The Whittemores of Wayland

Finally. Spring has sprung in Massachusetts. Whether it’s here for good or just another tease from that rogue, Mother Nature, is yet to be seen but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to get outside and enjoy a few hours of sunshine slip by on Sunday.

So, I traded my needle and thimble for a Red Sox cap (when in Boston…) and my camera and headed to the cemetery.

Wait. What? Cemetery?

The ancient cemeteries in and around Middlesex County, Massachusetts are my haven; quiet reflective places full of history and silently spun stories about the families who built homes and lives in Weston, Wayland and the surrounding towns. I spent a great deal of time in Weston’s Farmers and Central Cemeteries last summer and the Wayland, Sudbury and Natick cemeteries are at the top of my list for this year.

Wayland was the first settlement of the Sudbury plantation, established in 1638, and incorporated in 1639. There are several cemeteries in Wayland, and the two oldest are the South and North cemeteries, located along Old Sudbury Road. The North Cemetery is on the site of Sudbury’s first meetinghouse, built in 1643. It is also the final resting place of 56 militia soldiers and minutemen who fought during the Revolutionary War.

The South Cemetery was my primary destination on Sunday; small, pastoral and quiet, its entrance fronted by a stacked stone wall which seems particularly typical to the homes in this area of New England. It is the final resting place to members of the Smith, Whittemore, Loker, Thompson and Draper families, among others. For me, it’s not only a place for quiet reflection, but also a great way to learn about the local genealogy.

As I wandered through the cemetery, the four headstones of Whittemore children, standing shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance to the burial ground, struck me. It is not unusual for family members to be buried near each other, but as I took photos and notes it surprised me to realize they had all died within a span of 2 years. Infant mortality is also not unusual, but the Whittmore children were in their late teens and early twenties.

When I got home, I did some research on the family. William Whittemore was born in 1804, the son of Aaron Whittemore and his wife, Lucy Sanderson. On November 12, 1829 he married Mary Smith, the daughter of Josiah Smith and Elizabeth Jones. The Whittemores, like many early 19th century couples, began their family shortly after they were married. Daughter Elizabeth Alden was born in July 1831, followed by George in 1833. They had seven more children, a new Whittemore offspring nearly every two years – Lucy, Sarah, Abby, Ephriam, Isaac, Sophia and finally William in 1851. But the joy of their growing family was soon marred by heartbreak, evidenced by the succession of headstones.

Lucy Ann Whittemore died of consumption on February 3, 1852, two months after the birth of young William. She was 17. A year later, on February 23, Elizabeth, age 21, joined her sister in South Cemetery, also a victim of consumption. In April 1854, 17-year old Sarah Jane Whittemore became the third Whittemore child to lose her life to consumption, as did their brother, George, two months later and two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday. Four children lost in 2 years. I can’t imagine how that affected the family.

Consumption (known today as tuberculosis) was a common, infectious, and in most cases, fatal disease. Classic symptoms included fever, flushed cheeks, sweats, weight loss and most feared, the chronic cough. It was a death sentence for 19th century New Englanders, a slow and painful fading of the human body and spirit. Consumption was not discriminating about its victims, but statistics show it affected more females than males and the poor more often than the wealthy. It was especially prevalent among young adults, cruelly striking down scores of men and women with such promise left in their lives.

The disease was not well understood and was not believed to be contagious, so those suffering with the it were not quarantined or avoided. It is easy to understand how a large family like the Whittemores, living in small quarters, could be susceptible to multiple deaths. In the years between 1852 and 1854, Wayland Town Clerk Henry Wight noted 14 of the 56 registered deaths in town were the result of consumption.

In addition to losing 4 children, Mary Smith Whittemore also lost her widowed mother, Elizabeth, who was living with the family according to the 1850 Federal census, to the disease in 1856. Three years later, in 1859 the disease took Mary too.

William lived until 1889 and watched 4 of his remaining 5 children grow to adulthood, marry and raise families of their own. The only exception was Ephriam, who died in 1860 – of consumption – at the age of 16.