Anatomy of a Gravestone: Identifying Stone Carvers

At first glance, the gravestones of Redolphus Malbone (1767 LEFT) and Isaac Lopez (1762 RIGHT) look remarkably similar: their graves are marked by small upright markers with cherubs at the tops and vegetation images along the sides. While many children’s graves were marked either only by a plain marker or not at all, the parents of Redolphus and Isaac chose to mark these graves with well-carved stones made by the two of the most important carvers in Newport: William Stevens and John Stevens II (1702-1778), sons of the illustrious carver John Stevens I.

In addition being a physical reminder of the children, the stones present a important message about the parents’ hopes about the children's ability to live on after death. The stones vertical are carved in a shape associated with a curved doorway into the world to come. The side pillars (“borders”) were seen as analogous to the pillars in the third temple that harkened of the messianic era. The topmost portion of each stone (the lunette), bears an optimistic message of redemption conveyed by the simple straight-faced cherub: while the death’s heads common throughout other parts of New England reminded the living of the conflict between the mortal and immortal portions of the deceased, “cherub stones tend to stress resurrection and later heavenly reward” (Deetz and Dethlefsen 31).The cherub was a metaphor for the soul of the deceased: it was poised in flight between this world and the next (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 1974: 83). The stones’ borders reinforce this message of rejuvenation: the Malbone stone contains the fig border commonly used by William Stevens in the 1740s-1770s (Luti 134), while the Lopez stone contains a variant on the fig-lily pod theme used by John Stevens II. Figs were “believed to ward off the evil eye and offer general protection against hostile beings and powers” (Biedermann 129), and fruit and flowers are generally associated with fecundity and fertility. In an uncertain world, the stones were largely optimistic.

Vincent Luti argues that five areas are essential for identifying individual carvers for stones made in Newport: (1) Lettering, (2) Wings, (3) Mouths, (4) Eyes, and (5) Borders (Luti 26-27). Identifying characteristics of William Stevens during this era include (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” and “full-bellied 5, with a flat-capped serif,” (2) scoop wings and pedestal bibs, (3) bow-mouths, (4) eyelids with lashes and an owlish and bulging eye and (5) fig or lily pod borders. Cherubs were bald or wigged. William Stevens stones from the 1760s-1770s that were wigged tend to have plain wigs, raked wigs, or scroll coil wigs (Luti 103-105, 134). William Stevens stones are easily confused stylistically with the early work of his brother-in-law and one-time apprentice John Bull who early on in his career imitated William Stevens’ style. Distinctive elements of John Bull’s stones that don’t appear on Stevens’ stones include (1) an onion fleur-de-lis, (2) a circular line undercutting the feather spray or “bib” under the cherub’s chin, and (3) the tail of the “g” is tucked into the loop (Luti 231, 244). The stone of Redolphus Malbone contains no John Bull markers, but does contain the following elements characteristic of William Stevens: (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” (2) bow-mouths, (3) an owlish and bulging eye, and (4) fig or lily pod borders. Luti has attributed Isaac Lopez’s stone to John Stevens II (Gradwohl 39-40). Although it is very similar to William Steven’s stones, it bears several strong distinguishing features: a distinctive border and pupils that “look heavenward.” From 1745-1778 John also took up his brother’s previously distinctive of-center ye lettering (Luti 80).

During the 1770s, William Stevens shop and home was located on Long Wharf while John Stevens II’s home and shop were located at 29 and 30 Thames respectively (Luti 32, 99). Their father John Stevens (1646-1736) began the Stevens carving dynasty that continues until this day.

Image credits:
1. Gravestone of Redolphus Malbone (1767, Trinity Cemetery) Photograph by Eric Leibman, 2007.
2. Gravestone of Isaac Lopez (1762, Touro Cemetery) Photograph by Laura Leibman, 2007.
3. Gravestone Anatomy from Dean Eastman's "Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones" Common-Place. 2(2) January 2002.
4. Map of Newport by Laura Leibman based on A Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island Surveyed by Charles Blaskowitz, engraved and publish'd by Willm. Faden Map. London: 1777. Map Collections 1500-2004. American Memory. Lib. of Congress 14 Aug. 2007

God's Little Acre: Slavery and Race in a Colonial Burial Ground

"God's Little Acre" has become one of the most talked about sections of Newport's famous Common Burial Ground. Although many Americans (particularly in the North and West) like to think of slavery as a "Southern problem," slavery was an important part of the northern economy well up until the time of the Revolution. Indeed in the colonial era, much of Newport's economy was based directly or indirectly on the triangle trade. For those who want to learn more about Northern slavery, Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1998) is an awesome resource and a good read. As the place where Newport's people of color went after they died, God's Little Acre has become an important resource for scholars interested in race in the colonies.

Although often touted as an "African American" burial ground, the occupants of God’s Little Acre were diverse economically, racially and religiously. The 1774 Rhode Island census asked for the number of “whites,” “blacks,” and “Indians” in each household. Members of each of these categories were buried in “God’s Little Acre.” Moreover, the categories themselves do not map precisely onto twenty-first century notions of race, as an advertisement for a runaway “Indian boy” from the Newport Mercury shows: this graphic of a dark-complexioned man had for years been used by the Mercury to signify fugitive (black) slaves, but suddenly it seemed to apply to Indians as well. Indian and black intermarriage was on the rise in New England in the 1770s, and increasingly white New Englanders began to image “Indians” and “blacks” in a combined category of “colored” people (Silverman Faith and Boundaries, 232-33). Not surprisingly then, members of each of these groups, as well as a few (usually poor) whites, were buried in God’s Little Acre.

Newport’s African American community was also tremendously diverse in the 1770s. Approximately thirty percent of Newport belonged to the fluid category of “black.” Around one third of the whites in Newport owned slaves, but according to the 1774 census, there were also 153 free blacks living in 64 black households during the colonial era. There was no section of town specifically designated for African Americans: whites and people of color often lived in close proximity to one another in colonial Newport. Freed blacks and slaves in Newport had a range of occupations and economic experiences. While many blacks in Newport had severely limited social and economic prospects, some did quite well: Newport Gardner (Occramar Mirycoo), slave of merchant Caleb Gardener, knew English, French, and African languages, and taught Western music; slave Caesar Lyndon was highly literate and served as a scribe; Charity “Duchess” Quamino, slave of William Channing, gained her freedom and was renowned as a pastry chef. A number of blacks owned property around Newport (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 17, 49-50; See Newport Gardner's House at left). Although the African Union Society held services in the Peter Bours house (47 Division Street, below) as early as 1781, African Americans belonged to a variety of congregations (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 62). The gravestones in God’s Little Acre reflect this economic and religious variety.
Peter Bours house (47 Division Street), Location of African Union Society as early as 1781

Peter Cranston Jr. fell somewhere in the middle of this range of this economic and social diversity. The inscription highlights what W.E.B. DuBois would call the “twoness” of Peter Cranston’s life: as Peter Cranston’s stone indicates, his parents were Peter Cranston and his wife Phylis Rivera. The stone also indicates, however, that Peter—like his father--was owned by Aaron Lopez, the uncle of Isaac Lopez. Peter Jr.’s mother Phylis, however, was a “servant” of Jacob Rodriquez Rivera, Aaron Lopez’s father-in-law (Stores). Since Peter Jr. belonged to Aaron Lopez, presumably Peter Jr. lived in the Lopez home along Thames Street, albeit in the attic. His mother Phylis would have lived several blocks away in Easton’s Point, at the corner of Washington and Bridge in the “Lantern,” the oversized home of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera. Other members of the Cranston-Rivera clan surround the stones of Phylis, Peter, and Peter Jr. In death then, the Cranston-Riveras were able to achieve what they could not in life: a unified family space, no longer torn apart by slavery. The Cranston-Rivera stones make up a small portion of the approximately 450 stones in God’s Little Acre that are still standing and are identified by name on the 1903 map of the cemetery (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 166). In turn, God’s Little Acre makes up only a small portion of the over 8,000 graves in the Common Burying Ground (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 163). To learn more about this portion of the cemetery, and to see more stones, go to African Slave Markers in Colonial Newport, a website by Keith Stokes and Theresa Guzman Stokes. .Theresa Guzman Stokes
Cranston-Rivera Family Stones, God's Little Acre (Newport)

Book Review: The Knell of Parting Day

A few years ago at the Conference for the Association for Gravestone Studies, some of us were lamenting that there weren't more books available on Jewish cemeteries. While a few old standards were available, they tended to be out of print, hard to find, and extremely expensive. The situation is starting to change, and one fine example of where the field is headed is Marilyn Delevante's The Knell of Parting Day: A History of the Jews of Port Royal and the Hunt's Bay Cemetery.

Portuguese Jews first settled on the island of Jamaica between 1530-1640, during the era of Spanish occupation. After the English conquest of the island, the community was able to openly worship as Jews and settled primarily in Port Royal and later in Spanish Town and Kingston. The Hunts Bay Cemetery served the historic community of Port Royal. As in Venice, Amsterdam, and Curacao, the deceased were carried by boat across the water to the cemetery.

This richly illustrated volume is a show case of the kind of new work being done in gravestone studies. In addition to a complete list of transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions from the cemetery and accompanying photos of the stones, the book provides a history of the Jews of Jamaica and Port Royal and places them within the larger story of the Sephardic diaspora. Attention is paid in chapter ten to the types and symbolism of the images used on the stones. Throughout the book are high quality color photographs by Jono David, whose online galleries of Jewish cemeteries are worth viewing.

This is the sort of book that will non-specialists will find fascinating and researchers will find invaluable. Copies can be purchased from the author for $35.00 US (softcover) or $45.00 U.S. (hardcover) at

In the meantime, you may enjoy looking at this picasa web album of stones from the cemetery.

Grubbing in the Mud with the Dead: Newport

If you are interested in early American gravestones, Newport Rhode Island is one of the best places you can be. First, Newport was (and is) the home of an extremely fine family of carvers: the Stevens family. The Stevens shop made some of the most beautiful early American gravestones and have been so successful that it is one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in America. Today the John Stevens shop still makes exquisite gravestones. Vincent Luti's remarkable book Mallet and Chisel traces the development of their unique style.

The second reason why Newport rocks for cemeteries is that the town was known for religious freedom. This means there is a remarkable diversity of types of denominational cemeteries in addition to the Common Burying Ground and individual and family plots ("kin plots"). These cemeteries include two ethnic cemeteries: God's Little Acre (primarily African American) and the Touro Cemetery. The multitude of cemeteries provides a perfect test case for doing research: one of the main arguments made about early American gravestones is that they reflect theological differences and religious change over time. Being able to compare use of images and headers in among different denominations allows us to separate out what factors may have influenced changes in gravestone art over time.
Interested in visiting Newport? I recommend the Inn on Bellevue. The rates are reasonable (for Newport) and the location is superb (right next to the Touro Cemetery and smack in the center of town). If you are staying for at least a week, it is worth asking if there is a special "extended stay" rate. Also make sure you visit Newport Historical Society: they have great resources on the cemeteries, including a complete map of the Common Burying Ground.

Colonial Geography: Early American Cemeteries

Throughout this blog, you will notice I have a very large definition of early America that includes not only North America, but also Central America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I also occasionally reference the gravestone art of the European communities that fed these colonies, particularly England, Holland, and the Iberian Peninsula. Most of the gravestones I have posted so far are from Jewish colonists, particularly Sephardim (Spanish-Portuguese Jews) who came to the Americas to escape the Inquisition and engage in trade. My current book project is on visual world of these early American Jews. In the course of doing research, I have photographed the early Jewish cemeteries in Newport (Rhode Island), Philadelphia, Curacao, Suriname, Jamaica, and Amsterdam. In two of these communities (Newport, Curacao) I have also worked extensively in the early Protestant and Catholic cemeteries in order to be able to discuss what makes the Jewish iconography of the era distinctive. We are in the process of creating a fully searchable on-line database for these images ("Jewish Atlantic World"), that is now live at will also start to notice that I have a lot of images from early New England cemeteries. When I was working on my first book, Indian Converts, I worked extensively in the early cemeteries on Martha's Vineyard and to a lesser extent in the "Old Indian Cemetery" in Mashpee. I also visited and photographed other important colonial cemeteries in the region for comparative purposes. Many of these images are cataloged in the Indian Converts Collection which also contains Study Guides on subjects such as Reading Gravestones and Death in early America.

If you have an interest in hearing about colonial cemeteries in any of the locations I have mentioned (or that appear in green on the map of New England above), just let me know!

Colonial Disease and Illness

Epidemics ravaged both white and Native populations in colonial New England. The source of these epidemics is not surprising: low resistance, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical knowledge. As Dr. William Douglass put it in 1760 about white medicine, “more die of the practitioner than of the natural course of the disease” (Duffy 4; cites Douglass). Relatively few doctors in colonial American had attended medical school: in 1721 only one of Boston’s ten “doctors” had a degree (Duffy 7). The drugs used were prescribed in excessively large and unmeasured qualities. Even if given properly the prescriptions were of questionable use: even Cotton Mather, a famous scientist, advocated the use of urine as an unparalleled “Remedy for Humane Bodies” (Duffy 8). As seen by the cures prescribed by Dr. Zerobabel Endecott, colonial medicine often appears in retrospect to be more like spells than medicine. Bleeding patients and inducing vomiting were common cures (Duffy 8-9). In addition to epidemics, famine and dietary sicknesses such as scurvy took their toll (Duffy 11).

This gravestone from the Dutch colonial island of Curacao notes how
Isaac Haim Senior (a Sephardic Jew) suffered infinite martyrdoms in his illness (“Padezido Infenittos / Martirios na Enfermindade”). The bottom portion of the stone depicts his deathbed scene (upper right). The original of Isaac's gravestone is in Beit Haim Blenheim (Curacao) and was damaged by pollution from the nearby oil refinery. This reproduction is in the synagogue museum.

For more on colonial illness and disease and for full citations, see the Indian Converts Collection

Jewish Themes: The Story of Esther

The book of Esther was particularly popular amongst conversos on the Iberian Peninsula. Many conversos kept the fast of Esther even when they kept few other Jewish holidays or traditions. New Christian women tended to identify with Queen Esther: like the Queen, many conversas had to submit to a gentile husband, either literally or figuratively (Catholic Spain).

Once conversos left the Iberian Peninsula and were free to practice Judaism openly, Purim remained an important holiday. The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam contains many fine examples of richly illustrated Megillot, one of which is featured in the video below. The reading is from the Portuguese Esnoga.

Gravestones from the Jewish Atlantic World also feature scenes from the story of Esther. It was not uncommon for stones to feature Biblical scenes, particularly ones related to the name of the deceased. The detail of the stone at the top of the page is from the gravestone of Mordechay Hisquiau Namias de Crasto (1716) Beit Haim Blenheim, Curaçao. For the full stone and the inscription, see below. A similar scene appears in Beth Haim at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel on the stone of Moses de Mordechai Senior (1730) (left).

Classroom Resource:
Gravestone of Mordechay Hisquiau Namias de Crasto (1716) Beit Haim Blenheim, Curaçao. This is one of the finest examples of gravestone art from the Jewish Atlantic World. Ask students what they think the different images mean and why they belong together on one stone. Why do you think the carver (or the family who requested the stone) chose this particular scene from the book of Esther?

Questions for Readers:
Do these stones surprise you, and if so how?

Newport's Touro Cemetery: Converso Gravestones

When Isaac Lopez was buried in 1762, he joined the remains of many of his extended kin and other members of the Yeshuat Israel [Salvation of Israel] congregation. The Hevra kadisha (Burial Society) of Newport washed his body and prepared it for burial. The leader of the burial society then led the men in seven circuits around the body (Emmanuel PRECIOUS STONES 81). These circuits not only embedded the dead into the memory of the community, but also helped transition the deceased from the world of the living to the world to come.In Judaism, seven is a holy number symbolizing God, completion, and the covenant.One sign of this covenant was separation.

Jewish law requires that Jews be buried separately from their gentile neighbors, and in 1677 the Jews of Newport purchased and established a burial ground at the edge of town on the corner of what is now Kay Street and Bellevue Avenue (Gradwohl 20). The cemetery was far from both the town’s Protestant cemeteries, and the houses and businesses of most Jewish residents. After being prepared for internment, Isaac’s body was brought here and buried. A year later a gravestone was erected and “unveiled.”

Like the seven circuits made by mourners around the coffins of the dead, the gravestone laid over the tomb had a redemptive quality: it, like other stones in the cemetery, embedded the deceased in the Jewish community of Newport for all eternity, but also insisted upon the interrelatedness of Spanish, Portuguese, Jewish, and Colonial worlds of Isaac’s family. Like many of the Jews buried in the Touro cemetery, Isaac’s father Moses (1706-1767) was a converso or “crypto-Jew”; that is, he was a descendent of Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity and who had for centuries practiced Catholicism in public, and a form of Judaism in private.

Moses Lopez had come to Newport to escape a late wave of the inquisition in Portugal after his New Christian relatives denounced him for “Judaizing.” Moses was the older half-brother of Aaron Lopez, one of Newport’s most famous merchants. When Moses came to the Americas, he gave up his Portuguese Christian name (José Lopez Ramos) for a Hebrew one (Moseh) and its English equivalent (Moses). His wife was his first cousin Rebecca Rodriguez Rivera (? -1793), whose father Abraham Rodriguez Rivera (? -1765) had escaped the Spanish inquisition and fled to England and later Newport (Rodrigues Pereira 568, 579). Moses was naturalized in New York in 1740/41 and most (or all) of his children were born in Newport (Stern 175). Several of Moses and Rebecca’s children died young, but only the stones of Isaac (1762) and Jacob (1763) remain.

This entry is an excerpt from a conference presentation given at the American Studies Association Conference in 2007. Research was funded by NEH and a Ruby Grant.