Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Odd Backyard Discovery From 1938

Below I've transcribed two articles from the 1938 Brunswick Record about the discovery of a tombstone in a family's backyard. Though the story and mystery are interesting in their own right, a few other things are notable about these articles. As you read, follow the path that information spreads in Brunswick--and across New England--at this time. Small town life, where everyone knows everyone else, is clearly evident here. There are also many different people who contribute to the search for the truth about the gravestone--interestingly, they are almost all women. I've added a few comments with information I was able to uncover in brackets throughout. If you have information about the Harding family, replacing gravestones, or something else to add, please be sure to comment!

From The Brunswick Record, April 28, 1938, pages 1 & 4 (with original spelling & punctuation):

Who Can Shed light On Who He Was And Where He Was Actually Buried?
Original caption from The Brunswick Record: "These youngsters found a tombstone when they dug a hole back of a building on Page street. They are: Gilbert and Peter Vermette in the hole, and at the rear, left to right, Charles Vermette, Eugene Donahue, and Donald Lincoln."
Digging a hole, as boys will, a group of Page street children last week uncovered a buried tombstone, which occasioned much conjecture in that vicinity. 

The tombstone bore the legend "Capt. Samuel Harding, 1805." Mrs. Albert Vermette, mother of the two boys who first found the stone, conducted some research that morning to find out who Capt. Harding was, but was unsuccessful.

The Vermettes lived at 15 Page street, the old Ted Dolan place, alongside which a store was formerly operated. Almost under the building that housed the store the youngsters dug up the stone. They were out back of the building, in some bushes, digging a trench for some juvenile warfare, and at first thought they had found a grindstone.

They continued to dig, no longer interested in a trench, and at length found this stone, standing up-right as it might have stood if the captain's grave was right there.

They removed it from the hole, rigging up a sort of derrick with ropes, and prying with poles. They put it in a cart, and hauled it over to the house and exhibited it to their mother.

Mrs. Vermette immediately wondered if the actions of her children had desecrated some unknown grave, and she hastened to the office of Town Clerk John W. Riley to see what the town records had to say in respect to Capt. Samuel Harding.

The name was of course immediately recognized as a good old-fashioned Brunswick name, and Clerk Riley scanned his records with every expectation of finding something about him. However, his records show nothing of the birth, marriage, death, or place of burial of  Samuel Harding. The only thing he could find were the records of the birth of some of the captain's children. 

In this connection it was learned that the captain had a wife, Joanna, and that they produced a fine lot of children with typical Yankee names--mostly Biblical. Richard Harding, the eldest, was born in 1782. Ephraim followed in 1784, Sophia in 1786, Nathaniel in 1788, Salome in 1791, and Nehemiah in 1794. Then, according to the stone itself, the captain must have died in 1805.

Of course the records of vital statistics in those days were not accurately kept. Many people who figured prominently in Brunswick in those days are not mentioned in the vital records at all. So it is scarcely important that the captain was neglected.

A few years ago a group of Bowdoin College students, working on a NYA project, studied tombstones in Brunswick cemeteries, and left a report of their findings with the Town Clerk. Mr. Riley thought that perhaps some record of the Captain might be in that book, and that his stone might have been moved. It was thought that this Page street home might even be the one that the monument maker had spoiled in making, and that a duplicate existed. No record could be found, however.

There is also this possible explanation. Ted Dolan, who was highway commissioner in Brunswick for some years, might have filled in that lot with debris and rubbish he picked up almost anywhere. In hauling in material he might have included this old stone, and dumped it to be covered with dirt. The boys found old keys, chains, and a variety of other old objects nearby which showed that some dumping went on there at one time or another. 

Joe Dolan, who was also visited by Mrs. Vermette, couldn't offer any explanation about his brother's place, but though it likely that the stone was brought there and dumped. This would signify that it was probably a stone found somewhere, possibly one spoiled in manufacture.

There is, however, the possibility that a small private cemetery existed on that location a century and more ago, and that it was covered over in later years. 

The fact that there is but one stone might indicate that it was not completed. Usually the birth and death dates are on a stone. If the captain died in 1805 it might be that the stone maker carved that date first, and then made another stone which had the birth date first. If this is so, the question follows, where is the other stone?

Maybe some reader of the Record, or someone versed in old Brunswick matters, can supply some information. The stone isn't much good, if it doesn't mark the captain's grave. Mrs. Vermette feels that it should be left where the children found it.

In the meantime a fit of excavation has struck the children in that neighborhood. Several others have come forward to help the two Vermette boys who first found the stone, and most of the shovels in that vicinity are hard at work.

From the following week's issue of The Brunswick Record, May 6, 1938, pages 1 & 6:

Record's Story Last Week Brings Facts From His Great, Great Granddaughter In Massachusetts

Captain Samuel Harding, deceased, has been found, but the mystery is by no means cleared up. 

Last week the Vermette boys at 15 Page street dug up a tombstone in their back yard, and it said on it, "Capt. Samuel Harding, 1805."

In the week that has passed since the Record reported this "find," the Captain has been located, through the gracious aid of his great-great-granddaughter who now lives in Brookline, Mass.

She is Mrs. Sally Rogers Beaman, and she and her sister, Miss Helen Rogers, read the article in last week's Record. She immediately wrote to Town Clerk John W. Riley and told him that Capt. Harding is buried in Pine Grove cemetery. Mr. Riley wrote Mrs. Beaman a thank-you letter for her information, and promptly turned the letter over to the Record.

An investigation shows that Capt. Samuel Harding is buried in the older section of Pine Grove cemetery, on the first avenue beyond the Delta pines, in the fifth lot on the left off Bath street. A heavy iron fence surrounds the lot.

There are four stones in the lot--the first of which is to Captain Harding's memory. It is a white marble stone, somewhat effaced by weather. At its top is a weeping willow tree, and beneath the wording is as follows, "Capt. Samuel Harding, who departed this life September 19, 1805, in the 68th year of his age."

The stone that the boys dug up on Page street was of slate, and bore simply the name and the date of 1805. The slate stone today is actually in a better state of preservation than the marble stone. Slate tombstones are usually older than marble or granite stones. [Another resident of Pine Grove, Lemuel Swift--buried very near Samuel Harding--has two stones as well. One is an older slate stone and the second a more grand obelisk. Interestingly, in Swift's case both tombstones remain in Pine Grove. To learn more, check out the blog post I wrote about Lemuel Swift here.]

The stone of Joanna, the captain's wife, is beside his [Born 1751, died 1827. Like her husband, she was  born in Truro, MA and died in Brunswick. Samuel was her second husband, which lends credibility to the idea that Samuel had been married before, too--see below]. A taller stone is erected to Robert Harding who died in 1850, and beside it is one to Salome J. Harding, who died in 1862.

There have developed several theories as to the reason for the two stones. Perhaps the most plausible is this: Capt. Harding was originally buried in an outlying cemetery, or a family yard on the farm. Later he was moved to the village cemetery. At that time the old stone was discarded and a new one made for the sake of uniformity. Perhaps the older slate stone was carried to the monument maker, and from it he made the new stone. After the new stone was set, the old one was discarded. This is especially plausible because the monument works in long-ago Brunswick were not far from the old Dolan, or the present Vermette home on Page street. 

Or possibly, if the captain was originally buried in Pine Grove, his first stone was discarded to allow the second one to match that of his wife. The second stone is unquestionably a more ornamental job. 

At any rate, Capt. Harding is buried now in Pine Grove cemetery, and his grave is suitably marked. This leaves the Vermette boys with a perfectly good stone for which there doesn't seem to be much need at present.

Miss Blanche Bryant at Chandler's store, an authority on old Brunswick burial places and the families of the early town, adds that a Samuel Harding, Jr., is reposing in a cemetery near Harding's section of town, and that apparently his mother's name was Mary. This injects a further note of mystery into the matter, explained most easily by the supposition that the elder Samuel had two wives. Whether or not this is true does not appear from any information at hand.

Mrs. Florence Townsend of Topsham recalls that when she was a little girl in Yarmouth a Capt. Richard Harding lived in that village, and that it is her recollection that he was a son of Capt. Samuel. His age, she says, would make it just right, as he would be 166 years old if living today. 

To Mr. Riley and Mrs. Beaman the record is especially grateful. Its thanks also go to Miss Byrant and Mrs. Townsend. It appears that the mystery has been partially solved, although supposition must be relied on to explain away the stone now the property of the Vermette boys.

Mrs. Beaman reports that she has now the receipt of $200 for the perpetual care of the cemetery lot in Pine Grove. In 1911 the time the receipt was given, the trustees of the cemetery were E.H. Woodside, Isaac Danforth, and John S. Towne.

The Harding Family plot in Pine Grove Cemetery. Located in the second row from the right (under the tree), it is notable for being the only one in the cemetery with an iron fence surrounding it. The grave pictured furthest right is Samuel's; to the left of that is his wife Joanna's, which bears the epitaph "An humble Christian, a happy mother. Her virtues more lasting than the marble monument are deeply engraved on the hearts of her children"; the obelisk to the left of Joanna's stone is a monument to Robert Harding and also located in the plot, but not pictured here, is the grave of Salome J. Harding.


  1. Sent to us from David Vermette:
    My father is the Charles Vermette in the picture from the newspaper and my uncles are Gilbert and Peter Vermette who dug up this stone. Sadly, none of these men are still with us. I liked your comment regarding the womens' interest in this type of information. My grandmother, the Mrs. Vermette of the article, whom we called (in Franco-American fashion) Memere, was a stickler for historical information. She left me a scrapbook with this 1938 clipping and other fascinating records of her community. For the record, I have been to the Pejepscot Historical Society and have spent many hours scouring old newspapers at the Curtis Library and have done a little writing and speaking about the Franco-American history of Brunswick/Topsham. Dick Snowe who indexed the papers is a cousin of mine.

  2. Thank you for your diligent family history research!