Amherst graveyard project bringing past to present

  • Rebecca Fricke, general manager of Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst, looks at the gravesite of Mabel Loomis Todd, an important figure in Amherst history who is included on a historical tour at the cemetery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The gravesites of Susan Huntington Gilbert, the wife of William Austin Dickinson, who is buried next to her (W.A.D.), on a historical tour at Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebecca Fricke, general manager of Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst, talks about the cemetery and the historical tours exploring the lives of those buried there. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Monday, January 17, 2022

AMHERST — Paulo Coelho, an immensely successful Brazilian novelist, has a gloomy take on the end of life.

“Whenever someone dies,” he said, “a part of the universe dies too. Everything a person felt, experienced and saw dies with them.”

Or not.

An ambitious initiative in the works at Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street is collecting, preserving and sharing biographical information about many of the people interred at its 80-acre burial ground. Among these is Josiah Hasbrook, an African American who grew up with the family of abolitionist John Brown and served in the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War and eventually settled in Amherst in 1897. A self-guided tour posted on Wildwood’s website includes a locator map for those who wish to visit Hasbrook’s gravesite and a photocopy of his July 28, 1915, obituary notice in the Springfield Daily Republican.

Rebecca Fricke, general manager of the cemetery, has taken the lead in this effort to ensure that the life stories of the deceased are not buried with them. Although Wildwood is, in every sense, a modern, working cemetery, Fricke said its utilitarian role doesn’t preclude its evolution as “a community historical resource.”

Certain of the august personages laid to rest at Wildwood, such as the influential historian Henry Steele Commager, enjoyed abundant acclaim in their lifetimes. Others not so much. Take suffragettes Miriam Elder, Margaret Duncan Ely Morse, Jean Allis and Mayes Martin. In their case, ultimate recognition came about when members of the Amherst League of Women Voters undertook research on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage).

League members reached out to Wildwood to see if any of the early suffragists were in residence. Indeed, Elder, Morse, Allis and Martin, the four officers of the Amherst chapter, are buried at Wildwood.

The cemetery’s website features a photocopy of a front-page article in the May 17, 1914, Springfield Republican bearing the headline, “Amherst Has New Suffrage League.” Included, too, is a portion of a letter from poet Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson, to her brother, Austin. The letter gives some indication of what those stalwart women’s suffrage advocates were up against:

“Dear Austin,

This forenoon, I went into the Hall of the Ho. of Reps. to hear the Women’s Suffrage people argue pro & con — heard some women speakers on both sides — some sentimental, some belligerent, some fist shakers — some scolds — and was disgusted with the class of females which gathered there. I hope we shall soon have a chance at the subject, & begin to clear off the scum — they don’t expect to get what they ask, this year, as most of them say, but threaten to agitate & agitate till they find a Legislature weak enough to report in their favor.”

Austin Dickinson (1829-1895) has several connections to Wildwood, one of which is awkward. He helped develop Wildwood Cemetery. And he is buried therein alongside his wife and children. Not far from his very modest headstone — a granite brick bearing his initials and nothing else — are the graves of David Todd, an eminent Amherst College astronomy professor, and his wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was responsible for the initial publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

Mabel Todd was instrumental in setting up the Amherst Historical Society, the Amherst chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Amherst Woman’s Club. The website does not include the much-reported fact that while Professor Todd was exploring the heavens, Mabel and Austin were exploring one another in a down-to-Earth and lengthy affair.

At present, the self-guided tours at Wildwood are “The Influencers” (Dickinson-Todd), “The Suffrage League” and “The Tour of One” (Josiah Hasbrook). Several others are in the works.

Wildwood invites tour suggestions. Among ideas on the back burner are tours focusing on writers, scholars, librarians and — think about it — the varieties and provenance of the many stone monuments gracing the graves. Also up for presentation are early letters, deeds and documents, including correspondence with Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park and the U.S. Capitol and gave advice to the designers of Wildwood.

More information can be found online at wildwood-cemetery.com.