Simon Bradstreet’s Body

Lately I’ve become a bit fixated on Simon Bradstreet, the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily because of the spectacular Salem house in which he lived—and died. So much so that when I realized the anniversary of his death date (in 1697) was yesterday, I ran over to look at his grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point. But when I got there, I realized that it wasn’t there: there’s a cenotaph, but no grave and no body. Where is it? No one really seems to know!

Bradstreet Negative DC

There are clues to the whereabouts of Simon Bradstreet’s body in the Phillips Library, and also, of course, in the graveyard. The most serious inquiry was initiated by Robert Rantoul, a Mayor of Salem, President of the Essex Institute, and someone who addressed many issues of his time and before, and published in an 1892 article in the Salem Press and Genealogical RecordThere is a strong tone of righteousness in this piece, which begins with the statement that Bradstreet’s tomb is now, be the title good or bad, in possession of parties alien to the Bradstreet line, and has been so held for a century, and the representatives of these claimants not unnaturally object to all interference with their long-established rights of possession. I have to admit I did not know that cemetery plots, including those that had been “occupied”, were actually sold like any other piece of property, but that is what seems to have happened: Rantoul lays out all of the historical facts which testify to Bradstreet’s burial on Charter Street, and then presents the surprising revelation that in 1798 the tomb seems to have changed hands according to a bill of sale endorsed by Colonel Benjamin Bickman which states that Major John Hathorne and Captain Samuel Ingersoll bou’t of Benjamin Pickman….a tomb in the burying point (so called)….formerly the Property of Governor Bradstreet. Jump forward a century, to Rantoul’s time and a major investigation carried out by a special committee comprised of members of the Salem City Council and Essex Institute along with “health officers, accomplished antiquarians, and local historians”, which did not seem to be able to locate the remains of Governor Bradstreet. Rantoul leaves us with the mystery, but also some intriguing details: members of the Hathorne family had protested the disturbance of their tomb, and one contemporary observer commented that an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne having taken possession, with no further scruple cleaned out the tomb, throwing the remains of the old Governor and his family into a hole not far away”. And there we are–but where is Bradstreet?

Bradstreet Tomb 2

Bradstreet Tomb3The Bradstreet Tomb today and in its original location in the 1890s (photograph by Frank Cousins @ Digital Commonwealth). Cotton Mather’s epitaph for Bradstreet seems particularly apt: “Here lies New England’s Father! Woe the day! How mingles mightiest dust with meaner clay!”

8 responses to “Simon Bradstreet’s Body

  • Robert Albert

    Ironic that the remains location has fallen to obscurity just as those of the witch trials have. Do you know which Hathorne purchased the plot?

  • Tim Jenkins

    Amazing and odd. This purchase and sale family to remind me what goes on here says Pere Lachaise Unless you’re famous you’re eventually removed to an enormous mausoleum.

  • Brian Bixby

    Ownership rules vary for New England cemeteries. Many of the old ones were churchyards, and property title remained with the church or town, depending on how the Congregational/Unitarian split worked out.. But especially as you move forward in time, they are cemeteries owned by private corporations that sell lots, which lots can be resold, even if there are people buried in them. With concrete vaults being the norm for burial these days, hard to imagine who would buy a lot already filled with corpses, but one with some vacant space in a prestigious location?

    Another change over time is perpetual care. In the 19th century, the expectation, at least in my home town of Groton, was that the family kept up the lot. If you couldn’t be bothered, you paid the cemetery staff on an annual basis, hence “annual care,” or made a heftier payment for “perpetual care.” Over time, families moved away and/or stopped paying for annual care. The result was an unkempt cemetery, and the custodial staff began mowing those lots at a financial loss. So some decades ago, perpetual care became part of the standard price for a lot.

    Again, my hometown’s “new” cemetery assumes that any lot not specifically bequeathed in a will to a particular heir, is jointly owned by all heirs . . . which after a generation or two makes its resale impossible. Thanks to that, I could by rights be buried in any one of three (possibly four) lots, if I so chose: my parents’, my paternal grandfather’s, or my paternal great-grandfather’s. The latter, like your Bradstreet lot, has a cenotaph, in that case for a cousin who turned missionary, and died and was buried in Shanghai in the 1920s.

    • daseger

      Wow, Brian–I have to say this is whole story is completely new territory for me. I assumed graves would be SACRED. Obviously that was not the case—this lot was sold in the 18th century–not even the 19th! And Rantoul makes a case for Bradstreets being all around so why weren’t they taking care? This is like the third strange case I’ve come across involving the Charter Street cemetery–someone needs to dig deep!

      • Brian Bixby

        Fisher citing David Stannard, “The Puritan Way of Death,” argues that the Puritans had little regard for the mortal remains, and that early burials had little in the way of ceremony.

        Which makes sense of the death’s head art on the gravestones and the Puritan contempt for the body. They might not much have cared what happened to bodies in a tomb; who cares if they’re anonymously reburied elsewhere?
        The cult of mourning in New England really seems to be a 19th century development, and goes hand in hand with the garden cemetery.THEY would have had fits if a body was exhumed.

        How is it that Col. Pickman (whom I had to look up) owned the Bradstreet tomb? Was he an heir/descendant?

      • daseger

        It always seems like we have to blast through the damn 19th century to get to the truth! I don’t know about Pickman’s role–everything is locked in the Phillips Library.

      • Brian Bixby

        (sound dirge from “Rowley: the Relocation”)

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