One of my hobbies is old cemeteries and I truly enjoy visiting different ones especially when it is located outside my geographic area. I suspect part of the joy is the thrill of discovery in not knowing what you are going to find. Usually I will have my camera with me for photographing interesting tombstones and grave markers and often find myself musing about wishing the tombstone could talk and fill me in on the background story surrounding the monument and the occupant(s) of the grave. Some will leave me so fascinated or provide clues for a story that before leaving the area I will visit the local library or historical society seeking reference materials or upon my return home will be on the Internet furthering my quest for information.

If Tombstones Could Talk will be a series of brief articles of anecdotal fact exploring these background stories about some of the more intriguing tombstones found in my cemetery visitations. Often it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction or reconcile conflicting accounts. I have done my best to present a factual account keeping in mind that my efforts are merely from a hobbyist perspective. It is mainly my hope to share my enthusiasm for cemeteries, photography, postcard collecting and history from different areas and eras. Perhaps my comments will even lead to your wanting to plan a visit on your own to one of these monuments.

The term tombstone is used in a general form and refers to any tombstone, grave marker or monument regardless of size, shape or composition.

Illustrations are my own photographs or scanned historical postcards.

  1. Allison Tombstone, Presbyterian Cemetery, Port Carbon, Pennsylvania
  2. The Powell Squib Factory Disaster Monument, Shawnee Cemetery, Plymouth, Pennsylvania
  3. A Triple Grave, Eastern Cemetery, Portland Maine
  4. General James B. McPherson Tombstone, McPherson Cemetery, Clyde, Ohio
  5. Col. Elmer Ellsworth Monument, Hudson Cemetery, Mechanicsville, New York
  6. Charles Abbott Monument, Riverview Cemetery, Trenton, New Jersey
  7. Richard Ira Bong Tombstone, Poplar Cemetery, Poplar, Wisconsin
  8. Varina Anne Davis, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

Allison Tombstone
Presbyterian Cemetery
Port Carbon, Pennsylvania

AllisonTombstone

The story told in the motion picture “Saving Private Ryan” is well known.  Although fictitious there is factual basis for such an event occurring in the American Civil War.  Actually there were two such events but one has since been debunked as partial myth.  The first was the widely circulated story of a Lydia Bixby of Boston whose five sons had all served in the Union Army.  In 1864 the Governor of Massachusetts had written President Lincoln telling him that Mrs. Bixby had lost all of her sons in battle and perhaps the President could honor her sacrifice with a letter of condolence.  A letter was written although historians cannot agree whether it was actually written by Lincoln or by his secretary John Hay.  Whoever the author, it eloquently captures the solemn and patriotic nature of the sacrifice.

Read more: Allison Tombstone

The Powell Squib Factory Disaster Monument
Shawnee Cemetery
Plymouth, Pennsylvania

 Powell Squib Factory Disaster Monument

 In the Pennsylvania anthracite fields thousands of men toiled far underground in the scores of mines that dotted the landscape.  Above ground countless others, many of them family members, worked in industries that owed their existence to coal mining.  Whether above or below ground it was not uncommon for there to be child labor involved.  Such was the case for the Powell Squib Company whose factory in Plymouth, Luzerne County, made small explosive devices called squibs for blasting use in loosening coal from the underground seams.

Read more: The Powell Squib Factory Disaster Monument

A Triple Grave
Eastern Cemetery
Portland, Maine

Triple Grave

In downtown Portland, Maine there sits a cemetery that is part of the city’s oldest historic landscape.  On its six acres are buried some 4,000 of the city’s oldest and most famous residents as well as the commoners, neer-do-well’s and unknowns.  A walk through the cemetery reveals a treasure trove of funerary art and monuments as well as an unusual side by side triple grave with three monuments that signal a unique story waiting to be told.  Located on the Mountfort Road side of the cemetery, the graves mark the final resting places of both a U.S. Navy and Royal Navy ship captain and a young U.S. Navy midshipman who were casualties of a brief sea battle between the USS Enterprise and the HMS Boxer in September 1813 during the War of 1812.

Read more: A Triple Grave

General James B. McPherson Tombstone
McPherson Cemetery
Clyde, Ohio

 McPherson, James B.

 A vacation trip in 2003 took me across northern Ohio.  With my interest in both the Civil War and in cemeteries, I planned a stop in the small hamlet of Clyde to see the McPherson monument on the grave of General James B. McPherson killed at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.  I soon learned that there was quite a story to go with this grave marker as well.

Read more: General James B. McPherson Tombstone

Col. Elmer Ellsworth Monument
Hudson Cemetery
Mechanicsville, New York

Ellsworth, Elmer

The election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent deteriorating national political scene saw seven southern states declare for secession and withdraw from the Union. A few weeks later on April 12, 1861 a lone cannon placed on the seawall of Charleston’s Battery boomed its shot across the harbor and signaled the opening act of the American Civil War.  This lone shot was soon followed by intense fire from other guns aimed at Fort Sumter.  Although Fort Sumter itself was not that important militarily the cannonading could only be viewed as a direct challenge to federal sovereignty and demanded a response.  Lincoln immediately issued a call for 75,000 volunteers.

Read more: Col. Elmer Ellsworth Monument

Charles Abbott Monument
Riverview Cemetery
Trenton, New Jersey

Abbott, Charles 

A visit to Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey drew my attention to a modest sized boulder tombstone sitting amidst a closely spaced row of more traditional granite and marble monuments.  Upon investigation I found an attached weathered bronze plaque indicating the grave site to be that of Charles and Julia Abbott.  I recognized the name immediately as Charles Abbott was a colorful personality from the cemetery’s neighborhood in the last quarter of the 19th century and focused much attention on the city of Trenton in what was known locally as "The Abbott Farm Controversy".

Read more: Charles Abbott Monument

Richard Ira Bong Tombstone
Poplar Cemetery
Poplar, Wisconsin

Bong Family Monument Military Plaques

On September 27, 2007 while on vacation I drove from my waterfront hotel in Duluth, Minnesota eastward into neighboring Wisconsin.  My destination was Poplar, a small hamlet 20 miles east of Duluth/Superior and location of a small rural cemetery containing the grave of Richard Ira Bong (1920-1945).  Bong was a World War II aviator credited with shooting down 40 enemy aircraft, an all-time record in the annals of American military aviation.

Read more: Richard Ira Bong Tombstone

Varina Anne Davis
Hollywood Cemetery
Richmond, Virginia

Varina Anne Davis

One of my favorite cemeteries to visit is Hollywood Cemetery in downtown Richmond, Virginia.  A rural cemetery with its origins in the mid-part of the 19th century, Hollywood provides final resting places for two U.S. Presidents, 27 Civil War generals, several thousand Civil War soldiers and the famous and not so famous of almost 200 years of Richmond society.  Hollywood is also the location of the graves of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family including daughter Varina whose tragically short life is the subject of this story.

Read more: Varina Anne Davis