“In the cold mansions of the silent tomb”: Data, Disability, and New England Gravestones, Part 1

A gravestone and a bar graph with an arrow icon between them

Burial Plots to ggplot

In the summer of 2022, I visited the Massachusetts Historical Society to conduct dissertation research.  The following summer, I returned to Massachusetts with funding from the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium to visit several more archives, including Harvard Divinity School Library, The Phillips Library, The Congregational Library, and a return to MHS.  On both these trips, I used spare time to visit 127 cemeteries in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.  This series of blog posts will tie some of my findings to the subject of my dissertation project- disability and religion in early America- while discussing how data and digital methods helps to study the topic.  Part 1 will focus on the methodology, Part 2 will look at some early data findings, Part 3 will cover the disability history carved into New England’s gravestones, and Part 4 will tie all these parts together with the Salem Witch Trials.  This series will hopefully turn into Chapter 2 of my dissertation project, Embodied Providence in Early America.

On my first visit to Mass Historical, I looked at the First Church of Boston records which included the Proprietors account book, 1711-1782.  It included a pew map for the new brick meetinghouse from 1715 and above the pulpit sits a winged heart.  I’ll discuss more about hearts in Part 3, but this imagery matters for my topic.  It reminded me of the death’s head motif on early gravestones where a skull sits between two wings.  On the next weekend, I walked from my parents’ house to North Andover’s First Parish Burial Ground and saw the potential for disability history sources in both the imagery and epitaphs.  I visited 40 cemeteries that summer and 87 more the next.  I did not intend to turn this into a data driven project, but as I processed the pictures, I started thinking about the possibilities and formalized the process.

1. Cemetery Trips

A map of Massachusetts and New Hampshire marking the 127 cemeteries visited
A map of all the cemeteries visited to create this dataset

I scouted cemeteries online through Find a Grave and Google Maps street view to look for cemeteries within my time period, the 1660s to 1820s.  I organized routes to visit 5 to 10 cemeteries in a day to cover northern Massachusetts before expanding south to Plymouth, west towards Worcester and across southern New Hampshire, and on a trip with my high school friends I dragged everyone to Old Parish Cemetery in York, Maine.

In future trips up to Massachusetts, I hope to add more cemeteries around Worcester, MA; Manchester, NH; and southern Massachusetts. I also intend to add some Boston area ones such as Dorchester and Charlestown. In the meantime, I’m considering how to use the Farber Gravestone Collection to supplement my data.

2. Photographing

A rusty gate in a stone wall that enters into a cemetery with rows of gravestones in the background
The entrance to North Andover’s First Parish Burying Ground

At each cemetery I walked through each row of stones to look for possible connections to disability history (see part 3), representative samples of carvings as well as unique stones, and family names related to the Salem Witch Trials (see part 4).  In the future, I hope to revisit some of the cemeteries to double check my initial sampling, expand the dataset, and see what new observations stand out on a second walkthrough. I used my twelve-year-old Nikon D40 to take a couple pictures of each stone.  Ultimately, I took about 11,000 photographs of 3,925 stones.  The Nikon’s shutter jammed during my last week and I resorted to using my cell phone.

There were challenges with reading gravestones: many are eroded or covered in moss and therefore illegible.  Other stones are partially buried or in overgrown fields.  I also struggled to photograph stones against extremely persistent swarms of mosquitoes at Lancaster’s Old Burial Ground and rushed through Newburyport’s Sawyer Hill Burial Ground given the foxes running around cemetery. Still, I tried to photograph a reasonable sample even if I decided to skip stones with little hope of deciphering (or that wildlife wanted me to avoid).

As for tech challenges, these photographs require 21.5GB of storage on my laptop.  I did not organize the photographs in a helpful way, so I suggest being more cautious at the start of a project.  All the JPEG files are located in folders based on the date of the cemetery trip rather than separate folders for the cemetery locations.  The latter would make more sense than “Cemeteries May 27th”.  I’ll fix this some day …maybe.

3. Processing

Once I saved all the pictures on my laptop, I loaded them into Tropy, a photo management software designed for researchers.  I added my pictures into a designated project for gravestones.  Since I took multiple photos of stones, I first went through and grouped photos into items. After that sorting, I added the self-evident metadata for each stone: Name, Death Date, Age, Cemetery, and Town. 

Timothy Swan's gravestone showing a face with wings over the inscription
Timothy Swan’s stone in North Andover, MA, carved by John Hartshorne

Death date and age posed a few questions.  Gravestones exist for multiple people, often family stones representing decades.  I used the most recent date given that a carver in 1780 could not inscribe a stone to a person who died in 1800.  There are backdated stones, however.  For example, John Hartshorne carved Timothy Swan’s stone that is dated 1692, but Hartshorne began carving after 1700.  It will result in some outlier datapoints, but for the scope of this project, few stones are so wildly anachronistic to harm the overall findings.  Those outliers when closer examined may also reveal unique information about gravestone carvers through their efforts, or lack of efforts, to match the imagery and the time periods.  I am also less concerned about the integrity of the data from retro-dated stones that were contemporary to the life of the carver: Hartshorne’s first wife, Ruth, was Swan’s sister.  Few retro-dated stones are generations removed from the deceased listed and the carving date.

In a different question, stones representing multiple people were marked for each age.  If a stone represented a husband and wife aged 75 and 80 respectively but they died 10 years apart, the commission and/or purchase of the stone (and therefore its imagery) were still for a 75-year-old and an 80 year old.  The ages are all accounted for, albeit both dated for the latest death year.

This distinct treatments for age and death year matter for the value of the dataset.  The data is not an accurate portrayal of lifespans.  If I wanted to trace lifespans on gravestones, I could organize a metadata system in that manner, but it is not in the scope or interest of the project.  The visual data such as skulls an cherubs, the approximate year of the carving based on death date, and age of the deceased honored with those images are within the scope of my project.  As I analyze various facets of the data, backdated stones, whether purchased later by circumstance or to replace an earlier memorial, will remain in consideration. This makes the dataset valuable for understanding funerary art over time, not colonial American demographics.

4. Visual Metadata

The metadata vocabulary for the artistic elements of the stones posed more problems than the death and age questions.  New England gravestone imagery is often divided into the categories of Death’s Head, Cherub, and Urns as the 3 main motifs that appear.  However, soul effigies, hourglasses, abstract designs, coffins, floral patterns, and more adorn dozens of stones, and often times these images appeared together like a winged hourglass over a cherub or a death’s head flying over a heart. 

I initially decided how to focus on the relevant imagery.  The tympanum, or the top crest of the stone, features the main feature of the gravestone’s design.  The skulls, angels, and urns appear here.  The finials on the shoulders, the rounded sides next to the tympanum, often featured secondary designs like faces, miniature cherubs, and abstract patterns. (See this diagram by the Connecticut Gravestone Network.)  Carvers might also adorn stones with floral and vegetative carvings for additional decoration along the borders.  I chose to focus on the featured designs, meaning the main imagery in the tympanum and finials.  Data is messy and case by case decisions were necessary on occasion.

Given my focus for this project is representations of bodies and souls, I made decisions to look at the relevant motifs.  Otherwise the number of flowers tagged might overwhelm the dataset when these carvings are mostly decorative compared to the theological themes of my dissertation.  Other historians might find meaning in the floral patterns and chose to create that dataset, but I needed to limit the scope of the project somewhere, and these tympanum and finial carvings are the visual focal points for gravestone viewers.

After determining the visual metadata scope, I began to determine the categories of visuals.  Some of it was easy: its an urn, imagery is an urn; it’s a coffin, imagery is a coffin.  Others brought up unusual questions: how fleshy does a face need to look to be a cherub rather than a death’s head?  Is it a face or a soul effigy if it has shoulders?  Do skull require teeth? Ultimately, I expanded the usual notion of death’s head, cherub, and urn to include effigy and face as prominent motifs and compared carvings to each genre to place tricky cases.  In total, I assigned terms to 42 designs, ranging from singular appearances in the dataset to nearly 1,200 urns. I also added a secondary column for the motif to collect wider themes, such as coffins, skulls, and death’s heads as Death which are otherwise separate imagery categories.

5. RStudio

a screenshot of the data spreadsheet in RStudio
Screenshot of the dataset in RStudio

I exported the metadata from Tropy into a CSV file and loaded it into RStudio to start analysis.  Columns like age and imagery included lists of variables inside single cells.  R assumes that data within a cell is a single variable. I used the command separate_rows to split these into multiple rows of data with a single variable.  This left me with 6,574 observations of 10 variables for my 3,925 gravestones. 

I spent some time cleaning up the data by finding errant commas, mistyped imagery labels, and other typos. I fixed these in Tropy and re-exported it.

6. Visualizations

With all the data created, organized, and tidied, I began to visualize it with ggplot2.  Here is one example plot, and more on how data visualizations provide insight into the gravestones and the religious culture of the period will be discussed in Part 2 (coming soon!).

a bar graph of Gravestone Imagery Over Time counting the number of stones in the dataset on the Y axis and the year on the x axis.  It shows Death's heads remaining popular until about 1780.  Cherubs appear in 1750 and peak by 1790. Urns start to appear in 1775 but do not dominate the motifs until 1795
Here you can see the chronological change over time for the three main motifs. While Death’s Heads were popular for a long time, by the 1770s their popularity faded. Cherubs took off in popularity around 1750 until the 1790s. By 1800, Urns dominated the funerary art scene.

What’s Next?

I plan to keep adding gravestones as I go home to New England and find time to visit more cemeteries and revisit others.

I also need to think about the text data gathered on the stones. I tagged the epitaphs and verses written underneath the inscriptions, and hopefully can build a dataset out of these someday. However, this section of the stones is often buried, covered by long grass, and simply unreadable now. There is still a sizeable sample to work with, but creating a clean dataset will take more work than my dissertation allows at this time.

An infographic listing the steps discussed in the blog post


Deetz, James, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life
Forbes, Harriette Merrifield, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800
Ludgwig, Allan, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815

A New Salem Witch Trials Document: A 19th c. Transcription of a 1739 Petition

I am spending this summer at several archives with funding from the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium to research for my dissertation on early American disability history.  I am currently at The Phillips Library in Rowley, MA, to look at several collections related to my project and ended up finding something exciting.  Last week I viewed the Towne Family Papers: a collection of documents related to a large and prominent Topsfield, MA, family with contents dating from 1630 to 1928.  Boxes 4 and 5 contained a two-volume scrapbook with family papers from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries compiled by Edward Stone Towne. 

A large hardcover book in set on an archive's book cradle
Volume II of the Town Family Scrapbook

As I flipped through the books, the contents seemed eclectic: stamp and currency collections, seventeenth century land deeds, hand drawn maps, sermon notebooks, genealogy notes, and more glued to the pages of this massive tome.  Then I found something that stunned me for a moment.  The volumes both go chronologically through the centuries and the piece of paper on this next page was out of place between documents from the 1730s.  Although I’m not an expert on paper or handwriting, I knew this page was most likely from the nineteenth century and therefore not in chronological order.  Then I started to read it to see why Edward Towne changed his organization.


I the subscriber being a grandchild and descendant of Sarah Wildes

First page of the John Wildes petition transcript

My heart skipped a beat. Sarah Wildes hanged on July 19, 1692, for the crime of witchcraft. I skimmed over the document to try and figure out what this was and thought it was odd I didn’t recognize it. I started to research the Salem Witch Trials for a high school project in 2011, my undergraduate thesis at GWU was a network analysis of the trials, and my graduate work at GMU has a significant amount of Salem related history.  I just taught a digital history course themed around the trials.  Chapter 1 of my dissertation looks at the role of disability during the witch trials and now my second chapter outline has started to include more of the post-witch trials petitions and historical memory of the descendants.  In other words, I’ve read the court records many times and this document fit the scope of my current research, but why didn’t I recognize it? I just looked at a the family petitions after the witch trials again and a grandchild petitioning for Sarah Wildes didn’t ring a bell. Then I flipped it over.

Pet. of John Wildes 1739

I spent the spring semester assigning my students primary source readings from the UVA Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project and the documents didn’t really go this far into the eighteenth century.  There are a few outliers but the efforts to receive restitution occurred around 1710.  Not only is this petition much later, I remembered seeing that Sarah’s son Ephraim (John’s father) sought restitution around that time too, so why a second Wildes family petition?  I checked the UVA database to see if this document was listed anywhere.  I search Sarah Wildes’ case file, the index for her son Ephraim, and the only John Wildes listed is in reference to her husband.  Then I asked to look at the reading room’s copy of Rosenthal’s Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt and again, no petition of John Wildes. 

When I went home for the day, I carried on the search.  I checked the UVA database again, followed all the links to other repositories, searched Margo Burns’ website, checked all 34 volumes of the The Historical Collections of the Topsfield Historical Society, and also just searched on Google.  I could not find this document anywhere.  I also reached out to Emerson Baker, a professor at Salem State who I interviewed in 2011 for my high school National History Day project; and Margo Burns, the project manager for Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt.  If anyone knew about this document: it would be either of them.   Baker pointed me towards a late 1730s legislative effort to pay reparations to families impacted by the witch trials as a reason for such a document to exist.  Burns offered points of skepticism: the £100 request is high and also odd given Ephraim Wildes sought and received £14 in 1711, the petition refers to Sarah Wildes’ estate but she wasn’t a widow so the estate wouldn’t be considered Sarah’s, and a number of dramatize/romanticized/fictionalized tales of the witch trials came out of the nineteenth century so it could be made up.  There is no known original document to provide a better context.  In summary, this is an odd find.

I spent some time digging, and while I remain cautious about the legitimacy of the text, I think it offers a true transcription of a petition created by descendant of the witch trials, and I’ll present the case here.

Inside cover of the Towne family scrapbook reading "Family Papers 1630 to 1890. For Posterity! Handle with care."
  1. Its a weird choice to fake
    Given the other pieces of evidence that I’ll share below, I trust my initial instinct is that this is a weird choice of document to create for some ulterior motive in the nineteenth century. Why a copy of a petition from nearly 50 years after 1692 the for your family scrapbook and not a document more related to the actual witch trials? Why include so many transcription second guesses and quirks? The books are filled with documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and only one related to the witch trials on clearly newer paper labeled “Copy”. Its obviously not original and not like the other documents so its a strange effort to fake in a family scrapbook. This is a not-so-historical or scientific rationale, but Edward Towne wrote “For Posterity!” on the inside cover and otherwise took great care to present centuries of family history. Is this tangential document to 1692 really how he’d sneak in a piece of fiction?

  2. Timing
    The text of the document fits perfectly into the timeline of Massachusetts legislative efforts to pay restitution for the witch trials. In December 1738, the House of Representatives voted “That Major Sewall, Mr. Fairfield, Mr. Norton, and Mr. Danforth, be a Committee to get the best Information they can into the Circumstances of the Persons and Families who suffered in the Calamity of the Times in or about the Year 1692, and have not received any Restitution or Reparation for their Losses and Misfortunes, that the Committee lay the same before the Court as soon as may be.” The John Wildes petition addressed to a committee seeking restitution is dated just a few months later on May 28, 1739. The date coincides with the start of the a legislative session on May 30, 1739. There are few records about the Committee even forming, let alone their business, but a couple months to start up and ]for descendants to prepare materials is a reasonable timeline.

  3. John’s word choices
    I think John Wildes took inspiration from Rev. Israel Loring’s 1737 election day sermon given before the House of Representatives. It is also likely that any political movements led by descendants used the language first and Loring took inspiration from them. Either way, in this chicken or the egg question, we have both the chicken and the egg to see how Loring and Wildes represent the reparations movement.

    Loring blatantly asked the legislators to consider paying restitution to descendants: “Whether there is not a great Duty lying upon us, respecting the Transactions of the Year 1692, when not only many Persons were taken off by the Hand of publick Justice for the supposed Crime of Witchcraft; but their Estates also ruined, and their Families impoverished…Now tho’ the loss of Parents cannot be made up to their surviving Posterity, yet their Estates may; And the Question is (if it be not beyond all Question) whether a Restitution is not due from the Publick to them…Hereby Infamy may be taken off from the Names and Memory of such as were Executed, and who it may be did not in the least deserve it.”

    Maybe John read a copy of the sermon two years later while preparing his petition or perhaps Loring and Wildes both represent a broader trend, but the 1739 petition fits in with this phrasing. Loring refers to repairing the estates of victims and removing the infamy of the names and memories of the accused suspects. Both points appear in the Wildes petition. John asked about “cause to (take?) off the scandal in some measure and also make (restitution or Restoration?) as to damages in my predecessors estate at that time.” If John parroted the talking points of a printed sermon or Loring conveyed the arguments of a movement, either case explains why the petition refers to Sarah Wildes’ estate which would have been an inaccurate description of her property at the time of her execution.

  4. The Towne family’s genealogy
    The scrapbook by Edward Stone Towne covers a long period of the family’s history and while link the Wildes family is not immediately clear since the petition is the only overt reference to the surname, the petition and scrapbook seem disconnected. However, The Descendants of William Towne clears up the mystery for why Edward had a copy of a 1739 petition regarding Sarah Wildes’ estate. Edward’s father Ezra (1807-1899) is the son of Jacob (1768-1736) who is the son of Jacob (1728-1768) who is the son of Benjamin (1691-1782) and Susannah Towne.  Susannah is the daughter of Ephraim and Mary (Howlett) Wildes and therefore the sister of John Wildes and Sarah’s granddaughter.  Although Susannah died in 1736, years before John wrote the petition, the link between the Townes and Wildes families is clearly established.   The petition possibly changed hands on the family line or Edward (or another Towne) copied it from the Wildes side of their family and passed the transcript down. It isn’t a stretch to see why the scrapbook contains such a document.  There are a couple other marriages between the Wildes and Towne families over the two-hundred years between the witch trials and the creation of the scrapbook.  The link to Susannah is just the most direct between Edward and John Wildes although the petition (and/or copies) may have travelled along other lines, but nevertheless, it has some degree of provenance.

    There are several other indications that the text of the document is legitimate, but I want to move on and address the prior reparations given to the Wildes family and why this petition matters.  In 1710, Sarah’s son Ephraim filed a petition for £20 and received £14.  Other families did received more: according to one order of payment, George Jacobs Sr.’s family received £79, Geoge Burroughs’ family received £50, and John Procter’s family and Elizabeth Procter received £150.  Yes, the £100 requested by John Wildes is comparatively high.  As a grandson rather than a child of a victim and as a member of a family that already received payment, his petition might have been a longshot. There are no similar records for this committee’s work and the payments sought by other families or the success of those 1730s petitions so we can’t tell much based on the amount requested. Maybe it wasn’t considered unusual for this committee.  Maybe John figured he’d give it a try, maybe it was greed, or maybe or maybe his family did still ache from the trauma of the witch trials even nearly fifty years later.  We don’t know, but I think Ephraim’s petition helps make sense of it.

    Ephraim began by mentioning the fees his family had to pay for his mother’s time in both the Salem and Boston jails, but he went on to a more emotional cost.

Besides either my father or myself went once a week to see how she did and what she wanted and sometimes twice a week which was a great cost and damage to our estate. My father would often say that the cost and damage we sustained in our estate was twenty pounds and I am in the mind he spoke less than it was: besides the loss of so dear a friend which cannot be made up.

John Wildes was two years old when his grandmother hanged for witchcraft.  His father finally received restitution when John was twenty-one years old.  He spent his entire childhood with Sarah’s death in the background and his father persisting in a quest for compensation.  Whatever stories Ephraim or his grandfather John told about Sarah and their visits to the prison, whatever accounts of the trials, and whatever frustrations they vented in the battle for reparations, the pain of the witch trials’ legacy surrounded John for decades.  When the opportunity arose later to fight the damages done to his family by the witchcraft accusations, why wouldn’t John leap at the chance?  When he wrote “my great concern is the guilt of innocent blood may not rest on our land” he eschewed the monetary compensations and instead leaned on the narratives of the injustices that he watched his father fight and win in some small part. Nothing could replace the loss of a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a dear friend like Sarah. The trauma of the witch trials lingered over John and his family so much that forty-seven years later, the Wildes family continued to seek justice.

This is not the original document, and maybe now with the text uncovered the source may be located by revealing some way to look for it.  Whether an archive’s catalog just lists “Wildes, John” or “1730s legislative petitions,” there are possibilities. Maybe someone else out there has seen this document before and it isn’t online or someone will spot it someday.  In any case, it appears that the text of this document has never before been connected to any of the efforts to transcribe the Salem Witch Trials court records and it offers something new about the personal tolls afflicted on the families of the victims. There aren’t many petitions like this one that survived in any form, and less so after the 1710-12 restitution process. The committee’s work in the 1730s must have yielded dozens of similar sources that no longer exist or are yet to be associated with the Salem records. Even as this petition is merely the text of a document and not the document itself, it is a new Salem Witch Trials document.

My best effort at transcribing the entire document:


I the subscriber being a grandchild

 and descendant of Sarah Wildes the wife of

John Wildes of Topsfield who suffered death by

setence of the execution               in the dark and

distressing times in the year 1692 for altho she

was a woman of an unspotted character and

good conversation conversion in the sight of all that were

acquainted with her yet by that influence with

the [illegible] of the brethren (and? or how) upon some poor deluded blooded

creatures who testifieth that such and such persons

afflicted them by their spectres which persons could as well

accuse such as they never saw in their lives as they

they could them that they were well acquainted with

notwithstanding by these and and such like evidences

principally many persons precious lives was taken away and

much blood was shed together with our pious relative

under pretense of their being guilty of the horrid sin

of Witchcraft- Gentlemen of the Committee I think to

represent to the General Court that the estate of my

predecessors [=demised?] is at least are one hundred pounds) in

rules of the old tener?) and of our receiving any (restitution? in time

past if there was any I know it not             the repairing the estate

taken away although it was done to the full value are but

the lesser matters of law               my great great concern

[Reverse] is that the guilt of innocent blood may not

rest on our land  I would be very far from

reflecting on those worthy men which then sate

in the seat of judgement but it tis (too or so?) plain

for any to deny but that they were strangely

misguided in that dark time so gentlemen

of the Committee I rest the whole of the difficulties

above (named or mentioned?) with you hoping you will give it due weight

in having a (very?) deep thought upon them dark and

sorrowful times so as the great and general Court

may may see cause to (take?) off the scandal in

some measure and also may (restitution or Restoration?) as to

damages in my predecessors estate at that time

so gentlemen I am yours to serve who am in

duty bound shall every pray

Dated May ye 28 day 1739- John Wildes

[Reverse left margin: Copy- Pet. Of John Wildes 1739-]

Thanks to Emerson Baker and Margo Burns for their comments on the document as well as the Phillips Library archivists and staff!