Vol. LXI, No. 30
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
What do a Civil War veteran who was busted from brigadier to private, a monied philanthropist said to have been buried with her grandma's string of pearls, a jazz pianist, a cat called Walter, and the nation's most famous duelist all have in common?
They are all buried right here in Princeton on almost 19 acres of what otherwise might be prime real estate in the center of town.
The Reverend Reid Byers, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, led a free guided tour of the Princeton Cemetary on Wednesday, July 4. The official burial ground of the University and the Seminary, the cemetery is a place of local and national interest.
Setting out with a group of over 70 interested listeners (clearly more than he had anticipated), Mr. Byers began his tour from the main entrance on Greenview Avenue where self-guided tourmaps are available in a box by the gate.
The cemetery, which dates from 1757, has been described as the "Westminster Abbey of the United States," he said. Even though many prominent citizens have been buried there, including most of the presidents of the University as well as a president of the United States, Mr. Byers suggested that the description was a little overblown. "Let's call it the Westminster Abbey of New Jersey," he suggested.
Among the notables buried here are pollster George H. Gallup, duelist Aaron Burr, Jr., Pal Joey author John O'Hara, logician Kurt Gödel, physicist John von Neumann, former slave Jimmy Johnson, publisher Sylvia Beach, and a Bordentown high school teacher known as Chief Baldeagle.
Their stories are as diverse as their origins and gifts, said Mr. Byers, who has at 0various times earned his living as a writer, a welder, a choir director, a programmer, a blue-water sailor, a Presbyterian minister, and a computer systems architect. Currently, he is studying the history of private library architecture.
Because the cemetery consists of a maze of roads and pathways, some of which have been filled in over time to provide additional space for new burials, Mr. Byers said that a tour is almost a necessity. "Like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, where staircases change direction overnight, paths here can disappear," he said.
Occupying more than 18 acres, larger than one would expect when viewed from Wiggins Street, the cemetery is bounded on the south by Wiggins, on the east by Jefferson, on the north by Franklin, and on the west by Witherspoon. While officially the Cemetery of Nassau Presbyterian Church, it is not restricted to members of that church.
As with most cemeteries, it was originally sited next to the church. When Princeton University (College of New Jersey at that time) wanted to expand, an exchange of land was arranged in which the church received a plot next to Wiggins in 1757 from Judge Thomas Leonard, a member of the Provincial Council. The graves of 34 members of one family were moved from the plot next to the church.
Subsequent gifts of land from Dr. Thomas Wiggins; Moses Taylor Pyne, the enthusiastic University alumnus whose home, Drumthwacket, is now the official residence of the governor of New Jersey; and Paul Tulane, the successful dry goods merchant for whom Tulane University and Tulane Street are named; added to the cemetery. The oldest section is reserved for presidents of the University. The oldest grave is that of Aaron Burr, Sr., which is situated close to that of his son, Aaron Burr, Jr., the vice president of the United States famed for his duel with Alexander Hamilton. A section is also reserved for University students. And although there is a special section for children, their graves can be found throughout the cemetery.
The tour visited graves of both historic and local interest: President Grover Cleveland; New York Times Editor-in-Chief John Huston Finley; Rockingham builder John Berrian; University President John Witherspoon; Hubble scientist Lyman Spitzer; preacher Jonathan Edwards, among them. It included some graves with unusual headstones, such as the William H. Hahn, Jr.'s "I told you I was sick," which Mr. Hahn dictated to his stonecutter just six days before he died, or so the story, as told by Mr. Byers, goes.
Indian War and Civil War enthusiasts will find Brigadier General Roger Atkinson Pryor of the Confederate Army who "was busted to private by Jeb Stuart," so the story goes, and subsequently became a scout. After the war and almost impoverished, he reinvented himself in New York City, first as a newspaperman, then as a lawyer, and ultimately as a supreme court judge.
Civil War Major General David Hunter lies here. According to Mr. Byers, Hunter was "a man ahead of Lincoln in emancipating slaves and the first to recruit a black regiment." For political reasons Lincoln had to rescind Hunter's orders. Later, Hunter was the judge at the trial of Lincoln's assassin.
Visitors will find names of local historical interest such as the philanthropic Marquand family. According to urban legend, Eleanor Marquand is buried with the pearls that her grandmother wears in a portrait by John Singer Sargeant, now in the University Art Museum.
Mr. Byers peppered his talk with such snippets, as well as contemporary urban legend the ball over the grave of Tulane Morse is reputed to spin during the hours of darkness.
When the tour stopped at the monument for Paul Tulane, it was noticed that Mr. Tulane's statue has his back to the town and hence the University. As the story goes, the philanthropist wanted to give a large gift to the University on the condition that it be named for him. According to Plainsboro resident Carol Thomas, whose husband Frank is a graduate of Tulane, the odd placing indicates Tulane's disdain. According to Mr. Byers, it has probably more to do with the location of the grave with respect to a pathway.
Lingering over the grave of Robert Field Stockton, the Navy captain who attacked slave trading ships and fought Barbary Coast pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, Mr. Byers pointed out Stockton's interest to history as not only the first governor of California but also as a New Jersey senator, president of the D&R canal, and inventor of a new kind of canon (that exploded on testing) and a steam powered screw propelled ship.
At the gravesite of Grover Cleveland, twice president of the United States, who died in Princeton in 1908, Mr. Byers pointed out strings of shells. The shell is symbolic of life in the Christian tradition, said Mr. Byers, as stones are in the Jewish tradition. Their presence shows that someone remembers. This cemetery is well-cared for, said Mr. Byers, and care is taken not to remove anything which is a traditional object of veneration or respect.
Close by a little chapel-like structure for the Fisher family, is a head stone marking the grave of former Princeton Township Mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund, adorned with slivers of silver silk cloth. Her epitaph reads: "a passion for beauty and justice."
Many stones exhibit the ravages of time with indecipherable inscriptions, especially on those made of sandstone and marble. According to Mr. Byers, the best material for an enduring memorial is granite.
A stone skull with wings marks the grave of Margaret Leonard, wife of Judge Thomas Leonard, original owner of the site.
At the corner of Wiggins and Nassau the stump of an old elm tree that succumbed to Dutch elm disease, has wrapped itself around the grave of Dr. Thomas Wiggins, who gave three acres to the cemetery.
George Dashiell Bayard a veteran of the frontier wars and the Civil War rests under an obelisk with crossed swords. Bayard served under General Burnside and died at the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, just four days short of his 27th birthday.
Perhaps the most poignant stone remembers Elizabeth S. Thompson and two of her five children, Mary and Eugene, who died with 68 other passengers on the Henry Clay, a Huson river steamboat, which caught fire after its captain had illegally fastened down the boilers' steam valves during a race with another steamboat.
Mr. Byers challenged visitors with three anomalies: one person everyone thinks is buried here but is not, one person who ought to be buried here but is not, and one person who is buried here but ought not to be.
Sylvia Beach, who founded Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in the 1920s, is buried here. "Ms. Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses when no one else would touch it and by rights she should have been buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery," said Mr. Byers.
While the grave of Pastor William Drew Robeson (1845-1918) and his wife Maria Louisa Bustill (1853-1904) are here, that of their son Paul Robeson is not. "Furious at Princeton because of its conservative values, Paul Robeson refused to be buried here and is interred at Hartsdale cemetery in New York," said Mr. Byers.
Racial segregation applied in death as in life up until the mid 1940s, and a predominantly African American section of the cemetery is situated opposite the traditionally black church on Witherspoon Street. Here you will find a tribute to James Johnson erected by the graduates of Princeton University. "Jimmy" Johnson died in1902 and his epitaph reads, "The Students Friend."
African American artist Rex Goreleigh lies here as does stride pianist Donald Lambert, who played in Harlem and Newark (his stone is inscribed with a bar of musical notes). Howard B. Waxwood, Jr. one of the first black graduates of Princeton High School and principal of what would later become John Witherspoon Middle School, is also buried here.
The tour, which normally takes just a little over an hour, ran over an hour and a half on July 4. Nine-year Borough resident Cathleen Carroll of John Street, who had visited the cemetery on numerous occasions, said afterwards that she had had learned a great deal and would be returning again for closer look at the gravestones. "The story of J. Paul Baldeagle was new to me and I shall go look him up. I'd also be interested in finding von Neumann and Gödel," said Ms. Carroll who works at Princeton University.
"Any one of these stones could tell an amazing story," said Mr. Byers, whose next public tour will be in the fall, some time in early October. He also leads tours for groups by appointment. For more information, call (609) 497-1020.
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