"The Ghost is Clear"

Today’s Enterprise had a fun article in the Local section that is “part of an occasional series leading up to Halloween” entitled “The Ghost is Clear”

It discusses the gravestone of Veva L. Johnson who is buried at the Mayflower Hill Cemetery in Taunton, MA. A large family monument lists her basic birth and death dates: born 28 OCT 1880 and died 26 APR 1884. Beside the family obelisk is a small cement rocking chair that states “Her vacant chair”.

It features a photograph of the chair filled with stuffed animals, and a few interesting quotes. City Councilor Charles Crowley suggested that the stone has legends built up around it. “Legend has it that the young girl was scolded by her mother and had to sit in the corner. Her mother went to the store and told her, “Don’t leave the chair while I am gone.” While she was gone, the building caught fire and the young girl died” The cemetery commissioner was unaware of this story, although she stated that occasionally items appear on the rocking chair. “That’s too spooky for me. I thought the rocking chair was there because the little girl (buried there) liked rocking chairs”
Crowley goes on to suggest that whenever the story makes its way to the local access station or media outlets near Halloween or for “haunted”-related stories, there is a surge in items left on the stone.

Fascinating stuff!

Unfortunately, looking to archival records debunks the legend, although it reveals a lot about the public and the power of myth.

Veva indeed died on April 26, 1884 in Raynham and was buried in Taunton at the age of “3 years, 5 months, and 25 days”. Cause of death? “Spinal disease”. Her parents are listed as Alson & Ida Johnson. She had a younger brother Carl born two years after her birth, who was living with his father and grandfather in the 1900 census. Her mother Ida died in 1898 at a young age from diabetes.

No mention of a fire – a pretty gruesome and specific cause of death that would certainly have been mentioned. By the late 19th century, Massachusetts death records were pretty well regulated, so it can reasonably be assumed that no such fire ever existed – it would have been noted. But even if it did – its hard to believe a mother would force a three year old to sit in a chair while she went out, let alone one suffering from a spinal disease. Ah, but what tragic irony the legend holds, and thus today the legend holds a gruesome power over those who hear it.

But what of the cemetery commissioner who thought perhaps young Veva really liked rocking chairs? Possibly, but it most likely had far more to do with the widespread cultural trend that was found in the Victorian-era period of mourning, in which children’s gravestones were often carved or sculpted to represent material domestic objects, often with the child’s presence missing within or on that object. The conception of “childhood” was being shaped and defined, evidenced in part by the rising prominence of the nursery as a distinctive room within American homes. The “empty rocking chair” (also popular were gravestones featuring empty cradles or beds) itself reflects a romanticized, if tragic, view from Veva’s parents (or at least the surrounding culture) of the significance of Veva’s absence from daily life.

Yet that cultural understanding of the rocking chair has mostly passed from modern gravestone trends. Without that context, the public looks at Veva’s stone and envisions a child filling the chair, haunting it. But why the chair? they wonder. Vivid tales thus arise in attempts to explain the purpose of the chair linked to the child’s death itself, while it certainly seems there is no direct connection. Veva did not die in a fire, nor did her love of her rocking chair cause her family to recreate it by her grave. Rather, the true tragedy of a child’s death, linked with her physical deformity, caused her family to turn to a familiar form of children’s gravestones from the era – a style that distinguished Veva’s short life most prominently by her sudden absence.

Vernon St. Cemetery (Alden Cemetery), Bridgewater, MA

The Alden Cemetery on Vernon Street is Bridgewater’s second oldest cemetery, although the majority of stones from the 1700s are unmarked. Most of the gravestones, therefore, are from the 19th century. Latham’s book provides an incredible view into what the land must have been like at the time. Located in Titicut, a former Native American settlement, Bethia Fobes was the first white child born in this area. With just a few houses far and few between, the land where the cemetery is must have filled very slowly at first, for it was not physically close to many settlers in the Bridgewater area – because at this time, there were not many to begin with.

But here is one of the few stones from the 1700’s, which says:
1754, probably Zebedee Leach, died aged 5.

The yard is surrounded by a short stone wall, and some of the stones along Vernon Street are very close to the road and wall.

There are many interesting stones, some of which have not stood up well to the tests of time. On the other hand, some of them have decided to stand up on their own… (these footstones have been pushed up from the ground, probably from years of New England winters with the ground beneath the stone freezing then thawing.)

There are some sad epitaphs on a series of siblings stones, who died within a few years of each other:
Helen M. dau, of Job H. and Betsey Johnson, died Sept. 27. 1849, aged 1 year, 4 mo., 23 days.
It is hard to give thee up, sweet one,
‘Tis hard to give thee up;
But nature’s saddest work is done,
‘Tis the last bitter cup.

Mary E., daughter of Job H. and Betsey Johnson, died Aug. 11, 1846, æ 1 year and 11 mo.
This lovely bud so young and fair,
Called hence by early doom;
Just come to show how sweet a flower,
In paradise could bloom.

Freddie Morton, son of Job H. and Betsey Johnson, died Aug. 18, 1856, æ 2 years, 10 days.
O, it is hard to part with one
We loved so much on earth;
But we will put our trust in him
Who gave his spirit birth.

There is a gravestone with a favorite symbol of mine, the finger pointing towards heaven. The stone itself may just be a cenotaph, as it reads:
Edwin Hayward, member of Co. I, 38 Regt., M. V.,
born Jan. 17, 1844,
died at Baton Rouge, La., Aug. 21, 1863.
Asleep in Jesus, ay, though he sleep with strangers,
In the redeemer’s eyes his dust is just as sacred,
And He will bid it rise