Susanna Haswell Rowson (17621824). Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. 1905.
Historical and Biographical Introduction
IV. The Tombstone
THE Charlotte Temple tombstone lies in the northern part of Trinity churchyard, between the eastern pathway and the iron fence that faces Broadway. It is a long brownstone slab, well sunk into the surrounding soil, and bears, without date or other inscription, the name Charlotte Temple. The records of the parish having been destroyed in the fire which burned the church in 1776, and the inscription plate having disappeared from the stone before 1846, no means have been found for ascertaining the date of her death or burial. She is understood to have died when she was nineteen years old. Mrs. Rowson, however, gives her age at the time when she fled from England with Montraville as fifteen, and her death appears from the story to have occurred a year later-that is, in 1775, when, according to Mrs. Rowson, she would have been sixteen instead of nineteen.
The absence of records has led to the growth of much skepticism among local historians as to the authenticity of the stone as marking the grave of a woman from whose tragic history Mrs. Rowsons tale was drawn. In the family of Mrs. Rowson, however, a fixed belief has always existed that the stone in this sense is authentic. It has come down from Mrs. Rowson herselfamong others through her niece, Rebecca Haswell Clark, who was a pupil in Mrs. Rowsons schooland through Ellen Haswell Osgood, a grandniece, and nothing has ever shaken their faith in it. In Mr. Nasons biography of Mrs. Rowson, no question of its authenticity is raised. Nor does the writer of the sketch of Mrs. Rowson in Appletons Dictionary of National Biography in any way qualify his statement that the Charlotte of flesh and blood was buried in Trinity churchyard.
Popular belief has not suffered appreciably from the skeptical views of local historians. After the lapse of one hundred and thirty years it still survives, active and potent. Pilgrimages continue to be made to the stone; flowers are reverently, tho often furtively, placed upon it,1 and the newspapers periodically publish extended articles, giving details of Charlottes life and death.2 Neither the grave of Alexander Hamilton nor that of Robert Fulton successfully disputes its preeminence as the most popularly interesting tombstone in that famous burying-ground. In the autumn of 1903 a writer, seventy years old, who said he was born under the shadow of the spire of this church, had had the Battery for his playground in boyhood, and for forty-seven years had had a law office that overlooked the churchyard, so that he had been on this spot almost continuously from his birththat is, from about 1833wrote as follows:
When I was a boy the story of Charlotte Temple was familiar in the household of every New Yorker. The first tears I ever saw in the eyes of a grown person were shed for her. In that churchyard are graves of heroes, philosophers, and martyrs,3 whose names are familiar to the youngest scholar, and whose memory is dear to the wisest and best. Their graves, tho marked by imposing monuments, win but a glance of curiosity, while the turf over Charlotte Temple is kept fresh by falling tears.4
The persistent survival of this story as the basis of Mrs. Rowsons romance must be accepted in itself as a fact to be seriously considered. If it were the creation of recent years, we might perhaps, in the absence of documentary evidence, feel warranted in dismissing it from credence. But it is almost as old as Mrs. Rowsons book. Mrs. Rowson, in reply to criticism, maintained the truth of her story in her own lifetime and when the book was new. While she did not give, in her printed statements, the names of the originals of Charlotte and Montraville, that was hardly to be expected. Indeed, there were special reasons why she should not reveal the name of the original of Montraville, since he was her own cousin, and a younger half-brother of hers, Montrésor Haswell, bore his name. But his identity was known to her friends as well as to herself, and has been preserved in her family down to the present day, and along with it an unyielding belief in the genuineness of the stone.
Mrs. Rowson survived Charlottes death forty-nine years, which was ample time for a denial to have been effectively made. It nowhere appears that either Charlottes family or the family of Montraville has denied it specifically or publicly. Had it been possible to produce disproof, it seems fair to infer that one or both of the families concerned would have brought it forth. An opportunity to do so occurred in 1881, when the family of Colonel John Montrésor permitted the New York Historical Society to publish the Journals of himself and his father.5
The only item in the book in any way dealing with the subject is contained in a foot-note to an introductory sketch of the family of Montrésor, where it is stated, that Mrs. Rowsons father, William Haswell, was a brother of Mary Haswell, the mother of John Montrésor; that Mrs. Rowson was the author of Charlotte Temple, and that she has assured her readers that, with only an alteration in the names of the characters, the whole story is almost literally true.
Considering all the circumstances of Charlottes life and deaththat she was the daughter of an English clergyman, the granddaughter of an English earl, and that her father, on hearing of her forlorn condition, came to America from England, and was present at her death and funeralwhat would have been more natural than that she should be buried in the churchyard of what was the most prominent Church of England place of worship in the city?6
It has often been said, and Mrs. Rowsons family still adhere to the statement, that the tombstone originally bore the inscription, Inscribed to the memory of Charlotte Stanley, aged 19, this inscription being cut into a plate of silvered copper or brass, with the arms of the house of Stanley placed just above it. Charlottes daughter, who, in Lucy Temple, the sequel to Charlotte Temple, is known as Lucy Blakeney, is said to have come to America in 1800 for the purpose of seeing her mothers grave, and is credited7 with having erected this stone. Some inferior stone is believed to have marked the spot previous to that time. In causing the new stone to be set up, Lucy elevated it on four pillars, after the manner then often employed for the finer kind of memorials. In the course of time the pillars crumbled or otherwise became insecure, and the stone was lowered to the ground, as it lies to-day.
Mr. Bacon tells essentially the same story. A simple uninscribed headstone,8 he says, marked the grave in 1800 when Lucy Blakeney visited it, and Tommy Collister,9 who had been for many years the sexton of Trinity, had no difficulty in pointing it out to the grave and stately lady in black who called upon him.
The two novels shed some interesting light on the name of Blakeney. In the second chapter of Charlotte Temple it is an army officer of that name who takes Mr. Temple to the Fleet Prison, and there introduces him to the unfortunate Mr. Eldridge and his daughter, the future mother of Charlotte. Blakeney does not again appear in Charlotte Temple, but in Lucy Temple further details of his life are given. He is described as Captain Blakeney of the Navy, Lucys godfather, and an intimate friend of her great-grandfather, Mr. Eldridge, and is said to have died a bachelor, when Lucy was ten years old, and to have left her his entire property, amounting to $20,000, which he had acquired in America during the Revolution. A condition of the gift was that Lucy should assume the name of Blakeney. Mr. Nason says Blakeney was probably Lieutenant-Colonel Grice Blakeney, of the Fourteenth Royal Dragoons. Mr. Bacon, who confirms this statement, without making any reservation, says he found Blakeneys name in the Royal Kalendar, where his commission as Lieutenant-Colonel it dated November 17, 1780.
We may perhaps assume that Mrs. Rowson, in writing Lucy Temple, used the real name of Blakeney instead of resorting to a fictitious one. She might properly have done so. It will be recalled that she did not publish the book in her own lifetime, and that when at last it appeared posthumously, Blakeney had been dead forty-one years. Lucy Temple, perhaps more than Charlotte Temple, reads as if it were a transcript from real life.
Among Mrs. Rowsons descendants it has always been believed that Charlottes remains, some years after the burial, were removed to England. To reconcile this belief with the visit of Charlottes daughter, we must assume that the remains were removed not earlier than 1800. The date of the removal has not been preserved in Mrs. Rowsons family, but the fact of the removal has been transmitted from Mrs. Rowson herself through her niece, Rebecca Haswell Clark.
Lucy never married. In 1800 she was twenty-five years old. Besides the Blakeney fortune, she now possessed a tidy sum which had come to her from her grandfather. Altogether, she was an heiress of some consequence. Various and comprehensive schemes of benevolence, says the author, formed the work of her life, and religion shed its holy and healing light over all her paths. Possibly we are warranted in entertaining a belief that Lucy came to New York in 1800, and, after having had her mothers remains taken up, caused the present stone to be erected as a permanent memorial of the place where, for a quarter of a century, Charlotte had lain in her last sleep.
The stone, as it appears to-day, has a rectangular depression in its upper part, about one foot by nearly two feet in size, and perhaps an inch deep. At least sixty years ago the inscription plate had disappeared from this depression, and is understood to have been stolen and then recovered, but afterward to have been misplaced or lost. During the building of the present church edifice, which was consecrated in 1846, an engine-house, connected with the hoisting apparatus of the builders, stood directly over the stone. After the removal of the little house the plate was seen to have disappeared, and circumstances indicated that this had occurred while the house stood there. William H. Crommelin, the foreman in charge of the stone-cutting for the new building, had his attention called to the missing plate, and has said in writing that he thereupon caused the name Charlotte Temple to be cut into the stone in the manner in which it remains to this day.10
It is clear from this statement that, among those who were engaged in building the new church sixty years ago, the stone was believed to mark the spot where Charlotte was buried, and that it originally contained a plate bearing an inscription. One naturally asks here, Why was not the name Charlotte Stanley cut into the stone instead of Charlotte Temple? Assuming that the name on the plate was Charlotte Stanley, it perhaps would not have been wholly unnatural, at that time, when Mrs. Rowsons story was widely read and the grave a place of constant pilgrimage, for the stone-cutter to have substituted for it the name of Charlotte Temple, because by that name, rather than Charlotte Stanley, Mrs. Rowson had made the grave best known to the public. Further excuse for Mr. Crommelins otherwise inexplicable act might be adduced, provided we could assume that he knew the grave no longer contained the bones of Charlotte Stanley.
Mr. Bacon gives an account in detail of the theft of the plate. Two men, he says, visited the churchyard on a cloudy night, and with tools cut and forced away the lead which fastened the plate to the stone. As they lifted the plate from it bed, they were discovered by two watchmen who had been coming up Wall Street. The intruders made their escape at the rear of the churchyard, dropping the plate as they did so in the tall grass. On the following day the plate was found in the grass, but, owing to fear that it might be removed again, it was thought inadvisable to fasten it to the stone. Mr. Bacon says this occurred not many weeks after Lucys departurethat is, in 1800. His statement is not reconcilable with the implication in Mr. Crommelins letter that the plate disappeared during the rebuilding of the church as consecrated in 1846. But Mr. Bacon wrote long after the eventthat is, in 1865. Perhaps he was misled by what some one had told him. While he was not a writer who adhered closely to research for his facts, the statements of fact in his article, when verification is possible, have been found in the main to be correct.
Philip Hone, once Mayor of New York, and for quite forty years a worshiper in Trinity Church, serving long as vestryman, and warden, in 1835 is said to have opposed a proposal of the city authorities to extend Pine Street westward through the grounds of Trinity churchyard, and gave as one of his reasons that to do so would disturb the grave of Charlotte Temple. She was treated shamefully while she lived, said he, and I am firmly opposed to any injury to her grave now that she is dead.11 This is a pleasing story, but it is not true that an extension of Pine Street would have disturbed Charlottes grave. The stone lies far south of what would have been the street line. However, if this scheme had contemplated the abandonment of a further part of the churchyard for building purposes, Charlottes grave would have been disturbed.
Would Charlotte Temple have lived its glorious day had there been no tombstone bearing that name in Trinity churchyard?moreover, had there been no room for controversy as to the authenticity of the stone? Something of the popularity of the book can be set down to this extraneous influence, but its share might easily be overestimated. Certain it is that those who now visit the churchyard and put flowers upon the stone are not skeptics; these with stiff necks keep away, leaving the credulous to pursue their pathetic way in peace.
The history of most great successes in popular fiction proves nothing more conclusive than that extraneous circumstances, including mere advertising, never in themselves made a great popular success. If the full history were told of Uncle Toms Cabin, Ben Hur, and David Harum, the three books which, with Charlotte Temple, have had the largest sales known to fiction in this country, it would be revealed that the advertising expenditures, so to speak, cut very small ice.
Charlotte Temple was published in days when book advertising, if not actually unknown, was certainly unknown in the modern sense. It made its way purely on its intrinsic qualities as a book that appealed powerfully to human interest. As for the tombstone, we must not forget that the first success of the book was won in England, among readers who could never have heard that the grave of that unfortunate young English girl existed on the western border of Broadway. Its success in that country was immediate, the sale of 25,000 copies being extraordinary for that periodthe period, moreover, of William Cowper, Fanny Burney, Hannah More, Mrs. Radcliffe, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Anna Letitia Barbauld.
The sole assistance the work could have had, from what in a larger sense may be called advertising, has come from countless newspaper paragraphs and articles, which year after year have been evoked in America by the tombstone and the flowers. The book itself has seldom called forth an article. From reviewers there came at the beginning no appreciable aidat least none until William Cobbett (who liked best to write when he could flog some one, and who could discover fair game in almost anything), assailed its authors writings in Philadelphia in 1794.
One of the most widely read novels in the English language, and probably one of the most talked about, it still remains one of those least written about. In England (for the first two years at least), it was left unnoticed by the Monthly Review, a periodical which had for its exclusive province news and reviews of books. Nor do I find any notice of it during that period in the Gentlemans Magazine, which each month devoted several pages to new publications. Poole has been searched in vain for a single article.12
The only contemporary English notice which has come to light anywhere appeared in the Critical Review for April, 1791. It may be a Tale of Truth, said the writer, for it is not unnatural, and it is a tale of real distress. The situations are artless and effective, the descriptions natural and pathetic. We should feel for Charlotte, if such a person ever existed, who for one error scarcely perhaps deserved so severe a punishment. In conclusion the writer remarked that, if the story be really fiction, poetic justice is not properly distributeda complaint for which we may find a satisfying answer in Mrs. Rowsons fidelity to actual occurrences.
The conclusion is irresistible that the early and immediate success of Charlotte Temple was due to its quality as a story which deeply touched the normal human heart. From the same qualityand this, it may be added, is the only source of real vitality in any novelhas come the success it has maintained with four generations of readers down to the present day. Seldom in the history of literature has a work of fiction been more exclusively the maker of its own fortunes.
Note 1. In certain seasons of the year this occurs as often as once a week. The men employed in the churchyard say they never see any one in the act of placing them there. The flowers are found lying on the stone: whence they came no one knows. [back]
Note 2. The most notable of recent articles appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, July 9, 1905, when nearly a page was given to the subject, with portraits and views, the writer being Mary A. Taft. [back]
Note 3. Besides Hamilton and Fulton, may be named Albert Gallatin, Captain James Lawrence, the Earl of Stirling, and General Philip Kearney. [back]
Note 4. H. S. B., in a letter dated September 12, 1903, printed in the New York Evening Post. [back]
Note 5. Collections of the New York Historical Society for the year 1881. The Montrésor Journals, edited and annotated by G. B. Scull; published by the Society. [back]
Note 6. Besides Trinity, New York at that time had two other Established churchesSt. Georges, in Beekman Street, a few blocks from Broadway, and St. Pauls, then, as now, at Broadway and Vesey Street. There were two Dutch churchesthe Old, in Exchange Place, east of Broad Street, and the New, in Nassau Street, where now stands the Mutual Life Building. Other denominations represented by a church edifice were the Jews, Lutherans, Quakers, and French Catholics. [back]
Note 7. In an article in the New York Tribune, about 1876, where she is referred to as Mrs. Blakeney, which seems to imply that she was known here under the name she bears in Lucy Temple. [back]
Note 8. In some early editions of Charlotte Temple a crude woodcut appears as a frontispiece, giving a view of the grave. A small upright stone is shown with a large willow-tree drooping over it, the stone being inscribed C. T. But it seems to be a fanciful sketch. [back]
Note 9. Thomas Collister, as the Trinity Church records show, was appointed assistant sexton in 1788, and was made sexton in 1790. He appears to have served until 1816, when another sexton, Mr. Coutant, was appointed. [back]
Note 10. Letter of William H. Crommelin to the late William Kelby, librarian of the New York Historical Society, dated July 8, 1876. The original is now in the possession of the Historical Society. [back]
Note 11. H. S. B. in his letter to the Evening Post, already referred to. [back]
Note 12. Index to Periodical Literature, 5 vols., 8vo. In this work are indexed the periodicals published in this country and England from the beginnings of modern magazine literature, late in the eighteenth century, until the present time. [back]