When I inaugurated this blog in the fall of 2019, I envisioned that one semi-regular source of material for these columns would be field trips that I would take to sites associated with Anna Cora Mowatt’s life and career. Needless to say, dear Reader, I completely failed to incorporate a global pandemic into these plans. As travel restrictions have eased over the past year, I have managed to venture out for a few research trips. However, since the Microfiche Room in the basement of Davis Library isn’t very photogenic and connections between Mowatt and the rocking little roller sushi bar that my friend Janice and I found on the way there were tentative at best, I have not chosen to write about them.
After nearly three years, though, one of my deep-laid plans for a Mowatt-related excursion has finally yielded fruits. When I was casting about for places and things I could investigate, I noticed that there were no photographs of Mowatt’s gravestone. This, I thought, could be easy to rectify.
Make note, Reader. Here’s where I was quite definitely wrong.
I have a friend, Jane, who lives in the south of England. I wrote and asked if she would mind terribly going out some pleasant Sunday afternoon and snapping a quick photo of Anna Cora Mowatt’s headstone for me so I could blog about it. She amiably agreed. Thus, I readily secured my foreign correspondent.
This was the only part of the project that was easy in any way.
After getting Jane’s agreement, I went back to my texts to get the necessary information she would need to locate the gravesite and immediately realized that I had not read the material describing Mowatt’s burial as carefully as I thought I had. I had also forgotten that I don’t really know much about getting around in England at all and that I am far more oriented to the layout of Victorian London –which is more than a century and a half out of date — and that such lack of accuracy can be an insurmountable problem when scheduling bus and train rides.
To begin with, I thought I was sending my friend to Twickenham, England, the place where Anna Cora was residing when she died in 1870. During Queen Victoria’s reign, this was a quiet suburb just outside of London. I mistakenly thought Mowatt was buried at a pleasant little country church graveyard somewhere near her home. Twickenham, as people who know London landmarks will have doubtlessly already have recognized much to their mirth at my ignorance, was long ago swallowed by the city. This mistake didn’t make a lot of difference because Mowatt was not buried there. She was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery with her first husband, James.
The Mowatts were members of the New Church. They, unlike most Victorians, did not believe in ostentatious display of mourning or grief. They were also both not very flush with cash when they died. Given these circumstances, I expected a modest choice of a gravesite. Mowatt biographers talked about her grave being in a lovely spot near trees. Again, I thought I was sending my friend Jane to an obscure little Swedenborgian graveyard tucked away in some quaint corner.
Oh, how wrong I was…
Kensal Green is one of the massive Victorian deathgardens sprawling in the heart of London. It is so large that the website warns, “This is a 72 acre cemetery with over 65,000 graves. It is unlikely that you will be able to find a grave by simply walking in and looking around.”1The cemetery was quite a fashionable final address for 19th century Londoners. The gravesites of many literati can be found there.
My kind and gracious friend paid a fee to obtain James and Anna Cora’s burial records so we could pinpoint the correct plot numbers – lest poor Jane end up wandering for days over 72 acres of tombstones. When we got those records, there was something usual about the data. James and Anna Cora Mowatt are listed under exactly the same plot number at Kensal Green – 9379.
In his dissertation, “Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt,” Marius Blesi gives the following report of the circumstances of her burial;
Neither her husband nor any of her relatives were present when she died. Only Ion Perdicaris was with her at the end, and he carried out her last wishes and attended to her burial beside her first husband, James Mowatt, in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.2
There’s nothing all that odd about Anna Cora’s desire to be buried near her first husband. However, this action should have generated two unique plot numbers, shouldn’t it? Re-examining the description of her burial in Eric Barnes’ Mowatt biography produced a somewhat surprising explanation;
Sargent and Ion Perdicaris carried out her final wish. The grave at Kensal Green was opened and she was buried with James.
There was barely space left on the modest stone slab for her name, and the places and dates of her birth and death. In order to make room for the brief epitaph she wanted it was necessary to remove the scriptural passage after James’s name. But this did not matter; the words Lily had selected were for them both:
He Giveth His Beloved Rest.3
Barnes is indicating here that Anna Cora was buried not beside James Mowatt, but that his grave was opened and she was buried with James. There is only one grave for both Mowatts. They share a headstone. Barnes does not explain why Anna Cora did this. The most likely reason, though, is that burial spaces were at a premium in urban Victorian London and no other suitably desirable site was available.
Earlier in the book, Barnes gave the following description of James Mowatt’s burial site in Kensal Green with the original reading of the memorial marker;
He was buried in a tree-shaded corner of the cemetery at Kensal Green, which in those days still had an atmosphere of rural peace about it. From the slight rise at the entrance of the cemetery one could look out over London whose spires in the silver mist had a suggestion of that Holy City where James had now surely found safe abode. Above his grave was placed a simple stone slab, rounded at the top but without decoration. The inscription was equally simple:
of New York America
A Member of the New Church
Who Departed This Life
Feb. 15, 1851
Beloved and respected by all
Who truly knew him
“Blessed is that servant whom his Lord,
When he cometh, finds watching!”4
From this description, you can perhaps see where I got my hazy picture of a secluded churchyard. It does sound like Eric Barnes, writing in 1954, had been to Kensal Green and had seen the Mowatts’ graves. Either that or he had interviewed someone who knew about the alterations to James Mowatt’s headstone made in 1870. In footnotes to the chapter in which he talks about Anna Cora’s burial, Barnes says that he obtained most of his information on her last days from Epes Sargent’s account in The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism. However, Sargent’s comments on his final visit with Mowatt in that book are limited to the following paragraph;
Mrs. Mowatt, though of a remarkably sensitive constitution and not weighing a hundred pounds when I first knew her, was much benefited by the treatment she prescribed for herself while somnambulic, and attained a weight of one hundred and fifty pounds. She died at Twickenham, on the Thames, in 1869. I saw her two days before her death, and never did I witness such perfect, cheerful tranquility as she manifested. In that supreme moment, when death seemed to have his hand on her, her thoughts and conversation were all of others, not once of herself. It was not faith or hope, but actual certainty which she felt in regard to the future. “The invisible world with her had sympathized.” Mary Howitt wrote of her, “How excellent in character, how energetic, unselfish, devoted, is this interesting woman!”4
Epes Sargent’s words are a nice tribute to his dear friend, (although I would personally prefer my dear friends don’t talk about my weight gain achievements after I have gone on to my everlasting rewards,) but they don’t explain how Eric Barnes knew that Sargent and Ion Perdicaris were somehow able to convince the Kensal Green officials to bury both Mowatts in one grave. I’m no expert on law – Victorian or modern — but the internet tells me that the legality is of double burials is somewhat precarious both currently and in the past. The permissibility is very dependent on local precedents — particularly in cases where deaths are separated by a long passage of time.
The dodgy legality of the Mowatts’ double burial may explain the repeated mentions of the presence of Ion Perdicaris at Twickenham in 1870. Pedicaris’ role in Anna Cora’s life from 1860-1870 has placed a question mark in my mind for some time now.
She met him after she arrived in Paris in 1860. Ion was around twenty years old. Perdicaris, a U.S. citizen born in Athens, was the son of a Harvard professor who later became U.S. consul to Greece. His mother was a member of a wealthy Charleston family and a friend of Thomas Ritchie, Sr. Mowatt re-encountered the Perdicaris family in Italy two years later among the ex-pat community sitting out the American Civil War. (Ion was a committed Abolitionist evading conscription to the Confederate Army and seizure of all his property.) Perdicaris was a member of the drama society that Anna Cora organized to put on plays for her friends and neighbors.
Some biographers refer to Perdicaris as one of Mowatt’s protégées. It is quite true that the actress/author had a passion for mentoring young people. However, Ion Perdicaris was notably different from any other Mowatt protégée. First, he was a young man. Indeed, he was a handsome, single, wealthy, young man of marriageable age. All her other mentees, such as Ruth Thomson and Avonia Jones were young women. Second, in their communications with her, it is clear that Mowatt’s other protégées were actively pursuing their chosen professions. They use their connection with Anna Cora to solicit serious advice. With her aid, they mine her past network of affiliations to further their own careers. During the time he was associated with her, Perdicaris does not seem focused on building a career in the Arts that launched from Mowatt’s skill set and connections. He was a gifted writer and painter, but he was also living the life of a rich playboy. As the son of a wealthy diplomat, he had a network of other, more potent resources to draw upon. If he was an advisee, her relationship with him was dissimilar to that she had with other aspirants to careers in the Arts.
When Anna Cora moved to London in 1865, Ion Perdicaris and his mother made the journey with her. None of Mowatt’s biographers give any hint that there was a romance between the young man and the forty-six year old actress/author or that his serving as her chaperone in the absence of her rumored-to-be-estranged husband raised any eyebrows. Perdicaris would become enmeshed in scandal immediately after Mowatt’s death when he began a relationship with a married woman a few years older than himself. As I said earlier, his presence at Twickenham as Anna Cora’s days grew short might have had a very different, — entirely non-romantic — significance.
In her final days, biographers assert that Mowatt’s only companion in her house at 2 Heathcote Villa, St. Margret was her faithful maid, Maria Renshaw. Although Renshaw had always been a formidable individual, given the potential difficulties posed by the double burial at Kensal Green that Anna Cora wished, she might have requested Perdicaris be on hand — as her biographers report that he was. Keeping class and gender-based prejudices of the time in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that having a well-dressed, assertive, adult male with a certain amount of savoir-faire handle her final arrangements at the cemetery – including perhaps handing out any monies necessary to ease the objections of officials or graveyard attendants – might be a judicious and quite indispensable prerequisite to insuring that her directives for her final resting place be followed. Mowatt did not know in advance that her friend, Epes Sargent would also be present just in time for her funeral. His attendance was an unexpected bonus.
As I often say of associates of Anna Cora Mowatt, there has not been enough scholarship done on Ion Perdicaris. If you are a grad student or a writer looking for a subject, I recommend him to you. He was an atypical Victorian who led a fascinating and unusual life. In 1904, Perdicaris was kidnapped by bandits in an incident that almost led U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to starting a war – not that TR was ever too opposed to that sort of thing… The story of that event was made into a movie in 1975 starring Sean Connery in which Ion’s part ended up being played by Candice Bergman… But that, as they say, is another story…
While I’ve been telling this tale about Ion Perdicaris, imagine that two years and some of pandemic have been dragging painfully by. Gradually, I come to understand where Kensal Green is located, how mind-numbingly big present day London is in comparison to how huge Victorian London promised it would be, and work out the gothic oddities of the Mowatts’ double burial there. I eventually manage to communicate all this to my friend Jane… or so I think. Perhaps it is a mercy that there was something of a delay before she set out on her trip.
Somewhere near… or perhaps before… the beginning of the pandemic, Jane bought a new house and moved further from London that she was originally located… or at least I think this is true… I could be wrong. Modern English geography is obviously not one of my specialties.
This March, Jane said she’d purchased train tickets that would allow her to travel to Kensal Green some time during the summer months. The news cheered me up, but in that sort of vague way that seeing very, very early daffodils do. That is to say, I experienced the sort of feeling you have when you know that warm weather will eventually arrive, but you’re also very aware there’s no need to break out the bikinis. Locally we were in the midst of another very bad surge of the virus that was making us consider going back into semi-quarantine for a few weeks. I may not be much of whiz at geography, but my expertise at history was sufficient to assure my friend that the Victorians in Kensal Green wouldn’t be going anywhere until it was safe to visit them.
Finally, in August, Jane said that she and a friend of hers would be making the trip to London the first week in September. I began to be very excited. After two years and an uncertain amount of months and weeks, I was finally going to get a glimpse at the Mowatt’s gravesite and their tombstone with its corrected inscription cramming in information about them both. Photos of Victorian graves are admittedly an odd thing to get enthusiastic about, but I had been thinking about this particular one for some time now. There were unusual aspects that would be of interest.
The day for the trip arrived. My friend and her friend set out, cheerfully sending me the following picture of their train journey.
Ruminations about the circumstances of Mowatt’s burial, along with more selfish ideas of places I could post a picture of her tombstone on my website, ideas for what would eventually become this blog entry, and occasional thoughts that I really need to get out more and not think about Anna Cora Mowatt so much filled my head that day. My hopes were pretty high the next morning when as a Theatre History blogger looking forward to seeing the results of my foreign correspondent’s international research fieldtrip, I opened up my laptop, logged in and saw…
…pretty much just grass. My field reporter broke the doleful news;
…and your correspondent must bring you the sad tidings that all our hopes have ended in disappointment. We had no difficulty finding the precise location of the burial plot, between memorials that still bore legible inscriptions confirming that the functionaries in the Cemetery offices (a trustworthy type in general) had not misled us. However, our heroine’s stone had either been removed or laid flat and covered by encroaching turf. Your correspondent endeavoured valiantly to peel back moss and grass from likely candidates – scrabbling like an energetic mouse! – without any success.
So we passed on to admiring the monuments of other notables and luminaries to restore our spirits, while our thoughts appropriately turned to the fleeting nature of fame and the frustration inevitably occasioned by the slow erosion of soft – and perhaps less costly – stone with the passing years.5
From Barnes’ description of the Mowatts’ headstone as having “a rounded top,” I imagined it to be something that stood perpendicular to the ground. It seems as though it was more important to pay attention to the “big slab” part of the description, however. The tombstone was probably a big stone that lay flat on the ground with a rounded edge pointing towards the pathway. Over the intervening century and a half, the slab seems to have sunk into the earth until it is now no longer visible.
Jane and her friend decided that they had picked a bad day to visit the Mowatts’ grave because there were heaps of ivy lying around waiting to be collected. Conceivably, they reasoned, a slightly displaced headstone might be concealed under any of those. They have gamely promised to return to Kensal Green at some point in the future, taking paper and fat wax crayons to make impressions of any apparently blank stones in hope of finding the missing monument.
Jane reported, “There was a grim-faced labourer with garden tools whom we considered quizzing, but decided on balance that he was probably in the pay of vampires and would simply direct us to the far end of the cemetery so that we’d end up getting locked in.”6
You can see that she is handling the assignment of exploring a decaying Victorian necropolis quite sensibly. I’m very proud of her.
Therefore the question of the appearance — and current location — of Mowatts’ tombstone remains an open question. If you, dear Reader, happen to be in London and drop by Kensal Green, please feel free to brush aside the encroaching ivy and take a look. Jane says the plot 9379 is easy to find. Send photos. Stay health-conscious. Beware of the vampires.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the Mowatts were members of the New Church. As such, they shunned the kind of conventionalized display of grief that most of their contemporaries indulged in obsessively. Anna Cora wore white to the opening of the Olympic Theatre when the entire city of London was draped in black mourning the death of Queen Adelaide. She drew note and even some ridicule for placing white and purple flowers in her hotel room window to acknowledge the passage of her friend Senator Henry Clay when the city of Louisville was holding funeral rites for the statesman. It is therefore perhaps ironically fitting that the monument the couple raised marking their deaths has gradually vanished.
Despite the more chatty nature of this essay, let’s ignore the fact that I’ve admitted to lusting after pictures of the Mowatts’ tombstone just so I could have more content for my website, speculated without evidence on the possibility Anna Cora got her groove back with Ion Perdicaris, and sprinkled in some completely unnecessary references to vampires. Instead, let’s return to a more measured and dignified tone to close things out in this essay with a quote from a Mowatt poem that summarizes her attitude towards death and mourning and uncannily seems to have predicted how events unfolded;
Oh, Wear for Me No Sable Hue
Oh! wear for me no sable hue,
No garb of blazoned grief– when I
Shall bid this gladsome earth adieu
And fling my spirit’s garment by!
Nor mark the spot with urn or stone,
Where worthless dust, unconscious lies;
Within your loving hearts alone,
The monument I ask, should rise!
And shed for me no bitter tear,
Nor breathe my name in mournful tone;
Your smiles ‘twas mine to waken here,
And I would think them still my own!
Nor link my image with regret —
A pleasant memory I would be;
To consecrate and brighten yet
The scenes that once were dear to me!
Ah! why should tears bedew the sod
Where some beloved one’s ashes rest?
The soul rejoiceth near its God,
And can ye mourn that spirit blest?
Then weep not for the loved one fled
To realms more pure — a home more fair;
And call not the departed dead !
She lives — she loves — she waits you there.7
- Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 416
- Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page
- Sargent, Epes. The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism. Boston, Colby & Rich, 1887. Pages 228-229.
- Personal email. September 2, 2022.
- Personal email. September 4, 2022.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Oh, Wear for Me No Sable Hue.” The Columbian Magazine, 1845. Page 10.