Visiting My Characters … in the Graveyard

Jonathan Bowman's Headstone

Lea Wait here, admitting that, OK, maybe I was born to be a mystery writer. One of my earliest memories is visiting the Mt. Auburn cemetery near Boston with my grandmother. I was just old enough to run a little ways away from her; not old enough to read. But I remember the “angel” carvings on the oldest stones. Or — she said they were angels. I thought they were scary faces.

As an adult I’ve wandered graveyards in several states, ranging from the Trinity Church Graveyard in lower Manhattan, which “in the day” was the place to buy and smoke pot on your lunch hour from the Stock Exchange, to the churchyard at St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, SC – the church that’s on the cover of my Seaward Born. Signers of the Declaration are buried there, but my favorite stone listed a man’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and the words “He came to Charleston for his health and died.” Succinct. And a little like an old stone in a graveyard near my home in Maine that lists no name. Just “Unknown man from Vermont.”

Since my graveyards of choice are eighteenth and nineteenth century ones, in the past the only names I recognized were those of well-known people, like those signers of the Declaration.

But now I write books set in the small seaport of Wiscasset, and many of my characters are real

Dr. Theobold's Headstone

people who lived there. I think I know them well, although we’ve never met. I’ve been known to apologize to them for putting words in their mouths. And, yes, I talk to them in their current places of residence.

Their graves tell parts of their stories. Jonathan Bowman, a respected lawyer who in my Stopping to Home marries eighteen-year-old Sally Clough (which really happened) died two years later, at the age of 37. He’s buried next to his first wife, Lydia. Sally? After his death she returned to her parents’ home, and they moved to Thomaston after Jefferson’s Embargo made it difficult for captains like her father to find work. Her mother opened a millinery shop in Thomaston, and Sally married the local minister … and had fourteen children. I suspect she didn’t mind not being buried next to her first husband.

One small mystery to me is Dr.Theobold,’s gravesite. He was an army surgeon during the War of 1812, and then settled in Wiscasset and married Nancy, his first wife. She died in 1820 (an event in my book Wintering Well) leaving him with two young children. The doctor then remarried — twice — and survived those wives, too. It’s clear in looking at his grave that he purchased the plot when Nancy died, and had matching stones engraved for both of them, with his own date of death to be added later. And so it was. But where were his second and third wives buried? I haven’t been able to find out. Certainly not in his plot. His daughter Anne, who survived her father by many years, is buried there, with her husband, although she had not lived in Wiscasset since her childhood. His son, also a doctor, but not in Wiscasset, is buried in another town.

Capt Smith, Civil War Veteran

Nancy Theobold’s Gravestone

There are other questions … which perhaps I’ll share in a future blog. But my latest visit to a Wiscasset graveyard answered one. In my next book set in Wiscasset, Uncertain Glory, Edwin Smith, a wealthy young man in town, leads the town’s recruits off toward their Civil War training camp. I knew he died a little over a year later, in the Battle of Fair Oaks, in Virginia. But the battle took two days. In the historical notes for my book I chose the second date — June 1 — as his date of death. But there, on the large monument his family erected, was the truth. He died on May 31.

And I found his grave just in time to correct the date in my book.

An historical detail that might seem minor. But to him and his family, it was important. And so it was important to me. And, I hope, to my readers.

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7 Responses to Visiting My Characters … in the Graveyard

  1. John Clark says:

    Count me as a cemetery fan…We have the Ireland Cemetery which the Hartland Historical Society just refurbished and rededicated across the street. I like wandering around in them when there’s a full moon, imagining the residents talking to me, telling stories nobody else has ever heard.

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  2. Barb Ross says:

    Very atmospheric. The above ground cemetery in Key West is one of my favorite places. It really does have a the tombstone inscribed, “I told you I was sick.”

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  3. Nancy Miller says:

    Have you seen the cemetery in Barre, Vermont? It’s amazing because of all the granite monuments. I took the tour of the granite works a few months ago and they said that there were 26 or 27 carvers who worked in Barre and even carved their own tombstones before they died. There’s a car, a soccer ball and a couple in bed, to name a few. Well worth a visit.

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  4. Lea Wait says:

    Adding those cemeteries to my list! (And good to know I’m not the only one who enjoys the company of those who preceded us!)

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  5. Kate Flora says:

    I’m especially partial to cemetery angels myself. One of which graced the cover of The Angel of Knowlton Park. When we were kids, our mother used to drag us to cemeteries when she was doing articles or ancestral research. I’m ashamed to say that I have ancestors buried in Concord that I’ve never rediscovered.

    Sometimes it can be very sad to see the rows of little headstones from all the children who died. But they are great places for names and stories.

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