Archive for Saturday, November 4, 2006

Workers dig up Dickinson family mystery

November 4, 2006

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— For Emily Dickinson, death was never too far from the imagination. The topic fueled her writing, making for some of the most memorable lyrics in American poetry.

Now, death is posing a bit of a puzzle for the caretakers of her homestead.

While making improvements to the grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum on Halloween, workers unearthed the gravestone of one of the poet's relatives.

But exactly what Gen. Thomas Gilbert's headstone was doing under 18 inches of dirt in Dickinson's front yard has some experts stumped - especially knowing that his remains are buried in a nearby cemetery with a more ornate grave marker.

"What do you do with a used gravestone?" asked Jane Wald, the museum's executive director. "It might have been used as a step or used to cover a hole in the ground. We don't know exactly why it was placed there."

To be sure, more is known about Gilbert than the simple marble slab that bears his name and date of death. An innkeeper, merchant, lawmaker and member of the Massachusetts militia who lived in Greenfield, Gilbert had seven children and outlived his wife. But when he died a pauper in 1841, his youngest daughter, Susan, moved to Amherst to live with an older sister.

That's where she met Dickinson, when both girls were 14. Their lifelong friendship deepened in 1856, when Emily's brother, Austin, married Susan.

To entice the newlyweds into staying in Amherst, Austin and Emily's father built them a house next to the Dickinson homestead.

Susan, who long endured taunts and barbs from Amherst residents who considered her father to be a drunk because he owned a tavern, may have wanted to put her detractors in place by moving her father's grave from Greenfield to Amherst.

Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass., crouches Thursday by the tombstone of Gen. Thomas Gilbert, uncovered during excavations on the museum property. While making improvements to the grounds of the museum on Halloween, workers unearthed the gravestone of one of the poet Emily Dickin-son's relatives.

Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass., crouches Thursday by the tombstone of Gen. Thomas Gilbert, uncovered during excavations on the museum property. While making improvements to the grounds of the museum on Halloween, workers unearthed the gravestone of one of the poet Emily Dickin-son's relatives.

When Gilbert and his wife were reburied close to the Dickinson homestead in West Cemetery, their plot was adorned with a new marker. The gravestone dug up earlier this week was likely the original stone from Gilbert's Greenfield grave, Wald suspects.

"In that regard, it makes sense for this grave marker to be found around here," she said.

The marker was found by workers digging a trench to improve water drainage. When their excavation equipment hit slabs of stone, they started digging by hand.

Chunks of marble - some with letters or numbers carved in them - started surfacing. By the time they were done, 15 pieces were unearthed and arranged like an oversized jigsaw puzzle. A few gaps in the slab remain, but the marker clearly reads "Gen. Tho. Gilbert. Died Dec. 23, 1841." The number 48, his age when he died, rests at the bottom.

Wald guesses the gravestone went underground as one piece, but shattered under pressure of time and landscaping equipment that's been rolling over the homestead grounds during the past few years.

Emily Dickinson, who wrote most of her hundreds of poems about nature, love, life and death in her second-floor bedroom, died in 1886. The last surviving member of the Dickinson family was Austin and Susan's daughter, Martha, who sold the homestead in 1916.

It was purchased in 1965 by Amherst College and opened by the school as a museum in 2003.

Other maintenance and repair work has unearthed pieces of ceramics, a mouth harp, coins and a brick gutter.

"There's always a great deal of potential for archaeological finds at a site like this," Wald said.

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