The Unquiet Afterlife of Katherine Parr

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The card beneath the blonde lock inside this circular frame reads, “Hair of Queen Catherine Parr, last consort of Henry, taken the night she dyed September 5th 1548, was buried in the Chapel of Sudeley Castle, Near Winchcombe.” The Queen’s relic was sold by Bonhams, London, in January 2008 for £2,160 to Charles Hudson of Wyke Manor, Worcestershire. His estate once belonged to Katherine. Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.

In the aftermath of Katherine Parr’s passing, Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhitt, one of her closest friends, recalled, “Two days afore the death of the Queen, at my coming to her in the morning, she asked me where I had been so long, and said unto me, she did fear such things in herself, that she was sure she could not live. Whereunto I answered, as I thought, that I saw no likelihood of death in her. She then having my Lord Admiral by the hand, and divers others standing by, spake these words, partly, as I took it, [in delirium], ‘My Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled, for those that be about me careth not for me, but standeth laughing at my grief, and the more good I will to them, the less good they will to me.’”

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Katherine Parr, Queen of England and wife of King Henry VIII. He was her fourth husband.

A few days earlier, on 30 August, 1548, at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, 36-year-old Katherine had given birth to her first child. She and her most recent husband, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, named the healthy baby girl after Katherine’s adult stepdaughter, Princess Mary Tudor. Despite the polar opposition of their religions—Mary was a devout Catholic and Katherine an evangelical Protestant—the two were close.

Not present as Katherine’s condition degenerated was her second royal stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, who had lived at Sudeley with the Queen. The reason why was tied to what Lady Tyrwhitt heard the feverish Katherine say to the Lord Admiral. Seymour had sexually harassed, if not actually molested, Elizabeth on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, Katherine sided with the man she desperately loved and with whose child she was heavily pregnant. Elizabeth was sent away from Sudeley in disgrace, as if Seymour’s faults were her own. A rapprochement between stepmother and stepdaughter had just begun at the time of baby Mary’s birth.

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Queen Katherine Parr was far from a nursemaid to Henry VIII. In her early thirties when they married, she was pretty, intelligent, and Henry adored her.

Katherine Parr’s storied life began in Blackfriars, London, sometime in August 1512. The daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Lady Maud Green had known King Henry peripherally for many years before he married her in 1543. Both she and her mother were ladies in waiting to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Katherine appears to have served in the household of Princess Mary.

When Katherine wed the King, she had been married twice before—first, as a teenager to Sir Edward Borough, the grandson of 2nd Baron Borough of Gainsborough Hall. A year after the young man’s death in 1533, she married middle-aged John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer of Snape Castle, North Yorkshire. In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Snape Castle was captured by rebels and Katherine and her Neville stepchildren were held hostage and threatened with death if Baron Latimer did not acquiesce to their demands. The beleaguered Latimer saved his family, but died in 1543, leaving Katherine as a 30-year-old widow.

Slender, vital, and attractive, Katherine wanted to marry for love before her youth was lost. The man she wanted was Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third queen, Jane, who died in 1537 after the birth of Prince Edward. Instead, the widowed Lady Latimer’s hand was solicited by King Henry. He married her in July 1543 at Hampton Court.

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Henry VIII toward the end of his reign.

In 1544, Queen Katherine, who loved color and finery, was described by de Gante, the secretary to the Duke of Najera, thusly: “She is of a lively and pleasing appearance and is praised as a virtuous woman. She was dressed in a robe of cloth of gold and a petticoat of brocade with sleeves lined with crimson satin and trimmed with three-piled crimson velvet. Her train was more than two yards long. Suspended from her neck were two crosses, and a jewel of very rich diamonds and in her head-dress were many and beautiful ones. Her girdle was of gold with large pendants.”

Katherine, who was the last in the divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” series of Henry’s queens, was also his second-longest legal spouse, married to him for three years and five months. The King’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon officially lasted 24 years; he was married to Anne Boleyn just short of three (although, arguably, they had been a couple for far longer); Jane Seymour died after a little more than a year; Anne of Cleves lasted six months; and Katheryn Howard was queen for a year and a half.

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The Victoria and Albert Museum believes that this sketch by Hans Holbein can be identified as Katherine’s fourth husband, Thomas Seymour.

Although there is every indication that Henry and Katherine had a genuinely loving marriage, as the King’s health failed and the daily discomfort he felt ratcheted toward agony, he was convinced by the pro-Catholic faction of the court that his Queen was a dangerous heretic who plotted against him. Fortunately, a copy of the arrest warrant was leaked to Katherine by a well-wisher, and she used her quick wits to convince the King that in matters of faith, she looked only to him for answers and direction. Henry was mollified, and when the officials arrived to arrest the Queen, he berated them as “knaves and fools.” The King and his wife were perfect friends again and would remain so until he died, 28 January, 1547.

Not wasting time, the dowager queen sped into a marriage with Thomas Seymour after a widowhood of just six months. But what began in joy ended, as it so often did for women, in a slow, febrile death. Mary Seymour was a week old when the dowager queen succumbed to puerperal sepsis. Mary would die in early childhood, probably in the household of Katherine’s close friend, Catherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk.

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A 1782 drawing of Katherine Parr’s partially opened lead coffin.

After her death, Katherine lay in repose at Sudeley for a short time, then her body was wrapped in cere—a cloth treated with wax—and placed in a form-fitting lead coffin. Into the soft lead was impressed, “KP. Here lyeth Queen Katheryne Wife to Kinge Henry the VIII and The wife of Thomas Lord of Sudely high Admy… of Englond And ynkle to Kyng Edward VI.” Miles Coverdale preached a sermon and Lady Jane Grey was the chief mourner at the funeral, which is believed to be the first protestant service of its kind in England.  Afterward, the Queen was buried within the chapel.

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Unopened lead coffins of adults and infants at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset. Photo by Graham Hobster.

Katherine rested beneath Sudeley Chapel for well over two centuries. But as the estate and church went to ruin above her, she remained largely unchanged, as was pronounced in an account by a Mr. Brookes of Reading of the opening of the Queen’s grave in the late 18th Century. This was provided to the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archeological Society, Vol. XIII (1895) by Brookes’ niece.

In the summer of the year 1782, “Mr. John Lucas (who occupied the land of Lord Rivers, whereon the ruins of the chapel stand) had the curiosity to rip up the top of  the coffin, expecting to discover within it only the bones of the [Queen], but to his great surprise found the whole body wrapped in 6 or 7 seer cloths of linen, entire and uncorrupted, although it had lain there upwards of 230 years. His unwarrantable curiosity led him also to make an incision through the seer cloths which covered one of the arms of the corps, the flesh of which at that time was white and moist. I was very much displeased at the forwardness of Lucas, who of his own hand opened the coffin. It would have been quite sufficient to have found it; and then to have made a report of it to Lord Rivers or myself.”

It was probably at this time that hair clippings and a swatch of fabric from the sleeve of Katherine’s burial dress were taken.

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A piece of fabric cut from Katherine Parr’s gown. Collection of Sudeley Castle.

The account continued, “In the summer of the year following 1783, his Lordship’s business made it necessary for me and my son to be at Sudeley Castle, and on being told what had been done the year before by Lucas, I directed the earth to be once more removed to satisfy my own curiosity; and I found Lucas’s account of the coffin and corps to be just as he had represented them; with this difference, that the body was then grown quite fetid, and the flesh where the incision had been made was brown, and in a state of putrefaction; in consequence of the air having been let in upon it. The stench of the corps made my son quite sick, whilst he copied the inscription which is on the lead of the coffin; he went thro’ it, however, with great exactness. I afterwards decided that a stone slab should be placed over the grave to prevent any future and improper inspection, &c.”

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Mourning pieces made with Katherine Parr’s hair and tooth removed from her skull. Provenance and location of these relics unknown.

This was not the last time that the corpse was disturbed. In 1792, her coffin was dug up by drunken revelers and reburied upside down. Twenty-five years later, Lord Chandos, who then owned Sudeley, wanted to move Katherine to a safer tomb. The exhumation was done by Rev. John Lates, who had undertaken the repair of the chapel, and Edmund T. Browne, a Winchcombe antiquary, whom, Transactions notes, wrote of this discovery on 18 July, 1817.

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An 18th Century, navette-shaped pendant containing Katherine Parr’s hair. Ad vivum portraits of the Queen uniformly show her with auburn hair, but some of her existing locks are quite blond. This one, however, is indeed auburn. Whether this represents her actual hair color, or the triumph of pheomelanin over eumelanin, is uncertain.

Browne reported that “after considerable search…the coffin was found bottom upwards in a walled grave, where it had been deposited…. It was then removed to the Chandos vault, and…we proceeded to examine the body; but the coffin having been so frequently opened, we found nothing but the bare skeleton, except a few pieces of sere cloth, which were still under the skull, and a dark-coloured mass, which proved to contain, when washed, a small quantity of hair which exactly corresponded with some I already had. The roots of the ivy, which you may remember grew in such profusion on the walls of the chapel, had penetrated into the coffin, and completely filled the greater part of it….

“We then had the different pieces of lead, which from time to time had been cut from the coffin, firmly nailed together, so as to present the original form of the coffin, and it was placed on two large flat stones by the side of that of [the former] Lord Chandos. Dr. Nash said, ‘The Queen must have been low of stature, as the lead which enclosed her corpse was but five feet four inches in length.’” Browne stated that he then measured the coffin and found it to be 5 ft. 10 in., but a height of about 5 ft. 4 in. was considered tall for a woman of the 1500s. A height of 5 ft. 10 in. would have bordered on freakishly tall and would have been commented upon by her contemporaries. (Mary, Queen of Scots, for instance, was about 6 ft. and this was noted repeatedly.)

Browne concluded, “The ancient chapel, which had been desecrated by the Puritans, was thoroughly renovated under the direction of Sir John Gilbert Scott, and a handsome decorated altar-tomb, surmounted by a gothic canopy, was erected on the north side of the Sacrarium to the memory of Queen Katherine Parr, whose effigy was rendered as correctly as it could be from the portraits which are extant.”

Safe under the alabaster image that returned stone flesh to her bared bones, Queen Katherine Parr’s restful eternity had at last begun.

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A waxwork of Queen Katherine Parr lying in repose at Sudeley Chapel, where her remains rest today. This display was part of a special exhibition on the 500th anniversary of Katherine’s birth that I attended in October 2012.

Harriet Fox: Drowned at the Wethersfield Ferry

“Connecticut River at Hartford 18 feet above low water mark. Heavy rain still prevailed, with much thunder.”—Beckwith’s Almanac

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Harriet Leonard Hale Fox, 1/4-plate daguerreotype, circa 1852. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Harriet Leonard Hale, scion of an old and venerable New England family, was the third child and only daughter of Russell Hale. Hale was born 22 July, 1799, in Glastonbury, Hartford County, Connecticut, and died 13 April, 1849, in that same place. Harriet’s mother, Harriet Ely, was  born 17 April, 1803, in Agawam, Massachusetts, and died 2 September, 1880. Russell was the son of Thomas Hale of Glastonbury (10 June, 1768–12 Feb., 1819) and Lucretia House (1771–24 September, 1835). The Hales descended from Samuel Hale, born 1 July, 1615, at Watton-at-Stone, Hertfordshire, England, who came to Connecticut as a young man, married Mary Smith in about 1642, and died in Glastonbury on 9 November, 1693.

Harriet Hale was born 14 April, 1833, in Glastonbury. Her two older brothers were Robert Ely (1827–1847) and Henry Russell (1830–1876). The 1850 Census of Glastonbury included Harriet Ely Hale as a widow, together with her daughter Harriet and her son Henry, a farmer. It is the only census that Harriet Hale Fox appeared on, as the one compiled a decade previously, when she was seven in 1840, listed the names of household heads only.

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A daguerreotype of Henry Fox, circa 1852, now in a private collection. The daguerreotypes of both Henry and Harriet were sold concurrently online.

At age 18, Harriet wed blond, bearded, and bespectacled Henry Fox, a man twelve years her senior, on 5 October, 1851. He had been born in East Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut, 19 April, 1821, and was the son of Leonard Fox (1792–1866) and Hannah Nicholson (1795–1894). The Fox family had been in New England since emigrating from London in the 17th century. Members of the clan participated in the Revolutionary War, and Leonard Fox fought in the War of 1812.

The 1850 census of Hartford included Henry Fox, a cooper—a maker or repairer of barrels and casks—who dwelt on a farm with his parents; his brother Clement (b. 1817), who was also a cooper; sister Lucy A. (b. 1826); brother Leonard (b. 1825)—a burnisher; and sister Eliza (b. 1831).

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An advert for H. & D. Fox, Hartford Courant, 4 June, 1850.

It was at about this time that Henry went into business with his paternal cousin Dudley, the son of Solomon and Clarissa Low Fox. The cousins appear to have been exceptionally close all of their lives.

Dudley, who was born 8 May, 1823, was a silversmith and a tinner. In the early 1850s, the Hartford Courant ran adverts for H&D Fox, selling tinware and stoves out of a shop at 49 Main Street. Other adverts mention the sale of cleaning fluids, brass and sheet metal for bespoke projects, and cooking pots and pans.

After marrying, Henry and Harriet quickly produced two daughters—Lucy Ely (8 October, 1852-20 March, 1910) and Julia Helen (2 November, 1854-26 Feb., 1946). These little girls were aged just four and two when they lost their mother.

“As they drove off the bridge into the water, they began to apprehend the extent of their danger.”

The Wethersfield Ferry, now known as the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry, is the oldest still operating in the United States. It began in 1655, more than a century before the founding of an independent nation, as a raft propelled by pole across the Connecticut River. Later, its movement was powered by a horse on a treadmill, and by steam after 1876. The ferry is today part of the Glastonbury-Rocky Hill Ferry Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A photo postcard of the Wethersfield Ferry, now the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry, taken in about 1910.

The sixth of August, 1856, was a day busy with misfortune. Beckwith’s Almanac kept a running daily list of things that happened in the Hartford area—many of them macabre. For instance, on the sixth, “Patrick Sheridan, a well digger, and one of his assistants, were at work at the bottom of a well which they had been digging for a Mrs. Ely, in Fair Haven, when the earth suddenly gave way, and buried them with sand and stones nearly thirty feet below the surface.” In Hartford, “An unfinished house…belonging to Sam’l J. Tuttle, was set on fire and burned down.” The entry about Harriet reads: “The wife of Mr. Henry Fox, of Hockanum, was drowned at the crossing of the Wethersfield Ferry.”

Another, and almost completely erroneous report appeared in the 7 August Courant: “The steamer Granite State reports that as she was passing Glastonbury this afternoon, a woman by the name of Fox, wife of Henry Fox of Chester, either jumped or fell off the dock and was drowned.”

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The steamer Granite State from which Harriet’s drowning was sighted. This ship met its own tragic end in 1883 when it caught fire after an engine room explosion and burned to the waterline. Two passengers died and many were injured.

Thanks to court records of Fox vs. Town of Glastonbury, a suit in which Henry sued the town for negligence leading to Harriet’s death, the full and correct story of that day can be detailed. The scene was set by conditions reported in Beckwith’s Almanac: “Connecticut River at Hartford 18 feet above low water mark. Heavy rain still prevailed, with much thunder.”

In his opinion on the case, Judge David Curtis Sanders recounted, “An inlet from the Connecticut River, called the cove, runs up to the main land in the town of Glastonbury. About twenty-seven rods from its mouth, a highway had been laid through this cove to the Wethersfield ferry, and a causeway constructed thereon for the accommodation of public travel. The causeway…was raised about two feet above the ordinary surface of the water.”

Sanford continued, “The water in the cove, along the sides of the causeway, was ordinarily about one foot deep, but in times of freshet it frequently rose so high as to submerge the causeway, and render its passage perilous and sometimes impossible.”

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Hartford Courant, 13 November, 1859

According to the judge, at about 3 p.m., Harriet was at the reins of a horse and wagon, headed for the ferry crossing. With her was Dudley Fox’s wife Clarinda Grant, whom he had married in New Britain in 1844. Both women resided “about a half mile from the east end of the causeway.”

As noted by Beckwith’s, the river was swollen and turgid, and Judge Sanford writes that water was already covering the causeway.  “The deceased and her companion stopped in front of the house of Mrs. French, a short distance from the causeway, but in full view of it, and there observed that the water was running over [it]…. The deceased inquired of Mrs. French whether people crossed there that day, to which Mrs. F. replied they had, but that she had not before noticed that the water was over the road. The deceased then inquired of Mrs. F. if she would dare to cross. Mrs. F. replied that she would be afraid, unless she had a very gentle horse; and the deceased remarked that their horse was perfectly gentle.”

Harriet then guided her wagon toward the causeway, where, according to Sanford, “the cove and the condition of the water in it could not have escaped their notice. They saw, and observed, that the causeway was entirely submerged, that a swift and strong current of turbid water was passing over it, that there was no rail or visible object of any kind, above the surface of the water, on the sides of the causeway, by which to be protected or guided in their course.”

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The daguerreotype of Harriet in its case and pictured with the identifying note, “Harriet Leonard Hale, wife of Henry Fox and Mother of Julia H. Baker.”

In the middle of the causeway was a bridge raised about 2.5 feet from the level of the causeway. Sanford notes that the wagon made it to bridge, the water having been as high as “the hubs of the fore wheels of wagon.” What occurred next could only have been recounted by Clarinda to the court, as only she was privy to it, “On the bridge they stopped, noticed and remarked on the height of the water and the rapidity of its current, and felt some degree of alarm, but concluded to proceed. As they drove off the bridge into the water, they began to apprehend the extent of their danger and became frightened; the horse stopped; they urged him forward with the whip, and becoming more frightened, they probably tried to turn around and went off the causeway, nearly at right angle with it, into the deep water on the north side.”

The wagon sunk—Harriet, Clarinda, and the horse with it. Two boys in a boat nearby saw the incident and managed to haul Clarinda from the river, but it was too late for Harriet.

Judge Sanford opined that although “a majority of us are of the opinion that the town had been culpably negligent” for not erecting a fence or railing along the causeway as was demanded by law, the court found that “however negligent the defendants may have been, the unfortunate woman who lost her life contributed to the production of that result by her own culpable imprudence and indiscretion.” Harriet and Clarinda had “voluntarily assumed the risks and all the consequences,” the court concluded. One can imagine what a stinging slap this was for the widow and father, Henry Fox.

The body of 23-year-old Harriet was buried in Glastonbury’s Green Cemetery. She sleeps there today, beneath a weathered stone, with Henry by her side. Her husband would live another two decades before he joined her.

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The gate of Green Cemetery, Glastonbury. Photo by Jan Franco.

“Mr. Fox had a fad of using the head of a fox whenever he could and Mrs. Baker recalls very distinctly his cutting the fox on pieces of cork.”

By 1860, Henry had returned to his family home. The census enumerated him with his parents, Leonard and Hannah, as well as his brother Leonard, Jr., who was a mariner, and his daughter Lucy, aged 7. Henry listed his occupation as schoolteacher; his business with cousin Dudley ended some years before. Henry’s second daughter, Julia, was not with the rest of her family in 1860. She lived up the street with Dudley, Clarinda, and their young daughter for a number of years—why this was so is unknown.

In 1854, Dudley Fox had built a fine house at 177 Naubuc Avenue in East Hartford, “producing tin, pewter, and silver-plated goods from a small shop next to his home,” notes a Rootsweb site on American silversmiths. “The inventory of the full contents of the shop found in the East Hartford Land Records dated January 20, 1868, reads, ‘17 Rolls of Stock about 1,300 lbs. in the front of Store also 15 Rolls of Stock 1000 lbs. in Back Room together with 500 lbs scrapes or cuttings. 5 shelves of wooden chucks. 3 Lathes in Running order, one Large Press & Die, One Small Press & Dies, One Drop Press & Dies, One Large Press Down Seller, Two Squaring Shears, One Small Laze Folding Machine, One Drop Press down below, 2 Melting Kettles, also Sett of Copper or Brass Molds for Castings.’”

Additionally, Dudley was postmaster for Hockanum from 12 May, 1865, to 27 November, 1867. During this tenure, to comply with an 1860 federal requirement that stamps be thoroughly cancelled to prevent reuse, Dudley created a whimsical running fox that is beloved by philatelists today.

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A hand-cancelled three-cent postage stamp with the imprint of Dudley’s running fox.

W. J. Duffney has written extensively about Dudley and his running fox, however, in his work, Duffney misidentified Julia as the daughter of Dudley and Clarinda, rather than that they served as Julia’s foster parents after her mother drowned. The second cousin mentioned by Duffney, “Mrs. Baker…who for a time lived with [Dudley’s] family,” was Julia Fox after her marriage to Isaiah Baker, Jr. (6 June, 1856-30 Nov., 1923).

Duffney reports, “In 1920, collector J. Arthur Ritchie wrote to Hockanum requesting answers to a series of questions that he proposed. It was about this time that the Running Fox fancy cancellation first came to public attention. Isaiah Baker, Jr., sent a short but informative response to the query. He wrote that ‘Mrs. Baker [said that] Mr. Fox had a fad of using the head of a fox whenever he could and Mrs. Baker recalls very distinctly his cutting the fox on pieces of cork, striking same on a pad of black ink and cancelling stamps on envelopes. She knows they quickly wore out, or the eyes of the fox would fill, and he was very fussy about having that clear, so new ones were frequently made.’”

When Dudley Fox died in Hartford, aged 66, on August 23, 1889,  “His funeral was a rather large event. Organizations of which he was a member — the Putnam Phalanx, the Eastern Star Lodge, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Masonic Lodge of East Hartford, and St. Thomas’s Church—had representatives serve as bearers. Fellow jewelers of the city closed their shops in his honor and the flag on the Putnam Phalanx Armory flew at half mast. It was said that Dudley would be long remembered, and he has been, not just for his ‘frank and open-hearted’ character, but for making the marvelous Running Fox fancy cancellations,” Duffney noted.

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The graves of Henry and Harriet Hale Fox, Green Cemetery, Glastonbury. Photo by SheWolf.

In 1870, the census of Saybrook, Middlesex County, Connecticut, enumerated Henry Fox as a coal dealer. Both daughters were with him, grown into teenagers. Also listed in the household was “Hattie B.,” a new Mrs. Fox. She was Harriet King Bidwell (1833–1902), eldest daughter of farmer Julius Bidwell (1805–26 Feb., 1889) and his wife Rhoda Cook (16 Dec., 1810-8 Nov., 1863). Hattie was baptized 2 July, 1837, at an East Hartford Congregationalist church by the Rev. Mr. Spring.

From the censuses, we know that Henry did not marry Hattie before 1860, and that he was her spouse by 1870. Their union lasted less than a decade. The Courant reported the “sudden” death of Henry Fox on 8 June, 1874, at the rather ironically named Deep River, Middlesex County. He was 53.

Before 1880, Hattie Bidwell Fox relocated to Massachusetts, where she worked as a dressmaker in Holyoke. She died at age 69 and is buried in Green Cemetery, although not with her husband and the first Harriet.

After their father passed away, both Lucy and Hannah became schoolteachers. On March 10, 1881, Julia married Isaiah Baker. He was a member of the Masonic Order, who served as an officer of the rather pompously named Charter Oak Lodge of Perfection in Hartford. Lucy married insurance agent Charles McCloud Webster (b. 1847) on 13 September, 1882. Julia and Isaiah had two children—Helen Eunisa (1885–1959) and Leverett Chase (1892–1975). Lucy and Charles had four children—Raymond Wing (b. 1884), Harold McCloud (b. 1886); Zulette Hale (b. 1888); and Florence Pease (b. 1892). Ω

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The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry today. Photo Courtesy Connecticut Department of Transportation.

A Treasure Without Meaning to Its Clan

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was not valued by her descendants, who found her mourning brooch too disgusting to keep.

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Memorial brooch for Mary Palmer showing her russet hair with snippets of what might be gold thread that once formed a small design, but which have since become unglued and tarnished. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In about 1996, while trawling for hair-work brooches on eBay with a tax return smoldering in my pocket, I found a listing with a ridiculously blurry photo of what looked like—just maybe—a Regency era mourning brooch. The accompanying item description encapsulated the prevailing 20th century attitude toward mourning jewelry. As I recall, it read something very close to “We found this pin that belonged to grandma. It has hair in it! Eww! Get it out of our house!” I obliged for about $40; no other bidders were willing to take the chance with that kind of sales photo. One- by three-quarters-inch in size, this type of small brooch was known as a “lace pin” and used to secure veils, ribbons, pelerines, and other accessories. They were also worn by men as lapel pins.

The 210-hundred-year-old gem that I received was made of 10-karat or higher plain and rose gold with completely intact niello and inset faceted jet cabochons. (Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulfur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal.) The brooch was in pristine condition, bearing the inscription “Mary Palmer. Ob. 3 July 1806, aet. 38.” The abbreviation “Ob.” is from the Latin obitus—“a departure,” which has long been a euphemism for death. “Aet.” is from the Latin aetatis—“of age.”

My Mary was probably born in 1768—the year when the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved for not collecting taxes and Boston citizens balked at quartering British troops. Additionally, John Hancock had refused to give royal customs agents access to his vessel—one of the first acts of physical resistance to British authority; a month later, that same authority would seize Hancock’s ship. In Scotland, the first encyclopedia was published; in London, radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for penning an article that criticized King George III. His arrest kicked off riots that led to the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

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The reverse inscription of the Mary Palmer brooch.

In 1838, British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth would name his youngest son John Wilkes Booth in the jailed MP’s honor. By the birth of this future presidential assassin, Mary Palmer had been dead for 32 years. The world on which she closed her eyes had recently seen Napoleonic War hero General Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, repose in state at St. Paul’s, the the surrender of Dutch Cape Colony to the British, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their journey back from the Pacific, the distribution of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as U.S. president.

All of this historic context, moreover the genetic material of their ancestress, was lost on and to her descendants, who found her memorial brooch too disgusting to keep.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of a cremains and hair as diamonds.

It can be postulated that the major televised tragedies and wars of the early 21st century have made displays of public and personal grief more acceptable. Or perhaps rising generations are rebelling against the old ways, as they are wont—their elders did not speak of death, therefore they will. In either case, for whatever collective reasons, many years after I purchased the Mary Palmer memorial brooch, I stumbled across the website Memorials.net and read, “Memorial jewelry is, perhaps, the newest, most novel idea in the memorial industry [emphasis mine] and it is becoming more popular every year…. Memorial jewelry is…used to store locks of hair of family members whose bodies have been buried, and memorial jewelry often simply encloses a special picture of a loved-ones. Many pieces of memorial jewelry are also engraved with special memorial quotations.”

Clearly, someone needs a history lesson. However, the acknowledgement of momentum is spot on. For example, the growing preference for cremation has led to jewelry that contains, or is made from, a portion of the deceased’s ashes. Much like the Victorian jeweler Dewdney, today companies and artisans who specialize in memorial jewelry offer it in various styles of precious and semiprecious metals with personalized engraving.

Touching the deaths of children, independent artisans have begun to craft pieces meant for those who have lost infants or experienced stillbirths and miscarriages. One such enterprise, La Belle Dame, explains on its website, “We created our miscarriage and infant loss jewelry to help mothers feel connected to their little ones, to have a tangible something to touch and give them strength when they need it most.”

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Twenty-first century mourning jewelry exemplified by this platinum ring with a blue cremation diamond. This example is by LifeGem®.

One of the most beautiful trends in memorial jewelry is the reconstitution of cremains and hair as diamonds. These are formed by carbon extraction while the ashes and hair are subjected to extreme heat and pressure, replicating the process that occurs naturally in the earth. According to one company, writting in almost the same heavily sentimental language of the Victorians, “The diamonds are available in brilliant and beautiful yellows and blues like a sunset captured in time or a wave upon the ocean.” The gems can be set into rings, pendants, or brooches that memorialize the dead.

Today’s mourners who commission these pieces can be assured they shall be cherished—if not by their own descendants, then by future collectors. And perhaps, in that long-off century, someone will feel a tickle that grows into a powerful urge to discover who the dead once were.

As for Mary Palmer, I cannot tell her story yet. I have identified a number of British and American women with this name born at the right time, but none of these offer a corresponding 3 July, 1806 death date—and at any rate, if Palmer was a married name then none of the Marys born in 1768 are correct. I hope that one day I will locate Mary in extant records and piece together a life that will stand as meaningful to me, if not to those who shared her blood. Ω

Sit Down, John: An Adams Image Rediscovered

The historical importance of March 1843 daguerreotype was forgotten until now.

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Newly rediscovered daguerreotype of President John Quincy Adams. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

A new image of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, will be presented for sale by the auction house Sotheby’s later this year. The March 1843 daguerreotype, which Quincy Adams gifted to a friend, remained in the recipient’s family through the generations although its historical importance was forgotten. The image was made during a sitting with early photographers Southworth & Hawes that yielded at least two daguerreotypes. A copy of the other now resides in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

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This daguerreotype copy of a second, cleaner image from the Southworth & Hawes sitting shows the former president as he actually appeared. Daguerreotypes present a mirror image of the subject; daguerreotype copies present the correct frontal view. Although it may appear so, Adams was not photographed in a private home. This set was used in other daguerreotypes taken by Southworth & Hawes. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum.

There is a third, badly damaged daguerreotype of Quincy Adams held by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Adams disliked it, noting in his diary that he thought it “hideous” because it was “too close to the original.” More than a hundred years later, in 1970, the daguerreotype was bought for 50 cents in an antique shop. After identification, it was eventually donated it to the nation.

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John Quincy Adams. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

Quincy Adams, born 11 July, 1767, was the son of the second U.S. president, John Adams (30 Oct., 1735-4 July, 1826)—a patriot renown as an American Founding Father. His mother, Abigail Smith (22 Nov., 1744–28 Oct., 1818), called her infant after her dying grandfather, Colonel John Quincy (21 July 21, 1689–13 July, 1767), for whom Quincy, Massachusetts, was named. Quincy Adams spent his formative years with his father on diplomatic missions to France and The Netherlands, studying for some time at the University of Leiden. He would travel to Russia and Scandinavia before returning to America to attend Harvard.

Quincy Adams served as a U.S. senator; a Harvard professor; a minister to Russia, the Court of St. James’s, Portugal, and Prussia; and secretary of state under James Monroe before narrowly winning a four-candidate presidential election in 1824. On 4 March, 1825, he took the oath of office, served one term, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the bitter election of 1828.

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In his prime: John Quincy Adams, aged 29, painted by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Adams married British-born Louisa Catherine Johnson (12 February, 1775–15 May, 1852) in London in 1797. They had three sons and a daughter named after her mother—the latter of whom was born and died in infancy in St. Petersburg, Russia whilst the Adamses were on diplomatic assignment. One son, George Washington Adams (12 April, 1801–30 April, 1829), became a lawyer and politician. He committed suicide by jumping off a steamship in Long Island Sound in April 1829. Another son, John Adams II (4 July, 1803–23 October, 1834), was private secretary to his father during Quincy Adams’ presidency, then went into business.

John Quincy and Louisa’s youngest son, Charles Francis (18 August, 1807–21 November, 1886), led a distinguished political and diplomatic career, then turned to writing history. Charles’s son Henry Adams (16 February, 1838–27 March, 1918) was a noted historian and husband of photographer Marian “Clover” Hooper, who committed suicide by drinking her own darkroom chemical, potassium cyanide. Both Henry and Clover now lay buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery beneath sculptor Augustus St. Gauden’s masterpiece, “Grief.”

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The gravesite of John Quincy Adam’s grandson Henry and his wife Clover, taken in the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Quincy Adams, whose grandson Henry was about five when he sat for the newly found daguerreotype, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives on 21 February, 1848. He was carried to the Speaker’s room and placed in a bed; he died there two days later with his wife and son beside him. Quincy Adams was buried first in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, but was later moved to Hancock Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts, to rest with his ancestors. Ω

Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead in Philadelphia

“Being a Grave Gardeners lets them contribute to a place that holds both personal and historic resonance.”

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Photo by Michael Bixler.

Through the stone gates of Woodlands Cemetery, a tranquil, verdant oasis thrives in the heart of University City. The Victorian necropolis, the last undeveloped parcel of the estate of botanist and plant collector William Hamilton, was preserved and a repurposed as a rural cemetery in 1840 as the city and University of Pennsylvania pushed westward. Today, The Woodlands is flourishing with the aid of creative placemaking and inventive programming.

The Grave Gardeners program is the most recent brainchild of Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff. The cemetery is home to hundreds of “cradle graves,” tombs with both headstones and footstones connected by two low walls that create a bathtub-like basin. In the 1800s, family members of the deceased filled the French-style “cradles” with living, blooming coverlets of flowers. Cultivating these gardens on weekend outings to sylvan cemetery grounds like The Woodlands was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. As descendants scattered and their memories of connections to Victorian ancestors faded, the gardens died out. The Woodlands’ Adopt-a-Grave program enlists the help of volunteers to revive these now scruffy patches of dirt and grass, one grave at a time.

To read this wonderful article in its entirety, click the link below.

Source: Gardeners Bring Cradle Graves Back From The Dead | Hidden City Philadelphia


Thank you to my dear cousin, Elizabeth Harrison, for calling this to my attention.