Application to National Register of Historic Places
Statement of Significance
Cohasset Central Cemetery contains the oldest burying ground in the town of Cohasset, with graves dating from 1705 to the present. From slate to marble, then to granite and now often back to slate, its markers are witness to the passage of time, to changing fortune, custom and style, all tempered by the individual tastes of those who placed them here. The peaceful setting and its accessibility to the Town Village draws visitors, recreational walkers and researchers through all seasons. The vista of Little Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond speaks to the seafaring history of Cohasset.
The cemetery is eligible for the National Register under Criterion A and C at the local level, and fulfills Criteria Consideration D for cemeteries with distinctive design features. Cohasset Central Cemetery retains integrity of location, setting, materials, design, workmanship, feeling, and association. The demographics of those buried in the cemetery reflect Cohasset’s historical development. They include late 17th century settlers, members of prominent 18th and 19th century seafaring families, Portuguese and Irish immigrants, military veterans from the Revolutionary, Civil, and two World Wars, and wealthy 19th and 20th century summer residents, including several well known actors. The cemetery is also significant as the burial site of the victims of the shipwreck of the brig St. John, which sank off the shore of Cohasset in 1849. Cohasset Central Cemetery is also significant for its excellent collection of gravestone art. Well-represented is the work by the Scituate school of stone carvers: the first and second North River carvers (1700-1778) and the Vinals, father and son (c.1715-1781). In addition to stones from these carvers, the cemetery contains several children’s stones from the Ebenezer Soule, Jr. (1758-1773) workshop of Plympton bearing the signature “Medusa” heads with wild, wavy hair. (Map#24- The cemetery’s funerary art also includes other 18th century slate stones with winged cherub and winged skull motifs; 19th century marble stones with willow and urn, obelisks, scrolls, statuary and pointed arch forms; and 20th century granite monuments ranging from simple stones to the elaborate Celtic Cross commemorating the victims of the wreck of the St. John.
Located near the town common and village center, the cemetery was established in the first years of the 18th century to serve the Conahasset area of Hingham, which became Cohasset. The Conahasset lands were surveyed and divided up among qualified landowners in 1670, after which settlement began. In 1717, the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay set Cohasset off as the second parish and second precinct of Hingham. The change in name from Conahasset to Cohasset dates from that time.
Originally located on common land and administered by the town, the “center burying ground” was laid out near the main road from Conahasset to Hingham, today’s North Main Street. The “road to the burying ground” is now Joy Place, which runs along the western boundary of the cemetery. The street was renamed in the first half of the 19th century for Captain Joseph Joy, whose 1808 house stood at the beginning of the lane. The cemetery served the largest population center in the newly settled area, which extended from the boundary at North Scituate to the shore at Jerusalem Road. This represented the extent of the first and second divisions of land in Conahasset. Three other cemeteries were laid out in Cohasset in the eighteenth century. They include Beechwood Cemetery, which is still active, in the village of Beechwood; Green Gate Cemetery in North Cohasset, which was active until the 1960s; and Cedar Street Cemetery, which served a group of families on Hull Street and North Main Street until 1867.
The earliest burial in the Cohasset Central Cemetery is that of Margaret (Hardin) Tower, who with her husband, Ibrook, was among the first settlers of Cohasset. Although Margaret Tower was the first burial in the cemetery, the oldest gravestone in the cemetery is that of Sarah Pratt, who died in 1706. Margaret Tower’s stone was placed on her grave several years later. Members of Cohasset’s founding families buried here include the first minister to the Parish at Conahasset, Rev. Nehemiah Hobart, and his wife, who died in 1736 and 1741 respectively. The third minister in Cohasset, Rev. John Browne, who was a prominent advocate of liberty during the Revolution, also was buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery upon his death in 1791. The names of other founding families such as Tower, Pratt, Lincoln, Bates, Beal, Whitcom, and Hobart grace many early gravestones in the burial ground. Mordecai Lincoln (d. 1808), son of Isaac Lincoln and grandson of Mordecai of North Scituate who had operated mills and a small iron works on Turtle Island, also is buried here.
The earliest gravestones in Cohasset Central Cemetery are primarily made from gray slate. Many carry death’s head motifs (photos 1-5), which dually symbolized the inevitability of death (skull) and the immortality achieved through religious redemption (wings). Well-represented in the cemetery is the work by the Scituate school of stone carvers: the first and second North River carvers (1700-1778) and the father and son workshop of Jacob Vinal Sr. and Jr. (1715-1781). In addition to these local workshops, the cemetery contains children’s stones from the Ebenezer Soule, Jr. workshop of Plympton (1758-1773), bearing their signature “Medusa” heads with wild, wavy hair.
The gravestone images cut by these carvers were the first and purest form of folk art that originated in the American colonies, and they provide a unique sensibility of the period, its belief system and style progression. For example, the death’s head executed by the first and second North River carvers remained their symbol for over fifty years, unaffected by stylistic change taking place in the surrounding burial grounds.
Their material and tools limited the artistic efforts of the carvers. The slate they quarried originated from a bed in the western part of what was then Scituate but is now Hanover. It was geologically mature with a dense, hard texture and was extremely difficult to cut with the poor steel tools available. To avoid splitting the stone, the North River carvers devised a cutting method that produced a triangular notch in the slate. These small notches were arranged into starbursts, borders and winged skulls, a technique that continued to distinguish their work, even after a softer slate was employed. For example, the gravestone of the Reverend Nehemiah Hobart (photo 5, map #12) displays an intricate border of Catherine wheels and sand dollars, the later a nod to nearby local oceanic life.
The Vinal family of stone carvers, consisting of father Jacob and son Jacob, Jr. were prolific and carved up to four hundred stones in the northern Plymouth County area as well as Cohasset, and Braintree. Jacob Vinal, the father, probably learned to cut stone from the first North River carver, since much of their decorative work (hammered starbursts, flowers and border designs) was similar. Vinal was unique, however, in introducing smiles into his carved images of spirit skulls. This motif was in contrast to the gloomy skull caricatures employed by the North River carver. One example of a Vinal smiling skull can be seen on the Aaron Pratt gravestone (photo 2).
One symbol that appears to have been carved only in the year 1741 was that of the heart-mouth (photo 3, map #7) on the Vinal spirit skulls, a symbol that temporarily replaced the usual slanting teeth. It has been suggested that this symbol shift represents a specific sentiment tied to the religious revivals of the period. Cohasset has three of the thirteen known heart-mouths in the region. They are found only on children’s gravestones, and in Cohasset they belong to the Stetson family. Of the five Stetson children’s stones, three of them bear the heart-mouth: Ezekiel (d. 1732), John (d. 1740) and Lydia (d. 1741).
The style progression that is present on the gravestone carvings in Cohasset Central Cemetery has been connected to the ideologies manifested in Puritan Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has been theorized that the decline of death head images coincides with the decline of orthodox Puritanism, which was influenced by the religious revival movement of the 18th century known as the Great Awakening. The exclusivity of the predestination doctrine was cast aside and a new doctrine offered salvation for all. New images, which reflected release of the spirit in the form of cherubim with human faces, began to appear on gravestones. Fleshy facial images began to replace the skeletal caricatures that had been the only symbol allowed. These human faces and cherubim can be seen in the Cohasset Central Cemetery, as adapted by Jacob Vinal, Jr. and other unknown carvers.
The Great Awakening of the 1740s and the promotion of the idea that salvation was available to all, not just an elect few as Puritan doctrine held, ultimately resulted in a secularization of funerary art in New England. Cohasset Central Cemetery’s stones reflect the loosening of religious strictures and an abandonment of religious iconography in stone motifs. By the time of the American Revolution, classical ornament such as urns, swags, and willows associated with the democracies of Greece and Rome became popular. White marble also began to supercede gray slate as the preferred gravestone material, though classical motifs also appear on many gray slate stones in Cohasset Central Cemetery. As death became associated more with gentle rest than the doorway to judgment, Americans increasingly began calling burying grounds by the term “cemetery” or dormitory.
While little is known about the identity of the North River Carvers, the Vinal family of Scituate is well documented. Jacob Vinal (1670-1736) and Jacob Jr. (1700-1788) were the principal gravestone suppliers for Scituate, Cohasset and Hingham for about eighty years. Jacob, Sr. took up gravestone carving when he was about forty years old, sharing a quarry with the first North River carver. Credited with about 100 stones carved over the last three decades of his life, he died a wealthy man, suggesting that he was active in more endeavors than gravestone carving. Jacob Vinal, Jr., who had assisted his father, continued to carve slate markers into his later years, producing some 200 to 300 gravestones and expanding the range of his business into Braintree and Marshfield. Upon his death, he transferred his slate quarry to his son Jacob, who did not take up carving, ending the gravestone-carving era of the Vinal family.
The community of Cohasset grew steadily over the course of the 18th century, more than doubling its population by the Revolutionary War. Conahasset colony became the second precinct of Hingham in 1717 and was incorporated as the Town of Cohasset in 1770. The community was quickly moving from a primarily agricultural economy to one based on maritime pursuits such as commercial fishing and shipping. As the population of Cohasset grew and the first generation of settlers began to pass away, the town of Cohasset saw the need to make an official survey of the “center burying ground” and plan for its expansion. In 1787, a committee made up of residents Samuel Bates, Deacon Abel Kent, Micah Nichols, and Joseph Beal was organized to carry out these duties. The committee documented the burying ground with a crude map and carried out a land swap with an adjacent owner to increase the size of the burying ground and straighten the line of the “road to the burying ground” from North Main Street (Joy Place). The committee records the burying ground as being one acre, 134 rods in 1787. Nearly 35 years later, in 1825, Cohasset Central Cemetery was expanded again when Samuel and Joanna Bates deeded the town ¾ of an acre of land between the burying ground and North Main Street to increase useable space.
Fishing, shipbuilding, salt making, and other maritime trades peaked in Cohasset between 1845 and 1855, when the fishing industry alone employed 400 men and 44 vessels. As Cohasset’s maritime economy grew in the mid-19th century, the names of seafaring families such as Lothrop, Larry, Snow, Bailey, and Tilden began appearing on stones in Cohasset Central Cemetery. Several gravestones read simply, “Lost at Sea” and mark empty graves. Portuguese names also began to appear on stones in the 19th century, reflecting the rising immigration of that group to the area between 1845 and 1875. Several Civil War veterans and men killed in action are buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery. Most prominent among them is Levi B. Gaylord, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic action at Fort Stedman, VA. He is Cohasset’s only known Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. The memorial stones of many of the town’s leading citizens in the 19th century, such as clergymen, doctors, merchants, ship owners, farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen, also appear in Cohasset Central Cemetery. Deacon Abel Kent, who surveyed the burying ground in 1787, died at age 93 in 1859 and is buried here, as is the Rev. Joseph Osgood, who was the minister of the First Parish for over fifty years and a leading citizen in Cohasset’s civic life. Osgood helped to establish the first central school system and the elementary school of this system bears his name. Osgood also was instrumental in establishing the Town’s first public library. His interest in education and knowledge was carried over to his leadership on the first Committee on Town History, which sponsored Bigelow’s Narrative Histories and Davenport’s Genealogies. The Rev. Osgood died in 1898.
Cohasset’s picturesque, rocky coastline has attracted summer tourists since the mid-1820s. By the late-19th century, Cohasset was popular as a summer resort destination, particularly for wealthy businessmen and their families from Boston. The Sears, Codmans, and Appletons, to name a few, were regular summer visitors by 1872. These part-time residents built cottages and large summer homes with ocean views along Jerusalem Road and Atlantic Avenue. Some summer visitors eventually became year-round residents and are buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery. The well-known Boston Brahmin names of Seavers, Richardson, Sears, and Howe all appear on stones in the cemetery. Clarence Barron, the founder of the Boston News Bureau, Barron’s magazine, National Financial Weekly, and one-time owner of the Wall Street Journal, was a long-time summer resident of Cohasset and a local philanthropist. His two granddaughters, Jessie Bancroft Cox and Jane Bancroft Cook are buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery.
A large number of nationally known actors, actresses, and theater personalities also summered in Cohasset in the late 19th century. The locations of their residences, clustered near Cohasset Harbor, were known variously as Actors’ Row and Brass Button Avenue. Two recognized thespians, tragedian Lawrence P. Barrett (d. 1891) and comedic actor Henry W. Stuart (d. 1903) are buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery along with members of their families. Stuart’s grave carries his stage name, Stuart Robson, and is located with Barrett’s in the northern section of the cemetery, near the water’s edge. William Hanlon, a member of the Hanlon Brothers pantomime theater company and an acknowledged pioneer of vaudeville, is also buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery. Hanlon formed his theater company with his five brothers upon emigrating to the U.S. from England, where they had performed acrobatic and aerial shows. By the time they moved to Cohasset, where they kept a practice studio, the Hanlon Brothers were working as producers and directors. William lived on Jerusalem Road, and his brother Edward lived on Sohier Street.
In 1867, the Town of Cohasset turned Cohasset Central Cemetery over to a private association of townspeople. That same year, Edward Everett Tower conveyed a parcel of land north of the original burying ground, bringing the acreage of the cemetery up to the road line of North Main Street. Another gift of land came in 1873, when Cohasset resident Charles S. Bates donated a tract of land in the northwest portion of the cemetery. The addition of this acreage brought the cemetery to its present 4.286-acre form. Charles Bates also donated funds to construct the brick receiving tomb (now a caretaker’s building; map #15). A hearse road called Garden Way (map 4) was cut into the southern valley of Cohasset Central Cemetery ca. 1873, stretching east-west from Joy Place to near the water’s edge.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought significant economic change to the town of Cohasset as fishing and other maritime industries died out in the 1880s. The community retained a diverse economy of agriculture, summer tourism, various trades, and some manufacturing. The period between 1850 and 1915 also saw a major influx of Azorean Portuguese, Irish, and Italian immigrants into the town. The remains of forty-five Irish immigrants killed in the wreck of the brig St. John are buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery in a common grave below the top of the north hill. The brig, which was carrying famine refugees from the Irish counties of Galway and Clare, was bound for Boston in October of 1849 when a storm blew the vessel off course as it approached Massachusetts Bay. The ship anchored near Minot’s Lighthouse outside Cohasset Harbor to ride out the storm, but the anchors failed to hold. The ship ran aground on submerged ledge and broke into two pieces. Out of 120 passengers and crew, only 21 survived the wreck. Writer Henry David Thoreau visited Cohasset after reading of the wreck in the Boston newspaper. Thoreau later recounted the story of the St. John in the first chapter of his book, Cape Cod. The Rev. Joseph Osgood of the Cohasset Unitarian Church initially performed services, but this was not acceptable to the Catholic Church, which dispatched Father John Roddan of St. Mary’s Parish in West Quincy to perform another service. This burial represented the first Catholic presence in the Town of Cohasset. Though buried and memorialized in 1849, it was not until 1914 that the gravesite was officially commemorated with a marker. That year, the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected an 18-foot Celtic cross to commemorate the death of all 99 Irish citizens aboard the St. John. The Celtic Cross bears the seals of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and its Ladies Auxiliary. It reads:
This Cross was erected and dedicated May 30, 1914 by the A.O.H. and L.A.A.O.H. of Massachusetts to mark the final resting place of about forty five Irish emigrants from a total company of ninety nine who lost their lives on Grampus Ledge, off Cohasset, October 7, 1849 in the wreck of the brig St. John from Galway, Ireland. R.I.P.
As the 20th century progressed, many World War I and World War II veterans were also buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery. Their graves are marked by flag stands given by the American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign Wars Cohasset chapters. More recently, prizewinning sculptor and farmer Richardson White was buried here upon his death in 1993. The White Family has resided in Cohasset on their Jerusalem Road farm, called Holly Hill, since the 1840s. Mr. White’s artistic subject matter focused primarily on horses. His work “Great Horse” is part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his “Rearing Thoroughbred” is installed outside the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
The board of the Cohasset Central Cemetery continues to manage and maintain the cemetery. Alongside the “Old Slates” and the marble or granite stones of earlier times are two 20th century columbaria. One of the first on the South Shore, the Cumner Columbarium was constructed in 1982. Named after a former president of the cemetery association, it stands along Joy Place. A larger facility, the Tower Columbarium was added in 1988. it is named for a former treasurer of the Cemetery and direct descendant of the first person to be buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery. This additional space has provided for the future of this Colonial Burying Ground whose roots go back beyond the town itself but whose eyes are still upon the future.