Eminent Domain (pt. 1)

E li Whitney, Noah Webster, Roger Sherman, James Hillhouse. Even in death, the men seem to get all the attention. But the New Haven Museum and Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery got together recently to set the record straight—or rather, to add to it—with a talk at the museum titled “Remembering New Haven Women: Four Centuries of Women’s History.” Just five women are listed separately from male relatives on the cemetery’s tour map of 89 “eminent people in Grove Street Cemetery,” so the late October presentation offered a new way of viewing the city’s historic burying grounds and the contributions of its women.

To begin your own walk through Grove Street women’s history, pick up a map on the stoop of the office just inside the front gate. Then head eastward on Hawthorn Path, which fronts the cemetery, all the way to Sylvan Avenue. On the left near the corner lies Sybil Moseley Bingham (1792-1848), her grave marked by a lichen-laced white marble stone. Bingham was the first woman to serve as a missionary in Hawaii—then known as the Sandwich Islands—when she arrived there with her husband, Reverend Hiram Bingham, in 1820. They stayed for 20 years. Among their accomplishments were the founding of the Kawaiaha’o Church, still worshiping today, and a role in developing a written Hawaiian alphabet. But their legacy also contributed to the eventual overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy and America’s annexation of the islands in 1898. Bingham was immortalized by a fictional counterpart, Jerusha Hale, in James Michener’s novel Hawaii (1959), a role played by Julie Andrews in the 1966 movie adaptation.

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A walk farther down Sylvan Avenue leads to the stone of Ada Comstock Notestein (1876-1973), which stands across the lane from a prominent angel-topped monument. Notestein, the first full-time president of Radcliffe College, earlier served as the first Dean of Women at the University of Minnesota and the first-ever Dean of the College for her alma mater, Smith College. “Ada believed very strongly throughout her entire life that a college education should inspire women to take a part in the shaping of the world,” a Smith publication says. Notestein shares her stone with her husband, Wallace, a professor of English history at Yale, whom she married following her retirement at the age of 67.

Backtrack on Hawthorn Path and turn down Maple Avenue to find the pointed marble tablet that marks the grave of Catharine Stith (1795-1839). A writer, musician and educator, Stith was a well-traveled and colorful character as presented in the “Remembering New Haven Women” talk by retired archivist Sandra Markham. At a reception with her husband on board the USS Constitution, docked near Pisa, Italy, in 1822, Stith met Lord Byron. As Markham tells it, Stith boldly removed a rose from the great poet’s lapel. Byron was so taken aback, Markham says, that he couldn’t stop thinking of Stith and sent her a gift the next day: a copy of Goethe’s Faust, which he inscribed to her, having no books of his own at hand. The poet died just two years later, but both the rose and the book as well as a letter from Byron to Stith have been preserved in Yale’s archives.

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A little bit farther down Maple is the Hillhouse family plot, where, among an eclectic collection of Hillhouse family stones, you’ll find the table stone of Mary Lucas Hillhouse (1786-1871), embossed with a large but simple cross. Hillhouse, daughter of New Haven notable James, was “a Philanthropist and able Businesswoman,” as the Grove Street map puts it. Among her good deeds was the purchase of land for New Haven’s first school for black children, the Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children, which opened in 1866. Today the building houses the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Masons and a small black history museum.

Still farther down Maple Avenue on the left is the grave of Mary Clap Wooster (1729-1807), a Revolutionary War patriot and the wife of General David Wooster. A handsome weathered green tablet on her stone was erected in 1955 by the chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution that bears her name. General Wooster was killed in the British raid on Danbury in 1777. Two years later, when the redcoats invaded New Haven, his widow’s house was targeted. As DAR lore has it, Mary’s furniture was thrown into the street and destroyed, and two trunks of important family papers were stolen, some of which were later found floating in Long Island Sound by passing whaleboats off Fairfield, where British ships were docked. A DAR medal proclaims, “During the raid on New Haven in 1779, she was a target of British hostility. Nevertheless, she refused to leave her home and gallantly faced the enemy troops.”

Walk down to Myrtle Path, turn left and head up Central Avenue to the resting place of Lucy Hall Boardman (1819-1906), marked by a large monument made of speckled stone about halfway up on the left. Boardman was an active volunteer and financial supporter of numerous lasting New Haven institutions including the New Haven Orphan Asylum (now The Children’s Center of Hamden) and The Home for the Friendless (now Mary Wade senior residence). According to an essay by Trinity Church on the Green historian Neil C. Olsen, Boardman also donated her fortune to numerous local and national causes, including the Boardman Manual Training School, the first technical high school in New Haven. She’s also memorialized with a Tiffany stained glass window at Trinity given by her sister—Mary Wade.

Backtrack down Central, turn left again on Myrtle Path, then make another short detour, this time up Magnolia Avenue, to pay homage to a notable New Havener of the 20th century, Laurel Fox Vlock (1926-2000). A television and documentary film producer, Vlock helped to create the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, a collection of more than 4,400 eyewitness and survivor accounts housed at Yale, excerpts of which are viewable online. The project originated in 1979 as the Holocaust Survivors Film Project when Vlock interviewed Dr. Dori Laub, a local child survivor and psychiatrist. Vlock went on to participate in 187 taping sessions as well as producing a television documentary based on the archives, Forever Yesterday (1980), which won an Emmy Award. Vlock’s polished stone, cut on an angle, bears a Star of David.

Catch your breath. Warm your hands. Tomorrow, we’ll continue our walk through the graveyard, searching for more of New Haven history’s little-known women worth knowing.

Grove Street Cemetery
227 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Daily 9am-4pm (gate closes at 3:30)
(203) 787-1443 | office@grovestreetcemetery.org
www.grovestreetcemetery.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 (of Mary Clap Wooster’s grave), 3 (of Sybil Moseley Bingham’s grave) and 5 (of Laurel Fox Vlock’s grave) photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 (of a portrait of Sybil Moseley Bingham and her husband, painted by Samuel Finley Breese Morse in 1819) provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery. Image 4 (of Catharine Stith’s grave) provided courtesy of Sandra Markham.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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