By Richard P. Howe, Jr.
Cemeteries in colonial America were ominous places. Graves were clumped together and markers were decorated with skulls and grim reapers. Attitudes towards death changed substantially in the 1820s with the onset of the Transcendental movement. Nature was central to the Transcendentalists. In it they found inspiration and the divine. The movement also transformed the way Americans treated death and burial places. With cemeteries more tranquil and natural, death became easier to bear.
The first cemetery in America to incorporate this attitudinal change was Mount Auburn in Cambridge. Founded in 1831, Mount Auburn featured rolling hills, meandering paths, and a great variety of trees, shrubs and flowers. It was America’s first garden style cemetery.
The Ayer Lion
Cultural innovations that began in Boston and Cambridge in the first half of the nineteenth century rapidly migrated to Lowell. In 1840, a Lowell banker named James Carney (the person for whom Lowell High School’s Carney Medal is named) brought together a small group of businessmen who purchased for $5000 from Oliver Whipple a forty-three acre lot adjacent to Fort Hill to serve as home to a privately owned garden style cemetery. To finance the purchase, the proprietors of the new Lowell Cemetery found 500 other Lowell residents to purchase lots of 300 square feet for $10 each.
The proprietors of the cemetery engaged a noted civil engineer named G. P. Worcester to lay out the roads and the lots. He created a master plan that was distributed to every lot subscriber in advance of a type of auction during which the lot owners selected their lot from the map. This method caused the original graves to be scattered throughout the cemetery rather than clumped in one particular area.
In the early years, the cemetery generated income from the sale of lots and from the sale of wood. Lot owners were responsible for maintaining their own sites and the cemetery trustees were mostly concerned with perimeter fencing and internal roads and paths.
Chapel at Lowell Cemetery
In 1848, the trustees erected a small wooden chapel that resembled a park gazebo. That remained until 1886 when it was replaced by the current stone chapel which was the gift of Mrs. Charles P. Talbot (formerly Harriet E. Rogers) in memory of her late husband who was one of the principals of the Talbot Woolen Mills of Billerica.
Across from the chapel is the Receiving Tomb which was donated to the cemetery by Freeman Ballard Shedd in honor of his son Eli Hoyt Shedd who died of meningitis at age 8 in 1885. In an time before backhoes and jackhammers, burials were not conducted during the winter when the ground was frozen. Instead, up to 36 bodies were stored in the receiving tomb until spring. Originally, the tomb had two bronze Sphinx sculptures at the entrance but one was stolen during the 1970s and the other was put into storage for safekeeping.
Mr. Howe at the Recieving Tomb
Freeman Ballard Shedd was born in Lowell in 1844. As a young teenager he went to work at Staniels Drug Store which was at the corner of Gorham and Middlesex Streets, right where today’s Washington Savings Bank parking lot is located. At Staniels, Shedd befriended a co-worker named Eli Hoyt.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the 17 year old Shedd enlisted in the 33rd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Because of his work in the drug store, Shedd was assigned to the regimental hospital. The 33rd Infantry fought in many major battles in the Eastern Theater including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg but was then transferred to Tennessee where it was the only “eastern” unit in the army of General Sherman. The 33rd fought in every major western battle including Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, the battle for Atlanta and Sherman’s march to the sea. Shedd was present for all of that.
With the war over, Shedd returned to Lowell and Staniels Drug Store. Hoyt had not served in the military but had continued working at the drug store, eventually purchasing the business from Mr. Staniels. While there, Hoyt concocted a men’s cologne that he sold under the name Hoyt’s Cologne. Shedd, who had developed a knack for marketing, convinced Hoyt to rebrand the product “Hoyt’s German Cologne.” Although it had nothing to do with Germany, adding that to the title created an exotic air and the cologne became a phenomenal international success.
Tragedy struck the partners in 1887 when Hoyt died at age 49. Shedd continued operating the company and became one of Lowell’s wealthiest residents and a great philanthropist, donating money for a building at Lowell General Hospital and the land that became the city’s Shedd Park. Freeman Shedd died in 1913 at age 69 and is buried in a mausoleum near the Knapp Avenue entrance to the cemetery.
The Lowell Cemetery continues to operate as a privately-owned, non-denominational place of burial. A walk through its 80 acres confirms the initial vision of its founders, for Lowell Cemetery is one of the most beautiful, restful places in the city.
In Memory of a Mill Girl
Free public tours of the Lowell Cemetery are offered each year in the spring and fall. This season’s tours are Friday, May 18 at 1 pm; and Saturday, May 19 at 10 am. The tours begin at the Lawrence Street entrance and involve 90 minutes of walking over hilly terrain. They take place rain or shine. For more information, visit the lowellcemetery.com.
Richard P. Howe Jr. is the Register of Deeds of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. He is a graduate of Providence College and Suffolk University Law School and holds an MA in History from Salem State University. In the early 1980s, he served as a US Army Intelligence Officer in Germany. Mr. Howe is the creator of richardhowe.com, a widely read blog about Lowell history and politics. Three years ago, he succeeded the late Catherine Goodwin as the official tour guide of Lowell Cemetery. He has lectured frequently on the American Civil War and its impact on the city of Lowell and surrounding communities.