Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ghosts of Newport Past - Slate in Island Cemetery

I've been showing you all this marble and granite in Island Cemetery, but believe it or not there are some slate stones as well, including three 18th Century ones. I noticed this today when I wandered through there; it's been an overcast, diffuse light day, which I figured was the perfect light for photographing gravestones, so off I went.

I first started thinking about slate stones, a rarity after the 18th Century, when I ran across these three Mumford family stones: Thomas, who died in 1770 there at the left, and Abigail (1784) and Hannah (1788), below. And noticed several mysteries. The first is what these stones are doing in Island cemetery at all; they really belong in the Common Burying Ground just down the hill. These are the earliest stones in Island Cemetery, and the fact that there are other, later Mumford stones nearby suggests that the family moved these graves up the hill to be with the rest of the family. But there are other Mumford family stones down in the CBG; were these three somehow special?

Another mystery is who carved Thomas's stone. There are some Stevens Shop characteristics to the lettering and the elements on the finials and borders, but that soul effigy in the tympanum is like no Stevens effigy I've ever seen. I couldn't find mention of this stone in Luti's Mallet & Chisel; in fact, there's no mention of any of these three there. I think Vincent must have missed these when he did his research for the book.

Abigail's stone, on the left, is easily identified as the work of John Stevens III; it has all his classic earmarks, and is one beautiful piece of work. But there's something just plain "off" about Hannah's stone. In the first place it looks almost like a "counterfeit" John III stone. It has many of his characteristics, but they're clumsily done, like those floral decorations on the finials - same basic element, but clumsy and awkwardly finished. The border around the soul effigy in the tympanum is not a John III element at all, and the lettering is in a somewhat different style. Was this John III on an off day, or was somebody copying him?

But weirdest of all on Hannah's stone is the date. Thomas died on September 15, 1770, and Abigail died on May 26, 1784. So how in the world did Hannah, whose stone states that she's the daughter of Thomas and Abigail, die on September 10, 1788 "aged 11 months and 26 days"? Is it a "typo" maybe? Certainly 1768 would make much more sense. All in all, there are things about this stone that guarantee I'll be down to the Newport Historical Society asking questions and doing some digging on Monday.

But 18th Century stones aren't the only slate stones in Island Cemetery. There are such stones here and there, but there are 9 stones in particular that grabbed my attention. I suspect, from the use of slate, the lettering styles, and the decorative styles, that these were carved by the John Stevens Shop after it was bought by John Howard Benson (1927) and passed down in his family - to his son John Everett "Fud" Benson and grandson Nicolas Benson. The first three stones - Caroline Wilks (upper left), Nina Maud Wilks (upper right) and Eleanor V. Fletcher (lower left) - appear to be sisters. The last stone - William Greenough and his wife Charlotte Warren - is one of 6 stones that appear to be a family group comprising of various members of the Greenough and Rives families.

Cemeteries are such interesting places to wander in!

© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Your blogs are always so fascinating ! I love your curiosity and the way you research your subjects.....and your photos....always sublime.

    Incidentally I recently made burial arrangements with the request to put my favorite phrase on my tombstone....."it's Always Something". (my blog).
    More interesting than RIP ain't it?

  2. This post reminds me of the piece of roofing slate I carried home from the ruined and overgrown-with-vegetation stone cottage of my paternal grandfather in New Ross, Ireland, some years back. Not a gravemarker per se, but the abandoned homesite seemed to make its own kind of grave. Thanks, Roy!

  3. When I was a young fellow, I worked in an old Catholic cemetary in Burlington, VT as a summer job--lots of lawn mowing, some digging. But the old areas of the cemetary were quite interesting. Sounds like you've done a good bit of research.