Graveyard Stories

1 Fielding Lewis under the steps

Earlier cemetery publications listed Fielding Lewis and “3 children” as buried under the stpes.  Fielding Lewis  (husband of Betty Washington) is NOT buried under the church steps.  He died on his son’s plantation in northern Virginia and the likelihood of having his body returned to Fredericksburg is remote.  No contemporary records indicate this.  The current church was built some 68 years after he died.  The best estimate of his burial location is on his son’s plantation in Frederick Co (current Clarke Co.), Va.  There is NO marked grave, but he was visiting his son when he died unexpectedly and usually you were buried close to where you died as  embalming was not the practice.

In 2011, the steps were renovated and no body was found.

  1. Shakespeare’s Pallbearer

This rumor was prevalent in the years following the Civil War and was not dispelled until Moncure Daniel Conway’s article published 1886 in Harper’s magazine, “Hunting a Mythical Pallbearer” after he had played a role in spreading it! It’s a fantastic example of how rumors can spread and then be accepted as fact.

Conway grew up in Falmouth in a river front home that is still standing on River Road. As a child growing up he left one of the few memoirs of the Rev. McGuire’s years, coming to St. George’s for worship at Christmas in the 1840’s. (An article appeared in an earlier St. Georgian about that). He became an abolitionist and Methodist minister after he left Fredericksburg but still kept up with his local community through his relatives who maintained a presence in Stafford.

Daniel, who had visited our cemetery as a boy, ran across a pallbearer story which became part of his article of March, 1865 which appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, “Virginia First and Last.”  (This literary journal was published in England from 1830-1882. Note that Conway’s name did not appear with the article.)  The article talks about a Pilgrim who came from England to Virginia would feel comforted  seeing the street names and the burial ground at Kenmore but would feel distanced by the grave of Mary Washington- “Here lies Mary, the mother of Washington.”  “If this should make him feel too much a stranger, he would recover the illusion wandering amongst the old tombs of St. George’s churchyard where he would find one on which is inscribed there ‘was one of the pall-bearers of William Shakespeare.’”

Sometime after 1870, Conway’s mother forwarded the actual burial inscription copied by a Miss Olive Hanson, sister of a family who had ties with St. George’s – “Here lies the body of Edward Helder, practitioner in Physick Chirurgery. Born in Bedfordshire, England in the year of our Lord 1542 – was contemporary with, and one of the Pallbearers of William Shakespeare. After a brief illness his spirit ascended in the year of our Lord 1618, age 76.”  The epitaph appeared as an editorial note in another publication in the same year, the Pall Mall Gazette which doubted the epitaph since the word ‘contemporary’ did not appear in usage until after Shakespeare’s time.

However, in the same year, a poem by Frederick Loring published in the Atlantic Monthly kept the story going as well as St. George’s role. Here is a part of the poem:

“For in the churchyard at Fredericksburg Juliet seemed to love, Hamlet mused, and old Lear fell, Beatrice laughed, and Ariel Gleamed through the skies above — As here, beneath this stone, Lay in his narrow hall, He who before had borne the pall At mighty Shakespeare’s funeral.”

Five years later a version of the epitaph slightly edited appeared in the Washington Evening Star in 1875. Conway remembered stories that bodies were brought to St. George’s before Fredericksburg was formally established and that bones were found when a street was made near the church.  Thus, it was not totally implausible that the bones of someone who died in 1618 could have made their way over to Fredericksburg.

Daniel followed up these stories by visiting Fredericksburg in 1875 and 1880. He couldn’t find anyone in Fredericksburg that could positively identify having seen the tombstone.  He researched names of those coming to Virginia by 1620 and could find no Helder.  He decided it was a myth but one that he would chase. How could such a story been created? Is there some basis for the story?

A variant of the story appeared in a letter to the Editor of a St. Paul, MN newspaper in 1884, the information derived from a NY Times article in the same year when it republished Loring’s poem. When the Federal army passed through the “burying ground of St. George’s Episcopal Church… the wheels of the cavalry tore up a gravestone – a red sandstone slab; and that subsequently this stone has been used as the door step of a cottage in the town.” Apparently Burnsides was trying to build a new road. Another lead from vestryman Samuel Knox was that the stone had become battered and had settled deep into the ground and leaning at a 45 degree angle.

Conway when he returned to St. George’s in 1885 noticed a “small surface of stone exposed on a long mound of earth… when the original church was built.” He dug and found a stone 3 feet by 21 inches. On it he saw an “H” or two “J’s separated by a mark. He had the sexton look at the stone who acknowledged that people had asked him about the Shakespeare story but had never seen such a stone in the 30 years he had been at St. George’s. Was this the source of the myth?

A friend from Concord, MA told Conway that he had read in the magazine Literary World that Dr. Helder was actually buried near Potomac Creek in Stafford. Conway’s uncle remembered a story that a British surgeon was in a party that anchored in Potomac Creek where one was killed by Indians. However, Conway’s mother added there was nothing about Shakespeare linked to the story. With a friend he visited the ruins of Potomac Church, “a place which had been haunted by antiquity” and had been more recently occupied by soldiers in the Civil War. No stone was found but then after returning to the water, he took a road for about half a mile which led him to the Willow Grove Farm. The resident pointed to where such a tombstone lay. Unfortunately it had been broken by Union soldiers and later the surface had burned by hot bricks when a burning chimney fell on it. He did confirm that the name “Helder” was on it but there was no mention of Shakespeare. Conway found the stone and it was illegible.

A week later, Conway heard from a former Union soldier who while in Stafford had made a copy of inscription and provided a copy to Conway.  A former confederate soldier helped him removed the stone and found a second fragment which fit on top of the first. There were two letters and another that was interpreted to be an “R.”  For Conway this was part of the word “Here.”

More search on the literary records followed and finally for Conway the source of the rumor was found. A resident of SC hearing about Conway’s interest wrote him about a diary he had in possession. The soldier’s diary picked up by a Confederate at the Battle of the Wilderness contained a fly-leaf where the epitaph was written in a diary of 1862, the year of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Conway concluded “It is probably that some correspondent, having copied the epitaph correctly, added that Dr. Helder was a contemporary of Shakespeare and might have attended his funeral. A printer may have incorporated the comment in the epitaph, and some contemporary evolved the simple statement into the startling one. The original correspondent may have described the stone as ‘at Fredericksburg’ for the region was a camp…”

Since an epitaph would need a tombstone which needs a location so you can see how the prominent cemetery of St. George’s became the resting spot of Shakespeare’s pallbearer! Fantastic? Yes, but no more so that the other famous rumor of the body of Fielding Lewis (Kenmore’s owner) buried beneath St. George’s front steps.

  1. John Dandridge grave covered up

The reason it was unknown to the present generation is accounted for from the fact that the slab over the grave has been covered with dirt for more than half a century, most likely from the erection of the present church building, and was discovered only a few years ago. When the grave was discovered the slab covering it was cleaned off, and the inscription on it was found to read as follows:

“Here lies the body of Col. John Dandridge, of New Kent county, who departed this life the 31st day of August, 1756, aged 56 years.”

  1. Graves street
    Historic Fredericksburg: the story of an old town By John Tackett Goolrick

Burial In Street

Page 148  “In a peculiar Report, made March 27, 1802, the Grand Jury took steps to put a stop to  “a nuisance, the numerous obstructions in the streets, particularly in St. George Street lot; burying the dead in George and Princess  Anne Streets; also the irregular burying in the ground west of and adjoining Princes Edward.” These graves, the report shows, were on George, Princess Anne, and in Hanover Street, west of Princess Anne, and on George Street between Main and the river”

  1. 9/13/1897 9 skulls found in street
  2. 10/29/1912

Running sewer on P. Anne between William and George Seymour Scott found number of bones. With the bones were found nails and particles of decaying wood

  1. 7/31/2009

“Today, Mr. Henry Bones previously buried a foot from the St. George’s curb for 200 years made his appearance in this century after being unceremoniously piqued and poked by City of Fredericksburg workers digging a trench underneath the streets to connect St. George’s sprinkler system with city water sources. City police carted him off to the precinct for an examination by medical authorities. Problems ensued when they tried to book the bones for trespassing on Church property which erupted into fracus between police and said bones….”

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