A History of the Old Burying Ground
Brookline, Massachusetts

by Joanna Brown Wexler (April 2006)

Numbers after names indicate known interments.

In the mid-sixteen hundreds, Brookline, originally known as Muddy River, contained numerous rich marshes, meadows and woodlands, and as Boston's neighbor, was used as a convenient source of wood and pasturage. The period from the 1640s through the 1700s saw the gradual settlement of land and the establishment of a largely agricultural community.

On November 13, 1705, after several years of failed petitions, the community of Muddy River became the Township of Brookline, having finally succeeded in separating from Boston. With the privileges of township came the responsibilities of town government, the establishment of a school and a church, representation in General Court, the laying-out of roads, and as early as 1706, the creation of a burial place within the town.

Until this time the inhabitants of Muddy River had attended the church at Roxbury, and many were buried in the churchyard there. Brookline was not to succeed in securing its own burial ground until November 21, 1717, when a committee composed of Erosamon Drew (1), John Druce, Josiah Winchester, Sr. (2), William Sharp, Samuel Clark, Sr. (3), Benjamin White, Jr. and Caleb Gardner bought a half-acre of land from Samuel Clark, Jr.1 for eight pounds. Clark was a carpenter who built the first meeting house and became deacon of the church twelve years after the incorporation of Brookline.

The burial ground was located on Sherbourne Road (now Walnut Street), one of the oldest roads in the Commonwealth and the main thoroughfare westward from Boston until 1806 when the Worcester Turnpike was constructed. Walnut Street Cemetery was Brookline's first official graveyard, and served as its municipal cemetery for over 150 years until the creation of Walnut Hills Cemetery in 1875. The cemetery was informally maintained by the Clark family, who were allowed to cut hay in return for fencing it.

Brookline was an active participant during the Revolution, supplying both men and provisions to the army. With the cessation of conflict, tile following period of peace was a tune of growth and prosperity for the town. Brookline itself had a minimum of industry: a grist mill, a leather fulling mill, a chocolate mill, sawmill, and a tannery. However, the agriculture to which Brookline had been devoted from its earliest times still remained a very important factor, and Boston, with its growing population and rapid urbanization provided markets for Brookline's produce.

In 1840, the cemetery on Walnut Street, now known as "The Old Burying Ground," was enlarged by the purchase of about three-quarters of an acre of adjoining land from Caleb Clark (4) for the sum of five hundred dollars. Over a number of preceding years much of the ground had been used many times over for burials, and the cemetery had fallen into neglect. In addition, the Civil War years had seen the diversion of funds from public construction to military needs. Neglect was the common plight of cemeteries throughout the country.

A contemporary description of the cemetery provides a vivid image of its degraded condition: "Rows of gravestones, on the right, of dark slate embellished with the skull and crossbones came close up to the narrow way. On the hill near Chestnut Street were square brick tombs two to three feet high with a slate slab on top of each. In the wall next the street the backs of the tombs were built up high and narrow above the level of the rest of the wall. Rank grass, whiteweed and blackberry vines overran the ground and everything conspired to give the place that neglected look that characterized country cemeteries in former times.

"It would seem as if the spirit of Puritanism deemed it a virtue to invest Death with all the external horrors that could be gathered about it. No wonder superstition was rife. The hearse, a shabby old vehicle, was removed to the comer shed in the back row of the old stone school house, where the very sight of its black doors with their long black hinges and heavy padlock struck a chill to the hearts of children at their play. In the ground beyond the range of tombs which front northward, there was a narrow strip that was the 'Potter's Field,' or burying place for the slaves. One stone bore the name 'Dinah,' an old slave of the Heath family."

During the nineteenth century improvements to the Burying Ground, many old gravestones were dislodged and removed, some being thrown in to fill up the roadway. One stone, bearing the name of Winchester was carried to the Lyceum Hall and set up. Whereupon, Deacon Thomas Griggs, a member of the Board of Selectmen, remanded it to the cemetery "forthwith."

The ground -- some of it very low -- was raised, graded, drained and fenced, and the gateway moved to its present location. The carriage road was laid through the center between the tombs, irrespective of ancient graves. With the consent of the owners, some of the heavy brick chimney-top tombs were leveled, and shade trees planted in their stead. In 1850 the town took over the care of the cemetery from the First Parish Church, and the Old Burying Ground became a green and pleasant memorial to Brookline's past.

Many of the gravestones bear familiar names -- Boylston, Devotion, Craft -- and the stories of their lives are woven into Brookline's history and its streets. Thomas Boylston came to this country from England and settled in Watertown in 1635, and his son Thomas, born here in 1644, became a surgeon. He married Mary Gardner (5) of Muddy River in 1665, settled here, became the Town Clerk2, and signed the first entry in the records of the Town. They produced twelve children, among them Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, Esq. (6) He was the physician who first introduced the practice of inoculation to America, and for his achievements, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in London, a distinction rarely conferred on Americans.

Samuel Clark (3) was born April 9, 1654. He was a wheelwright and one of the Muddy River Company in the Canada Expedition of 1696. Historians presume that he was the person about whom Judge Sewall wrote in his diary, March 12, 1684, "Watched, with Isaac Goose and Samuel Clark. Pleasant night." It was a period when the Indians were particularly troublesome and the watching may have been on their account.

In 1727, at the age of sixty-five, Captain Samuel Aspinwall (7) drowned in the Charles River, not far from his farm. An early 19th Century historian speculated, "One can imagine something of the sensation this event must have produced in this thinly settled town, the loss of so prominent a citizen, the search for the body, the military procession -- he was buried under arms -- the long funeral sermon, probably in the little church, then only ten years built, the vacant seat in the square pew, the muffled drums, and the volley fired over the grave. And how it was doubtless the topic of conversation among neighbors when they met for weeks after, and with what superstitious awe they looked upon the text that he had selected for his morning reading at family devotions, the 27th chapter of the Proverb beginning, 'Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.'"

John Goddard (8) was born in Brookline on May 28, 1730. Several contemporaries remarked on his exceptional abilities, one declaring him "a man of uncommonly extensive observation and with a memory proverbially accurate. He had peculiar facilities for a knowledge of the facts relating to this little town. For he was not only a native but also spent a large portion of a long life in the place of his nativity. He was, moreover, for many years, Selectman, Assessor, and Representative of the town to the General Court. Another contemporary reported that, "During the siege of Boston, he was intrusted with the command of three hundred teams, which worked in darkness and by stealth in constructing the fortifications on Dorchester Heights, now South Boston. The absolute silence of the men, the promptness and efficiency with which they labored and the success which crowned their efforts, were no doubt owing to the firmness, courage, and tact of the sturdy patriot in charge. When the American army removed from Boston to New York, General Washington was urgent that Mr. Goddard should accompany them, but his large family was a sufficiently strong reason why he should decline such service."

Edward Devotion (9), born in 1674, was a public spirited citizen who held various offices of trust in the town and for many years was the tithingman of the church. According to a contemporary account, "The principal duty of this officer was to keep good order during divine service, among the children, who sat in rows by themselves instead of with their parents. A long rod was usually carried by the tithingman, with which to touch any delinquent who might become drowsy or mischievous." He died in his house on Washington Street on November 7, 1774, leaving a silver tankard to the Brookline church. In addition, he left the town a sum of money, "for the use of schools."

Captain Samuel Croft, (10) born in 1700, built a large, square, two-story house on the north side of Washington Street in 1765. It had a spacious front yard filled with trees and shrubbery, and behind it was a deep ravine with a spring of excellent cold water, overshadowed by two Inge buttonwood trees. His son, Capt. Samuel Croft, Jr. (10) had no children, and his widow left part of his large estate to her nephew, Samuel Craft (13). According to a recollection of the time, "The most distinctly remembered personage of this household was an old colored woman named Suzy Backus (10). We say 'old' because she called herself fifty for about forty years, and neither she nor anyone else knew her age. But she was a young girl when taken into the Croft house as a servant, and here she rendered such service as money cannot buy. It has often been said by Brookline people that Suzy was a slave, but this was not the case. Her father was a kidnapped African called Backus, who served as a blacksmith in Dorchester."

Isaac Gardner, Jr. (11), the grandson of Deacon Thomas Gardner, (11) was born May 9, 1726. A farmer in Brookline and Justice of the Peace, he went as a volunteer to the battle at Lexington April 10, 1775, and was killed by British troops in Cambridge on their return to Boston. His son, General Isaac S. Gardner (11) also fought in the Revolution and died at the age of sixty on December 6, 1818. The third Thomas Gardner was prominent in Brookline, and was chosen first deacon of the First Church. He was referred to as "Lieutenant," probably because of his participation in the Indian wars. His name is one of the first on the petition for. a separation of Brookline from Boston.

Caleb Craft (12) was born in Brookline in 1742. At the outbreak of the Revolution, he enlisted in the army and remained in the service until 1779, marching as First Lieutenant of Captain Thomas White's Company. Among the family papers were many military orders relating to the period of his service in the Continental Army, some to the transports for Burgoyne's Army, and to service on on Dorchester Heights, where he was in command of his company. In 1791 Lieutenant Craft bought his father's estate on Newton Street in Brookline, and lived there until 1812 when he left it to his son, Samuel (13). It had been the farm given to him by their grandfather, Samuel White, in 1775. In 1824, when Lieutenant Craft was eighty-two years old, he built a family tomb in the Burying Ground, which contains the remains of three generations of the family.

Captain Timothy Corey (14), born in 1750, was in active service during the Revolution and was one of three who were all that were left of an entire company who died of wounds, sickness, and imprisonment. He and his comrades returned footsore, ragged, and forlorn from their exposure and hardships. At the time of the battle of Lexington, his young wife with her two little children left the house, as did many other women of Brookline. They carried blankets and provisions with them and sought shelter in the woods until the danger from the invading enemy was over. Captain Corey was remembered as an old gentleman who dressed in the costume of the last century, and, as long as he lived, he wore a three-cornered hat. An anecdote of the time recounts that a stranger called at his house one day asking for the Captain. Mrs. Corey told him to go down the road and if he met "a finelooking, portly man on horseback, he might know it was her husband."

Samuel Philbrick (15), one of the pioneers in anti-slavery reform, was born February 4, 1789. Although he was educated among the Quakers, he did not identify himself with them in later years. He was a man of wealth and influence and occupied a central pew in the Unitarian Church. He was the friend of William Lloyd Garrison and many of the leading abolitionists of his day. His house was one of the way stations of the Underground Railroad, which provided a resting place for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. As the ranks of abolitionists swelled, Mr. Philbrick's reputation eventually outlived the odium attached to the name, "abolitionist". Sadly, he died in September, 1859, before the triumph of the principles for which he had sacrificed his comfort and popularity.

Thomas Kenrick was born July 22, 1739 and died in 1774 at the age of thirty-five. He told of remembering the sight of "men at the time of the Lexington and Concord battle running across lots in the neighborhood, guided by the sound of the firing, and jumping fences in their eagerness to reach the scene of the fray, taking their course back of Walnut Hills and through Newton." Thomas Kenrick built a house on South Street that was one story high and had only two rooms. It was lit by little windows of diamond-shaped glass set in lead, which swung on hinges, like doors. There was no paint within or without, and the best room was not plastered; instead, it was papered with old newspapers. The only ascent to the loft was by a trapdoor through a well-worn ladder. The Kenrick family was remembered chiefly by an old lady, the wife of Thomas Kenrick, who died after a long and helpless illness during which she was supported by the town. After her death, it was discovered that she had successfully concealed several hundred dollars. This was a substantial fortune in that time, which, of course, reverted to the town.

Compared to modem society, the 18th and 19th Centuries were highly dangerous for women, particularly in childbirth. Many tombs in The Old Burying Ground reveal touching stories. At the grave of Rachel Hardy (16), for example, are carved the following words, "Rachel, wife of William Hardy, died in Dover, Mass., Nov. 3, 1852, aged 40 years. Beneath these clods in peaceful sleep, Her mortal body lies, Surviving friends, forbare to weep, For virtue never dies". There follow on adjacent stones:

John G., Died Nov. 26, 1834, Aged 1 year.
Wm. Warren, Died Dec. 12, 1835, Aged 6 months.
Mary Eliza, Our first born and first loved,
Died Dec 24, 1835, Aged 4 yrs. 5 months.
Emma Harriet, Died April 15, 1846, aged 19 months.
Ann Maria, Died October 1, 1847, Aged 5 years and 6 months.
Children of William and Rachel Hardy.

The sad list is completed with short poem, "Five cherub babes in glory reign, All lovely pure and fair; A little while and we shall go, And meet our darlings there."

Similar sentiments can be found throughout The Old Burying Ground. The Griggs family, for example, expressed several uplifting thoughts. In memory of Mrs. Elizabeth Griggs (17), who died August 9th, 1784, aged 33 years, we read: "In thy fair book of life divine, my God inscribe my name, There let it fill some humble place, beneath the slaughtered lamb." In memory of Mr. Thomas Griggs (17), who died July the 7th, 1782, in the 67th year of his age we read: "Naked as from the earth we came, And crept to life at first, We to the earth return again, and mingle with our dust."

Today, the Old Burying Ground no longer resonates with the sound of mourners and the creak of the funeral wagon along the carriage road. The grieving is over, and the old rutted roadway has become a broad green pathway. On sunny spring days, groups of school children run among the giant oak trees and hide behind the slate tombstones, and on national holidays each veteran's tomb flutters with a small, bright American flag. Beauty is there in abundance -- and sorrow. Above all is the memory of those at rest in this place, they who will always recall us to all that is best in Brookline.

1. This Samuel, Jr., a housewright, was actually the nephew of Samuel, Sr., a wheelwright. The younger Samuel later had a son who was also known as Samuel, Jr. The year in which Sr./Jr. is mentioned determines which Sr./Jr. pair is being referred to.

2. Thomas Boylston died in 1695, ten years before the establishment of an independent Town. Some local records were kept as early as 1687 however and the record keeper was known as the Town Clerk.