Sunday, December 21, 2014

One of My Wild Neighbors, "General" Solomon Lowe

General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861)
Every so often on one of my morning runs I feel energetic enough to pass by the Harmony Cemetery in our little town of Boxford.  I've known for many years that there's a certain General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861) buried there, and that he had either three wives (and a mistress, one story goes) or four wives--each of whom presumably he loved with all of his heart in life--but whom he used as kind of decorative ornamentation around his grave in death.

Today, looking for a reason not to finish my Christmas shopping, I finally stopped by to check out the General.  It turns out, back in 1901, a travel reporter for The New York Times had a similar idea.

I leave the story, 113 years old if a day, to him.

At a place known as Boxford, about ten miles from Andover, Mass. far, far from the madding crowd, there is as curious a burying ground as can be found in all New England.  As a matter of fact, Boxford is just a section of country, beautiful country at that, but there is no village or gathering of habitations which could be dignified with the name of town.  The quiet farmspeople go their peaceful ways utterly oblivious to the odd humor to be found in their old burying ground.

I might point out that there's a little city-slickerism going on here, and throughout the article.  Boxford is still today no booming metropolis, but the town had a "center" in 1645 (the same year Manhattan was just being deeded to the Dutch), a railroad stop in 1854, and by 1901 both an East and West Boxford Village.  It also had in 1901 a rather substantial match factory.  It's fair to say, however, that if Route 95 hadn't altered the town's quaint ambiance in the late 1950s we might still have only 600 residents, about the number the Times reporter found in 1901.  

He continued:

Not many weeks ago a traveler took two sturdy horses and started to find the old Boxford burying ground.  He had driven about five miles when he inquired of some farm hands by the wayside where the cemetery was.  They elucidated the situation as follows:

"Which one do you want?  There are two Boxford burying grounds.  There is an old one and a new one.  To reach either one, just drive on the way you are going now for about a mile and half more."

Having traveled for more than two miles further along a road to which there were no forks, the traveler came to an old farmhouse, and called out for some one to hear what he had to say.  In a few minutes an aged woman came to the door, bearing every appearance of having spent many years amid rustic surroundings.

"Where is Boxford?" asked the traveler, fearing that the mention of "Boxford burying ground" might suggest unpleasant anticipations.  The good lady look puzzled, stepped indoors for a moment, and then returned to the door with the reply:

. . ."This is Boxford."

There was not another house within two miles.  It was all trees and fields.  But the traveler went ahead, feeling that such good roads as he had encountered must lead somewhere.  Around three miles further on an old cemetery was met with, with the traditional New England stone wall surrounding it.  This, it was concluded, was the Boxford burying ground. . .

I've stepped inside the stone wall to take this picture.  If it looks bleak and cold, it was.  Anything not to Christmas shop, though.

And above all these gravestones and burial places the lot in which repose the remains of "General" Solomon and his three wives stands out most conspicuously.

You'll note use of quotation marks around the title "General."  There's some skepticism from our intrepid 1901 Times reporter on this historical point, as you'll see.  Above, though, is a good shot of the Lowe lot with the dashing General featured in the middle and bas-reliefs of his four wives, two on each side.

"General" Lowe was a member of the State Militia, in which he had some sort of rank, although he had never heard the sound of battle.  It was the delight of his life, the villagers who remember him say, to dress up in his regimentals and exhibit himself.  He was one of the characters of this quiet rural community.

Without a pilgrimage to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, I'm going to have to leave this controversy to a Lowe family genealogist.  We can only be sure--if you look in front of his wives' gravestones--that the General (or "General") is credited with service in the War of 1812 (the "War of 1812" perhaps?) and the Mexican American War ("ditto").

"General" Lowe died on April 4, 1861.  He left a curious will, the most curious provision of it being the creation of a trust fund which was to furnish free beer to every one who should come to his tomb on the anniversary of his death to celebrate the momentous event.  For many years this bequest made April 4 the day of a veritable orgy for the farm people for miles around.  The abuse became so great that the Sheriff of the county had to intervene, and instruct the itinerant constable of the district to violate the "General's" will.  

Hold on.  I think I've just come up with another annual fundraiser for the Boxford Historical Society.  Or maybe a codicil to my own will.  Stay tuned.

Another curious proviso of this will was the stipulation that on this same April 4 of every year the regimentals of the "General" should be taken from their resting place, and be displayed at the tomb for the inspiration of the rising generations.

A rather dashing character, no, with quite a shock of hair?  Both Custer and Pickett undoubtedly stole a page from General Solomon's playbook.  (Incidentally, it was eight days after Solomon's death that the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter.)

"General" Lowe took unto himself four wives as he journeyed upon this earth.  He arranged that two of them were to be buried on one side of his vault and two on the other.  When he died the fourth of the spouses had not died.  In fact, she still lives somewhere among the wildernesses of Boxford."

The "General" arranged that one tombstone should serve for two wives, and another slab of marble for the other two.  Each wife was to get half of a tombstone.  The "General" wrote no flattering epitaphs for his wives, but he arranged to tell posterity of their qualities by bas-relief carving on the gravestones.

Note the General's deft use of commas after each name--perhaps the single item that says more about his personality than any other.

These carvings are about 6 inches in diameter and round in shape. . .The first of the wives to die was Huldah [Kimball], who departed this earth of Sept. 24, 1808, at the age of twenty-eight.  Over Huldah's name is the carving of a woman sitting beside a small working table.  In her lap two babies sit, and on the table are various domestic paraphernalia.  Huldah had two children, and her life was distinctly in the home.

Note that Huldah was the mother of Major William Lowe, a surviving twin, born in 1807 and buried here with his parents.  Without more digging, however, I cannot tell you if we are here discussing Major William Lowe or "Major" William Lowe.

Wife Dolly [Wood] likewise bore two children [also twins], and they, too, are remembered upon the carving which helps to perpetuate her memory.  Dolly, like Huldah, was domestic, and the table beside her commemorates her virtues.  She died, says the gravestone, on May 10, 1817, nine years after wife Huldah.

The next wife was Martha [Eastman].  She died on July 24, 1855 at the age of fifty.  Martha apparently was fond of books.  She bore no children, so, instead of the babes, the carving in her honor represents her in the act of reading.  On the little work table beside her there is another book instead of the sewing basket of the other wives.

The fourth wife was Caroline H. [Chase], according to the gravestone.  She still lives, but her name was placed on the slab, and a space left for the date of her death.  Caroline bore no children and she was not literary, so she is engraved simply sitting in her chair, with no babes upon her knee and no book in her hand.  The work table beside her, too, is empty.

This puzzles me a little, since Caroline died in 1877 and the New York Times article was published July 28, 1901.  (If the article was a Times reprint, then our reporter's visit would date between 1855 and 1877.)

From there our Times reporter poked around at a few other epitaphs and then headed to Farmington, Connecticut, and ultimately to the marble quarries of Vermont where he found another sarcophagus of a man with four wives.  The tomb held only three, it seems, because the fourth wife refused to be buried with the others.

It wouldn't have surprised me had Catherine H. felt the same way.  At least, like the General, she got a definitive period after her name and not a one-in-a-series, next-in-line, step-right-up comma like the other wives.  Maybe that's what convinced her to lie down peacefully with the General and his other beloved.

In any event, I'm going to Boxford Town Hall tomorrow to find the General's trust money.  Mark down April 4 in your calendar.  We'll have the keg by the big rusty door.  Be there or be square--but start now.


The NYT's article is behind a paywall but can be found here and at their "TimesMachine" site.  A bit more on General Lowe is in The History of Essex County and Sidney Perley's History of Boxford, in which the maiden names of the wives are revealed.  Poignantly, Perley refers to Lowe as "Mr.", does not mention any service in battle, and notes that Caroline H. remarried after Lowe's death and moved to West Newbury.  Perley is also silent on Major William's military service, though we find in Dwellings of Boxford that William died in an attack in his cowyard by a bull.  The 2005 Boxford Reconnaissance Report is here for some quick history.  If you have an interest in being interred near the General and his entourage, there's still plenty of room (see here)--not bad for a cemetery established almost sixty years before the American Revolution.