Like many disasters in the life of Sumner Bascomb, this one began with a letter.
As superintendent of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston’s leading burial ground, Bascomb was used to getting odd letters. This one, he noted, bore a postage stamp that was a generation old. Its message was inked with an old-school quill pen in a shaky hand.
April 14, 1857
To Whom It May Concern,
I wish to purchase from Mount Auburn Cemetery a family lot of whatever size will accommodate 24 or more persons. This may be effected at once, as the location of said plot within the cemetery and the cost thereof are immaterial. My attorney, J. Jessup, at the firm of P—, J—, and F—has authority to disburse the necessary funds.
Furthermore, I instruct the officials of the cemetery to arrange for the immediate disinterment of my family from the Burying Ground adjacent to Trinity Church in Boston [here he gave the name and address of the sexton], and their re-interment in the new plot.
As space will be at a premium, I direct that the remains be removed from their coffins, which have likely deteriorated, and assembled by family group in ten new caskets that I have ordered from the firm of Gibb Brothers, in Arlington. The sexton will have a list of the interred and their relations, but to avoid any error I enclose an outline of the family tree, specifying who belongs with whom.
Chestnut Street, Boston
Bascomb sighed heavily and looked out the window. His desk overlooked the beautiful grounds of the cemetery, whose every prospect had been thoughtfully designed to please the eye. Even now, though it was still earliest spring, buds on a dozen different kinds of trees offered the promise of blossoms and fair weather. But how was he to dig graves for twenty-four moldering skeletons when the ground was still frozen? What was this fellow Damon’s hurry, anyway?
He turned to the family tree, scrawled in the same (he guessed) elderly hand as the letter. The Damons did not appear to have been favored with robust health. Thomas Damon, at the bottom left of the tree, listed neither spouse nor issue. His father and grandfather had collectively sired more than a dozen children who failed to get past infancy, in four cases (two each) carrying off the mother as well.
Two younger brothers of Thomas had succeeded in marrying before being swept away in their twenties; one wife was also buried at Trinity (after a long widowhood), while the other was presumably still living or was buried elsewhere. Perhaps, thought Bascomb, she had the sense to remarry outside this unlucky clan.
Then there was Hepzebah. Thomas’s half-sister looked to be his junior by half a decade. She had married someone named Richard Ames and produced a daughter, Mary. Next to Richard’s name, Damon had written “Lost at sea 1839.” Mary, conforming to the family pattern, had expired the year after her father, at age 19.
A shadow crossed Bascomb’s window, and the superintendent rushed to catch his grounds foreman as he made his way into the cemetery.
“Mr. Harker! Are you free this afternoon? We’ve a call to pay in Boston.”
Peleg Harker, a salt-cured Cape Cod fisherman who had taken his current position as a sort of retirement post, looked dubiously at the superintendent.
“Well,” Harker said after a pause, “There’s the two burials this morning. Can’t think of anything after that.” He seemed to think this a pity.
“Good, then,” said Bascomb. “We’ll go speak with the sexton at Trinity about some removals. A family named Damon.”
“The Damons of Chestnut Street? It ain’t them coming here, is it?” Harker was aghast.
The superintendent looked again at the letter. “Chestnut Street. Yes. What’s the matter?”
“You ain’t heard of them?” Harker asked in wonder. “It was back in the days of the Witch Trials. One of them that was hanged put a curse on the Damons, who had brought them to book. I didn’t think there was any left. Withered in the womb or wasted once born, I’d heard.”
“Perhaps,” Bascomb replied, “but the few that are left appear to have money and a need for burial space. I think we might give them that shady corner over by the fence, hm? No one else seems to want it.”