The graveyard is a difficult place to describe, as it (perhaps more than any other work by human hands) is vested with a power entirely divested of the sum of its parts. A description of a graveyard will always begin with paths, stones, and grass, but the description invariably transcends what can be observed with the senses. Cemeteries evoke all manner of things and awaken within us a unique philosophical and spiritual awareness. Our little corner of the Catskills is well endowed with this particular variety of muse. Three hundred graveyards of every order of magnitude dot the hills and valleys of this place, each one collectively serving as an epitaph to different, distant, and more superstitious times.
The anonymity of the graveyard is one of its startling features, with row upon row of stones bearing silent witness to a moment when the remains entombed below were the subject of not only great and immediate lamentations, but also prolonged sorrows that often endured as long as anyone remained who knew the departed in life. Gravestones are overtly a refutation of the passage of time and a symbol of our desire to endure, but in the end these weathered and crooked markers up bearing witness to a separate truth - that History is merely a reconciliation of the past with our feeble powers of memory; it is an imperfect and weighted truce at best.
This was a subject of no small significance to Augusta Hallock, a girl only eighteen years old when her friend and neighbor Ezra Ramsdell passed at the age of twenty-five. In a composition book she kept while attending Greenville Academy she devoted two separate entries to the occasion of his passing. The themes she confronts are universal, and Ezra’s passing was something she took several months to process on the pages of her journal. Below is a poem she wrote following a visit to his month-old grave:
Ezra Ramsdell’s grave is what you may expect of someone who left no descendants to mourn him nor great achievements to enshrine him in the pages of history. Ezra instead was a young man who once had occasion to pick flowers for a girl who lived down the road. On a Sunday afternoon in July 1854 that girl wrote:
“Many brightfully woven dreams of the future have faded. Many joyful anticipations have been crushed and tears, blinding tears fill eyes which would have beamed with hope and joy… How false and fleeting are all things here. The fairest and brightest of Earth’s treasures pass away leaving nothing but the remembrance of the past.”
Her passage leaves much to be inferred about her relationship with Ezra, and contemplation on her lines lends a somber cast to the already humble aspect of his grave.
1854 proved particularly tragic, and Augusta’s journal would end up containing passages on three young neighbors of hers who died of fever that year: Elliot Ackley who passed in May at the age of twenty-six, Ezra Ramsdell who died in June, and Isaac Gordon who passed that August at the age of nineteen. All three men rest in the same row in the old section of Locust Grove Cemetery just west of the hamlet of Greenville. They are joined by ten other neighbors and peers throughout the cemetery under the age of fifty who died that same Summer, ostensibly all were victims of yellow fever, smallpox or typhus. In light of such a horrible occurrence it is obvious why death was on Augusta Hallock’s mind during those months, though one wonders whether Augusta ever meant for her journal to serve as a separate epitaph for these three young men. Her passages grapple with the unfairness of their deaths, and what trivial anecdotes appear within that shed light on their characters are minimal and unintended.
Whether ghosts exist or not is a debate best left to campfire raconteurs, though historians and archivists are also uniquely qualified to take a crack at an answer. Consider for a moment when the last time was that the name of Ezra Ramsdell was spoken aloud or even privately contemplated by a living soul. Sure, the graveyard sexton most certainly saw his name on the stone, and passerby probably remarked on it at various times, but it takes something more than letters on a rock to resurrect a memory. This is where the archive becomes the tool of the alchemist.
The Journal of Augusta Hallock resides in a tomb of its own, shelved amongst the last vestiges of a legion of our forebears who by a roll of Fate’s die reside on a strange separate plane of existence where they remain gone but not forgotten for the foreseeable future. Their hopes and dreams are perpetuated beyond their earthly departure by the preservation of the trappings of their lives: letters, diaries, wills, the prize ribbon from the fair, all manner of things which substantiate the existence of someone otherwise relegated to the anonymity of the burial ground. This is why archives tend to be so loud. Even after hours, when only the staff is there quietly working, the shelves howl with the voices of those once possessed of lives as vibrant as any living person.
In the archive, consultation with the dead is as simple as taking a box from the shelf and letting those within bare their great sorrows and joys. Therein lies the power of a manuscript collection: in those boxes of papers S. Barent DuBois attends the deathbed of a dear friend, Mary Stone laughs at a joke by Winslow Homer, Black Thomas toils in a farm field he will never own, Peter Brandow buys a piano, and Ezra Ramsdell picks flowers for a girl from Norton Hill. These vignettes, framed so vibrantly despite the passage of centuries, transcend the grave in their quest to be recalled.
by Jonathan Palmer, Deputy Greene County Historian