The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around the Neighborhood

“Mark, Traveler, this humble stone”: Quaint and Curious Epitaphs of Copp’s Hill Burying Ground

I find a visit to any of New England’s burying grounds fascinating year-round, but I consider treading among slate gravestones and timeworn monuments in October a quintessential New England experience. The leaves turn and fall, beautifully marking a transition from livelier months to the eventual stillness of winter. It’s a fitting setting to consider the lives and deaths of those memorialized on surrounding grave markers. In Historical Sketch of Copp’s Hill Burying-Ground with Descriptions and Quaint Epitaphs, published in 1909, John Norton provides an overview of Copp’s Hill in Boston and the burying ground’s gravestones. Norton begins with a history of Copp’s Hill, spanning its early days as “the North burying ground” through a time “when the well-to-do of Boston dwelt largely in the North End” to the end of the burying ground’s growth around 1832. The second half of this publication includes photographs and epitaphs of select gravestones and monuments.

Hull Street Entrance, Copps Hill Burying Ground


As I read through this Historical Sketch, I realized I neglect to spend as much time as I should to pause and read headstones as I walk through a graveyard. It’s a shame, because whether you appreciate some blunt wisdom from the grave or simply enjoy an eerie epitaph, these gravestones have you covered. Thankfully, John Norton mitigates my neglect with this compilation of “old epitaphs, many of them, as is usual in old burying-grounds, quaint and curious, some incoherent and ungrammatical.” Reading these lines on paper might not have the same effect as seeing them inscribed on their intended medium, but I found this publication a handy tool for noticing themes and considering intentions of particular inscriptions.

Copps Hill Buyring Ground. (Central Part.)


Norton includes his own commentary on certain epitaphs. He remarks, “Doubtless the oddest and most puzzling is that over the grave of Mrs. Ammey Hunt, who died in 1769. We have no clue to the neighborhood gossip hinted at in these peculiar lines:

A sister of Sarah Lucas lieth here,

Whom I did Love most Dear;

And now her Soul hath took its Flight,

And bid her Spightful Foes good Night.


Norton continues, noting an “even more amusing…tradition connected with the following conventional stanza” on the stone of Mrs. Mary Huntley:

Stop here my friends & cast an eye,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.


This reminder is a common theme of Copp’s Hill epitaphs, some phrased more motivationally than others:

Susanna Gray, July 9, 1798,––42.

Stranger as this spot you tread,

And meditate upon the Dead;

Improve the moments as they fly,

For all that lives must shortly die.


Mrs. Mary Harvey, died May 2, 1782, aged 63:

Mark, Traveler, this humble stone

‘Tis death’s kind warning to prepare

Thou too must hasten to the tomb

And mingle with corruption there.


Mrs. Hariot Jacobus, died, May 27, 1812, aged 20:

Stop here my friends as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so you must be,

Therefore prepare to follow me.


Others take a more resigned, if not foreboding, approach:

Mrs. Mary Hughes, d. in 1765, aged 46:

Time, What an empty vapour t’is,

            And days, how swift they flay:

Our life is ever on the Wing,

            And Death is ever nigh.

The Moment when our Lives begin,

            We all begin to die.


Mrs. Sarah Collins, died March 29, 1771, aged 62:

Be ye also Ready for you

Know not the Day nor hour.


Many epitaphs of younger women and children express themes of virtue and youth, imagery of fading flowers:

Miss Mary Fitzgerald, died Sept. 30, 1787, aged 19:

Virtue & youth just in the morning bloom

With the fair Mary finds an early Tomb.


John S. Johnson, died Sept. 9, 1829, aged 6:

See the lovely blooming flower,

Fades and withers in an hour

So our transient comforts fly,

Pleasure only bloom to die.


Others offer a sort of rational wisdom to console mourners:

Mrs. Deborah Blake, d. in 1791, aged 21 years:

Friends as you pass, suppress the falling tear;

You wish her out of heaven to wish her here.


Mrs. Abigail Cogswell, died Jan. 19. 1782, aged 42:

To those who for their loss are griev’d

This Consolation’s given,

They’re from a world of woe reliev’d

We trust they’re now in heaven.


If you have the opportunity, I encourage an autumn visit to Copp’s Hill and other historic New England burying grounds. While you take in the site and scenery, spend some time considering the lives and deaths of the individuals whose graves are marked. Read what they or their loved ones chose to be inscribed on their stones. For inspiration, historical sketches, and legible transcriptions of “ye ancient epitaphs,” as Norton writes, read more about visiting the library to work with Norton’s Historical Sketch of Copp’s Hill Burying-Ground and related material.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 12:00 AM

From Fenways Past

Tomorrow, the Massachusetts Historical Society -- in collaboration with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy -- is offering a walking tour of our neighborhood, the Fenway. In celebration of this unique neighborhood, I have selected a few postcards from our collection that illustrate the Fenway’s gardens, streets, and buildings as they once appeared. The next time you visit the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts, Fenway Park, or the Back Bay Fens, take a moment to look around for signs of our neighborhood as it has grown and changed for the century and more that the MHS has occupied the corner of Boylston and The Fenway.


Since 1912, Fenway Park has been home to the Boston Red Sox and parts of its original brick facade are still visible to visitors and passersby. This postcard dates from 1914 and suggests that the ritual of lining up before the gates open has a long history!


The Back Bay Fens, part of the chain of city green spaces known as the Emerald Necklace, were designed and constructed in the 1890s by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. The broad avenues of The Fenway and Park Drive that encircle the gardens, playing fields, and marshlands, were purposefully designed for leisure driving, cycling, and walking.


The two columns at Hemenway St. and Westland Ave. still stand as a gateway to the Fens for pedestrians and drivers alike. If you walk through this intersection today, many of the young trees depicted on this postcard now tower above the street, providing shade to pedestrians and cyclists as they pause for a break in automobile traffic.


Open to the public in June 1876 on Copley Square, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston relocated to the Fenway in 1909. The Evans Wing for Paintings, depicted here in a fine black and white print, opened to the public in 1915. Today, one of three entrances to the museum opens out onto the Fenway, memorably flanked by the bronze sculptures Night and Day by Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia.


 Across the waters of the Fens from the MFA stands the Kelleher Rose Garden, opened in 1931 and designed by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, whose papers are held in the MHS collections.


Beyond the Museum of Fine Arts, along The Fenway, stand “Mrs. Jack Gardner’s Palace” --  the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -- and Simmons College, founded in 1899 and opened to its first class of 142 students in the fall of 1902. They offered young women degrees in Home Economics, Library Studies, Secretarial Studies, Nursing, Teaching, and General Science.


At the opposite end of the Back Bay Fens from Simmons College stands the Somerset Hotel. Designed by Arthur Bowditch in the 1890s -- the same period during which the Massachusetts Historical Society’s 1154 Boylston St. building was under construction -- Somerset Hotel still stands today along what remains of Charlesgate Park, the link between the Back Bay Fens and the Charles River Esplanade.


The Esplanade parkland was severed from the Emerald Necklace in the 1950s when Storrow Drive was constructed to ease the traffic congestion to and from downtown Boston. Our final postcard today shows the newly-minted roadway as it snakes passed the now-iconic Hatch Memorial Band Shell, from which the Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts its Boston Pops concert every 4th of July.

While the postcard collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society is uncataloged, it is available for research use in the Society’s reading room. The postcards are arranged by geographic location and subject matter, covering Massachusetts, national, and foreign scenes. If you would be interested in accessing this collection please contact the library to arrange a visit.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 28 July, 2017, 10:42 AM

Major Samuel Selden’s Powder Horn: A Revolutionary Map of Boston

We expect to see maps on paper, not on animal horns. Maj. Samuel Selden might have thought this as he etched a map of Boston on his powder horn, which is dated 9 March 1776. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers used animal horns to hold their gunpowder. They filled them at the larger end and funneled the powder into their weapons. Not all militiamen had their own powder horns, so men like Selden carved unique designs on them in order to claim them as their own.

Selden was a member of Connecticut's Provincial Assembly and became a major in the colony's militia during the war. He served under George Washington's direction during the siege of Boston. His powder horn depicts the sites of American fortifications as well as the positions of the Continental Army just before the British evacuated the city.

Even if we did not know Selden's background, his carvings convey his allegiances. A ship labeled "Amaraca" displays a Continental Union flag. Another flag depicts the Liberty Tree, the tree near the Boston Common where locals met to protest British rule. Alongside his name, Selden also inscribed the words: "made for the defense of liberty."

Selden's map is a pictorial map rather than one focused on the area's geography. His detailed carvings feature individual ships in the harbor and houses lining the Boston neck. Crosshatching adds depth to the water and makes his lettering stand out. In contrast, a 1775 powder horn housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center features a more traditional map of Boston. Instead of pictures, this map traces shorelines. Unlike Selden's, however, a British soldier carved this powder horn. He inscribed the words: "A Pox on rebels in ther crymes [their crimes]."

1775 powder horn

Photo courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

Just six months after Selden carved his horn, the British captured him at the Battle of Kip's Bay during their campaign to take control of New York City. The prison's conditions were poor. Less than a month later, Selden fell ill and died on 11 October 1776.

Selden's powder horn, as well as that of his British counterpart, is currently on display in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center's exhibition at the Boston Public Library. The exhibition, We Are One: Mapping America's Road from Revolution to Independence, uses maps to explore the events that led thirteen colonies to forge a new nation. We Are One demonstrates that maps, from Selden's carving to early European maps of the new nation, were central to the revolutionary process. The exhibition features maps as well as prints, paintings, and objects from the Leventhal Map Center's own collection and those of twenty partners, including the British Library and Library of Congress. Visit to explore geo-referenced maps from the exhibition.

The exhibition will be on display at the Boston Public Library through November 29, 2015. We Are One then travels to Colonial Williamsburg from February 2016 through January 2017 and to the New-York Historical Society from November 2017 through March 2018.

The Leventhal Map Center also hosts the NEH-funded American Revolution Portal database. Researchers can access maps from the Massachusetts Historical Society, British Library, Library of Congress, and other institutions in one search. Users can download images for research and classroom use. Access these resources and learn more about We Are One at

Find out more about the Society's own map collection at their upcoming exhibition: Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection, which opens on 2 October. Through 4 September, visitors to the MHS can learn more about the American Revolution with exhibition: God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill.


Image 1: Selden, Samuel, 1723-1776. [Powder horn scribed by Samuel Selden.] Lyme, Conn., 1776. 1 powder horn: ivory; 37 x 21 x 13.3 cm. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Image 2: Detail of above.

Image 3: E.B., [Powder Horn with Map of Boston and Charlestown]. [Boston], 1775. Scrimshaw horn, 14 x 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 8:00 AM

Attention All Cartophiles

Back in Novermber I posted on the Beehive about the MHS library staff field trip to Worcester's American Antiquarian Society. The motivation behind the trip was to learn more about the AAS collections, policies, and how their services can benefit our researchers. We, the staff, also selected many other local institutions to visit to gain better understanding of the resources available to our researchers when they need to get beyond our holdings. 

Yesterday, my colleague Kittle and I had the pleasure of visiting the Norman Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. While there, we learned about their collections (over 200,000 maps), their accessibility (open to the public), and their short history.

The Map Center's holdings range from the late 15th century all the way up to the present day, from some of the earliest printed maps to modern metropolitan planning maps. The materials are all cataloged online via the BPL Bibliocommons. In addition, the Leventhal Center has over 7,000 items digitized and viewable on their website. And for those that enjoy a more whimsical view of things, they also hold a collection of maps from fiction. These chart the geographies of places like Middle Earth and Narnia, detail the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and map out the course of Captain Ahab and the Pequod. These fictional maps are the focus of the Center's current exhibition. 

After we learned about the public side of the Map Center, the gracious staff also toured us through the background, showing us the secured storage spaces where these important collections are housed and preserved. 

Learning more about the Leventhal Map Center allows now to better direct our own researchers who need cartographic resources that the MHS does not hold. And not only did we get to learn about the wonderful collections but we got to introduce ourselves and meet some of our neighbors. Stay tuned for more installments from our staff site visits to see who we meet and what we find!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 12:00 AM

Oliver Lofts: Mapping the Traces of a Music Publishing Empire

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved across town from one former streetcar suburb-turned-neighborhood of Boston (Allston/Brighton) to another (Jamaica Plain). A paltry three mile journey as the crow flies, since we live without a car and get around on foot, public transit, or bicycle, this has meant learning new pathways to all of our usual destinations -- including the Massachusetts Historical Society. Along these new routes stand traces of Boston’s past, if only you keep your eyes open and know where to look for them.

Bicycling home from work along the Southwest Corridor Park, from Symphony Hall to Jackson Square, last week I happened to notice the brick facade of an old factory building turned residential lofts that announced in the stonework “Oliver Ditson Co.”

Who, I wondered, was Oliver Ditson, and what had his factory once produced? Fresh from reading Alexander von Hoffman’s history of Jamaica Plain, Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), I knew the Heath Street area had been known for its breweries. Perhaps, I thought, our Mr. Ditson was a brewer. Happily, I work at a place where such questions can often be answered by searching our catalog and going on a historical treasure hunt! A few keystrokes and call slips later, I had discovered that Oliver Ditson and his company were not brewers but, instead, music publishers and retailers here in Boston. Ditson, born in Boston in 1811, began his career working at a bookshop on Washington Street, under the employ of Samuel H. Parker, before launching into the music publishing business in 1835. In 1858 Oliver Ditson & Co. began publishing Dwight’s Journal of Music, one of the most highly respected music journals of the nineteenth century, and was soon expanding into the Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York markets.

In 1918 a history of the music scene in Boston, published by the Oliver Ditson Company, foregrounded the company’s sparkling new ten-story retail building that still stands today on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, overlooking the Boston Common. “The focus on modern Boston’s shopping activity is at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets, where converge the currents of vivid life from hotels, theatres, and subways,” writes William Fisher in Notes on Music in Old Boston. “Within a stone’s throw of this teeming corner … is the splendid new home of the Oliver Ditson Company” (79). From its state-of-the-art heating plant in the sub-basement to its Tiffany show windows, “Victor Talking Machines” department,” and opulent meeting rooms, the Tremont Street headquarters was the company’s public face.


The building that would become Oliver Lofts in 2011 meanwhile, was a late arrival into the company’s holdings. The property did, indeed, begin life as a brewery -- though unassociated with Ditson. According to Historic Boston, the Highland Spring Brewery occupied the site until Prohibition brought the American beer industry to its knees. The Oliver Ditson Company then purchased the storehouse, built in 1912 and once used to house casks of ale and porter, and used the building as a print shop and warehouse into the mid-twentieth century.

Thus, one single rehabilitated industrial building I pass by on my evening commute holds within its walls traces of two centuries worth of Boston development.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 8:00 AM

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