Nonfiction Review: Stones and Bones of New England, by Lisa Rogak

The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries”, but I’ve found it to be a series of one to two page vignettes about 95 cemeteries in the six New England states. The author has selected what she found to be the most interesting tombstone in each graveyard, adding one or two more if she found them remarkable. A photo accompanies each of the locations.

The back cover describes Stones and Bones as a guide that provides all the tools that you need to explore on your own. If you like to drop into old cemeteries and putter around a bit, I suppose that’s true. For those with a deeper interest in funeral and burial practices, gravestonimagee iconography, and epitaphs, there is little here to hold that interest. Included is some limited but useful information on almshouse burials, some brief description of the headstones of a few famous individuals, and dashes of humor. The photos, though black and white, are sharp and clear. It also identifies the oldest legible gravestone in CT (1644, Windsor.) My favorite chapter was the final one, entitled Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard, where retired ice cream flavors are commemorated with hokey epitaphs and images of winged ice cream cones apparently ready to fly to ice cream heaven. Who knew?!

Recommended for the most casual of cemetery visitors.

Lorenzo Dow Raises the Devil

Quoted from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Phillips

Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was travelling in the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home and she could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her and she reluctantly let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude partition with many cracks in it.

After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow heard a man’s drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door, and demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he, returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning, beside the fireplace. Once inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted wife told him about the Rev. Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife’s word for the identity of the houseguest.

“Well, now,” roared the husband, “I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the devil. I think I’d like to see him do it — right here and now.” Before the devil could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. “Rev’rend,” he bellowed, “I want you to raise the devil. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, “Well, if you insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room.” The husband opened the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame. Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow’s major miracles!

Crazy Lorenzo Dow: American original

During the 19th century, many an American mother named her new baby boy Lorenzo Dow, after a flamboyant preacher from Connecticut. The namesake of all these sons was born in Coventry in 1777, where he spent his youth much tormented by religious uncertainties. At the age of 21, he joined the Methodists, against the wishes of his father, and became a circuit preacher. The following year, Lorenzo traveled to Ireland as a missionary, and introduced to England the camp meeting system of the movement known as the Second Great Awakening.

Over the next 30 years, Lorenzo visited nearly all parts of the US, accompanied by his wife Peggy, and later, Sally. He quickly became famous for his eccentric dress and manner, and his sermons were always attended by great crowds (at times as many as 10,000), assembled in town halls, barns and open fields. He liked to appear in a town unexpectedly and announce that in exactly one year,

he would return to preach, and he always did. Skinny and unbathed, (lucky Mrs Dow) his long hair and beard were described as never having met a comb. He owned only one suit of clothing, and relied upon his listeners to replace pieces as they became too tattered. He carried nothing but a box of Bibles to give away. An ardent abolitionist, he was often run out of town.

Not surprisingly, there arose many stories about Lorenzo and his foibles and talents. Several are reproduced in the following posts.

Lorenzo Dow died in Georgetown, D.C. in 1834, having touched the lives of more Americans than any other man of his day.

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Sheep in Folktales: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Perhaps the most famous four line rhyme in the English language, Mary Had a Little Lamb is based upon and incident in the life of one Mary Sawyer, who grew up in Sterling, MA. But that is about all authorities can agree upon when attributing authorship to the verse.

Two New England towns claim bragging rights to the children’s poem . Years ago, the town of Sterling, Mass. erected a statue of a lamb to celebrate the birthplace of Mary Sawyer. In 1815, young Mary was followed to Sterling’s schoolhouse by her pet lamb. Her classmate, John Roulston, wrote the poem. In other versions, Roulston is described as a visiting Harvard student. It is said by some that Mary knitted some of her lamb’s wool into mittens and stockings that she sold to benefit Civil War soldiers, or alternately, to help save the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

Newport, New Hampshire, claims that the poem was actually written by their local poet Sarah Josepha Hale, and that she invented the lamb at school incident herself. Hale is honored in Newport with a simple plaque. In fact, Sarah Hale was the first to publish the poem in a book called Poems for Our Children, in 1830. Sterling maintains that the first three stanzas of Roulston’s poem were incorporated by Hale into her own verse.

There is a different theory, that the rhyme was written by an anonymous. Harvard student. Still others, (probably not haling from either Massachusetts or New Hampshire), contend that the rhyme predates Mary Sawyer, and originated in old England as a sort of religious parable. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a little lamb (Jesus, of course) whose fleece was snow white (Jesus was without sin). The Jesus -Lamb is sure to go with his believers wherever they go.

As for the Sterling schoolhouse, it was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass; it’s authenticity as the very schoolhouse immortalized in the poem may be wishful thinking, however, as by that time it had been much modified and was serving as a barn. Mary Sawyer became Mrs. Tyler, worked as a schoolteacher and as a matron in a retreat for the insane, and died in 1889. She is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. The house where she was born still stands in Sterling (as of 2003).

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Constitution Island, West Point, NY

The staff of the Webb Deane Stevens museum in Wethersfield, CT, gathered together a while back for a rare, and most enjoyable, field trip to the scenic Hudson River Valley, a region of outstanding natural beauty and historic significance. Our first stop was Constitution Island, located on the river within view of West Point and part of the military academy itself. The Island is most famous for the Great Chain that was placed across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War, to prevent British ships from navigating this strategically vital stretch of the river. No military action was to take place on the fortified island, which was the first fort built by the newly-declared independent Americans. Interestingly, it was named “Constitution” to remind the British that America was due the same rights as England under the English constitution. The US Constitution had yet to be written. The 230-year-old house that stands on the island today began as military barracks. In 1836, it became the residence of the Warner family. Susan and Anna Warner were well-known authors in the nineteenth century, producing over 100 books between them. Susan wrote The Wide, Wide World in 1850 which became a best seller of its day. Anna is best known for writing the words to the hymn Jesus Loves Me. The sisters taught Bible classes to West Point cadets for forty years, entertaining such well-known soldiers as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. The house was enlarged by the Warners, and contains a large collection of their furnishings and other belongings, including albums full of photos of handsome young cadets. Now a museum, it is maintained as closely as possible to its appearance at the time of the death in 1915 of Anna. A slide album of highlights is presented below.

Following our visit, we were treated to an elegant catered lunch and a cruise on the beautiful Hudson River upon the personal yacht of the Superintendent of West Point Military Academy. Then, back on the van for the short drive to Boscobel, which is discussed in the following post:

Paranormal Fiction: Inamorata, by Megan Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Megan Chance creates a twist on the currently popular vampire theme in Inamorata. Struggling American artist Joseph Hannigan and twin sister Sophie travel to Venice, where they hope to find a patron interested in supporting  and championing his work. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s quite extraordinary, and are equally entranced by the beauty and inter-connectedness of the twins. At the same time,  failed poet Nicholas Dane has arrived, bent on tracing the whereabouts of Odile Leon, the enchanting seductress who left him deep in despair. Odile, it seems, possesses the powers of a muse, and while her amorous conquests produce beautiful work during their relationship, the men lose their inspiration when they part. As the Hannigans penetrate the inner circle of artists and patrons, young men begin to die in suspicious circumstances, and Nicholas suspects that Odile may be involved. The Venice of this novel, set in the late 19th century, is a dark, labyrinthine one, damp and menacing. Its plot revolves on the myth of the succubus, a creature with the upper body of an irresistible woman and the lower body of a serpent. Succubi leach away the creativity and life force from their lovers, in order to maintain their immortality. Slowly paced,the story unfolds in a fairly predictable way, but the ending brings about an unforeseen set of circumstances. It also leaves unresolved a question about the true nature of the twins’ relationship.

Considering the topic, Inamorata elicits less a sense of horror than one of desolation.