Thursday, March 31, 2016

The "Dead Center" of Boston - Part Three (From Death's Heads to Soul Effigies) (Boston #6)

This is the third and final installment of a series of posts (Parts I and II here and here) on Boston's historic burial grounds.  The first two posts described Boston's oldest cemetery, King's Chapel, and third oldest, Granary.  As promised in those first two, this third post takes a closer look at a couple of notable headstones in the King's Chapel Burying Ground and at some of the iconography on Puritan-Era headstones, with some recommendations for additional reading.

Elizabeth Pain - Photo by Jim Schmidt
One of the more notable headstones in the King's Chapel Burying Ground is that of Elizabeth Pain (c. 1652-1704).  Many websites and travel guides declare that Pain's gravestone (and possibly her life story) was an inspiration for the character Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.

The final paragraph in the novel certainly paints a picture of a stone in the King's Chapel cemetery:

"And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial–ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb–stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever–glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— 'ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.'"

Another prominent headstone is that of Joseph Tapping.  Per the wayside marker at the cemetery:

Joseph Tapping - Photo by Jim Schmidt
One of the first and most famous gravestones, visible upon entering the burying ground, is that of Joseph Tapping (d. 1678). The marker is famed as a work of art conceived by the unnamed carver known as “the Charlestown Stonecutter.” The stone is one of the most elaborate in the burying ground with beautifully carved symbolic images: the skull with wings represents the soul leaving the body, the hourglass represents time running out, the skeleton snuffing out the candle is Death ending life, and the bearded figure is Time attempting to stop Death. The stone’s Latin inscriptions refer to the quick passage of time and awareness of death’s inevitability. Little is known of Tapping, a Boston shopkeeper who died at the age of 23, leaving his young wife Marianna a widow.

Detail - Joseph Tapping - Photo by Jim Schmidt

Detail - Joseph Tapping - Photo by Jim Schmidt
After visiting some of Boston's historic burying grounds, I did some reading to learn more about the iconography and craftsmanship on early colonial/Puritan-era headstones. One of the best books I read was Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815, by Allen Ludwig (1966; reprint 2000). The book included some discussion on the Tapping stone, especially in terms of where New England stone-cutters obtained the inspiration for some of the artwork on Puritan-era headstones.  Ludwig points out that they used "emblem books" and primers, and that the Tapping headstone is an excellent example of this use, as the famous image of the skeleton and "Father Time" is adapted from a nearly-identical image in Frances Quarles' Hieroglyphiques of the Life of Man, printed in London in 1638:

Detail - Joseph Tapping - Photo by Jim Schmidt
"Time and Death" - Frances Quarles' Hieroglyphiques of the Life of Man
The Pain and Tapping headstones also both employ the well-known "death's head" iconography of New England Puritan-era headstones.  For modern sensibilities, the imagery seems macabre or "creepy," but that was not how it was perceived by the population in New England at that time.  

Harriette M. Forbes researched New England gravestones and their creators, and wrote the book Gravestones of Early New England and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927).  She concluded that "the gravestones of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carried a message to the passerby both by the epitaphs and even more by the designs," and that the meanings could be categorized - with the death's head marking "The certainty of death and warnings to the living." As time passed, the death's morphed into the "soul effigy," and eventually into other iconography such as the urn and willow that are commonplace on Victorian-era markers.

Even more interesting is that the evolution of this iconography can be quantified in time and place as outlined in the groundbreaking studies of James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen, resulting in their fascinating and highly-readable scholarly paper, "Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries," published in American Antiquity in 1966 (full text here).

You can see that evolution throughout both the King's Chapel and Granary Burying Grounds and in some of the photographs I've shared in the past few posts - here are a few:

Detail - King's Chapel Burying Ground - Photo by Jim Schmidt

Detail - Granary Burying Ground - Photo by Jim Schmidt

Detail - King's Chapel Burying Ground - Photo by Jim Schmidt

Detail - King's Chapel Burying Ground - Photo by Jim Schmidt

Detail - King's Chapel Burying Ground - Photo by Jim Schmidt
You can see even more (thousands of examples!) at the excellent Farber Gravestone Collection at the American Antiquarian Society website -

Another very good book I read was Sticks and Stones: Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers by M. Ruth Little (1998).

For a great  study of Colonial-era cemeteries without this type of imagery (and why that is), I highly recommend Elizabeth A. Crowell's "Philadelphia Gravestones 1760-1820," in Northeast Historical Archaeology (Vol. 10, Issue 1, 1981), the full text of which is available here.

You may also like these other posts on this blog:

Other Posts About Boston:
Boston #1 - Poe Statue
Boston #2 - Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Monument
Boston #3 - The Boston Massacre and the Old State House

Boston #4 - King's Chapel Burying Ground

Boston #5 - Granary Burying Ground
Other Posts About Historic Cemeteries:  

Granary Burying Ground - Boston

King's Chapel Burying Ground - Boston
St. Louis Cemetery #1 - New Orleans, LA - My YouTube Video here
Jewell Cemetery State Historic Site - Columbia, MO
Sunset Hills Cemetery - Boonville, MO - here and here
Galveston (TX) Cemeteries - here and here
Jefferson City (MO) National Cemetery 
Springfield (MO) National Cemetery - (blog posts here, here, here)

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