Saturday, September 29, 2012

Digging Around... the Cemetery

We went walking in Mount Auburn Cemetery on this gray afternoon. The leaves are just beginning to turn. Most of the colorful ones are on the ground — autumn at our feet — while the view above our heads was still as green as summer.

I spotted a trio of beautiful headstones on Lantana Path, carved in raised relief. One was bordered with pine boughs, and one with flowering vines (click to enlarge):

But the headstone between them was the most beautiful and unusual by far, showing a detailed mountain view across a body of water, framed by tall twin evergreens:                                                             

So often, I've come across a striking tombstone and wondered hopelessly about the person resting beneath it. I want the story, and the mystery of it will haunt me until I distract myself with other, less pointless thoughts. Usually, the carving reveals nothing beyond a name and two dates, and perhaps "beloved daughter" or "beloved wife." But the landscape on this tombstone told me a story: this woman loved the outdoors, and her people honored her enough to recreate a particular landscape that she loved on her stone. It seemed clear that her survivors knew that view, too, and that they had all spent time looking at the water from the shadow of those tall trees.

The stone belongs to Harriet Elizabeth Hendricks, wife of John Brooks. Mrs. Brooks was born in 1841 and died in 1915. Her husband's stone has the pine boughs, while her daughter Margaret's stone has the vines. (Her daughter's husband, Fred Norris Robinson, lies beside his wife under a plain stone.)

Those mountains reminded me of Mount Desert Island — not mountains I've seen across the water in Vermont, New Hampshire, and other parts of Maine. Was I imagining things, basing a fantasy on my own love of the island? I resolved to do some online digging to try to discover who these Brooks people were, where they lived, what they did, and, most important, where they summered. 

Tonight, I got busy on Google. Among scores of women named Harriet Brooks was a pioneering nuclear physicist who mucked up my search considerably. But while searching for the even more common "John Brooks," I hit pay dirt with an entry in a 1920's book of Harvard Class Notes. Mr. Brooks was in the class of 1856, lived in Cambridge, and was a banker and businessman "interested" in copper mining. Besides daughter Margaret, they had a son, a lawyer named Arthur. Margaret's husband was Professor Robinson of the English Department. (I later learned that he is renowned as the founding father of Celtic studies in America, and that he gave Harvard his library and endowed a professorship in Celtic Languages and Literature in honor of his late wife.)

More digging revealed that Arthur represented his mother in a 1907–08 court case involving damages for a dress that had been lost while being delivered to their house in Cambridge. Reading the proceedings was confusing because I don't know anything about torts, but I gather that they won. 

I started hunting for their Cambridge address and found it in a Blue Book of Cambridge from 1917. They lived at 5 Ash Street. On Bing, I saw the house, a massive yellow Colonial Revival off Brattle Street. But, even better, the Blue Book listed their summer address: Islesford, Maine. Islesford is on Little Cranberry Island, a 200-acre island off the coast of Mount Desert Island. 

The Brooks House on Ash Street, ©Historic New England,
the first house in Cambridge designed by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, 
nephew of the poet.

So I was right — Harriet's tombstone shows a view of the Acadia Mountains from the northern shore of Little Cranberry. I've been there; there's a small year-round population that swells with summer residents. But it's still a place where one can get away from it all. There's a store, a museum, a library, a restaurant, and some artist studios. People get around on foot or use golf carts and bikes.

I turned up an obituary from 2008 for John and Harriet's grandson, Francis Harrington Brooks, son of Arthur. He went to Harvard, became a trust officer for State Street Bank, and is survived by three daughters. The obituary spoke eloquently of his love of nature: 
He loved the summer vacations, from childhood through his late 80's, spent at the family summer home built by his paternal grandparents on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine.  
How nice to know that Harriet's love for the island continued in her descendants. I couldn't find the address of the house, but I did find a rental listing for the "Brooks Family House" on The fact that the house is still in the family makes me ridiculously pleased. Too many wonderful, turn-of-the-century Maine summer houses have been burned, torn down as antique monstrosities, or sold because the taxes were too high. But Harriet's great-grandchilden, and probably great-great-grandchildren, still enjoy her island view. 

And, finally, there were photos. The house sits close to the shore on a rocky beach — a lovely, weathered Shingle-Style with a protective stone wall. Flanked by tall pines:

The only thing missing was a view of the sea, taken between a pair of pine trees.

So I found that, too, courtesy of The Knowles Company, real estate agents. Compare the profile of these mountain's with Harriet's stone:

A tombstone can lead us to a wonderful story after all. I don't know much about Harriet, but I discovered enough to have a sense of her life and legacy: her children's children played around her evergreens, sailed the same waters, enjoyed that mountain view, and loved the island she loved. 

I'm about to go to bed, feeling as content as if I'd just finished a good novel.


  1. Oh my, well done. I loved that. I ponder similar things, but have never been close to this kind of success.

  2. This is amazing --the story itself, and that you cared enough to find it. You made my day.

  3. Elizabeth B WestMay 7, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Well, this is fun!
    A cousin of mine found this post on your blog recently and sent it to me. We are two of the several Brooks descendants who are connected to the folks whose headstones you found in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Harriet and John Brooks are our great grandparents.
    I'd love to be in touch with you! (And I also like Paris.)

  4. Elizabeth, I'm delighted that you and your cousin found my post! Thank you for writing! Please feel free to contact me at

  5. Sketches for the Brooks slate gravestones are included in the day books kept by John Evans, an especially talented (and successful) carver and architectural sculptor in Boston. His papers are at the Boston Public Library and the Brooks stones are order #7165 in his records for the years 1920-1924. They are lovely stones and you unlocked their meaning.

  6. Thanks for this information! I look forward to getting over there. They are lovely stones indeed, and led me to a wonderful Boston/Cambridge/Harvard story.


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