Monday, February 14, 2011

"He Firmly Believed in Cats as an Article of Diet"

In honor of the day, I have an update to a story I tried to tell here nearly two years ago. I am much indebted to commenter Randy Nonenmacher for bringing this new information to my attention.

Some of you may remember Elizabeth Palmer of Little Compton, Rhode Island. Her gravestone proclaims that she "Should have been the Wife of Mr. Simeon Palmer."

Elizabeth Mortimer Palmer, 1776, Little Compton, RI

What an intriguing stone! What happened in this person's life to prompt such an epitaph?

The curious thing is that records show that Elizabeth Mortimer did marry Simeon Palmer in 1755. Back in 2009, I wrote:
So what on earth is that epitaph supposed to mean? Even if Elizabeth and Simeon were in love/engaged before he married Lidia, why would it still matter in 1776, after Elizabeth and Simeon had been married for over 20 years? It seems a strange grudge to hold. Perhaps Simeon, who outlived both his wives, was responsible for the epitaph and used the opportunity to apologize to Elizabeth for wronging her.

The whole thing is very strange. Among other things that raise red flags, Elizabeth Mortimer was 11 years older than Simeon Palmer, which certainly isn't outside of the realm of possibility, but would be unusual. Since Simeon married Lidia in 1744, when he was 21 years old, it would mean that any preexisting relationship between Simeon and Elizabeth would be between a very young man and a woman in her 30s. Again, not impossible, but strange for 18th-century New England.
Well, apparently, I did not know the half of it. In 1901, a reader named M.L.T. Alden wrote to the Newport Mercury to tell the editor about some local history he had picked up in the 1880s. It is hard to do his letter justice without quoting it at some length:
Twenty years ago this summer, I came first to Little Compton. I was much interested in this stone and made inquiries and also consulted the Town records. Aunt Sarah Charles Wilbur, the antiquarian of the village, and also Mrs. Angelina (Palmer) Griswold were then alive and they supplied the details that did not appear on the records of the Town.
The first church of Little Compton, R. I. was organized in 1704 under Rev. Richard Billings, a man of prominence and ability, much beloved, and exerted a strong influence over his charge. He had one idiosyncrasy, however; he firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose. Amongst his parishioners was a man, Simeon Palmer, of the fine old family resident in Little Compton. He was wealthy married first Lydia Dennis, Aug. 25, 1745, and had Susannah, Gideon, Humphrey, Sarah, Walter and Patience. At some time between 1745 and 1752 he had sunstroke which left him mildly insane and he adopted the views of his minister on cats and insisted on his family using them for food.

Lydia is represented as a mild spirited little woman and much against her wishes, complied with her lord's demands. Whether it had anything to do with his death or not I cannot say, but she died in 1753 and Simeon Palmer promptly courted and married Elizabeth Mortimer. Her parents were in humble circumstances, and the old ladies could not say whether she knew of his peculiarities. But they were certainly married as the record says: "Simeon Palmer and Elizabeth Mortimer, mar. by Rev. Jonathan Ellis Sept. 5, 1755." They had one child "Lydia, born Sept. 23, 1757," who married John Pearce. The record reads "John Pearce of James, dec'd and Sarah, and Lydia Palmer of Simeon and Elizabeth married by the Rev. Jonathan Ellis, Feb. 13, 1776." This family left town. After the birth of this child, Elizabeth rebelled against the cat diet, took her child and went home. The old ladies said he kept up her kindly interest in the old man and every Saturday evening he took his mending to her and she mended his clothes and gave him goodly advice. She was taken suddenly sick and died of a fever, and when the old people, her parents were told by Simeon Palmer that he would defray all expenses they gladly availed themselves of his offer. And there he put up this stone. No one put a stone at his grave however.
As far as I can tell, "Aunt Sarah Charles Wilbur" was Sarah Soule Wilbour, wife of Charles Wilbour, and called "Aunt Sarah Charles" by the locals. She was instrumental in erecting the monument to Elizabeth Pabodie in Little Compton graveyard. I have not found Angelina (Palmer) Griswold, but I did find an Angelina (Palmer) Grinnell (1805-1899) who would be about the right age to tell Alden about town history in 1881. She was the daughter of Thomas Palmer and Susanna (Palmer) Palmer, making her a likely repository for Palmer family lore. She was probably a few generations removed from Simeon, Lydia, and Elizabeth Palmer, whose children were all born in the 1740s and 1750s.

We must always approach non-contemporaneous sources with a skeptical eye. The late Victorians dearly loved quirky stories about their ancestors, so much so that many were embellished or completely fabricated. Still, I don't think that we can ignore this story completely. We already knew that something funny was up with this stone and the records surrounding it. Perhaps the story was invented by 19th-century residents of Little Compton to explain the strange gravestone. Perhaps it had a grain of truth. Perhaps it was even mostly true. It's hard to say, but if there are any budding archaeologists who want to excavate Revd Billings' trash pile, I'd be interested to know if there are any cat bones there!

Thanks again to Randy Nonenmacher!

1 comment:

Jennifer Dix said...

I well remember this stone from my visits to Little Compton years ago. I wondered what it meant, and imagined unrequited love or star-crossed lovers. How disappointed I was when a resident told me the story about the crazy old man who ate cats! Thanks for your thoughtful post on this strange and possibly true story.