Catskill Cemetery Papers
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
March 3, 1863
"Methinks it is good to be here;
If thou wilt, let us build"—but to whom ?
Nor Elias nor Moses appear,
But the shadows of Evening encompass, in gloom,
The abode of the dead and the place of the tomb.
Shall we build to AMBITION ? Ah, no!
Affrighted he shrinketh away,
For see, they would pin him below,
In a dark narrow cave, and begirt with cold clay,
To the meanest of reptiles a peer and a prey.
Shall we build to the trappings of PRIDE,
To the tinsel which dizens the proud ?
Nay, now they are laid aside,
And here’s neither dress nor adornment allowed,
Save the pale winding-sheet and the fringe of the shroud.
To BEAUTY? Alas ! she forgets
The charms which she wielded before.
No knows the foul worm that he frets
The skin which, but yesterday, fools could adore
For the smoothness it held, or the tint which it wore.
These lines, last read more than forty years ago, and now imperfectly quoted from memory, have always recurred to me whenever I have visited "Our Cemetery" at the close of day. I have looked at the graves of those who coveted and attained worldly distinction, and it has saddened me to reflect that here is the end of all their schemes and hopes. I have looked at the monuments of those whom I remember as haughty and disdainful, who trod God’s earth as though they spurned it, and have been humbled by the thought that all their majestic footsteps have but tended to the grave. I have leaned upon the tomb-stone of some once lovely girl, and have wondered at, and doubted the justice of that dispensation which sent the canker-worm to eat out the life of the bud, just as it was passing into the full-blown flower. I have sat by the narrow beds of some who were friends and school-mates, and have almost involuntarily called them to return and renew our pleasant associations. But no answer had come back—the voice of friendship meets no response—and silence broods over the loved and lost.
"Friends, lovers, and kindred are laid side by side, Yet none have saluted, and none have replied."
Let, then, the frail tabernacles which I essay to build, be to those to whom death did not come to sever any ardent friendships, to mar any lustrous beauty, to prostrate any haughty spirit, nor to check any ambitious aspirations—but as a blessed minister of relief for all their griefs and sorrows.
Among the humble and stricken class who lived in Catskill in the olden time, were some who were bereft of reason, and who, I am sorry to say, were made sport of by such thoughtless youngsters as myself.
Mother COONRAD is associated with my earliest recollections, and will be remembered by many of your elder readers as "a lively old gal." Hers was a merry and, sometimes, a meddlesome madness. She used to sing all sorts of ditties to all sorts of tunes, and they were not always of the most refined, or delicate form of expression. She danced, too, all manner of jigs, and pigeon-wings, with a looseness and display of limb which, in those days, (it was before the advent of Madame CELESTE,) was considered rather immodest. She had, too, a great and, sometime, troublesome inclination to "set things to rights." I have known her to enter a kitchen, seize the broom, drive out the inmates, and set herself busily at work to sweep every corner of the room and hearth, dust the furniture, arrange all the chairs in a row against the wall, and then depart, with one of the peculiar saltatory exhibitions, flinging back a charge of sluttishness against some of the neatest and tidiest housewives in the Village.
SALLY VAIL was the opposite of Mother Coonrad. Hers was a melancholy madness, and it was said that unrequited affection was the cause of her malady. (If she was always as homely as I remember her, I cannot find it in my heart to blame her swain for declining to swap loves with her.) She moped about, OPHELIA-like, crooning over such dismal ballads as "Barbara Allen," and begging pins, and seemed happiest when the sleeve of her linsey-woolsy gown was covered, from shoulder to wrist, with these shining little articles, arranged like the chevrons on an Orderly Sergeant’s jacket.
But the one who will be freshest in the memory of your citizens, and JOSEPH WYMAN. Before my time he had taught a school in the Village, and I have heard that he was a most excellent teacher. He had been absent from Catskill for many years, and I don’t know that I had ever heard of him, when, one cold afternoon, as I was sitting in the store of TERTULLUS LUDINGTON, at the foot of Main street, a tall, stout-built man, in butternut-colored clothes, and a snuffy nose, came in, followed by a short woman with a suffler nose, and a moustache which would be envied by any of our young bucks in these hirsute days. The man called for some gin, and after dividing it with the woman, looked around upon the company, and asked: "Am I quite forgotten—does no one here know me?" and then went off into a wild and incoherent declamation. Suddenly ceasing, he singled out a man from the crowd, which had gathered, and throwing his arms about him, exclaimed: "My old friend, TUNIS RYER, have you forgotten JOSEPH WYMAN? " The scene was ludicrous. Tunis, who was troubled with a sort of string-halt, twitched and writhed, and wiggled in the lunatic’s embrace, but he might as well have tried to extricate himself from the hug of a bear—while the woman, in sympathetic joy, made a similar tender demonstration on the whole crowd, from which I fortunately escaped by hiding in the cellar. Quiet being, after a while, restored, Wyman introduced his companion as his wife, ELIZABETH; Tunis, after some rubbing, ascertained that his bones were whole, and ELI LUDINGTON treated the company. In this way I became acquainted with Joseph Wyman, and Elizabeth, his wife.
After this, he became a fixture in the town, and his senses becoming more and more hopelessly impaired, he was made the butt of all the wild pranks of all the vagabond boys of the Village. By the aid of some good-hearted person, he managed to build a little shanty, about the size of a dry-goods box, on the site afterwards occupied by the Cholera Hospital, and here all sorts of annoyance was practiced upon him. The spring, where he obtained his little supply of water (his principal drink was Gin) was roiled, dead cats were thrown into his window, and living cats were let down his chimney. On such occasions he would rush out, and failing to find his tormentors, would indulge in the most uncouth oaths and hideous blasphemies which I ever heard issue for mortal lips. I have sometimes thought that his sin would not, at last, be charged so much to the account of the poor old man as to that of his persecutors.
The last trick which I remember to have been played upon him, came nigh to being serious in its consequences. A gang of lads, some of them old enough to know better, supplied themselves with long levers, and at the hour of midnight went to work to disturb the perpendicularity of Joe’s domicile. Slowly, inch by inch, one side was elevated, until the floor described an angle of forty-five degrees with the horizon, when down slid the table, the stools, the stove, the kettles and bed with its inmates, in one mass, against the door, barring all egress, and the coals igniting the bedding, it seemed, for a few minutes, that a holocaust would be made of poor Joe and Betty Wyman. After the fire was quenched, Joe stood in prefect silence—not an oath, not even an ejaculation escaped him. Like the man who lost his ashes, he seemed to lack expletives to "do justice to the subject."
Not long after this, the couple left town, and I presume long ere this found a refuge from all earthly annoyances, and mayhap, in a better world than this, have recovered that reason of which, by the inscrutable providence of God, they were her deprived.
* * * * *
At this moment the tap of a muffled drum arrests my attention, and looking from my window, I see the coffin of a dead soldier carried past. The mournful strains of the Dead March, the reversed arms, and the saddened faces of this late associates, as they bear him on his way to some other "Village Cemetery," causes me to feel how insignificant are my attempt to revive the memories of the very few who are laid in our own burial grounds, as contrasted with the labor which will be required to write the individual history of the hecatombs which have been sacrificed in this War.