Whitby Castle, Rye, New York – Front edifice today (Photo credit Jay Heritage Center)
To find the stories that follow, I’ve buried myself in library stacks all along the East Coast. My eyes have gone glassy for hours fixed on a digital stream of 19th century newspapers and class notes, but most of all obituaries, looking for the tiniest factoids. In death, very often, we bare it all. But as any historian will tell you, no matter how many books or bytes you wade through, when you’re tracing the arc of a person’s life, in due course you come up against the one dead-end that can really help you: a cemetery. Here under towering willow and gnarly oak trees, the simplest or most elaborate monuments offer a poignant context for familial relationships. Who is in the family plot? Who’s not and why? Scanning softened marble tablets for meaningful chisel marks is not that different from deciphering hieroglyphs. Birth dates, marriage dates, death dates – that middle initial or maternal middle name recorded nowhere else in the world – can be found in graveyards, if you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky, tombstone rubbers, robbers, and acid rain have erased many inscriptions for good.
So a cemetery was definitely on my road trip list to find out more about Rye’s mysterious William P. Chapman, the wealthy stockbroker who built Whitby Castle, a Gothic Revival jewel in the Boston Post Road Historic District. How did it come to be that we know so little about the owner and history of this grand estate? Everyone knew about the home’s famous architect, Alexander Jackson Davis, but no one seemed to know one whit about the guy who paid his commission and lived in the building from 1854 to the mid 1870s! Where did he come from? Where did he go? What did the P. stand for? Patient readers will follow my wanderings in this first entry, as I tell you about what I unearthed in my quest.
Whitby Castle, Rye, New York – Archival Print showing rear elevation (Photo credit Jay Heritage Center)
To understand William Chapman, it helps to look at his family. In 1825, his father, the Hon. Asa Chapman, a venerated jurist of Connecticut’s Supreme Court died of consumption, “the wasting disease,” what we know today as tuberculosis. He was 56 years old. Judge Chapman was a 6th generation descendant of Robert Chapman of Hull, England, one of the first settlers of “Say-Brooke,” a vast shoreline tract so named for its original English patent holders, the Viscount Saye & Sele and Lord Brooke. According to family history, the “Old Progenitor” first came across the pond in 1635, arriving in Newtown, Massachusetts (today’s Cambridge.) From there he headed down to the mouth of the Connecticut River under orders from Governor John Winthrop to thwart the Dutch from seizing the strategic port first. Together with 25 other men and women, Chapman helped establish a fortified garrison that held its own against repeated assaults by the Pequot Indians before establishing his own 400-500 acre farm on a lot previously cultivated by native tribes.
Robert Chapman’s new homestead had good soil, fresh air and clean water, and it was strolling distance from the shore’s bounty of oysters and the river’s endless stores of salmon and shad. Descendants recalled stands of old pear and apple trees that thrived at the site. But the ground was also “full of shells and arrow-heads, and remains of warriors” which were disturbingly disturbed in several instances, probably as a consequence of the burial of Asa’s own ancestors on the old grounds. In the 17th and 18th century, many of the deceased were buried right where they had lived, sometimes without markers, just as the ancient peoples they displaced had been anonymously interred before them.
Almost 2 centuries after his ancestors settled in a bucolic paradise, Asa, a 1792 Yale graduate, elected to live and die in very different environs – the increasingly urban city of New Haven. Where in life he had achieved a certain stature as a member of a revered New England family, and respect as an eminent lawyer and teacher, so too in death would he enjoy social prominence. Having chosen the Elm City over Saybrook to live out his eternity, Chapman’s peace was to be found at the “New Burying Ground” (today’s Grove Street Cemetery), the first cemetery in the United States – and possibly the world – organized into privately-owned, well marked and articulated family lots.
Grove Street Cemetery was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2000 which goes to show that cultural landscapes matter just as much as buildings do for purposes of interpreting our history (Photo Credit Jay Heritage Center)
This carefully delineated acreage, surrounded by wooden fencing, was laid out like a city map with names of avenues and addresses; it was not landscaped per se but it was shaded by graceful Lombardy spruce trees and syringa (lilac) shrubs. What it afforded families was a new and dignified alternative to the pell-mell disposal of bodies in colonial times. What few today realize is that this urban plan predates the more famous rural cemetery model of Mount Auburn in Boston by more than three decades. Created in 1796 following the pandemic hysteria of the yellow fever plagues, the cemetery was a refined advancement over the haphazard burials of bodies in unmarked graves on Town Greens throughout America. For example, rumored to hold the remains of over 5000 people (some of which were startlingly uprooted during Hurricane Sandy) New Haven’s Green belonged to all its citizens. As it had been established in the 1600s as an egalitarian communal square, it was as likely a destination for proper daylit processions of Puritans as it was for illicit midnight deposits of diseased corpses. The problem: So numerous and so shallow were the graves dug by New Haven’s mourners that the unearthing of random rib cages and femurs by humans and dogs alike was not uncommon. This fate was not to befall Asa Chapman or his contemporaries.
By comparison, the New Burying Ground was divided into an orderly grid: “One square for Yale College. One for strangers. One for people of color.” Chapman’s plot is marked by a red sandstone obelisk adjacent to the massive scrolled sarcophagus of his classmate, Eli Whitney, whose invention of the cotton gin in 1794 revolutionized American industry and makes him the cemetery’s most famous denizen. Whitney had died just 8 months before Chapman of prostate cancer. Having each secured verdant pallets on the same side of “Cedar Avenue,” classmates Chapman and Whitney shared prestigious real estate in their afterlives if not equal prestige in American memory. (One might gather that the Cedar Avenue address was especially choice as the famous lexicographer Noah Webster, also a Yale graduate, is buried in between Chapman and Whitney.)
That cachet could not have mattered much to Chapman’s surviving family. Extrapolating from the dates inscribed on the Chapman stone, William Chapman was only 12 years old when he lost his father. If the tragedy was devastating for William, it had to have been even more bewildering for his younger brother Henry, age 5. But they would survive and move forward vigorously with their lives as the next chapter will show.
Chapman obelisk (left) beside Webster monument (right) (Photo credit Jay Heritage Center)