Researching Mount Auburn’s Thirty Most Significant Monuments

March 27, 2016

by Marilynne K. Roach, Historian

In 2015 I had the good fortune to join Mount Auburn Cemetery’s IMLS project to research and document thirty of their most significant monuments. My job was to conduct off-site research before the grant’s end of the year deadline.

Several of the thirty monuments were already well documented. For others, we needed to find more information about the monument’s symbolism and inspiration; the sculptors, architects, and carvers who made them; the person being commemorated, any association they or their families may have had with the makers and reasons for their choices; donors who may have commissioned the work and how it was financed; where it was constructed and how it was shipped to its final site; and if there was a dedication.

Of course, not all of this information turned up in the time allowed. Some of the monuments remained stubbornly anonymous and research will be continue in the future. Facts and clues showed up in many forms:

• manuscripts (personal and institutional papers, probate records etc.) either the originals or in microfilm or digital format,

• newspaper and journal articles (in print, on microfilm, or on-line),

• books (actual books or on the web) from biographies, genealogies, scrapbooks and promotional material;

• drawings, photographs, and ephemera.

And then there was luck.

Despite urban legend, the internet does not reveal all. Nevertheless, on-line sources not only provided electronic versions of books, but also library catalogues and finding aids, both wonderful time-savers.

For example, an on-line encyclopedia of Unitarians and Universalists noted that the papers of both Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing  were deposited in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge. That library’s on-line finding aid listed several promising folders including one in the Ballou Family Papers marked “Mount Auburn Cemetery.” Certainly that folder had to contain a trove of information. Instead it held only a printed broadside listing significant Mount Auburn graves with a mark by Ballou’s name.

In contrast, the Channing Papers produced several gems from ephemera to manuscripts. A memento kept by the bereaved family, a fragile booklet that was originally distributed to members of his congregation, included an engraving of the tomb from the side. “Record book of subscribers for monument” listed the names of all the donors such as Nathaniel Bowditch, James Savage, and George Ticknor (the fund’s secretary) among others, with the sums each donated.

But even if the manuscript archives hadn’t shed light on Rev. Ballou’s monument, the library’s micro text department did in its microfilm reels of the The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine which ran articles about the public subscription for the monument in 1854 and letters from donors indignant that there had been no public dedication of the statue in 1859.

In contrast, two sessions among manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston produced few answers. Business papers for nineteenth-century merchants like Samuel Appleton, Elisha Atkins, and William Sturgis (who paid for Dr. Spurzheim’s monument) noted ships and cargoes of coffee, sugar, and cocoa plus the occasional pew rental, but not the monuments in question. The Wigglesworth Family Papers provided relatives’ chatty birthday letters and Harvard alumni matters for the relevant dates, but no word on baby Mary Wigglesworth’s marble cradle monument.

Printed books and their on-line versions offered not only information but also, when footnoted, other sources to look for.

Genealogies were especially useful. One for the Atkins family provided not only context for the early deaths of the Atkins children that the business papers had not, but also a map of Mount Auburn Cemetery identifying several plots for Atkins generations.

Biographies were an obvious source. A contemporary life of the phrenologist Gaspar Spurzheim described his unexpected death, his funeral, the temporary disposal of his body and the removal of his skull before permanent interment at Mount Auburn. Researching a person’s kin could also help.  A biography of author Fannie Fern shed light on the character of her father-in-law Hezekiah Eldredge whose stern attitude toward his granddaughters contrasted with his monument’s bas-relief of a benign Christ blessing the little children.

Even advertising ephemera held clues. The New England Historic Genealogical Society library’s rare book collection held a small booklet on the generations of piano makers headed by Jonas Chickering.

For the most part, the artists responsible for the making of the monuments were the hardest to find. Monuments might be mentioned in biographies but not the hand that made them as if statuary was gathered growing in the wild like mushrooms.

However, the Fine Art Department of the Boston Public Library, in addition to books on some of the artists, also had an exhibition catalog for the works of British sculptor Joseph Gott that was held at Leeds and Liverpool in 1972. This provided biographical information, a portrait of the man, and photos of several dog statues to compare with the dog on the grave of Francis Calley Gray.

The same department not only had a biography of Hammatt Billings — sculptor, illustrator, architect, and designer of furniture and fireworks — but also scrapbooks of his original drawings and watercolors. These included the original pencil drawing for the Robert Gould Shaw monument along with other memorials at Mount Auburn.

And then there was luck. I had to return to Mount Auburn unexpectedly one day to retrieve something I’d left behind in their archives. Annoyed at the time wasted, I decided to use the opportunity to revisit the morning glory sculpture on the grave of two-year old Beatrice Fagnani. The sculptor’s name was carved on the base, I was told, but had eroded to illegibility with only the letter “P” and another “P” barely visible in certain lights.

But on this occasion I unsuspectingly arrived at the Fagnani plot just as the time of year, the time of day, and the weather all combined to focus the sun’s light at the precise angle to reveal more of the signature. There could have been alternate readings but a Google search of “P. Piatti” revealed the artist’s identity as Patrizio Piatti, his other works at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the location of his New York studio, and his own premature death from a leaky gas light fixture.

There is no telling what other information is still out there waiting to be discovered. Research can involve hours with no results, a few results, or a sudden bonanza of facts. Some information may not still exist but a methodical search in logical places following logical leads can put a researcher in a place where happy accidents happen.

And sometimes the planets just align — literally.




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