"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.

Mount Auburn Cemetery lecture, Boston Public Library

Just received a mailing from Mount Auburn Cemetery, and there is a great lecture coming up:

“W.E.B. Du Bois and the Enyclopedia Africana”
October 18, 2006, 6 p.m. Boston Public Library, Copley Square
Free and open to the public

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Earlier this year he had a fantastic documentary series on PBS entitled “African American Lives“. I watched all the episodes, and loved every moment. Using genealogy and genetics, he researching his own history as well as several famous or high-achieving African Americans such as Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, and Quincy Jones. It brought to live the thrill of the profession! I am often asked “what is it, exactly, that genealogists do?” The short answer is “research”.. and that’s when others lose interest. They regain it once the research has been done, and answers have been found! But I love the research process… it is a combination of skill and luck, knowing where to look for records, and piece together seemingly disjointed facts to recreate a life, then a family, then an ancestry. Henry Louis Gates documentary focused on the research process – including the frustrations of finding dead ends, the excitement of discovering previously unused documents, and even the personal wonder of seeing a relatives name on some long-forgotten record, and matching it up with a house or town that still exists. Gates documents the search for his own history, then presents the histories of his guest’s to them personally. I love the passionate responses of Oprah when he presents her family history, the look of disbelief and then immediate connection when she learns of people who she never knew existed previously, but then relates to their actions and emotions. It is certainly worth watching. I think I even wrote a review on the series, I will see if I can find where that currently might be…!

So back to the Mount Auburn mailing. Henry Louis Gates is giving a lecture “W.E.B. Du Bois and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience”, which will discuss the history and culture of Africa and the African Diaspora including references to African Americans buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. This is part of the anniversary celebrations of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Facets of Mount Auburn Cemetery: Celebrating 175 Years of a Boston Jewel.” Should be very interesting!!