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Lost In Hartford's Old North Cemetery

Elisabeth Petry

June 27, 2010

The thrill of finding the graves of my great-grandparents remains with me to this day. I just wish the stones remained as well. My cousin Ashley James and I discovered the family plot in Old North Cemetery. It was fall, and dead leaves were blowing everywhere, encouraged by the city workers they heaped them into massive piles.

Ash and I had walked around for some time and eventually asked one of the workers if he could direct us to Section I. He gestured toward the back of the cemetery and said, "It's over there somewhere."

We meandered up and down the rows. Finally at the back of the cemetery near Bethel Street, I saw "James" and then "Anna E., daughter of Houston" with a space between the "of" and her maiden name as if someone might add a first name later. The stone belonged to my great-grandmother, Anna Estelle Houston James, who died of tuberculosis in 1894. I yelled, "Ash, I found them, I found them!" Together we examined the stones clustered under a huge tree. There was the patriarch, our great-grandfather, Willis Samuel James; our great-aunt and uncle, Harriet and Fuller; and Willis' daughter, Beatrice, by his third wife.

Newer stones covered the graves of another of Willis' children from his first marriage who died in 1952. Another older stone lay face down. We turned it over but found the inscription impossible to read.

Ash took photos. I pulled some weeds and swept cobwebs and whatnot off the stones.

We made the find seven years ago and returned on the first hot day last summer because Ash is making a documentary about our family and wanted footage of the graves. Once we left the path that bisects the north and south portions of the cemetery, we found ourselves nearly hip-deep in weeds. The place looked as though it had not seen the blade of a mower for at least a year. Even the stones of the Colts and the Olmsteds wore a forlorn, bedraggled look. Many of the legible stones were so covered with vines they were unreadable.

The more we walked, the more concerned I grew about ticks on my skin and dog manure on my sandals and feet. But we persevered. Finally it became obvious that we would have to wait until the weeds died to locate the graves.

We made another foray in early March. This time the grass was short, and the only danger we encountered was the swamp created by the massive rainstorms that preceded our visit. Again, we walked and walked and walked we saw the Colt enclave again. We passed graves of the U.S. Colored Troops. We walked through the Irish section. We walked through the Jewish section.

We found several gravestones that had been broken, which someone had piled on top of each other. We covered the entire 17 acres except for the section immediately inside the main entrance. After two hours, we knew we would not find our ancestors' graves.

Just as we were about to give up, Ash called, "I found Charles." His flat stone read, "Charles James 1866-1952." Touching it at right angles was another stone, "Lillian P. James 1872-1951." A third, older stone that had broken from a pedestal lay nearby. I subsequently learned that it was a stone belonging to Lillian's mother, Isabella Lee Pierce. The rest of the area was covered with pieces of a huge tree. We made another circuit and then surveyed the area from a little hill. The entire section was empty except for those three graves.

First I cried. Then I grew furious. What had the city done with my great-grandparents?

I left messages for John Timm, who has charge of the city-owned cemeteries. We met in early April and toured the area. The entire back half of the cemetery had standing water, courtesy of the downpours that had inundated the area the day before. We took a circuitous route but again located the graves of Charles, Lillian, and Isabella. I spotted a small marker with a "J" on it, indicating the boundary of the family plot.

Timm promised to pull the city records and call or e-mail me. That was on April 3. I've not heard anything since, despite e-mails and phone calls.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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