The Gravestone of Samuel Stevens


On a small hill among the Ward and Selden family sections of Mount Hope Cemetery lies the grave of Samuel Stevens. Stevens' monument appears to be strangely out of place. The coffin-shaped, red stone of his monument contrasts with the simplicity of the white marble headstones that surround it. In addition, the monument states that Stevens lived and died in Albany. Therefore, this monument poses several questions. First, why does he have such a dissimilar gravestone than those surrounding him? Secondly, why was he buried in Rochester? Finally, who was Samuel Stevens and what does his gravestone indicate about his life?

Stevens' gravestone is located in the southern corner of lot G72. This particular lot contains seventeen other gravestones. Stevens' monument aside, they are all simple white marble headstones that surround a large deteriorating Celtic cross, also made of white marble. This cross is about ten feet tall and its base is a seven-foot square. It is placed in the center of the lot with all of the graves surrounding it in a square. This cross serves as a family marker for the lot. The seventeen white headstones match this marker, yet Stevens' red, flat marker clearly does not.

In addition, this plot contains members of four other families: the Seldens, the Hands, the Smiths, and the Crabbes. Interestingly, besides Samuel Stevens there is one other Stevens buried in this lot. It is another Samuel Stevens who was most likely his son. This stone reads, "Samuel Stevens, son of Samuel Stevens and Mary Smith Stevens." Still there is no indication of the senior Stevens' marriage on his own stone, nor is Mary Smith Stevens buried anywhere nearby. His gravestone tells us little about his life, so we must turn to other sources, primarily obituaries and other printed media about his death. One good piece of evidence offered is this statement from the September 13, 1854 edition of the Albany Argus: "He expired at the residence of his father-in-law, in Rochester, on Monday Night."( Albany Argus, 13 September 1854) This small nugget of information tells us a few very important things. First of all, Stevens was clearly a married man. Secondly, his wife was probably from Rochester, and the mystery is easily solved when we take a few steps back and look at the surrounding stones.

The most important thing to notice is that the central Celtic cross has the name "Smith" engraved in it, indicating that this lot is for members of the Smith family. Indeed, Silas O. Smith is buried nearby. Silas Smith was one of the founders of Rochester; he married Seba Hand Ward. One of their daughters, Augusta, married into the Crabbe family. Therefore, all of the surnames in the lot are accounted for. Most importantly though, one of Smith's daughters was indeed Mrs. Mary Stevens ( Maude Motley, "Romance of Milling," Continental History of Rochester, ed. Edward R. Foreman (Rochester: Rochester Historical Society Publications, 1931), p. 197. Professor Th. Emil Homerin helped to unravel the relationships of those buried in the Smith plot). So now the mystery is solved. Samuel Stevens' grave may appear out of place, but we know that it truly is not. Although he was from Albany, he married into a prominent Rochester family. However, we do not know for sure why he was buried in Mt. Hope and not in Albany, but at least now it makes sense that he was buried amongst the graves of his in-laws.

There is, however, little mystery behind the origin of the images, words, and shape of Stevens' monument. It is about six feet long, two feet wide, and two feet tall. In addition, the top is pitched, like a roof. This type of monument is specifically known as a grave ledger. Carved into the lower end of the top is a six-stepped ziggurat, which has a symmetrical plant-like structure leading from it. This vegetal carving stops and touches a circular shaped cross at the upper end of the top (see pictures). Surrounding this image is a small lip that encompasses the entire top of the monument. Starting at the top, near the cross, is an engraving that follows this lip all the way around the outline of the monument. It reads: "Here resteth Samuel Stevens who departed hence September XI in the year of our Lord Mdcccliv [1854] aged sixty years [a cross is engraved here] Lord Jesus receive my soul amen [another cross]." The inscription is in gothic letters. The sides also have engravings on them. One side reads: "Resided in Albany NY from Mdcccxxviii to Mdcccliv [1838-1854]." The other side reads: "Born in Washington, Co. NY September I Mdccxciv [1794]." This monument is rather elaborate and it was probably quite expensive, so it follows if Stevens was either a very wealthy man and/or a rather famous one.

Indeed, by reading his obituaries we find the answer. According to the September 12, 1854 edition of the Albany Evening Journal: "Stevens has stood in the front rank of the Bar of this State for more than twenty-five years. During this long period probably no other Member of the Bar performed more hard mental labor or was engaged in more important causes."( Albany Evening Journal, 12 September 1854) Clearly, Stevens was an important man, being that he was one of New York State's most accomplished lawyers for twenty-five years. Thus, since he was such a prominent figure, it is sensible that he could have such an elaborate monument.

Now we can analyze what the carvings and engravings on Stevens' stone represent. First, we know that he was an Episcopalian because the Albany Evening Journal states that his funeral was held at St. Luke's Church in Rochester, which is an Episcopalian church. Episcopalians, or members of the Church of England, originally broke from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that the carving of the circular shaped cross at the top of the monument is very similar to Catholic gravestones from medieval England.

According to David Walsh, Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester, grave monuments of this form were extremely common in thirteenth century England. The entire carving represents one large cross. The stepped pyramid is a representation of Mt. Golgatha, which is where Christ was crucified. At the top is a circular shaped cross, known as an equal-armed cross. The staff forming the shaft of the cross is clearly some sort of vegetal form, which may represent the tree of life, as well as the living wood of the cross of Christ. Clearly, this plant-like carving has major significance as a symbol of life and the saving grace of Christ. This is a definite symbol for life after death, and this classical image must have been reassuring to Stevens' mourners; even though Stevens' body had died, this carving represented Stevens' soul as living on in heaven. Professor Walsh added that the carvers of this stone probably had no idea of its symbolic meaning. They were most likely copying the medieval graves without putting much thought into it. He also noted that most of the carvers who made similar monuments in the 1200's probably were also merely copying the design from elsewhere, with little thought as to the symbolic meanings of the carvings.

There is a definite element of classicism to Stevens' grave. This might attest to the grace, power, and taste that he had in life. According to one obituary: "As a man, he was warm-hearted and confiding- of refined and cultivated tastes- of brilliant conversational power and fine social qualities."( Albany Argus ) Also a eulogy for Stevens' given by his more famous colleague William Seward (responsible for purchasing Alaska, a.k.a. Seward's Folly) stated that Stevens "was assiduous, dignified, courteous, astute, and learned."( William Seward. "Eulogy of Samuel Stevens" from The Papers of William H. Seward. Also see Douglas Davies, Death, Ritual, and Belief: The Rhetoric of Funeral Rites (London: Cassell, 1997), pp. 1-2) Clearly, Stevens was a stately and refined gentleman. Thus, his monument employs such elements of classicism as Roman numerals, gothic lettering, and references to medieval and classical architecture, all indicative of his refined tastes and sensibilities.

Fortunately, I was able to find Seward's complete eulogy; therefore, we are capable of hearing actual "words against death." Death is a threat to the self-conscious, and so, as humans, we must find some way to overcome death, or at least to be able to live peacefully with the knowledge that it exists. Words are often used as a way to rationalize death, and clearly, a eulogy aims to do just that. Seward stated that Stevens "died in the maturity of fame" and that his legal precedents: (Seward )

will be consulted in other countries and in other times, whereever [sic] human freedom, protected and guaranteed by law and religion, shall have a home. On many a page of those records the name of our departed brother will appear, and so by his voice will yet seem to be heard in the conflicts by which truth shall be elicited and justice vindicated.

This statement implies that even though Stevens is dead, he will live on through the legal precedents that he set in his cases. In a sense, then, he is immortal which might have been comforting to his friends and relatives, as through his work and service to others, he has overcome death.

This same sentiment is also expressed on Stevens' gravestone. Clearly, there is the message that Stevens lives on in heaven through God's power. This is accomplished through both the imagery, and the engraved epitaph which reads: "Lord Jesus receive my soul amen." Significantly, this prayer is written in Stevens' voice, thus reassuring the viewer of the stone that Stevens is home in heaven, as if they can actually hear Stevens asking Jesus to take his soul.

Stevens died at the age of sixty from complications of the liver. At the time of his death, he had essentially completed his life's work, which was to be the best lawyer that he could be. Thus, there is no tragic element involved in his death. Stevens obviously lived a full life, and his monument is a lasting and refined tribute to this prominent New York State lawyer.

Researcher: Nick Orsillo
University of Rochester

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