Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pompe Stevens, Enslaved Artisan

I have a new article up at Common-place, exploring the history of enslaved artisans like Pompe Stevens. The main argument is that modern museums (particularly those in Northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston) can expand their interpretation of early African-American art by re-contextualizing decorative arts objects that were made in workshops that employed skilled slaves.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cambridge's Un-Churchyard

Last week, the Cambridge Historical Commission re-installed a long-lost granite marker at the location of Cambridge's first meeting house. The marker was discovered during some construction and returned to its place near the corner of Dunster and Mt. Auburn Streets.

I visited the spot a couple of days ago and took the opportunity to reflect on the distance between the meeting house and Cambridge's old burying ground. Unlike graveyards in England, which were formally consecrated ground and usually located immediately adjacent to a church (hence the term "churchyard"), the burying grounds of early Massachusetts were neither formally sacred nor adjacent to a meeting houses. Prior to 1670, most burying grounds were separated from local meeting houses by a distance of a quarter mile or more. That might not seem like a considerable distance, but in the context of early settlements, it was a real separation. You can see the distance on this 1635 map of Cambridge — the "Burying Place" is in the upper left corner, the meeting house is near the middle of the settlement, at the corner of Spring and Water Streets, marked MH.
map from the Cambridge Historical Commission

As you can see, the distance is quite significant relative to the overall pattern of settlement. The creation of geographical distance was just one of the ways that the emigrant generation overturned the legal and doctrinal traditions governing graveyards in England. Massachusetts "burying places" were really burying places, not churchyards in any sense of the word.

But, if you visit Cambridge's old burying ground today, you could be forgiven for seeing it as a churchyard. After all, it is flanked on one side by Christ Church and on the other by the First Parish Church of Cambridge. It is important to note that the landscape as it exists today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries, not the 17th century.

The following map shows the development of the modern landscape. "The Old Burying Ground" is clearly marked in the upper left, just across Mass Ave from the oldest part of Harvard Yard. The red circle marked "1" indicates the location of the original meeting house, built in 1632. In 1652, a new meeting house was erected at the site of modern-day Lehman Hall, at the elbow of Mass Ave (the blue circle marked "2"). It was closer to the burying place, but still not quite enough to make a churchyard.

In 1759, the Church of England built Christ Church adjacent to the burying place. In doing so, they created a churchyard, not by burying people near a church, but by dropping a church on a pre-existing graveyard. This is exactly what happened in Boston in 1686, when Governor Edmund Andros seized a corner of the Ancient Burying Ground in order to build King's Chapel. If you have ever wondered why on earth John Winthrop and John Cotton are buried next to the flagship Anglican church in colonial Massachusetts, that's why. They were long dead and long buried when King's Chapel was built. In my dissertation, I argue that Andros deliberately chose the burying ground over several other possible sites as an affront to Congregationalist Bostonians who objected to the of building King's Chapel anywhere in Boston. Samuel Sewall, who had inherited some of John Cotton's original homestead refused to sell Andros a tract of that land, arguing that it would have been an affront to Cotton, so Andros dropped the church on Cotton's grave instead. Charming.

The blue circle marked "4" is the current location of the First Parish in Cambridge (now Unitarian Universalist). It was built in 1833 and reinforced the illusion that the old burying ground had been built as a churchyard.

All of this is a long way to say that historic landscapes change over time. The "preserved" landscapes we encounter in the present day are vastly different from past landscapes. In this case, the modern appearance of Cambridge's old burying ground masks the original reforms enacted by the emigrant generation and creates the very thing they undid — a churchyard.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Excommunication of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

In 1704, Judge Samuel Sewall presided over the funeral of John Lambert, a convicted pirate who had been executed for his crimes. While murderers and victims of suicide were routinely excluded from Massachusetts burying grounds, Sewall took pity on Lambert's family:
By my Order, the diggers of Mm Paiges Tomb Dugg a Grave for Lambert, where he was laid in the Old burying place Friday night about midnight near some of his Relations: Body was given to his Widow. Son and others made suit to me.
This was not a flashy, public funeral. Sewall buried the pirate at midnight, preventing any sort of spectacle that might have dignified the proceedings. But he did bury him.

When the Winthrop Fleet arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, one of the first legal reforms implemented by the emigrants concerned the establishment and administration of "burying places." At the time, all active graveyards in England were churchyards — consecrated spaces owned by the Church of England and governed by canon law.* Religious dissenters would establish independent burying grounds in the 1660s, but, in 1630, all English subjects could expect to be buried in a churchyard. According to the most recent iteration of canon law (1604), “No minister shall refuse or delay . . . to bury any corpse that is brought to the Church or Churchyard.” Even people who had “lived and died most profanely, more like a very atheist and a gross infidel, than like any Christian at all,” were afforded sacramental burial, though Church officials permitted ministers to use their “wisdom and discretion” in tempering some of the more effusive prayers in the Common Prayer burial service.

They did allow an exception: churchyards should refuse to bury people who had been excommunicated for "some grievous and notorious crime." This usually meant suicide or murder. But it also applied to obnoxious and outspoken dissenters like the Baptist minister Samuel Howe. When Howe died in 1640, no churchyard would take his body, so “his Friends were forced to lay his Body in the High-way, as one which was numbred amongst the Transgressors.” It was an ignominious end, but the only one available to people who could not be admitted to the Church of England's sacred churchyards.

Unlike the churchyards they had known in England, graveyards in Massachusetts were municipally owned and operated. They were not formally consecrated and ministers did not lead funeral services, nor say prayers at the graveside. This rejection of the English churchyard was part of a larger effort by the emigrant generation to purge elements of Church practice that smacked of vestigial Catholicism, including sacramental marriage, burial, the practice of appointing godparents, and the custom of "churching" women after childbirth.

Massachusetts graveyards continued to exclude executed criminals and victims of suicide. This was not true 100% of the time — I have written before about Samuel Sewall's involvement with burying people who died under these circumstances.  Where the churchyard implied that the entire community belonged to the established Church, the municipal burying ground made no distinctions based on denomination (or race, or even religion, necessarily), accepting all members of the civic community. Exclusion from the common burying ground was exclusion from the body politic, not from the church membership.

It is with this history in mind that I have been reading accounts of the Tsarnaev family's difficulty in finding a cemetery to accept the body of Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. While they have found a philanthropic funeral home director in Peter Stefan of Worcester, they have not yet been able to find a cemetery — public or private — that is willing to bury Tsarnaev. Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy has announced that he will not permit Tsarnaev to be buried in Cambridge's municipal cemetery:
The difficult and stressful efforts of the residents of the City of Cambridge to return to a peaceful life, would be adversely impacted by the turmoil, protests and wide spread media presence at such an interment . . . The families of loved ones interred in the Cambridge Cemetery also deserve to have their deceased family members rest in peace.
In a city like ours, where the residents share no single language, religion, or ethnic background, it seems that exclusion from municipal burial is the last way we have to excommunicate someone.

I understand Healy's reasoning. But, at the same time, the thing that stands out to me in these press accounts has been the compassion of Peter Stefan. He has dedicated his professional life to burying society's outcasts — people who are homeless or destitute or drug-addicted or criminals or otherwise civilly excommunicated. In the present situation, he has decided to take Tsarnaev's case because someone has to do it. ‘‘My problem here is trying to find a gravesite. A lot of people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be involved with this,’’he told reporters, noting that he took an oath to bury all of the dead with dignity. It's understandable that others do not want to get involved — Stefan's funeral home has been inundated with angry protesters.

The impulse to excommunicate is strong. It's the last way we can condemn someone who has injured our community. But in focusing on whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves a dignified burial, the protesters outside Peter Stefan's office are missing the Grace of his response. He's not burying Tsarnaev because Tsarnaev deserves it, but because Stefan is giving him the free gift of dignity that he extends to everyone. I'm not Catholic anymore, but I was raised Catholic, and I would like to see some Catholic cemetery somewhere offer to bury Tsarnaev, not because he deserves it, but because it is a powerful statement of the forgiveness that Catholics believe is an absolute mandate from God.

Samuel Sewall hated Catholics. He feared them so much that he once snuck out of a meeting because he was afraid that the others present might adjourn in order to attend a funeral where the Book of Common Prayer and its Catholic-lite prayers would be read, and he didn't want to be swept along to such an affair. But Samuel Sewall also buried John Lambert, the pirate. In the dark, in secret, but he buried him all the same. Sewall is not remembered for his role in burying Lambert — if anyone remembers his name today, it is usually because he was one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. He was also the only one to issue a public apology, standing before the congregation of Old South Church and humbling himself for his role in perpetrating injustice. There are worse footsteps to follow.

*There was a medieval Jewish cemetery in London, but since England had expelled Jews from the country in 1290 and would not re-admit them until 1656, it was not officially recognized as an active burying place in the pre-Civil War era. There were a few non-parochial churchyards, like "New Churchyard" on the grounds of Bedlam Hospital, but these were still formally consecrated and subject to canon law.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Smithsonian: Jamestown Colonists Engaged in Cannibalism

There's probably no gravestone for this:
Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, presented today a forensic analysis of 17th-century human remains proving that survival cannibalism took place in historic Jamestown. The findings answer a long-standing question among historians about the occurrence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the deadly winter of 1609–1610 known as the “starving time”—a period during which about 80 percent of the colonists died.
The Jamestown Rediscovery project has been doing awesome work excavating and reconstructing the Jamestown site. They post lots of updates and field reports for anyone who is interested. I have used some of their discoveries in my own work, particularly their excavation of four grave shafts located in the chancel of the 1608 Church, which shows continuities between burial practices in 17th-century England and Virginia that were not replicated in New England.