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!
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 andGenealogical Record. There 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?
The 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!”
The Old Burying Point is a sacred site best visited in the winter, or the summer, or the spring, or anytime other than October when costume-clad tourists are not draped over the graves taking pictures of each other. I prefer winter, because the very gnarly trees are bare, and nothing other than these same trees competes with the graves themselves. I was walking by the other day, thinking about the very recent death of a young scholar whom I knew, when I remembered a famous epitaph on a seventeenth-century grave of another young scholar: Nathanael Mather, son of Increase, and brother of Cotton. Nathanael died in Salem in 1688 at aged 19 and his grave is located on the western perimeter of the cemetery, just behind the Peabody/”Grimshawe” house. I went through the gate, turned right, and there he was, there it was, the most poignant epitaph ever.
An Aged person/ that had seen but Nineteen Winters in the World.
AnAgedpersonthathadseenbutNineteenWintersintheWorld is a sentiment that is immediately and universally affective, and timeless: as moving now as it was when it was inscribed in 1688 (or later? see below). There are testimonies to these words that date back to the early nineteenth century; no doubt there are far more that I am aware of. Hawthorne incorporated a similar epitaph into his first novel Fanshawe for the title character (one imagines him sneaking out back before or after he visited his future wife Sophia at the Grimshawe house) and Lovecraft referenced it a century later. In between, my favorite photographer Frank Cousins gave it pride of place in a portfolio of Salem images which he marketed nationally.
The Grave in the 1890s
And what of Nathanael, the inspiration for this memorable epitaph? By all accounts he was a young man feverish with the desire to learn, both for his own sake and as way to know and glorify God, and this “fever” ultimately killed him. His “unusual industry” drove him to enter Harvard University at age 12, and during his time there he mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and wrote several books. His “pious education” continued after his graduation, and he followed a disciplined regime of constant study and prayer which rendered him a virtual shut-in. Real fevers set in, and “distemper”, and ultimately he was sent to Salem as a patient of Dr. John Swinnerton, at whose home he eventually died. His elder brother Cotton Mather, who apparently “closed his dying eyes” wrote later that it may be truly written on his Grave, Study kill’d him. In his Diary, Samuel Sewall recounts visiting Nathaneal at Dr. Swinnerton’s and, quite perplexingly, an alternative epitaph: the Ashes of a hard Student, a good Scholar, and a great Christian, which is also asserted in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. So now we have an epitaph mystery: are both Sewall and Mather mistaken, or do we have an instance of an “enlightened” epitaph substitution at some later date?