Life and Death in Colonial Boston

Life and Death in Colonial Boston (HMCGZ)

Location: Boston, MA 02108 Suffolk County
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Country: United States of America
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N 42° 21.491', W 71° 3.609'

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Along the second row parallel to the front path are the stones of the three "Rebeccas": Rebecca (Baker) Gerrish (d. 1743), Rebecca Smith Sanders (d. 1745/6), and Rebecca (Smith) Alexander Deal Sprague (ca. 1704-1746), who were related to each other by blood or marriage. Their stones are three examples of elaborate gravestone carving of the mid-18th century. Note that all three markers have the same border indicating they were created by one craftsman or shop. What differ are the carvings at the top, which reflect the age of the deceased. Rebecca Sprague's stone has a pair of cherubs, a new design in the 18th century.

Rebecca Gerrish was only 22 when she died in 1743, shortly after marrying Benjamin Gerrish. She had recently inherited her mother's estate and bought a house before her wedding. Her gravestone header depicts a skeleton representing death snuffing out the candle of life, while a young, winged Time, holding an hourglass, tries to stop him. The elderly Sanders' stone shows an older, bearded Time on the header. Rebecca Smith Sanders passed away in 1745/6 at the age of 86 outliving her two husbands, who are buried to her left and right. Her first husband blacksmith Thomas Smith (d. 1693) died while Rebecca was pregnant with their third child. She married widower Josiah Sanders (d. 1726) in 1697 and together they had four more children. He was a mariner and constable and at his death the town treasury granted Rebecca three pence in recognition of her husband's contributions to Boston.

Her granddaughter (and Rebecca Gerrish's cousin) Rebecca (Smith) Alexander Deal Sprague died the next year at age 32. This Rebecca suffered through the loss of her first husband Francis Alexander by 1739 and her second husband Aaron Deal by 1746. Left with a young child, Rebecca quickly married Stower Sprague, but died only months after the ceremony.

In the same row is the gravestone of Elizabeth Shippen (1691-1691/2), aged 10 months, daughter of Edward and Rebecca Shippen. Her father was a Quaker and for twenty years had been fined, banished, and persecuted in Boston. Shortly after Elizabeth's death her parents moved to Philadelphia and Edward Shippen became mayor of the new Quaker city.

All of these stories illustrate the uncertainty of colonial life as disease and the rigors of childbirth claimed men, women, and children before their time. By 1730 Boston had experienced seven small pox epidemics. The 1721 epidemic infected 6,000 Bostonians and 1,100 burials were recorded across the city that year. Almost a quarter of the surviving grave markers in Boston's 17th-century burying grounds are for children 9 years old of younger. Both women and men lost multiple spouses, so remarriage was not only encouraged, but important to the survival of their families.

Located around the corner to the left of the path is the gravestone of Elizabeth Pain (1652-1704), which has been subject to much interpretation and speculation. Little is known about Elizabeth, wife of mariner Samuel Pain. Her gravestone is one of a small number that has heraldry or a coat-of-arms. This would suggest a family of some means. For reasons unknown, Mrs. Pain has been suggested as the model for adulteress Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Some interpretations of the coat-of-arms depicted in the upper left of the gravestone claims that a letter "A" is visible, representing the red "A" that Hester Prynne wore to show she committed adultery. There is no evidence to support this story. It is more likely that the coat-of-arms simply represents the Pain's family heritage. Whatever the meaning, this unique gravestone is one of the earliest examples of gravestone heraldry and is significant whether or not Elizabeth Pain inspired Hester Prynne.

In addition to the graves and tombs in the burying ground itself, there are about two dozen tombs or crypts located underneath the King's Chapel church. According to church records, these tombs were built starting in 1717. Their entrances were sealed by brick walls after a law was passed in 1890 ordering their closure. Among these tombs is the tomb of the Apthorp family. Charles Apthorp and his son James were two of Boston's wealthiest merchants. Poet Sarah Wentworth (Apthorp) Morton (1759-1846), daughter of James and wife of lawyer and politician Perez Morton, was known as the "American Sappho." She published four books, contributed anonymously to newspapers and periodicals, and wrote hymns. In her later years she was a patron to young writers and supported abolitionist groups.

The extended Apthorp family also includes one of the most significant people in Boston's history, architect Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), whose mother and wife were both Apthorps. Bullfinch designed many buildings, including the Massachusetts State House and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Bulfinch also served as mayor of Boston for twenty-two years. He and his wife Hannah were originally buried in one of the Chapel's crypts, but their remains were later moved to Mount Auburn Cemetery.
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Date Added Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 at 9:17pm PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)19T E 330340 N 4691601
Decimal Degrees42.35818333, -71.06015000
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 42° 21.491', W 71° 3.609'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds42° 21' 29.46" N, 71° 3' 36.54" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Area Code(s)617, 781, 508, 857
Closest Postal AddressAt or near 64 Tremont St, Boston MA 02108, US
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