Usually based in our Suffolk office near Woodbridge, my work with Boydell and Brewer requires me to spend extended periods in our Rochester location in upstate New York. There are many positive aspects to this – both professional and personal – and one of the latter is being able to visit Mount Hope Cemetery, just a few metres away from the office.
It’s a remarkable place in so many ways. First, don’t expect neat rows of anything in Mount Hope. Thousands of years ago, the area was covered in an enormous glacier which, as it melted, scored deep cuts in the landscape, giving the cemetery its undulating topography.
Secondly, its size. I was once told it was the largest graveyard in North America and that wouldn’t be surprising. Climbing up one of its steep paths you’re greeted with a further vista of huddled headstones stretching away to the next ridge. Over 350,000 people are buried here and 500 more join them every year. Thirdly, the architecture of the memorials is astonishingly varied. There are lavish mausoleums with angels gazing balefully down at the final resting place of some once eminent citizen. There are sad little slabs with just Mother or Sister carved onto them, grouped around the more informative headstones of the family patriarchs. There are numerous children, sometimes poignantly described as just “Little Willie” or the like, as if the tiny plot were not obvious enough.
Mount Hope is home to a number of notable figures: visit social reformer and feminist pioneer Susan B Anthony’s grave with its collection of totems balancing on top of her headstone; abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass is not too far away; Nathaniel Rochester has called Mount Hope his final home since 1831 – it was this Revolutionary War soldier and land speculator who founded the settlement that would later become the city bearing his name; and Buffalo Bill’s four children are here, only one of whom lived longer than her famous father.
Twenty years ago, the crypt of Civil War general, Elisha G Marshall, was desecrated and vandalised, his remains scattered around the surrounding area. The General was gathered together and reinterred, although his skull was never recovered nor were the perpetrators ever identified.
Such stories abound in Mount Hope as in any cemetery. Recently, according to an article by Beth Adams in City Newspaper, Rochester’s alternative weekly paper, two local historians published a book (not one of ours) charting Rochester’s African-American history. They discuss Charles Lunsford, for example, Rochester’s first licensed African-American physician. Although he graduated at the top of his class in medical school he was blocked from practicing in the hospital. He persisted, however, and is widely credited with overturning the American Red Cross’ policy prohibiting black citizens from donating blood. This he achieved by recruiting a group of light-skinned African-American donors, revealing his ruse in the local newspaper and shaming the Red Cross into reversing their decision.
Solomon Young – also an eternal resident of Mount Hope – became (the founder of Kodak) George Eastman’s valet and is believed to be the first of the city’s African-American population to own a car. It was Young who found Eastman’s body after he had taken his own life in his lavish mansion. This turbulent history aside, it is simply a delight to wander through Mount Hope on a sunny, spring day, sit beneath a tree fragrant with blossom and watch the birds building their nests and the chipmunks skittering through the grass. One lunchtime I took a photograph of two small headstones, one of which had toppled so that it seemed to rest its head on the other’s shoulder. I put it on social media saying that even in death this couple couldn’t bear to be parted. A more prosaic friend pointed out that the male was two years old and they were probably brother and sister. I prefer my version.
But perhaps my absolute favourite is the ornate headstone of a Mr Hannan which bears the legend, “Now I know something you don’t”. Come on, Hannan, spill the beans – we need to know too.
The book mentioned in this post is Beyond these Gates by Marilyn Nolte and Verdis Robinson with additional research by Carolyne Blount. Beth Adams’ City article may be found on the website at www.rochestercitynewspaper.com. The University of Rochester Press has published books on Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass.