Artist-in-Residence Blog: Harvard Hill
October 30, 2014. In Mount Auburn Cemetery, at the plot known as Harvard Hill, just after sunrise on a windy day, the autumn leaves rush and weave among the monuments, float gently down to the ground, and collect atop the gravestones. This is one of the cemetery's higher elevations. I've brought my digital cinema setup here to capture the spirit of an event that took place almost 155 years ago.
December 1st, 1859. A rainy day. A promising young man -- a medical school student -- is laid to rest in a grave on the very edge of the Hill, far away from the future cluster of white marble spires to classmates who will live natural lifespans. These days, the brown, crumbling headstone is mostly unreadable on one side. Luckily, in a book published in 1881, Moses King provides us with the original wording:
EDWARD THOMAS DAMON,
A GRADUATE OF THE
CLASS OF 1857.
BORN 19 April 1835
DIED 30 Nov 1859
AGED 24 Years.
Oh, but there is much more to this story. A dread disease. Poorer people suffer the most. Hospitals overwhelmed. Cries for quarantine. Public panic. A young person cut down in the prime of life. A refusal by some to touch the body.
Ebola, West Africa, 2014? No. Smallpox. Boston, 1859.
According to the 1861 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, volumes 64-65, “The Epidemic of Smallpox, 1859-1860”, “...in the twenty-two years from 1839-1861, smallpox has caused fourteen-hundred and ninety-one deaths, and has been epidemic four times. The last epidemic began in January, 1859.” Damon dies on November 30th of that year. Wayland, his home town, refuses interment in their soil. He is buried at Mount Auburn the very next day.
One of Damon’s friends remembers that burial. From “Report of the Class of 1857 in Harvard College; prepared for the twenty-fifth anniversary of its graduation" published in 1881:
"Thursday morning (December 1) was appointed for the burial of our friend. As a few of his friends gathered at the chapel at Mount Auburn, one could not but imagine the drifting clouds and falling rain were sent in unison with the sadness of the day to them. His father, mother, sisters, and other relatives and friends from Wayland were present; Rev. Dr. Huntington, Drs. J. and M. Wyman, Dr. Nichols, nearly all of his associates in the Medical Class here, and, of our own Class, Bullard, Clark, French, Morse, and Smith. Dr. Huntington's service was short and simple: a few selections from the 'Book of Life' and a touching prayer, — touching to all of us, I think; for all present were either attached to or well acquainted with the dead.”
While researching this piece, I come upon historical photographs of smallpox victims. Profound disfigurement precedes a painful death. The images are, even now, hard to behold. One can see why it was truly a dread disease. According to one contemporary journalist, even the gravediggers refuse to fill in Mr. Damon's grave. His classmates throw dirt upon the casket.
On this day, with my hi-tech cameras and digital audio recorders, working alone in the bright sunrise of crisp New England Fall, I think about the victims of Smallpox. And Leprosy. And AIDS. And Ebola. And all the plagues and scourges from antiquity to modern times. They are as much social catastrophes as medical occurrences. According to news reports, one of the most agonizing aspects of today's West African Ebola epidemic is the fact that victims and their loved ones, in the last days, are denied the comfort of caresses. Hasn’t this always been the case, everywhere in the world? But in the end, death provides surcease from even the most horrific trials. And those who survive go on with their lives. Some are lucky enough to build memorials to their dead.
Damon’s classmates thought he contracted the disease in November, 1859, while tending patients at the smallpox quarantine hospital on Rainsford Island, in Boston Harbor.
November 20, 2014. I cannot find an affordable charter boat to land me on this long abandoned drumlin, so I do the next best thing - I film it at sunset from a passing ferry. On the cold, windy deck, I set my camera to catch the treetops, the shoreline and the setting sun, and imagine the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Bostonians sent to this isolated rock to die in agony and never return home. And the brave doctors, nurses and medical students who crossed these frigid waters to tend their contagious smallpox victims.
From "The Mount Auburn Memorial" Dec. 1859
“Stricken while in almost perfect health and manly strength, by a disease which, in his family, has almost always proved fatal, and which brings terror and dismay in its train, he was attended by his classmates of the Medical School, with a devotion, more worthy of the name of heroism, than what we read of in battles, or that fills the pages of history, and which does them honor as gentlemen, and proves them worthy of the high profession, into which, if their lives are spared, they will soon enter.”
My thoughts drift to the unsung, knowingly unprotected West African nurses and doctors who face certain death to tend their patients. And to our brave doctors, nurses and medical students from Boston who travel halfway around the world and expose themselves to help rout this latest plague.
December 1, 1859. At Damon’s burial, a natural phenomenon is seen. It is taken as a sign from the heavens. The graveside eyewitness account continues:
“As the preacher ceased, and raised his head to pronounce a benediction on the living, the sun broke from the clouds and illumined the face of the speaker; giving him an expression of tranquillity, which we may make into an omen, that, after the tears and the sorrow, there shall be found peace and an unspeakable joy.”
December 1st, 2014. This morning, after researching Damon's life and times for two months, I’ve returned to his grave, on the 155th anniversary of his burial. As I take motion and still images, my only companion is a massive Great Horned Owl. I’ve never seen one in real life before, and take a photo. I motion to a passing Birder and point up in the tree that overlooks Damon’s grave. He smiles in delight and snaps several images of the owl. For a moment, I’m sorry I brought it to his attention. I feel like the owl and I were sharing this commemoration, and I just invited a stranger to the party.
What does Edward Damon's headstone say on the reverse side? It is still legible today. We should all be so lucky in the end.
TO THE MEMORY
EDWARD THOMAS DAMON
THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED
BY HIS CLASSMATES AND FRIENDS.
Many thanks to Pauline DiCesare for bringing Mr. Damon to my attention.