Consolations of History

Casual Glimpses into Brattleboro’s Past

Written by Martha M Moravec



They stole a statue, a two-foot leaden figure of a boy, from a fountain on the grounds of the Brattleboro Retreat. They stole cemetery urns. They scaled local barns and steeples in pursuit of weathervanes, which, in the mid 1970s, had become valuable collector’s items and could fetch high prices from antique dealers. They took a peacock weathervane valued at several hundred dollars from a Retreat building. They took a prized ox weathervane from the George Thomas farm on Putney Road.

And on September 9 1974, they stole “The Spirit of Life.” 

She is a lady, an angel to some, a goddess with wings whose flowing robe, right upraised knee and arched foot endow her with a stirring sense of motion and grace. For 50 years she stood atop a five-foot high granite fountain base set in the middle of a pool in front of the Holstein Fresian building at the south end of Main Street.

In darkness, members of a clearly organized ring climbed the fountain, dismantled the piece of lead caulking and the copper wire pipe holding her in place and handed the 300-pound statue to accomplices standing below.

Brattleboro’s “Spirit of Life” [left] is a small-scale reproduction of a work by Daniel Chester French, one of America’s most notable sculptors in the early 20th century. His masterpiece, the massive, brooding statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, needs no introduction. He also sculpted the Revolutionary War "Minute Man," which is found today at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. And he is responsible for the John Harvard Monument located in Harvard Yard, otherwise known as the Statue of Three Lies. (Bonus points if you can tell us what the three lies are.)

The original “Spirit of Life” [right] stands in a gorgeously landscaped section of Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, New York. She was commissioned in 1914 as part of a memorial to Spencer Trask, a Wall Street financier responsible for reviving the city’s reputation as a health resort. A winged woman handsomely draped and robed, with her hands extended high above her head, she represents Hygieia, the giver of health, who usually appears in Greek and Roman art accompanying her father, Asklepios, the god of medicine.

In French's conception, Hygieia holds a shallow bowl aloft; in the other hand she clasps a pine bough, a reference to the towering pines on the grounds of the Trask estate. Poised lightly on a rock with water flowing from its cleft, her inscription reads, "To do good and serve my fellow man."

Over the next few years several smaller castings of the statue were commissioned, made directly from the artist’s original scale model for the Spencer Trask memorial. One of the castings made its way to Brattleboro, with French’s consent and good wishes, owing to his close ties to a monument company with studios in Vermont.

The Brattleboro casting was unveiled in May of 1924 as part of a community effort to upgrade what had become a neglected section of town. In the delicate words of one of the ceremonial speakers, the south end of Main Street had become known for its scattering of benches “occupied by men waiting for trains who planned to make the trip without paying their fares.”

Those who favored converting the plaza to a parking lot had been voted down by those who thought a parking lot would be unsightly, especially in the eyes of newcomers coming into town by way of the Connecticut River bridge. The civic plaza improvement committee elected to spruce up the space as a “beauty spot.”

Two and a half thousand people attended the unveiling ceremony, which took place on May 5 1924 and opened with a concert by the Brattleboro Military Band. The name of the project’s chief benefactor, Lyman E. Holden, was revealed and the Reverend Edwin P. Wood, pastor of All Souls Church, proclaimed, “We have tonight a vision of Main Street with new pavement and ornamental lights, so that from the Common to the Plaza it will be a thoroughfare of which we may be justly proud.”

The ceremony ended with The Star Spangled Banner.

Fifty years later, when thieves snatched “The Spirit of Life” from under their noses, the people of Brattleboro belatedly woke up to what they had lost. They applauded the prodigious efforts of Police Captain Gordon E. Smith to recover what was now understood to be the signed work of a distinguished sculptor.

Captain Smith dispatched a thousand illustrated flyers to 500 police departments, state police units and insurance companies in New York and Boston, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which ultimately led to the recovery of $200,000 worth of antiques, art objects and public ornaments. Eleven people, most of them based in Hartford and West Hartford, were arrested. 

Captain Smith traced “The Spirit of Life” to an antique store in York, Pennsylvania. The unsuspecting dealers planned to paint her white, mount her on a large fountain and sell her for 800 dollars more than they had paid. They had already found a buyer when Smith, praised in the Reformer for his dogged persistence, dedicated detective work and distinction as “Brattleboro’s own combined version of Sherlock Holmes and Kojak,” drove to York in his station wagon and brought her home himself.

The winged lady sat in a police evidence room for two years before returning to her perch in Plaza Park. When, as feared, she was vandalized and knocked from her pedestal, she was stashed for her own safekeeping in a storeroom at the Brattleboro Water Department. There she languished for 10 years until two civic-minded public works employees persuaded the town to pay for repairs and a good cleaning. She was put on display at Brooks Memorial Library, where she stands today.

Speaking at the unveiling ceremony 90 years ago, the Reverend Edwin P. Wood said, “A citizen had a vision of a beautiful plaza park and behold – in field and stone and granite the dream came true. An artist dreamed a dream of beauty and in bronze we see the realization of his dream.”

A contemporary account in the Brattleboro Reformer described her thus: “Symbolizing the life-giving power of the waters, the superbly graceful angel is shown stepping down from the rocks, the left hand aloft and supporting the Cup of Life from which the waters overflow. A spay of water also gushes from the base of the bronze which is modeled to resemble a rocky spring. The play of water falls into a monolithic bowl from which it overflows into a pool.”

The original sculpture inspired Henry Van Dyke, American author, educator and theologian, to declare: “It is a message in bronze, saying silently to the children of men that life is not a care and a burden but a blessing and a joy to all who live in purity and love.”

People don’t talk like this anymore. And Brattleboro’s “graceful angel” no longer swans over her fountain in Plaza Park with spays of water gushing from her base and waters overflowing from her Cup of Life. She stands rather inconspicuously in a corner of the town library, an anticlimax that begs for a follow-up story in this column about the sad and sordid end of the model who posed for the original.

In contrast to its model’s fate, however, the statue’s checkered life strikes me as a story of redemption. As I read about her comings and goings, I came to appreciate her mettle and morale as a memorial to a man who “gave himself abundantly to hasten the coming of a new and better day.” Despite the vanishing of an age that idealized her, her stamina shines through in the account of how she was lost and then found, vandalized but saved again, stashed away for her own sake and then forgotten and then recalled, rehabilitated and restored to the light of day, the lithe and lovely, unquenchable Spirit of Life.


{An engraving on the statue in Harvard Yard identifies the subject as John Harvard, who founded the college in the year 1638. The Three Lies are: 1) it is not John Harvard, for whom there are no living representations, but Sherman Hoar, a future member of Congress and US district attorney, who posed for Daniel Chester French; 2) John Harvard was the college’s first major benefactor, but not its founder; and 3) it was a vote by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that launched Harvard—in the year 1636, not 1638.}


Who are these women?

I have no idea.

Are they all related in some way? Is this an extended family basking on the porch after church and Sunday supper? If so, where are the men folk? Why are there so many women and only two children? And what is that teddy bear doing there?

So. Not a family. Except for the two children (and the bear), this appears to be a ladies only event. Is this a coffee klatch? Where’s the coffee? Tea then. But where’s the cream and scones?

Most of these women appear to be sewing. Are they multitasking, mending shirts while they sit and gab or is this an intentional meet? A sewing circle? A quilting bee? Was this not a woman’s chief diversion at that time, a chance for her to be sociable and creative while she made warm bedding for her family, an occasion more intimate than a barn raising, apple paring bee or corn husking contest?

Let’s say they’re making a quilt. Will it be functional or something fancy? A crazy quilt? A friendship or album quilt? Are the found fabrics mostly flannel, feedsack and denim or things with real import, scraps from a christening dress or a grandmother’s wedding gown?

My guess is that this quilt won’t be too fancy. These are not fancy women. Note the absence of earrings, hair ornaments and decorative combs; note the sameness and plainness of their clothes. By the way, why is everyone’s hair uniformly and severely pinned up? This must have been the custom of the day for women of a certain age and situation, but why?

Perhaps they are making a bride quilt.  Which one of these women is the mother of the bride? Has she forced her daughter into a loveless match? Will the quilt tell a story, perhaps a quite different tale of tender, weepy, steadfast love?

Speaking of stories, although they don’t seem to be saying much at the moment, when they do talk, what do they talk about? Recipes, child-rearing, family news. Do they all believe in God? Is there an atheist among them? Or a suffragette? Would any of them admit to being either one?

Who owns this house? Has she served refreshments? If so, what? I am picturing daintily cut ham sandwiches, oyster sandwiches, creamed shrimp on toast, deviled chicken legs and salmon mayonnaise, fairy cakes and fruit cakes washed down with ginger beer and maybe wine, perhaps hock or claret with lots of soda water.

Maybe inside the house, there are older women piecing and quilting layers around a quilting frame and in the kitchen, younger women preparing dinner. Perhaps the men folk are coming over in the evening for a party of cold lamb, meat pies and layered sponge cake, then parlor games and then a square dance with fiddles.

Perhaps not. That’s such a petty picture. And these women are not pretty.

Which one is the biggest bitch, which one the peacemaker? How many are married and of the married ones, how many are happy? Which one(s) lie awake at night wondering if this is the night she fetches the axe from the root cellar and brings to an end 25 years of brutality or excruciating boredom? Are there any mother-daughter combos here? Sisters? Which ones are best friends? Who secretly despises whom? Who suspects whom of trysting with her husband on the nights she has to travel to Ludlow to sit with her ailing aunt?

Which ones have PMS? Do they even know what PMS is? It looks like the majority here has gone through menopause. Was it a time of reawakening for them, ripening and transformation, a time of transition eased by sisterhood and solidarity or was it something to be endured and to just keep quiet about?

Four of them are looking directly at the camera. The others are not. Why and why not?

Observe the woman in the front row to your right, the youngest woman who appears to be the mother of the two children. I would like to know first of all, where is her hair? And what are those dark circles around her eyes? Is she as ill as she looks? She seems to be simultaneously peering at the camera and talking to her daughter. What is she telling the little girl?

Smile. Be a little fool and smile. Smile even though you are considered inferior and less deserving, good only for labor, looks and pleasure. Smile, despite the fact that you can’t vote, legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy, legally practice birth control, wear pants or seek redress for sexual harassment and marital rape. Smile and when you’re older, get the hell out of this beat town just as soon as you can.

Do these women feel safe?

How many of these women were sexually abused in childhood or adolescence? Who trifled with them? A father, uncle, brother? The iceman, the choir master or the pimply, walleyed cousin who came down twice a year from St. Albans on Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July?

Which ones are widows? Which ones never married? Which one never married but had a torrid affair with a fire eating aerialist from a traveling circus in her youth? Which one is a closet lesbian? Which two are known as “special friends?” Or have they kept it a secret for 30 years? (My guess would be the two in the back row to your far right.)

Who’s having the best sex? Who’s having the most sex? Which one hasn’t had sex in 20 years? Which one never did and never will have sex? Those without children: do they consider themselves null, do they think of themselves as vacuums, space devoid of matter?

Aren’t they hot in all that clothing? No, wait, some are wearing sweaters, so it could be early autumn. But even if they were feeling overheated, would they feel free to shed a few layers, remove some of their clothes? Or would they stay covered all over and buttoned up, with a hundred things to hide: secrets, sexuality, shame. Dreams. Dreams and desire.

Do they ever stand naked in front of their husbands in the light of day? Do they ever behold their nude bodies in a full-length mirror?

I would love to sit among these women on this sunny afternoon and absorb their deep deadpan silence along with whiffs of talcum powder and musty lilac, lavender and lemony rose. I would try to ascertain what’s in back of those grins, those half grins - not full, openhearted grins – but self-conscious grins, because they’re having their picture taken, and complacent, because they no longer ask themselves whether they are happy. They mostly assume they are.

If I could choose a super power, it would be the ability to travel through time.  I would latch onto these women’s reality in the smells of old carpet, linseed oil and roast chicken wafting through the window. I would know them by their antique scent of bitter almonds, vanilla and verbena.

By the way - who took this picture?

Maybe it was me.


While browsing through Pinterest recently, I found a picture of Schloss Reinhardsbrunn, a castle ruin in the German state of Thuringia. Once the site of a Benedictine Abbey (1085-1525), in 1827 the grounds lent themselves to a country house and English-style pleasure garden for the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family. It was there that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first met.

During WWII, the estate passed from royals to the Reich Chancellery to the Soviets, who used it as a military hospital. In 1961 it re-opened as a hotel that would be favored by Eastern Bloc business leaders and scientists and historians from around the world.

What does this have to do with our casual glimpse into Brattleboro history? Not much really, except for the fact that my imagination ferments over a site that can accommodate the ghosts of an eleventh-century Benedictine abbey, a summer palace, a military hospital and a showpiece hotel and that this fascination carries over to a building in downtown Brattleboro, which, despite the smaller scale and shorter time span, has also lived several lives. 

Any building over 20 years old can change hands and identity several times over, but what makes this one so interesting to me is that its incarnations so closely reflected their moment in time.

The building is commonly known as the old Methodist Church on Elliot Street. In 1880 Brattleboro’s Methodist congregation moved into this High Victorian Gothic church, which was designed for them by Rutherford B. Hayes’ grandson, Warren Hayes of Elmira, New York. The new church seated 400 people and contained the first Estey pipe organ ever made. It was known as Opus 1, Model A.

In 1970 this stately dark brick church with its distinctive steeple, massive bell tower and quick descent 3 stories down to the level of Flat Street, was deconsecrated. The First United Methodist congregation moved to a modern edifice on Putney Road, taking the bell and Opus 1, Model A with them.

In 1973, local visionaries renovated the abandoned church, exchanging the sanctuary for a stage and the pews for 150 red upholstered seats. They put a lighting booth in the choir loft, dressing rooms, costume and scene shops in the basement and reopened the landmark building as the Brattleboro Center for the Performing Arts.

I remember seeing play readings and experimental theatre there and an excellent production of The Odd Couple. The Friends of Music at Guilford staged The Beggar’s Opera at the “BCPA”, Dance Fables, in collaboration with the Brattleboro School of Dance, and original one-act operas by local composers. I also remember a classic film series. There were pigeons in the lighting booth and an atmospheric Italian restaurant next door, Via Condotti, where people gathered beneath strings of chianti basket wine bottles for drinks and lively discussion after rehearsal or a show.

I remember Main Street at that time as being a funky blend of a working town hub and a new utopia for the arty, countercultural set. The funds and public interest in the BCPA ran out at about the same time that the funk on Main Street yielded to a more yuppified air. The old Methodist Church was merely keeping up with the times when the sixties and seventies-flavored theatre folded and the building gave over to commercial uses in the early 1980s. 

The popular Spring Tree Café moved from Flat Street into the basement and gentrified itself from a neighborhood bar to a gourmet restaurant. The upstairs was gutted of its stage and seating, the nave was divided by a longitudinal wall and while I cannot remember all of what went on there, I do recall buying silk scarves and a leather cigarette case at a high-end woman’s boutique.

In 1987, Wildwater Outfitters epitomized the affluence of the eighties with its fiberglass canoe on display out front and upscale inventory of white water and flat water kayaks, sail boards, backpacking and rock climbing equipment, sports clothing and accessories, sleeping bags and tents.

Meanwhile, downstairs, with gay liberation in full swing, the Spring Tree Café had morphed into Colors, a gay nightclub behind a heavy wooden door featuring a chameleon logo, imposing bar, bistro tables and menu and an elevated dance floor with a dazzling disco ball.

Having reinvented itself from a century-old church to a theatre to high-end restaurants and retail stores to a gay disco, the old Methodist Church is now mostly inhabited by the Hotel Pharmacy, a family owned and operated business that had played its own game of leapfrog on Main Street. Its name derives from the fact that it opened some 40 years ago in the Brooks House Hotel on the corner of High Street and Main. Which people might remember as the Dragonfly. Before the fire. Now Duos.

And in the basement of the old church now? KidsPLAYce, where, during the Independence Day parade, while cooling off over a dish of Red, White, and Blueberry Bliss ice cream, you can pick up your tickets to Circus Smirkus. The ghosts of pastors and choirs, playwrights and actors, chefs, night clubbers and disco dancers linger and lag in the background of a nonprofit Children’s Discovery Center, where a boat, a castle and train, mazes, book nooks, legos and blocks mirror our kid-centered times.

I’ve lived in Brattleboro for 40 years, long enough to imagine that one could make a parlor game out of contestants guessing Which Store Was Where on Main Street When.

I remember a time when I thought that Brattleboro’s true strength and spirit came to light in the peaceful coexistence of three establishments now defunct but once thriving within spitting distance of each other: when Colors, the gay bar and disco, stood across the street from The Common Ground, where hippies and granola-heads ate tahini and sprouts almost directly across the street from Ransom Hastings, a rowdy “locals” bar famous for breaking out into late-night fights.

There is a Facebook page called “I Grew Up in Brattleboro” that sometimes plays the game of remember this - when it was here? And where did it go from there?

Does anyone remember Dunklee's Machine Shop on Flat Street? Go in and ask for a 3/4" grade 8 bolt 6" long and old man Dunklee or his son would walk directly to the location. I was always amazed by how they knew where their inventory was.

Anyone recall the big fire that took Woolworths?.... Yup, I could see the smoke all over town from the high school ……. I thought, there goes my childhood…. That store held a lot of great memories for me. I got my first fish tank there. But mostly I remember the soda fountain shop they had, that was a real treat.

A lot of people remember that soda fountain. A lot of people remember that fire.

After the fire you could no longer see who was coming up Main Street by the reflection in the window, while sitting on the front steps of the Baptist Church. That was a real loss for some of us.

Whether it’s the hushed footfall of eleventh-century monks reporting to prayer, the first timorous sighs between Victoria and her beloved prince, the plaintive aria of a contemporary one-act opera or the clang of bolts being pulled from the drawer of a machine shop, every place still standing, every ruin we can see and all the sites we cannot see, the demolished buildings, lost graves and buried cities, contains the echoes and murmurs of lives we lived and lives we have trouble recalling and the many millions of lives we will never know but could still relate to in some fundamental human way, if given the chance. History offers that chance.

I think Cushman's was on Elliot Street. They had bicycles…...Wait, wasn't that Red Circle, with all the bikes on the main floor and the toy and hobby department downstairs?...... No, the toy store was in a building on Elliot Street. I bought lots of model antique car kits there……..Red Circle was further out Elliot, on the other side of the street…….I don't remember a toy shop but do remember a cab stand.

Wasn't Red Circle next to Wagner's shoes, where the stores ended on that side before Mikes? The parking garage is there now where the fence was.…….Thank you for mentioning Cushmans! For years I thought I had dreamed it because no one remembered a toy store on Elliot at the corner of the Harmony Lot. I spent a lot of time in there looking at dolls!

I remember Cushmans. I thought it was a paint shop. Tulip Café is there now. Red Circle was across the street and it did sell toys.
……The first location was in the middle of the parking lot but then it moved to the location at the entrance on the left side. When it closed it became a barber shop…….Yellow Cab had an office in the Harmony Lot. We used to go out the back door of First National and walk across to get a cab……..

Question: who remembers the night Via Condotti burned?

And in the 1988 photo below: where is this person going?


And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. ~ Shakespeare

From an early age I have gravitated toward graveyards, where, despite my obsessive fear of death, I feel soothed by their remote air of melancholy and immense, incorruptible silence. I have felt drawn to graveyards for different reasons during different stages of my life.  As a teenager with a Gothic streak, I went to them to brood, particularly on moody, windswept, overcast days.

Over the years, graveyards became settings for picnics, moonlit walks and an instinctual search for stories as I puttered from stone to stone piecing together lost lives out of dates, inscriptions, relationships and life spans. In middle age I took to practicing tai chi among the dead at sunrise.

Recently, while doing volunteer work at the Brattleboro Historical Society, the woman responsible for cutting and pasting obituaries from the Brattleboro Reformer into notebooks piqued my interest with her comments on how drastically the language in obituaries had changed over the years. I started leafing through the notebooks and quickly found myself drawn in by the same eerie fascination that drives me to cemeteries.

But it was not the later obituaries that I read with such total attention, most of which are terse and dry accounts, as though the less said the better. I became engrossed in the obituaries written before 1940. One can’t help noticing that after mid-century the reports of people’s death begin to shed their intimate nature.

Language reveals the medical sense and sensibilities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Often a person did not die; he or she “succumbed.” The given causes of death sound archaic: Acute dilation of the heart. Apoplectic shock. Convulsions and infections. Malignant typhoid fever complicated by pneumonia. A painful affection of the heart. Intestinal grip.

Often we hear only that death was caused by shock. One man died very suddenly of “heart attack caused by acute indigestion” (is that even possible?) Others died more slowly from ”infirmities due to advanced years” or “a general breaking down.” One woman, before succumbing in 1888, had suffered from “general prostration for quite some time.”

General prostration? A general breaking down? I’m not familiar with these terms as pathways to mortality. However, what I find most striking about these obituaries is not the terminology, but their immediacy and narrative sense. Page after page includes details that are personal, private and impressively poignant.

The tragic accidental death in 1937 of young William Holbrook, whose family occupied the former home of Rudyard Kipling, sounds more suited to a tabloid than a staid community paper.

Holbrook Boy, 7, Drowns in Pool. This headline is followed by a series of downward spiraling subheads: Body of William Found Underwater at Naulahka/Ninety-Minute Fight of Fireman in Vain/Last Missed by Father/Search Reveals Tragedy/Tiny Boats Found Floating Nearby/ Mother on Trip. Not Yet Located.

Really? Tiny boats found floating nearby?

In other end-of-life scenarios, one can find an editorial comment or a touch of poetry:

“Thomas had been almost constant in his attendance upon his father for the last 2 years and faithful in the discharge of his duties as a son.”

“Her relatives had but little warning that she was not expected to recover and the news of her death came to them with startling force.”

“For nearly 6 years she bore without a murmur or aught but a smile her declining strength.”

We hear not only how long they had been in failing health, confined to their beds before succumbing, but also exactly when their health had turned for the worse.

“He had not been well for 2 years but he had been seriously ill only since Sunday.”

When a man died as a result of shock in 1922, we are given the additional information that “he had had an attack of cerebral hemorrhage early in March 1920 but had improved and was able to ride out until June 1921 when he had a second attack. Since then he had been confined to a wheelchair and had remained at home.”

And very often we hear domestic, unassuming details about what they were doing when death came and how they went about it.

“When seized with paralysis he was helping his son about the evening farm work, becoming unconscious at once after being assisted into the house.”

“Without the slightest premonition Mrs. Harry Rowe, 58, was stricken with heart disease at her home on Canal Street Sunday morning and died before her husband who was in an adjoining room could reach her.  They had planned to go out of town on a morning train for a visit and arose early to prepare for the trip. While they were getting ready, Mr. Rowe was startled by the sound of someone falling to the floor.  He went quickly to the room occupied by Mrs. Rowe.  She was lying on the floor and he was powerless to aid her, death having been instantaneous.”

In 1915, before dying of hardening of arteries, it was noted that one woman attended the Universalist Fair Thursday evening. “She was active in her household work on Friday, preparing supper for the expected celebration of her daughter’s 14th birthday anniversary on Saturday.  Late Friday afternoon she complained of severe pains in her head and shortly before 7:00 was stricken with an apoplectic shock affecting the entire left side of the body. This shock produced unconsciousness from which she never recovered.”

We hear of another woman whose “high nervous condition” had obliged her to leave school shortly before graduation. Although she had never been in good health, her 1907 obituary reports that “she had been in somewhat improved health in the past few months and was able to be out much more than usual.” 

Then, disaster, couched in the banal: “The night before her death she attended the concert in the Auditorium and appeared to be in her usual health. Her husband arose early Tuesday morning to go to his work and she had not arisen when he left the house.  He said good-bye to her and had not noticed that her condition was different from usual. About 9:00 her sister went to the house and found her lying on the dining room floor. She was in her nightclothes and was already dead when her sister found her. It was probable that she died only a few minutes before.”

You don’t find obituaries like that these days. Or like this one, penned in 1893:

“Last week she was seized with an acute attack of tonsillitis and laryngitis, which developed into pneumonia, the disease refusing from the first to yield to medical treatment. During Sunday night her condition seemed somewhat more favorable, but in the early hours of the morning death came suddenly and painlessly.”

Or this one, concerning a death that “touched many hearts in Brattleboro.” In 1918, Margaret Root, aged 24, was taken ill with influenza. The Reformer notes: “Her case was serious but not until Tuesday night of last week did any symptoms of pneumonia appear and from that time the latter disease developed rapidly. Every means of combating the disease was employed by physicians and nurses, including the use of oxygen, and an unusually strong heart did its best to win the battle, but for some time before the end came it was seen that there could be but one outcome.”

Sometimes we are left with an image so homely it breaks the heart. In 1918, a veteran of the Civil War passed away in the Home for the Aged, where he and his wife had been “inmates” for the past four years. “Although Mr. Nash had been confined to his bed, recently he was able to sit up and the end came peacefully while he was eating his dinner from a tray in his lap.”

At other times we feel touched by a gracious and graceful summing-up, as in the case of Sally Harris Stockwell, who died in 1883 at the age of 104. “For the past year or more she has been subject to spells of mental wandering followed by long periods of sleep from which she was with difficulty awakened.  On the last Sunday but one before her death she passed into one of these states, which continued until 1:00 in the morning of the day she died, when she sank into a repose which proved her final sleep.”

One thing that you will never ever find these days in the obituary column is the ordeal of those who take their own lives. To ensure privacy and prevent copycat events, suicide prevention guidelines strongly advise the media to downplay the details and circumstances surrounding these deaths. These days we may hear that somebody “died suddenly at home.”

Not so in 1936: John M Nourse Hangs Himself. Police Find Orchard Street Man’s Body.  Officers Break into Home After Daughter Reports All Doors Locked.

There is nothing discreet about this account of a 69-year-old man who had been employed for 30 years as the superintendent of Meeting House Hill Cemetery and had been ill for some time with a heart ailment. “He was found suspended from the rafter of a shed adjoining his home on Orchard Street. The investigation revealed that Mr. Nourse had climbed up to the rafters by means of a stepladder and after attaching the rope, kicked the ladder over. The body was suspended about three feet from the floor.”

Even worse was the fate of a man who was found, according to the headline of his 1936 obituary, Hanging By Belt to Bedpost. Body of George Nygren Found in Chestnut Street Home. Had Lain Dead for Three Days. 

The body of this 46-year-old Estey Organ employee was almost fully dressed when found.  “Apparently Nygren had buckled his own belt about his neck and a post at the foot of the bed and then slid off the bed to the floor.  It is thought that he may have been delirious before committing the act, for a pillow had been torn up and the feathers scattered about the room. None of the furniture had been disturbed.”

Enough detail for you? But wait, there’s more: “An empty pitcher and bottle beside the bed bore evidence that Nygren had been drinking a short time before his death. In another room a partly filled 10-gallon crock of home brew was found. A Swedish newspaper and Friday night’s edition of the Reformer were lying on the bed but later papers had not been removed from the mailbox. Four quart milk bottles were found on the front porch, the contents of two being partly consumed.  His sister was unable to say what had brought on his feeling of depression.”

It would be difficult for me to explain why I could spend hours reading these obituaries, why I am so fascinated by the heavy peace of a graveyard. Briefly, the best I can say is that when I immerse myself in the shades of the dead, I feel a powerful love. 

I love them all for drawing breath. I genuinely cherish whatever hopes they had, anxieties, dreams and disappointments, small plans, big plans, passions, convictions and pain, quirks, virtues, errors and sins, their holidays, their hobbies, things they feared most, things they loved best, their waking up each morning, their going to bed at night, their oblivious birth and oblivious death. I want to raise them all back up in a judgment day of respect for their struggle.  I want to grant them immortality, if only for a moment, by lamenting the fact that their vastly human experience should be reduced to curt words etched on tombstones and the efforts of those left behind to endow their obituaries with scenes and significance.

So far the best story I have read in the obituary column of the Brattleboro Reformer is exactly that, a story. It’s a story about the final hours of Rensselaer Nourse, a John Henry-like man who was frequently employed by Rudyard Kipling because of his “skilled workmanship and good judgment.”

One day in 1897, Rensselar Nourse was helping the men employed in filling a silo for RM Pratt. “He was pushing the cornstalks along the feed table of the ensilage cutter to the man standing next to him on the right.  It was light work and required little strength. He had come to Mr. Pratt’s a short time before 10:00 that morning to help in the beneficent work which was being done on that occasion. It was quite generally known that he had had a slight shock some three or more weeks ago while working on the highway but he was able to resume work shortly afterwards.

“Nourse was a large, muscular man and when it was explained to him by one of the men that no invitation had been sent to him because it was supposed he was not in usual health, he straightened back his broad shoulders and said, ‘Where can you find a stronger looking man than I am?’ 

“He had been working about 20 minutes when Mr. Sergent, his near neighbor, came to him and offered to ‘spell’ him at his work. 

“’No, I am all right,’ he said and those were his last words. Ten minutes afterward he was seen to sway over and was caught by DW Blood and laid gently on the ground. Life was extinct and all efforts to restore him to consciousness availed nothing.”

Rest in peace, Rensselar Nourse. Your life force, your spirit, the impression you made on others, sustained you to the last.


Consolations of


"The consolation I find in history lies in the fact that circling back to any point in time feels like coming home."

a column by

Martha M Moravec

© Martha M Moravec, and Vermont Views Magazine


All Rights Reserved

Information About The Columnist...

Martha is a novelist, memoirist, playwright and lyricist with an abiding interest in history and a tendency to sink into a pleasant dream-state while volunteering at the Brattleboro Historical Society on the third floor of the Municipal Center surrounded by the images, printed matter and artifacts that shed light on the intriguing history of the area she calls home.

Martha is the author of the memoir

Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life

(2014, Hatherleigh Press/Random House).

She has also written two novels: an epic historical fantasy,

The Secret Name of God

and a sci-fi eco-fable for young adults,

The Odd Body Vanity Squad.

Before committing to prose, she wrote the book and lyrics for five original full-length musicals, all of which were successfully produced in southern Vermont and Boston.

She can be found at home working on her next seven novels, four novellas, second memoir and a sweeping revision of the musicals. She is currently seeking further publication opportunities, a hundred more years and God.

Available at

Martha can also be found online at where she blogs about the mysteries of the creative life and at where she considers the hazards posed by anxiety, addiction, aging and agnosticism to personal growth and transformation.

© Martha M Moravec, and Vermont Views Magazine


All Rights Reserved