Buried Pirates Or Settlers?

Wednesday October 19, 2022

Photo: Stewart Lytle / The Town Common. From left, Ray Cote, Public Works foreman, assists Town Manager Neil Harrington in the search for bodies in Colonial Cemetery. The GPRS technician is pushing the ground-penetrating radar machine.

SALISBURY — When former town selectman Charles Geary’s requested last year that the town allow his wife, Barbara, and him to be buried in what appeared to be an empty section of the historic and closed Colonial Cemetery, he unearthed a mystery that may trace its origins to the swashbuckling early days of the Atlantic seaboard.

The town spent $900 hiring GPRS, a company that specializes in finding objects such as utility pipes below ground, to see if bodies were already in the gravesites in the northeast corner of the cemetery at Ferry and Beach roads where the 85-year-old Geary wanted to be buried. 

The ground-penetrating radar discovered four “objects,” apparently bodies, were already in that location. Two of the bodies were buried together in the middle with one body buried to the left and one to the right. 

That discovery drowned the Gearys’ hope of being buried with the town’s founders, but it opened another can of worms.

Who is buried there? There is no headstone identifying who is there. And how should the bodies be marked?

The unknown bodies could be early settlers who did not have the money to pay for a headstone like others buried in the Colonial Cemetery. 

Or if commissioner Kenny Eaton is right, they could be four pirates, who were washed ashore at Seabrook, NH many years ago. The town of Seabrook did not want to pay for burying the drowned persons. The town of Salisbury agreed to bury them. 

Eaton, as a 15-year-old, part-time cemetery worker, heard the pirate tale from Sheb Eaton, no relation, who had learned it from his father, the commissioner said. 

It was “a word-of-mouth story,” not written down in any historical account, Kenny Eaton told the Cemetery Commission last week. 

Historical Commission Chair Connie Hellwig agreed. A search of town historical accounts found no mention of pirates being buried. She also said the way the bodies are arranged with two bodies buried together in the center “does not make sense that they were privateers,” she said.

That leaves the question of how the town should recognize those buried there?

Laid out in 1639, the cemetery at the corner of Beach and Ferry roads was known as the First Cemetery, Old Burying Ground and Old Corner Burying Ground. It is the oldest cemetery in town and the resting place for several of Salisbury’s founders, including Major Robert Pike, one of the town’s first residents and first ministers. The old Colonial Burial Ground has been closed to new burials since 1908.

Hellwig said prior to the meeting, “I hope to present this in such a way that (the Cemetery Commission) will make a motion to support or reject our offer to appropriately and with historical integrity resolve the unmarked graves.” 

The Historical Commission voted to have four flat stones, one for each body, created that would say, “Unknown Person – Discovered in 2021.” And Hellwig offered to raise the funds, probably from the state cemetery commission, to pay for it. 

Karin Sprague, a Rhode Island expert gravestone carver, told Hellwig the four markers would cost more than $25,000 to carve. When Hellwig told Sprague that the town would not pay that amount, she suggested the commission work with her student, sculptor Michael Updike in Newbury to make the foot markers. 

Updike, a lead sculptor for Mariposa and the son of the novelist John Updike, is well known in Newburyport. Among his many creations is a group of penguins that he places on the ice in the Merrimack River each winter. He offered to carve and install the four grave markers for $5,000.

The town’s Cemetery Commission thought $5,000 was even too much. It voted last Friday to install one headstone for all four graves. Town Manager Neil Harrington said he would contact a gravestone company for an estimate and draft some words to put on the gravestone for the commission to approve.

Hellwig told the Cemetery Commissioners that she feels “horrible” about their decision. “I feel it is in the best interests of these people” to have a gravestone for each body, Hellwig said.

Gordon Frost, chair of the Cemetery Commission, said the money the town spent “wasn’t done to locate pirates.”

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