Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Mystery Solved!

Saturday I posted about an odd anomaly I discovered in Island Cemetery - three 18th Century slate gravestones in an overwhelmingly granite and marble 19th and 20th Century graveyard. And not only that, but the dates on the stones didn't make sense. Thomas Mumford died in 1770, and his wife Abigail died in 1784, but buried next to them is one Hannah Mumford, "Daughter of Mr. Thomas Mumford & Abigail his Wife", who died on September 10, 1788 aged 11 months and 26 days. Now what was all that about?

This was by far the most obvious anomaly, but not the only one. Abigail's stone was without a doubt carved by John Stevens III - it has all his most identifiable hallmarks - but while Hannah's stone looks like a John III stone, there are a few things that were throwing me off, mostly in that there was an uncharacteristic roughness to the work. As for Thomas's stone, this wasn't the work of the John Stevens Shop at all, but who else (besides John Bull, who despite his own flair and stylistic uniqueness was nonetheless a carver of the Stevens school) was carving gravestones in Newport in 1770? Research was needed.

So I had an appointment to do some research in the library at the Newport Historical Society this morning at 10. Bert Lippincott, the librarian, gave me a card file of entries for anyone named Mumford, and while I started looking through that he found me a genealogy book of the Mumford family. This is when the picture started unfolding. Reading through the book reveals that there were a ton of Thomas Mumfords, starting with the Thomas Mumford who first came over The Pond and settled in South Kingstown (west over Narragansett Bay from here, on the mainland) in the 1650s. And believe it or not, he also married an Abigail. It looks to be a tradition in the SK Mumford family to name one of their sons Thomas, and that Thomas almost always married a woman named Abigail (I think I only found 2 Thomases who didn't marry an Abigail in the Mumford Family book at the NHS). The Thomas with the slate stone in Island Cemetery was actually the son of a Benjamin Mumford, son of Thomas III, but nevertheless he married Abigail Gardiner in 1751. This is where it gets even weirder. They had a son named (yup, you guessed it!) Thomas in 1758. The record on this particular Mumford line ends here in both the Mumford and the Gardiner genealogy books, but...

I went back to Island Cemetery this morning after finishing up at the NHS to check up on something. And sure enough, those marble stones behind the slate stones were indeed Mumfords, one of which was for the Thomas who was born in 1758 and was the son of the Thomas and Abigail under the slate stones. And he married a woman named Abigail (I swear, those Mumfords had no imagination at all!), buried under the marble stone next to his. Hannah was their daughter. [Note: Hannah's stone was carved by John Stevens III; I found his carved "J S" right down at the grass line! I can't account for the things that threw me off, except to plead that I'm still fairly new at identifying stonecarvers and still can get thrown off by the variations in an individual's body of work.]

It's tough to read these; marble wears more than slate through the ages. Thomas was born June 15, 1758 and died April 11, 1844; Abigail was born September 11, 1761 and died April 15, 1845. The last stone to the right in the top photo is forth their son John, whose dates are mostly hidden; his birth date was in 1794, but the death date was below ground.

I called Bert at the NHS when I got home to fill him in on what I'd found, and we speculated as to what happened. The first Thomas died in 1770 over in South Kingstown and was buried there, and his stone was carved by a local or at least by somebody who didn't have to cross water, say somebody from Providence or Connecticut, hence the different style. After the Revolutionary War, the second Thomas moved across the Bay to Newport, and brought his mother with him, or when she entered her final illness she went to die in her son's home (a common thing back then, I'm told). When Thomas buried his mother, he had his father moved over here next to her, and when his own daughter Hannah died he buried her next to them. And he commissioned John Stevens III to carve the stones for his mother and daughter.

By the way, this Thomas and Abigail also had a son named Thomas - Thomas G.B. Mumford, born January 16, 1815. Thomas G.B. broke the pattern, though; he married a woman named Caroline. About time!

And there's the mystery solved, with some legwork, poring through old books, help from Bert at the NHS, and returning to the scene for another look. Now it's not so puzzling any more.

Although I do wish the Mumfords had had a little more imagination; there's no excuse for all those Thomases and wives named Abigail!

© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Impressive sleuthing, Roy. Fascinating post. You already know how much I love gravestones, history and genealogy. This was right up my alley!

  2. ah the persistence of family names ....although i go by kim, my given (first) name is mary yanoshik.... i have an aunt named mary yanoshik d (who later married and up with a differnt surname at the end of her life) however my paternal grandmother and paternal great grandmother are named mary yanoshik and when visiting the cemetery where the yanoshiks are buried it is a bit weird to see two gravestones that have my name writ large!! like the mumfords I guess we aren't a very imaginative bunch! oh and you should see how man stephen yanoshiks there are!!!

  3. Oh this is my kind of post. Read the whole thing with joy and fascination. Next year when I get to Newport, the rest can go and see the sites - I'm heading for that graveyard (are there any pubs near by?)

  4. Thanks everybody! I'm in heaven when I'm faced with a puzzle to solve.

    Kim - It just cracks me up that there were sometimes three and four Thomases in the same generation, and they seemed to go out of their way to find an Abigail to marry. At one point Bert asked me what I was laughing at, and I showed him the pattern; he laughed, too.

    Alan - Alas, the burying grounds are away from the downtown area, so no nearby pubs.

  5. What a wonderful post. I am a bit of a cemetery tragic, but you sir, are far worse than I. But I can aspire to reach your heights.

    Are their still individual headstone carvers or are they 'machine' produced?

    I like your definition of a local: anyone who doesn't have to travel over water.

    Great stuff!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Julie - There are indeed still stonecarvers walking the earth. We have two here in Newport - The John Stevens Shop Shop under the direction of Nick Benson, and the Brooke Roberts Studio.

  8. I love gravestones and enjoy spending a afternoon reading and pondering them when I can. A visit to Jamestown RI and it's surrounding areas had me captivated. Thanks for the sleuthing and the thrill!