Canine Contrition

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

It was the first thing I said to my daughter Megan after I arrived on foot back to our driveway. Mona, once again shackled, stopped behind me; her demeanor was one of contrition. Megan put her Jeep in “park” and then commented, “I feel the same way.”

It so happens that our house, situated in a former pasture, is a hot spot for deer. We’ve lived here for 24 years, and it’s pretty obvious to us that it’s on one of their well-traveled corridors. Depending on how readily available natural food sources are, they will wend their way from our neighbors’ woods, cross our private road and either approach to graze close to the house or steer further away and feast on our bordering arborvitae. With fruit trees lining our road, there’s plenty to nourish them in our little neighborhood and few predators to cause them real concern.

It was the last “potty break” for the night when I stepped outside with both dogs. I always keep Bowie’s leash taut, but I allow slack in Mona’s. She’s the “good child”. Before I had even completely closed the door, she shot off the steps, and gaining just enough traction, her body snapped around at the end of the leash. If I had had more than a mili-second to think, I would have released the leash. I didn’t, and her body shot out of her collar; with her own gift of a mili-second, she honed in on the four deer across the road. Given her superb sense of smell and her better-than-human sense of sight, she had precise coordinates. I heard rather than saw her make a beeline for them.

I pursued Mona after having handed a psychotic Bowie off to Megan. Galloping across my lawn, the road, and into Pam’s yard, my rising panic stifled my will to curse the fact that I hadn’t laced up my L.L. Bean perfectly-suitable-for-snow boots. The flapping footwear slowed me slightly, and until I could get Mona in my sights (with the flashlight that Megan had hastily handed me in the Bowie-for-flashlight exchange), I was bound to completely spiral in my thoughts. I had only suspected that the deer were close by, as it was very much in keeping with their visiting hours, and the level of canine excitement suggested that the deer were nearby. Either that, or Pam’s semi-feral cat Louie was lurking. (Highly unlikely that late in the day, however; Louie was his most predatory early morning; I often see him strutting back home with his trophies before I’ve even had my morning coffee.) It really is remarkable how many thoughts can run, end-to-end and piling up on each other, through the mind of someone in full panic mode. The first thought to ambush me was that a coyote had darted out of the woods and grabbed her. By the time my flashlight had found Mona, sitting motionless about 20 feet away from the four calmly staring deer, I had convinced myself that I would find her lifeless body, having been kicked in the head by one of the deer, or — even worse, I think — she’d be nowhere in sight.

When my flashlight picked up the glitter of two little eyes, I was overcome with relief. “I’ve found her!” I yelled back to Megan, who didn’t hear me. She had jumped into her Jeep with Bowie, and was earnestly trying to position the headlights on the space between our house and Pam’s.

With a stern, Sit, Mona!, I approached “the good child” and slid her once more into her collar. Note to self: tighten the collar. Second note to self: resume training for recall and stay.

My panic and subsequent relief had whipped up into a frothy consistency in my stomach, resulting in nausea. Yes, I wanted to throw up.

The Alden Graveyard

High on a hill above the Taunton River in the south section of Bridgewater, Massachusetts sits the tiny, 19th century Alden Graveyard. It also goes by the name of Great Woods Graveyard, which I suspect was a name given in later times, although the name pays homage to the tall, straight white pine trees that were harvested over time for use in the region’s boat-building industry. (The graveyard’s earliest identification on Plymouth County deed transfers had it simply as a “burial lot”.) The graveyard is surrounded by a low, lichen-textured, New England-style stone wall, the kind that was constructed with “two-handers” (boulders that required two hands to carry.) The graveyard had a single, u-shaped carriage drive that would deposit “attendees” at the door of the centrally located Alden tomb. 

The high perch where the graveyard sits is surrounded on three sides by rolling, terraced fields. We knew it as “Titicut Hill”, but there was also a brief and casual reference to another name — “Hill of Sorrow” — because a sachem’s daughter was murdered there, so Mom once claimed. I grew up next to the Alden Graveyard. The lot of land upon which our little home sat was owned in the early 1800’s by the Deacon Asael and his wife Sarah (Alden) Shaw. It was either Sarah’s two brothers — Solomon and Amasa — or, more likely, her father, Solomon, who — along with his son, Amasa — donated one acre of bordering land in the late 1700s for use as a “burying lot”. 

It pains me to admit how much time my siblings and I spent playing among the headstones and upon the central tomb (and — as a fitting punishment — knee-deep in poison ivy that naturally loved the stone walls). If you stood on top of the earth-covered tomb, which in appearance resembled a hobbit home, and faced southwest, you had a sweeping view of rolling, terraced fields.* Beyond the fields, you could see the silvery thread of the Taunton River. Ok, so I want to believe that, but it’s a lie that I had so thoroughly convinced myself of. Bob — and my four other brothers — assure me that you couldn’t see the Taunton.**  It suggests that the forest was working at its own regeneration, spreading outward from the banks to reclaim what it had lost in the prior centuries. 

It can be expected that colonial era graveyards — with their utter lack of adornment — don’t excite interest beyond the occasional visitor. Visitors who, like me, enjoy musing about the somber and strenuous lives of 18th and 19thcentury New Englanders. They’re quiet, reflective places. That is, unless you’re a young girl who allows herself to be talked into entering the tomb. I will never forget the day I foolishly stepped into that dark, dank, silent space. There had to have been an insanely attractive reward offered by one of my brothers. Most likely Chris. I do recall descending at least one or two of the granite steps. (That must have been one of the conditions for my reward.) The heavy metal door was pulled shut and I was alone in the tomb, or “alone” only in the sense that I was the sole breathing person in a room that also housed dead bodies. I pounded and screamed for hours. Once again, that part is untrue. I think I pounded and screamed for five seconds. . . which seemed an interminably long time.

When the fields on the far side of the graveyard were covered with snow, the whole Alden Square neighborhood took to toboggans and skis and saucers and Flexible Flyers for hours of outdoor sledding. Alternatively, and when we needed a more immediate rush, we’d dash over to the graveyard; from the tomb’s summit, we’d either roll our bodies down (doable at any time of year) or — when snow cover allowed — steer our sleds along a twisting path, avoiding (as best we could) the headstones, much as skiers do on alpine courses. Like, very short courses. . . maybe 15-meter. (For those readers who are at this moment cringing, I promise that, as an adult, I’m much more respectful. . . and not as idiotic where it concerns personal safety, but I doubt your thought process ventured so far as to reflect on the hazards to personal well-being.)

For me, it wasn’t all about play, however. I came to know the families who slept quietly there, and would read and re-read the inscriptions and epitaphs. The earliest known owners of our home made that graveyard their final resting place. The Deacon Asael Shaw is truly “rest[ing] from his labors”, having lived to the surprising age of 92. And “resting place” really does have fulsome meaning, for 18th and 19th century folk believed that admission through the pearly gates could only be secured by presentation of a notarized form vouching for a life of hard work, sacrifice, misery, and really plain and uncomfortable “waring appearill”. (I love to insert that expression whenever possible.) 

My fascination with graveyards, as you can imagine, has been a natural outgrowth from having been next-door neighbor to the bones and spirits of colonial era yeomen and the like. I intend to continue cultivating my interest when opportunity permits — if you’ve ever driven with me, you’ll no doubt have seen my head pivot when I spot a tiny graveyard. I only occasionally, however, will respond to the tug to stop and walk around. Maybe it’s because of the residual sense of terror it inspires — what if someone were to shut me in another tomb? Or, maybe it’s because I am too fearful of the day that my own flesh will mingle with the dust. I don’t want to rush things.

~

*By the way, it didn’t pay to take in the north view from Titicut Hill. All those red-brick buildings with bars covering the windows were a disturbing reminder that ours was generally known to the rest of the town as the “prison neighborhood”.

** Bob, bless his little heart, allows me to save face by qualifying his statement; it was possible that one could see the flood waters that would occasionally breach the banks and travel as far the pigeon coops.

Scarlet Fever — A Persistent Worry

Part of this story concerns a topic that has been gently brewing in my mind for over two years. It was given a toe nudge by recent reporting about the proliferation (globally) of cases of scarlet fever.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what “iGAS” stands for until a couple weeks ago when I came across an online Wired article that seeks to draw attention to the disturbing uptick in scarlet fever cases. (“The UK Is Enduring an Onslaught of Scarlet Fever. Is the US Next?”) The article itself links to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, where you read a simple message and try not to hyperventilate: “Increase in invasive Group A Strep infections.” Short in length, the message goes on to warn, “iGAS infections include necrotizing fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.” It is highly contagious, and often fatal. Sometimes the bacterial toxins associated with the infection move so fast that by the time the sufferer seeks medical relief (in the form of antibiotics), it’s too late. Very scary stuff. I find myself reflecting uncomfortably on those occasions as a child when I suffered with strep throat, but, jeesh, these new bacterial strains are a whole ‘nother thing.

The Wired article presents both a historical view of scarlet fever, even looping in old familiar stories in which the disease afflicts beloved characters (Beth March of Little WomenMary Ingalls in the Little House series, also Boy of The Velveteen Rabbit), as well as the disease’s latter-day machinations. Making much of the fact that scarlet fever never went away, its gradual scaling up the last decade or so (in number of documented cases worldwide) is cause for concern.

It is equally concerning that there’s no systematic method of documentation, nor any reliable means to share. Here in the United States, only ten states participate in a “surveillance” program run by the CDC. (See “Active Bacterial Core Surveillance.”) Further limiting the program’s reach and effectiveness is the fact that unless the person stricken with illness is admitted to a hospital, the data is not collected. 

The obvious controversy is that data collection may be seen to infringe on individual privacy rights. That’s a legitimate worry. How, then, do we discern trends and patterns, a contagion’s migratory behaviors, and still preserve our rights to privacy? On a micro level, when a doctor (or a nurse) enters into a patient’s chart their diagnosis, along with the list of patient symptoms, in my mind, a breach has already occurred, regardless of how “trusting” the relationship may be that a patient has with their physician. . . and nurses. . . and technicians. . . and front-end staff. . . and — gosh — any hackers who might illegally access patient records. I imagine that if a patient had an objection to their doctor’s inputting of data — weight, height, blood pressure, complaints, diagnosis, whether they feel safe at home — they probably wouldn’t even be visiting the doctor’s office in the first place. No clinician would agree, either, to see a patient who won’t allow data to be gathered. Is there a way, then, that relevant data (surrounding contagions) can be harnessed by a central databank without violating personal privacy? Not surprisingly, I haven’t any answers.

Invisible Killers of the 19th Century

Eliza (Buswell) Coffin must have gasped in horror when one of her children came to her complaining of a sore throat that first week of January back in 1863. It was less about the throat than the angry rash on eight-year-old Caleb’s skin that gave flight to her blossoming dread. At the time, her husband, Samuel Coffin — the well-known boatbuilder of Rings Island — was off doing his part to save the Union in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (He would endure his own private anguish a couple months later when his younger brother with whom he had enlisted — John — died there of “congestive chills”, likely malaria.) In a matter of two weeks, Eliza stood helplessly by as one by one three of her five children died, all from scarlet fever.

Mid-19th century was, of course, still a time of antiquated thinking, at least in terms of people’s understanding of human health; in particular, their understanding of disease. Louis Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” was just beginning to excite curiosity among the medical establishment, but any observable progress wouldn’t happen for several decades. And antibiotics, the miracle treatment, wouldn’t become available until the 1940’s. Thus, when one looks at town reporting of deaths from that time, it might startle to see how many people died of bacterial diseases, such as diphtheria, consumption, typhus, dysentery, scarlet fever, chronic diarrhea, and cholera (and — with similar symptoms affecting only young children — cholera infantum). Of course, there’s the occasional “dropped on his head” mention, but from our enlightened 21st century perch, we’re left to wonder why it took so long for scientists to draw the connection between illness and “invasive bodies” that can only be detected by means of a microscope (something that had been invented at least as early as the 1600’s.) So little did doctors understand the causes behind illness that they naturally made judgments based entirely on symptoms. “Cause of death”, therefore, always must be treated with a grain of salt when perusing death records from throughout the 19th century. (Perhaps not as baffling was the lengthy delay on the part of the public to accept scientific wisdom; we need look no further than our own communities today to witness the skepticism with which new scientific findings are treated. Because we are unable, for example, to see how all the recent variants of the COVID virus are spreading, mutating, and jumping species, many of us remain unconvinced of their lethality, even their very presence.)

I admit to a morbid fascination with death. Plagues and poxes unnerve me, but they do also electrify my curiosity. When I do my genealogical research, I can find plenty to capture my interest just by reading death certificates. One great-great-grandfather, Patrick McKenna, whose peripatetic journey took him from County Monaghan, Ireland to the textile mills of Glasgow, Scotland, then to various mill cities of New England; survived into his 70’s after decades of factory employment. (Spotty record, that one had — he couldn’t manage to hold onto any job for long. Rather a tragic figure.) It appears he died at the Tewksbury Almshouse, with cause of death determined to be “pthisis”, aka consumption, more commonly known these days as tuberculosis. Another great-great-grandfather, James Loughnane, died much younger (in his 30’s) from — yet again — consumption. He, too, had been a mill worker whose (short) life story read a lot like Patrick’s. 

The Buswells of Mudnock Road

Closer to home — literally — my interest at the moment has turned to Eliza (Buswell) Coffin because of a study I freely undertook a couple years ago on a house that I see from several windows of my own home. I’m not a creepy stalker, but my interest was instantly sparked when I heard someone make passing reference to an ancient intra-family feud, simultaneously gesturing toward the “William Buswell” home. (Actually, one of two “William Buswell” homes that sit only yards apart on Mudnock Road.)

If you stand on Mudnock Road at the top of (and facing) Niko Way, the home that sits on the right corner, at 34 Mudnock Road, is the newer Buswell home, built in 1780. (Its twin was built 50 years earlier and gives the appearance of having been more loved — or at least cared for — through the years.) The “newer” Buswell home stands on the original 2-acre homestead lot of Isaac Buswell (laid out in 1639 as part of the First Division of Settlers). The federal-style “double house” has a brick wall running right down the center of it that serves as a physical signpost of the acrimonious relationship that developed between two brothers, Walker and Jacob Buswell, soon after the hammers and saws ceased their racket. (It is quite possible that Walker was the one to erect the dividing wall, as, in addition to being a yeoman/farmer, he was a bricklayer.)

“Deacon John” Buswell, seven years before he died in 1783, thought he was doing a good deed. He had ample personal property and real estate holdings, but lots of children — nine, in fact. (The Buswells appear to have been prolific reproducers.) He outlined carefully in his will who should inherit what. His language was clear: along with his lot of marsh in the meadow and half of this and half of that lot (he really did have a finger in every pie), Walker should have the “easterly part of my homestead. . . my shoemaker’s shop. . . and my hog house.” To Jacob, The Deacon bequeathed the westerly side of the homestead and his (other) dwelling house, as well as the other half of this and the other half of that lot.

It has been my opinion — after reading and re-reading his document — that, as careful and thorough as The Deacon had been, as aware as he was of his own substantial holdings, he misjudged the character of the two sons who were expected to “play nice together” and share. For over thirty years, the two brothers occupied the home, Walker and his family on the east end, Jacob and his family on the west end. They both lived into their 80’s; Walker died in 1817, Jacob in 1822. The record provides us with no evidence that fraternal harmony ultimately prevailed. Going forward, the language of their titled properties became complex and is clear about “passing” and “re-passing” rights where it concerns access to the well, the barn, the shoe shop, etc. Meanwhile, their brother Caleb — jauntily sporting the “wearing appearill” left to him by Dad — went merrily about his way, tending the Chester, New Hampshire farm bequeathed to him (and raising a brood of ten — all sons).

Walker, for all the headaches that co-ownership posed, inexplicably died intestate. . . and with debt to be settled. His interest in the easterly half of the home was bought out at auction by his 20-year-old grandson, John Walker Buswell. Then, in 1825, John Walker paid Caleb Pike Jr. $700 for property that included the westerly side of the house; the home, going forward, would be known as the “J.W. Buswell Home”. In that way, any embryonic references to the “Otis Pike Home” became moot.

Eliza was one of five girls born to John Walker and Nancy (Walton) Buswell, their fifth child (of eight.) Her choice of husband was likely based on sound reasoning. After all, the Coffins of Rings Island were solid people. Long-time ship builders in a ship-building village. There were lots of Coffins on Rings Island. The Mudnock Road Buswells — yeomen, mostly — were, likewise, solid people. There were lots of Buswells on Mudnock Road. The union of the two powerhouse families held great promise.

Epidemics, with their seemingly mysterious origins and movements, have beleaguered and bewildered communities since time immemorial. It should be here noted, however, that 1863 was an especially bad year for Salisbury in terms of mortality. The number of deaths — 89 — was more than double the deaths recorded the year before for our small town. Thirty-seven of the reported deaths (or 42%) were of children and infants (ages 0-17). Of that number, seven were victims of scarlet fever. As noted, three of the seven were Eliza and Samuel’s small children.

It is a belief held by some that families of earlier times became so accustomed to the beckoning finger of the grim reaper that they were inclined to adopt a dispassionate attitude toward death. If you read epitaphs from headstones for children who died in the 1800’s, you come away with a different perspective. While “heavy clod” and “arms of God” seem fitting for someone who died in their 86th year, and “mouldering bones” is perhaps apt for any adult who has passed on, the epitaphs for children are much more touching expressions that suggest real grief, even foundering defenselessness against baffling forces. As one example, in the Great Woods Cemetery in Bridgewater, next to the house I grew up in, one of the epitaphs for a child who died at age 6 reads: “Nature has but soft powerful bands, And reason she controls; While children with their little hands, Hang closest to our souls.” We see, then, that as much as 19th century New England families looked to their bibles for consolation and guidance, they grieved just as deeply as we do now upon the death of a loved one, especially a child.*

~

For two years the imagined grief of Eliza (Buswell) Coffin has resided as a slow simmer in the back of my mind. All the while (and after) I researched the Buswell home, the nearness of which reminds me of a mute, doddering forebear; I’ve wondered how she weathered her crisis in 1863. After losing three of their five children, Eliza and Samuel had two more. In one way or another, all the descendants wove their lives into the fabric of the river- and ocean-side communities of Rings Island and Newburyport. Thus, it’s impossible in current times to uncouple the Coffin name from the history of Rings Island.** 

After a bit of searching, I was able to discover a photo of Eliza. As much as I had been hoping to see an image of her as a young woman, this one, at least, is a close-up — a good one, at that — so one is able to see fine details.*** In the photo, which appears in a direct descendant’s published history (The Coffin Family of Rings Island by Cynthia C. Wildes, great-granddaughter of Eliza and Samuel), Eliza is an old woman. She appears to be looking slightly up and to the left of the camera; it causes her to have a far-away look. The lines on her face read like a city map, and I wonder if they’re caused by a vigorous life of hard work (outdoors?), or from a lifetime of internalizing painful experiences. Her white hair, vaguely wavy, is center-parted and carefully but simply coifed, tucked behind her ears and fastened snuggly. She appears serene and self-contained, but also exudes confidence — she is sure of her place in this world. Do I detect, though, a hint of sadness in her expression? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, I should read it simply as weariness. I decide to tuck this mental image in a quiet corner of my memory. I want to remember Eliza (Buswell) Coffin, even though I never met her — she was, after all, born nearly two hundred years ago, and lived in an era that persists in confounding me, try as I might to make sense of it. I want to remember her because of the connection I have made between her childhood home and the home I own, which, once upon a time, was part of the Buswell homestead lot. It’s more than conceivable that her little feet scampered across the same yard that is now my yard. Like most people who are interested in the past, I seek the common elements that bind me to events and people who lived before.

~

*One way that mothers could express their sense of loss was by keeping close to their heart (in an ornamental locket) a tuft of hair snipped from their departed child. Another common practice from Victorian times that today we view with curiosity (maybe even unease) was the fashioning of jewelry out of hair, and not necessarily from a dead person; just as often from a good (living-breathing) friend. In a National Geographic article by Becky Little, “Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair”, Karen Bachman of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY puts it this way, “Women of the 19th century would swap locks of hair as a love token the way young girls today might wear friendship bracelets.” The hair could be fashioned into earrings or pendants. The popularity of “hair art” owes to its enduring qualities — hair takes a long time to decay — and because, as Bachman points out, “it’s a very personal indicator of self.” 

~

**Lincoln Coffin, born in 1864, will make a cameo appearance in a separate story, one that caused a surprised “Oh!” in my research of the long-time residence of the Salisbury Historical Society on Second Street. (Keep an eye out for that as a future blog post.)

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***I had been trying to secure permission to include the image as part of this story, but determining the person or concern that currently holds the copyright is a frustrating exercise.