]

    Survey this well ye thoughtless, & believe / The grave may terrify, but can't deceive; / But Virtue still, against Decay will arm, / And even lend Mortality a charm
    The gravestone of Samuel Quimby, who died at age 74, provides a somber message, which seems even more depressing because the last words in the second and fourth lines do not rhyme. [B 389]:
    Tis but a few whose days amount, / To three score years and ten; / And all beyond that short account / Is sorrow, toil and pain

  6. Notable people buried there

    A number of those buried in the Old Burying Ground have titles associated with their name. There are 3 Esquires, a doctor, 3 Reverends, 6 deacons, and 22 military or ship's officers: 2 ensigns, 5 lieutenants, 14 captains, and 1 colonel.

    1. War Veterans

    The following list of thirty-one veterans of the Colonial Wars, Revolutionary War and Civil War was taken from a map which in 1991 was in the position of Mrs. Frank Story. The list was compiled about 1930-1933.

    Colonial Wars
    Wise. John (Rev.) A 147

    Revolutionary War
    Andrews, Joseph B 458   Cleveland, John, Rev. A 019
    Burnham, Ebenezer A 008 Cogswell, Jonathan A 096
    Burnham, Francis B 573 Cogswell, William B 307
    Burnham, Jonathan Jr. A 007 Dodge, Nehemiah B 239
    Burnhamn, Thomas M. B 352 Giddings, Aaron A 059
    Burnham, Wesley B 552 Goodhue, Jacob B 346
    Butler, John   Foster, Aaron A 144
    Choate, Humphrey B 292 Low, Aaron B 462
    Choate, Jeremiah B 264 Low, Asa B 212
    Choate, John B 262 Low, David (Capt.) B 424
    Choate, Nehemiah A 090 Proctor, Benjamin B 382
    Choate, William B 261 unknown  

    Civil War
    Burnham, A. F.  
    Butman, A. K. B 238
    Jackson, Andrew W. B 418
    Lufkin, Charles P. B 608

    1. Ministers and officials of the Church

    The first three ministers of the Congregational Church in Essex, spanning 116 years, are buried at the Old Burying Ground. They are Rev. John Wise [A 147], Rev. Theophilus Pickering [A 101], and Rev, John Cleaveland [A 019]. Rev. John Wise is noted for being among the first colonists to protest against the English taxation laws - almost 100 years before the Revolution. Six people are titled Deacon on their gravestone. They are John Andrews, Aaron Burnham [A 209], Nathan Burnham [B 450], Jonathan Cogswell [A 096], Thomas Low [A 166], and Seth Story [B 425]. Aaron Burnham and Thomas Low were among the first deacons of the Chebacco Church, which was called the Second Church of Ipswich.

    1. Professionals

    The three people titled Esquire (Esq.), were probably lawyers. They are George Choate [B 300], Jonathan Cogswell [A 123], and Jonathan Story [A 122]. There is one doctor, Dr. Parker Russ [A 068]. The first school teacher in Chebacco, Mr. Nathaniel Rust [A 140], is buried here. His schoolroom was near where the town pound was later placed (1724). The site is marked by a historical marker.

  1. The hearse house

    The hearse house is believed to be one of three remaining in New England. The others are in Wilbraham and Fremont, New Hampshire. The hearse house marks the transition in local funerals from ahand-carried bier to a horse-drawn carriage. The hearse house continues to serve its original purpose for storage of hearses, caskets, excavating tools, and other implements associated with use and upkeep of a graveyard. The 1860-vintage summer and winter (sleigh) hearses and ice-preserving caskets are as rarely found as is the house itself. {2}

    The first undertaker in Essex, caleb Gage, kept a record of the coffins he produced from 1844 - 1875, along with notes about a hearse "made by Mr. Lock of Braintree" in 1861. Its first passenger was Betsey Burnham in 1862. Mr. Gage's journal is ammong the collection of the Essex shipbuilding Museum. Frank Smith succeeded as undertaker in 1885, with his wife as embalming assistant. Horse-drawn hearses were in use in Essex until 1919. {2}

    During the summer months, the zinc-lined caskets were filled with ice to help preserve the deceased before burial. In the winter months when the ground was frozen, a receiving tomb, located on the right by the burying ground entrance, was used for temporary internments. {2}

    The documents and equipment associated with the Old Burying Ground have been well preserved through the years. The Shipbuilding Museum has accepted the responsibility of continued preservation of this part of the Town's history.

  2. Map of the burying ground, showing the location of numbered headstones

Copyright 2001, 2010 by Kurt A. Wilhelm