Cemeteries may not be the cheeriest spots, but they tend to be located on scenic rises surrounded by trees. And since the dearly departed don’t get to enjoy the view (at least so far as we know) why let it go to waste during our most colorful season of the year? Here’s a guide to autumn splendor framed by the state’s most curious tombstones.
In an effort to satisfy this month’s twin passions of fall foliage and Halloween, we’ve toured the state to create a compendium of cemeteries with views to die for. These cities of the dead not only have unusual stories attached to them, but in the fall beckon with breathtaking backdrops of color created by dying trees and moss in its varying states of entropy.
Few places combine both passions like South Cemetery in Portsmouth. Just inside the entrance on South Street, you can stand on a hill overlooking Little Harbor. Take a good look at the sweep of the hill below, the harbor and the Piscataqua River beyond. Drink it all in. Ruth Blay did. It’s the last thing she saw before she was hanged on the hilltop on December 30, 1768.
Blay was the last woman hanged in New Hampshire. She was convicted of having a baby out of wedlock. The baby was found stillborn in a barn in South Hampton. Blay, an itinerant teacher, never named the father.
According to Carolyn Marvin, author of the book “Hanging Ruth Blay,” she likely was hanged in front of a crowd of thousands and arrived at the scene in a wagon, accompanied by the casket she would soon be filling, and dressed in her finest clothing in order to make a good impression when she arrived at the pearly gates.
Blay may have had a last posthumous laugh. Since she was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, she was interred at the foot of the hill in an unmarked grave. At the time of the execution, the hill was a military training ground. It is now in Proprietors’ Burying Ground.
The graveyard commonly called South Cemetery is actually Auburn Cemetery, Cotton’s Cemetery, Harmony Grove Cemetery, Proprietors’ Burying Ground and Sagamore Cemetery combined. It is a true necropolis, with tombs and memorials and paths frequented by walkers and joggers. Oaks, birches and maples in various stages of near-death experiences, provide the physical color, and some dead celebrities interred there provide local color. Included among them are brewer Frank Jones and the two victims of the 1873 murders on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals.
Just a short hearse ride from South Cemetery in the Port City is Point of Graves Cemetery, a small burial ground adjoining the gardens at Prescott Park and the bridge to Peirce Island. The entrance to the burial plot is through a rotary gate, meant to keep cattle out of the small plot overlooked by large trees and abutting the gardens at Prescott Park, magnificent in their muted, post-summer golds and sage. Some of the oldest graves in the state are here, including that of Anne Jaffrey, the wife of a Scottish merchant and ship owner, who died in 1682, shortly after bearing a son. It is believed the stone, with its primitive skull and crossbones engraving, was carved by William Mumford, a prolific grave carver of Colonial New Hampshire.
Also carved by Mumford in the same burial ground is the double headstone of Elizabeth Elatson and Elizabeth Rogers, who perished in 1704 in a fire. Elizabeth Rogers was the daughter of the Rev. Nathaniel Rogers and burned along with her African-American servant when the family house went up in flames. Rogers’ mother-in-law, Elizabeth Rogers, saved her young grandson from the same fate by throwing him out the window into the arms of his father. And while she survived the fire, she died from her injuries two months later. The story of the fatal blaze was published in the “Boston News-Letter,” the first written account of a house fire in the colonies
Writing is also an important link to the Old Street Road Cemetery in Peterborough, widely believed to be the source of inspiration for the evocative cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder’s 1938, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, “Our Town.” Wilder was a resident at the nearby MacDowell Colony and passed the hilly graveyard many times during his stay.
“Over there are the old stones, 1670, 1680. Strong-minded people that come a long way to be independent,” Wilder wrote. “Summer people walk around there laughing at the funny words on the tombstones … it don’t do any harm.”
The Colonial-era burying ground is set on a ridge above downtown Peterborough with majestic views of North Pack Monadnock and Pack Monadnock mountains. There is row after row of wafer-thin slate headstones adorned with angels, death’s heads, willows and other period frippery worthy of gothic cartoonist Edward Gorey.
Among those buried in the hillside cemetery is William Diamond, the drummer boy of Lexington, who helped assemble the Minutemen on that fateful day in 1775. A wheelwright, he later moved his family to Peterborough before slipping his mortal coil.
Not all of the dearly departed are so fondly remembered. Just a few miles away in Jaffrey lies the Smallpox Cemetery, a site more spooky than celebrated. It’s off Fitch Road, which leaves Rte. 202 beside Cheshire Pond and Howard Memorial Park. The road goes uphill past stately homes with magnificent views of Mount Monadnock to a turnaround marked by a sign that reads “Smallpox Cemetery, 1792, follow the wall 1,000 feet.” A short hike through the forest, past a pasture and a stand of waist-high ferns, follows the lichen-splotched rock wall to a monument and a tiny plot.
The remote cemetery is the final resting place for six victims of the 18th century epidemic, who were isolated in life and death. While alive, they were quarantined to avoid infecting their neighbors. In death, they were not allowed to be interred in an established cemetery.
The six victims listed on the memorial include Revolutionary War soldiers Oliver Gould and Captain Abel Wilder.
The Old Burying Ground, also in Jaffrey, offers an unparalleled view of Mount Monadnock. It’s located behind the town meetinghouse. Celebrated American author Willa Cather was buried there after her death in 1947. Twenty-five years later Cather was joined in death at the site by her long-term companion and, many believe, lover, Edith Lewis.
Cemeteries aren’t just a place for burying the dearly departed; at the dawn of the 19th century as church graveyards became full, municipal multi-denominational garden cemeteries were built on the outskirts of town with landscaped surroundings, walkways and ponds, and were often the sites of family picnics and gatherings. Pine Grove cemetery in Manchester is a prime example. It opened in 1850 and expanded nearly a dozen times over the last century and a half. It is now 275 acres with 100 still undeveloped. It’s a great place for a walk in the crisp autumn air, with an array of deciduous trees all changing colors, framed by magnificent architectural constructions — stone columns, arches and exquisite statuary.
The vault of Frank P. Carpenter, former president of Amoskeag Paper Mills, is more than a story tall with several columns out front. It took 16 horses to drag just one piece of the stonework to his resting place. It is the largest mausoleum in the cemetery, perched on a hill, sealed with bronze doors and surrounded by trees. It’s truly a tomb with a view.
Historic Grave Markers
Life is fleeting. Gravestones are not. And sometimes the dearly departed have headstones that afford them the final word. Here are some Granite State grave markers that really make a statement.
- Many grave markers of the Victorian Era are decked out with the image of a finger pointing the way to the Promised Land, but the headstone of Henry Lane in Pine Hill Cemetery in Whitefield has a finger that points down. What are we to make of that?
- The Notchland Inn in Hart’s Location prominently displays a stone that reads: “1778: Nancy Barton died in a snowstorm in pursuit of her faithless love.” Barton froze to death while trekking south during a snowstorm to chase down her fiancé who had fled with her dowry. The stream in Crawford Notch where she met her maker bears her name.
- Henry Darracott Allison of Dublin was a master calligrapher who crafted many diplomas and documents for schools and other institutions throughout the state. He was so proud of his penmanship that he had his signature cast in bronze to be placed on his gravestone in Dublin Cemetery when he died in 1963.
- There is a monument to Ichabod Crane in the cemetery behind Surry Town Hall on Village Road. He died in 1866 at the age of 82. But it was not the Ichabod Crane of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame. The name on the Surry stone is spelled Crain, but town records indicate he spelled it either Crain or Crane.
- When Civil War Major Tom Savage died, he requested that his trusty horse Old Tom, who once saved his life, be buried beside him in Riverside Cemetery in Alton. Horses weren’t allowed inside the cemetery, so Tom was buried just outside the gate. Over the years the cemetery has expanded and old Tom is now buried inside the cemetery.
- Dorothy Caldwell of Jaffrey was visiting Paris when she met and married Viggo Brandt-Erichsen, a Danish sculptor who was also attracted to the City of Lights. Soon after their marriage in 1924, they had a child, who died shortly after birth, with her mother following her in death shortly thereafter. Fulfilling a promise he made to his young wife, Brandt-Erichsen had their cremated remains buried in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey. The grieving widower moved into a hotel in Jaffrey and spent the next two years sculpting the profile of his wife for the gravestone.
Capt. Samuel Jones had a leg up (or off, as the case may be) in his march to his earthly reward. Jones lost the leg in a construction accident and had the member buried in Washington Cemetery. The marker reads: “Capt. Samuel Jones’ leg which was amputated July 7, 1804.” He later moved to Boston and then Rhode Island where the rest of his body is buried. Photo by J.W. Ocker
Eunice “Goody” Cole was convicted of witchcraft in Hampton in 1656 and spent much of the remainder of her life in prison in Boston. When she died, her remains were placed in an unmarked grave. Some say a stake was driven through her heart. To make amends for her wrongful conviction in 1963, a large stone was placed on the lawn at the Tuck Museum in Hampton as a silent memorial. Photo by J.W. Ocker
You might not able to beat a dead horse, but you sure can immortalize one. Eli Wallace and his wife Myra, of Littleton, never had children, but they treated their Morgan horses, Mollie, Maud and Maggie, like family. When the horses died in the early 1900s, they were buried along with their tackle and feed boxes in Wallace Horse Cemetery in Littleton. When Eli died, he left money to maintain the little cemetery off Eustis Road in perpetuity. Photo by J.W. Ocker
The family of Caroline Cutter, who died in Milford in the mid-1800s, really wanted to make sure she got the final word in death. Her rectangular headstone in Elm Street Cemetery features a 150-word screed accusing the local ministry for her demise. She was “murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Church,” according to the stone. One deacon and a minister accused her of lying in a church meeting and then another deacon somehow “reduced [her] to poverty.” These church staff members are called out by name on the stone and Caroline sends out a final admonishment: “Tell the truth and the iniquity will come out.” Photo by J.W. Ocker
A great stone chair awaits on the Ross family plot in Phillips-Heil Cemetery in Jaffrey. The seat was reputedly built in the belief that spirits often return to the scene of their earthly existence and after such a long journey might need a place to rest. The chair faces the sunset and Gap Mountain. Photo by J.W. Ocker
The tomb of Emil Hanslin in New London Town Cemetery looks like a loaf of bread. It’s listed on books of curiosities as such, but it isn’t really a headstone and it isn’t really a loaf of bread. The loaf-like object is a crypt and Emil was a real estate man, not a baker. Go figure. Photo by Earl Abbe
The gravestone for school teacher Charlotte Gemmell (1920-2003) in Monadnock View Cemetery in Keene is shaped like a desk topped with books and a painted stone apple. Gemmel, a fan of author Willa Cather (buried in nearby Jaffrey), gave talks on her in period costume. Photo by J.W. Ocker
Also buried at the Old Burial Ground at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse is Amos Fortune, born in Africa in 1710, then enslaved and brought to America. At age 60, he bought his freedom and moved to Jaffrey, started a tanning business and became a successful businessman and prominent citizen. He died in 1801 at the age of 91, and is buried alongside his wife Violet (her name is spelled Violate on her gravestone). His epitaph reads: “To the memory of Amos Fortune, who was born free in Africa, a slave in America, he purchased his Liberty, professed Christianity, lived reputably, and died hopefully.” Photo Ron Paul
In 1875, 17-year-old Josie Langmaid was on her way to school at Pembroke Academy when she was murdered and beheaded. A French-Canadian woodsman was later convicted of the crime. The young lady was laid to rest in a graveyard off Pinewood Road, but that was not enough. A 15-foot marker was erected on Academy Road in Pembroke near the scene of the crime. The monument points to smaller markers where her body and her head were found. Photos by J.W. Ocker
Photo by Lindsey Ocker
Other Peculiar Places to Peep (Leaves)
Recommendations by J.W. Ocker
We all know New Hampshire is one of the more autumnal states, but it also boasts loads of strange, fascinating sites worth sticking on a day-trip itinerary dedicated to death-colored leaves.
Livermore Ghost Town: Overgrown foundations and tall brick walls are the atmospheric bits left of the 19th century logging town of Livermore in the middle of the White Mountains. It’s easily accessed by taking Rte. 302 to Sawyer River Road, which splits the ghost town about two miles in.
Madison Boulder: A massive, rectangular boulder the size of a house rode a glacier from farther north to take residence in Madison and earn the title of largest known glacial erratic in North America.
Madame Sherri Ruins: On the edge of Pisgah State Park in West Chesterfield is a set of ruins with a signature dramatic staircase that ends in midair. It looks like the remnants of an ancient castle, but is instead all that’s left of the summer mansion of 20th century socialite Madame Antoinette Sherri after a fire in the 1960s.
Dover Insane Asylum Fire Monument: In 1893, the Dover Insane Asylum caught fire, killing 41 of its 44 inmates. Investigators believed the fire was started by a smoking inmate and exacerbated by negligent management. A solitary gravestone-like column on a hill behind a retirement home on County Farm Road marks the tragedy.
Frankenstein Cliff: A beautiful cliff that can be viewed from below or hiked across is named for a German artist who loved to paint the White Mountains and who was, in turn, named after a German castle that may have inspired Mary Shelley in writing Frankenstein.
Betty and Barney Hill Historical Marker: The most famous alien abduction story happened in the Granite State in 1961 to Betty and Barney Hill, and the state validated them with a historical marker on Rte. 3 in Lincoln near the Indian Head Resort and the approximate site of their close encounter.
Jumanji Mural: A large advertisement for a fictional shoe company on West Street in the town of Keene is all that’s left as evidence that the 1995 Robin Williams movie “Jumanji” was filmed there.
J.W. Ocker is an award-winning author of strange travelogues, including “The New England Grimpendium” and “Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe.” He runs OddThingsIveSeen.com and has lived in New Hampshire since 2008. He also writes the Live Free and Weird column for us at nhmagazine.com.