The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 2, 2010


Epitaphs speak of Carlisle’s history

Mrs. Thomas Spaulding’s headstone
(Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

In the Central Burying Ground across from Ferns Country Store and in the Green Cemetery on Bedford Road are some gravesites that hail from the late 1700s to the turn of the twentieth century. Their headstones, many of which have epitaphs, have a lot to say if we listen. Early epitaphs came in many forms – a saying, a poem, or a phrase – and were sometimes carved with elaborate fonts.

The custom of epitaphs was brought to New England by the first settlers, but it didn’t originate in Europe. Epitaphs have been found on Egyptian sarcophagi and in ancient Greece.

In 1790 there were approximately four million Americans and 555 of them lived in Carlisle. Up to around 1780 most burials were on private property. In 1784 land was purchased from Timothy Wilkins, Jr. for the Central Burying Ground and the cemetery was dedicated in 1784.

Many of Carlisle’s older headstones are weathered and hard to read but luckily they were recorded in Sidney A. Bull’s History of the Town of Carlisle, Massachusetts, 1754-1920 (with biographical sketches of prominent persons).

Tough times reflected in some epitaphs

In the late 1700s life was harsh. The average life expectancy in America in 1775 was 53.5 years, and Carlisle was no exception: in reading the epitaphs dating from 1790 to 1870, people under the age of 60 accounted for the majority of deaths. Perhaps as a result, some epitaphs were not comforting. Actually, they were more like warnings. The stone for Mrs. Thomas Spaulding, who died in 1788, tells those passing by: “Hark from ye tombs a doleful sound; My ears attend the cry; Ye living men come view the ground; Where you must shortly lie.” Mrs. Abi Green, who died in 1793, has a more direct message on her stone: “Death is a debt to nature due; which I have paid & so must you.” Childhood deaths were common. One can hear the parents’ grief from this epitaph to Mary Litchfield, who died at age three and is buried in the Central Burying Ground: “Little children come here and learn, that death may cut you down while young.”

The dour epitaphs reflect the turbulence of our young country. The newly United States were in a state of disorder. In 1788 after much gnashing of teeth a new Constitution was ratified to replace the Articles of Confederation, and the Bill of Rights was approved. In 1789 George Washington was elected the country’s first president, and the Census Act was created. Ominously, in 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which had a profound effect on slavery in the south.

Growth in Carlisle

Not all epitaphs were bad news. Simon Blood, Jr.’s stone reads: “His generous Donations to public uses do honor to his memory & will preserve his name to posterity.” Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins notes in her book, Carlisle, Its History and Heritage, that Blood donated 100 pounds to the town, “the income of which is to support the schools.” Today, more than 200 years later, the Simon Blood, Jr. School Fund still exists.

Physician heal thyself

A few epitaphs echo the state of medical care in the early 1800s. “Friends nor physician could not save; My mortal body from the grave” can be found on Esther Taylor’s 1809 stone in the Central Burying Ground. Mrs. Mehitable Blood’s stone has a more direct complaint: “Affliction sore long times I bore; Physicians were in vain; till death did seize and God did please; To ease me of my pain.”

They can be forgiven their sentiments. Carlisle was lucky to have resident doctors from the early 1600s on, but there were few effective medicines available at the time. Generally doctors strove to bring the body back in balance by prescribing actions that were the opposite of the symptoms. If the patient had a fever the doctor would prescribe cold baths, for example. Lead and mercury were used to treat some diseases, and cocaine was given to fussy children. Strange diseases, such as Yellow Fever, which was imported from the Caribbean, repeatedly hit Massachusetts until around 1822. The disease continued to be a threat in southern states, but had only sporadic outbreaks in the north after cities like Philadelphia and New York, which suffered horrendous epidemics, took measures to stop the spread of the disease-bearing mosquitoes.

Changes came about in medical science after the American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847. The AMA established a code of medical ethics and minimal standards for medical education, and, in 1868 the AMA Committee on Ethics strongly advocated “recognition of regularly educated and qualified female physicians.”

War, most uncivil

While Tolstoy was publishing War and Peace, Americans were dying in one of the bloodiest wars in our history, the Civil War. Carlisle, hoping to avoid a draft, offered a bonus of $150 to men who enlisted. Fifty-five men served in the war, and 13 of them were lost. One can only imagine how William Blood’s mother felt when she learned her 16-year-old son had lied about his age and joined the army. His stone tells us that he was “Killed at 2d Bull Run, Aug. 29, 1862.” Otis Nickles, a member of the 7th Battery Light Artillery, also died in the Civil War. His stone reads: “Passed to spirit land at New Orleans, LA, July 16, 1864.” He was 44 years old at his death.

The passing of mothers, the placing of a monument

Early epitaphs had flowery poetry, such as the 1809 stone of Betsey Wheat: “Behold the sad impending stroke, Which now arrests our eyes; The silken band of union broke; A tender mother dies.” But by the mid 1800s most women’s headstones were stark. In many cases women were simply listed by first name followed by “His wife.” Occasionally, though, there were touching tributes. Mrs. Lois Green, who died in 1821 at the age of 83, has noted on her stone: “Here in the silent grave I lie; No more the scenes of life to try.” A very touching message was placed by the children of Betsey Heald, who died in 1855: “Our mother sleeps. When will the morning come?”

Despite the emphasis on men in the graveyard, the last epitaph noted by Bull was for a woman. Hannah Green’s March 8, 1897 stone reads: “A Generous Benefactress of her native place.” Green’s sister, Lydia Farrar, had left approximately $650 to the town of Carlisle in her will, which the town voted to put towards a Soldiers’ Monument. Green added a $1,000 donation towards the project. The monument, which was erected in 1883 and sits in the center of Carlisle, bears these words on its base: “Presented to the town of Carlisle by Mrs. Lydia A. G. Farrar and Miss Hannah L. C. Green.”

While the weather is good take a stroll in the Central Burying Ground and Green Cemetery, politely step to the side of the graves, and listen to the headstones. They have a lot to say. ∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito