Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Mystery of the Witch's Grave

Photos by Michelle Souliere (c)2007

This article first appeared in the May 2007 issue of the Strange Maine Gazette as the first project of my new drive to produce original research articles. This one in particular was a devilish project, full of false leads, obscure scrawlings, and ruined graves. Read on...
One of the many urban legends of Maine that I have dug up is from my own home, Portland. The city houses a handful of large cemeteries, in various states of repair. The oldest and smallest are the Eastern and Western Cemeteries, located on the East End and West End of Portland, respectively.

Like any too-urban graveyards, they have suffered the same ravages as the city that surrounds them. Eastern Cemetery, until a recent revitalization, was weed-grown and kept under lock and key because so many vandals have made off with the old slate headstones, breaking off the eerie hand carved skull and crossbones artwork to take home.

Western Cemetery became the focus of a campaign to ban dogs from the graveyard in 2001, and epithets were hurled about, including the labeling of Portland as the “Desecration Capitol of the World.” The pet owners’ unleashed canines were finally barred from Western Cemetery, their antics relocated to a vacant lot behind the St. John Street neighborhood.

In 2003, the Western Cemetery Restoration Project was launched by Greater Portland Graves, and the mausoleums along the back slope of the grounds were repaired. The project is extensively documented, tomb by tomb, with before and after photos on their website.

Photo: An anonymous man perches atop the Western Cemetery mausoleums with a 40 oz. bottle of beer on a sunny March afternoon.

Today, despite these good intentions, the cemetery still looks neglected. Large 40-ounce beer bottles are smashed across the tombstones, vagrants perch on the mausoleum roofs to drink more beer and liquor in broad daylight, and the graveyard is a jumble of broken glass and shattered headstones, with a distinct air of desolation and abandonment.

In amongst the more staid gravestones of slate and limestone, there is one that stands out. Not only is it an impressive grave, even lacking its top spar, but also it is the subject of rampant rumor amongst various youths and adults of the area who are intrigued by the odd and wondrous. What do they say?

Some of them say it houses a witch’s grave, others say a vampire. More reasonable explorers of the truth point out that the prominent cross that mounts the sarcophagus and the use of the word “diaconus” in the Latin inscriptions that wreath the stone indicate the man buried there is a deacon.

The speculations could only have been encouraged by the elaborateness of the grave. Crowned by what must have at one point been a cross (now whittled down to a “T” shape) decorated here and there by Celtic knotwork in rough hewn russet stone, the monument stands out amidst the rubble of broken limestone grave markers in its iron fenced plot.

The cross is mounted on a decorative base covered with a raised pattern that looks like some strange cellular structure. Latin scripts in an ornate typeface (which may explain some of the errors in transcription) are found all over this base, which extends from under the cross to form the frame of a bevel-topped sarcophagus. Only the very bottom of the cross that was carved on its surface remains. The raised pattern and the exquisite Latin text have drastically deteriorated, and whether this is because of vandals, or simple weather and age, it is hard to tell.

Intrigued by the stories, and then mystified by the craftsmanship lavished on the monument itself, I set out to find out what the truth of the matter was. Initially this led me to many dead ends.

This grave is attributed to a “W. A. Baker” in Virginia Greene’s handwritten manuscript from 1938 that transcribes the cemetery’s population stone by stone, held at the Maine Historical Society. This erroneous moniker is repeated in William B. Jordan, Jr.’s book, Burial Records 1811-1980 of the Western Cemetery in Portland Maine (1987).

Add to this decades-long tradition of error and omission the fact that Greene’s transcriptions of the grave’s epitaphs are sketchy at best – hard to read, often wrong, with substantial segments of the text left out.

There was no death certificate on file in the library’s Vital Records archive for a matching Baker, nor in the Maine Historical Society’s collection of obituaries.

In fact, on closer inspection of newspaper notices of the time, it is revealed that the grave is that of the Rev. John W. C. Baker – an entirely different first name and second (now become third) initial from the given records that everyone refers to as a matter of course.

After consulting with the local Episcopal archivist, Elizabeth Maule, I discovered that his full name was Rev. John White Chickering Baker, and that he perished of consumption (the romantic Victorian term for the wasting disease of tuberculosis). When he died in 1871, he was only 33.

The reason I couldn’t find any death certificate for him in the Maine vital records was because he died overseas, in England.

The Eastern Argus of February 27, 1871, contains an article describing how “the last sad rites were performed over the remains” on the 25th:
The remains which were brought from England by the steamer of last week were encased in a gable top casket of English oak wood, upon the top was a red cross running nearly the entire length.
From the remains of the monument visible today, one can see that the theme of design used in the coffin was continued on its stone housing.

The Latin inscriptions on the stone are still visible today, though some are almost completely obliterated.

Requiem Aeternam
Dona ei Domina
Et lux perpetua
Luceat eis.

Via crucis -- Via lucis

O vos ...
Orame pro Anima Johannis
W. C. Baker
Diaconi qui namus
Jan(?) 13, 1837 - Feb 1, 1871

The grave remains a romantic, gothic monument to a bygone day, and the tragic death of a young man of the cloth, far from home, and long before his time was due.

The rumors will no doubt continue to circulate about the dead man’s mythical character, if simply because his ruddy sandstone monument stands out intriguingly, tall and strong even if broken, ornate among the mostly plain and sober white and gray stones of the rest of the cemetery’s populace.

People will linger in its shadow, leaving pennies and other offerings at the base of the stone, and the young deacon will find his final resting place kept company many a night by living souls, unable to stay away because they are curious about him.
Beyond the romantic aura of the Reverend Baker, of interest remains the folkloric connection between tuberculosis and vampirism in Maine and other New England states’ history (see our June 2006 issue article, Medical Cannibalism in Penobscot County). Whether this is an ingredient in the rumors remains to be seen.

However, in long and in short, I will continue to dig into his story and see what other details emerge, and I will correct what I can in the extant records that has been handed down in muddled and erroneous form.

Since I published this article in the Strange Maine Gazette this May, I have been able to add one more story to the list of urban legends associated with this grave in Portland’s Western Cemetery.

A friend of mine who moved to Portland in her early adulthood during the 1980s told me that one of the first local legends she heard was about that very grave.

Friends told her the rumor that if a person stood on the grave at midnight during a full moon, the soul would be sucked out of your body.

This is exceedingly ironic, considering the grave belonged to a young deacon.

More details as warranted!


Anonymous said...

Very cool. I learned a lot from your work--thanks. And thanks also for the link to Portland Graves--who knew? I never knew about that cemetery on Deering Ave near "the ice arena." Is there an older building also called "the ice arena," or is this a reference to the ugly ice arena that faces Park Ave. I've never been able to make much of Cult Maze's naming their debut album "The Ice Arena," but if there's an OLD one, perhaps . . .
Thanks again for the interesting material, Michelle.
David Pence

Michelle said...

Hi David! Thanks, glad you enjoyed the story. I don't think there is any other ice arena in Portland other than the Park Avenue one (and haven't heard of an earlier rink), so I bet that would be the one.

Anonymous said...

From the markings on the top of the crypt I noticed something familiar, I am a mason and have my Grandfathers Masonic ring and there on the side is a plumb and on the crypt at the foot is asquare and above that is the plumb like on the side of my ring. It appears that Rev. Baker was also a freemason.

Michelle said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm afraid there are no insignia on the gravestone but knotwork and crosses -- I'd be more inclined to believe that what you are seeing is just part of the ornamental work, and not Masonic symbols. I have uploaded a detail photo onto my site that should make that clearer.

Here is a photo of the foot of the monument. There is a shape that could be considered to be a Mason's square, but moreover it highlights the beveled edge of the end of the sarcophagus, and is itself beveled. I'm not sure where you see the plumb on the side of the stone.

A Mason said...

Wow, thanks for taking the time to do all the digging and research it took to solve this local urban legend! Since I was a child (I'm now 29) my father would take me to the cemetery and refer to that grave as the "witches grave". He said the stone cross was set above the grave to withhold the witches spirit - and if it was ever removed, her spirit would escape. My mother, who is now in her late 50's was brought there on a school field trip & was told the same folklore when she was a kid. Very cool stuff.... I'm actually not disappointed that it's not a witches grave and rather a Reverend, I will still enjoy the beauty and intrigue of the age-old stone & the mystery of who he was.

LetterWriter said...

The persistence of the vampire and witch legends may have a lot to do with the mysteries that surrounded consumption. It was often seen as a spiritual illness and it is what lead to the exhumation of Mercy Brown and the Tillinhast families in Rhode Island. "Food for the Dead" by Michael Bell is an excellent book about New England "vampire" myths and how they are related to the disease.

Anonymous said...

I came across this post after visiting Western Cemetery last weekend and being drawn to that gravestone. I transcribed what letters were left and photographed the Latin on the other side of the cross, and then tried to find out more online... Finding your post is both gratifying and kind of eerie at the same time! Thank you for sharing this.

GARY said...

I have seen this grave and its so sad to have it look like this,he deserves better than this,in death,and respect,if I were a mason/stone cutter,i would make him a new cross and crypt cover

Sharon Tetreau said...

Who else is buried in that plot?