Column #7-December 6, 1998
OF THE FOUNDER OF BROWNSVILLE MAY BE IN ERROR
by Glenn Tunney
Could the inscription on the tombstone of Brownsville's founder be wrong? This is the story of my amateur sleuthing as I attempted to prove that it is.
In 1991, I created the Local History course at Brownsville Area High School. In preparing to teach that class, I was assembling articles and photographs for a booklet on the early settlers of Brownsville when I came across a puzzling contradiction.
I was writing an article about Brownsville's founder, Thomas Brown. In my hand was a photograph of his present tombstone. That tombstone, crafted from granite in 1963, is a replacement for Brown's original sandstone marker, which had eroded badly. The new stone stands in the graveyard of Christ Episcopal Church, Church Street, Brownsville. It is to that churchyard that the original tombstones, but perhaps not the bodies, from the town's first cemetery on Front Street were moved long ago.
The inscription on Brown's modern stone reads, "Here lies the body of Thomas Brown who once was owner of this town who departed this life March 8, 1797 aged 89 years." In smaller letters below is engraved "Restored by the vestry of Christ Church, 1963."
I had never seen
Brown's original sandstone marker. However, I had seen a photo of it in J. Percy
Hart's 1904 book, "The Three Towns." When I reexamined that
photograph, things began to get mysterious.
I studied the old photo. The original tombstone, with its straight sides
and rounded top, was shaped differently than the new one. The new tombstone is
rectangular, but when it was fashioned, the craftsman was looking at either the
original stone or a photograph of it. He had etched a line in the shape of the
old stone onto the granite one, then within that outline had copied the
inscription from the old stone. As
I examined the photograph of the original stone, I focused particularly on the
last line of the inscription. I even took out a magnifying glass to study it.
Did it really say "89 years?" Or was
that a "5" instead of an "8?" Either the photograph was poor or the tombstone was so badly eroded that the number was indiscernible.
I was reluctant to believe that at age 77, Thomas Brown
began laying out the streets of a new town and selling lots. That seemed to me
to be the project of someone younger. I wondered if the age on the new tombstone
had been miscopied by the craftsman, who may have misread the flaking number. If
only the epitaph had included the year of Brown's birth. But it recorded only
his age at death and the year of his death. I wanted to see that old tombstone.
Some time later I was visiting Ann Frondorf, who lives on Front Street and is a willing collaborator in any search for information about Brownsville's history.
"Ann," I asked her, "do you know where the original tombstone of Thomas Brown is?" I had already explained my suspicion about the age on Brown's replacement stone.
She gave me an uncertain look. "I think . . . " She lingered over the word "think." "I think it is in the new one."
"IN it?" I said. "That's not possible. I went over to Christ Episcopal. The new tombstone is solid granite. There's nothing in it." I paused. "The shape of the old stone is etched on the new one. Perhaps that's what you're thinking."
She really wasn't very sure, she said. But she thought that someone had told her that the old stone was in the new one. I thanked her, mystified. Surely they would not have discarded the original tombstone, no matter how badly eroded it was. But there was no way the old stone was "in" the new one.
Several months passed. The school year began, and my class came to the lesson on Thomas Brown. I told the class my suspicion about the possible error on Thomas Brown's tombstone. While we were discussing it, I suddenly said, "Wait. There is someone in Brownsville who might know where the original tombstone is. I interviewed him a while back. His name is Donald Edwards." I had videotaped a conversation with Donald Edwards of Brownsville, who has since passed away. At the time, he was about ninety years old. I remembered that he was an authority on Christ Episcopal Church. I called him on the phone.
After reintroducing myself, I asked Mr. Edwards the same question I had asked Ann Frondorf. My puzzlement deepened.
"It's in the new one," he said unhesitatingly.
"Mr. Edwards," I said, "the new one is solid stone. There can't be anything in it."
He patiently explained what he meant. In 1963, the church leaders had noticed that Brown's original tombstone was becoming unreadable due to flaking away of the sandstone. It was also so thin that it could easily be broken. The leaders of the church had hired a stone worker. He was to craft a supportive spine for the tombstone. Using a plain tombstone-sized piece of granite, he carved a recess into the granite in the exact shape of the ancient stone. He then placed the old stone into the recess. Then he placed a sheet of plexiglass over the fragile stone to protect the inscription from the elements. He secured the plexiglass to the new granite piece using four screws.
Unfortunately, covering the old stone did not work. In fact, the erosion seemed to accelerate as moisture accumulated behind the plexiglass. Alarmed that their attempt to save the stone of the town founder from further damage was having the opposite effect, the officials ordered the plexiglass removed. The old stone was left inset within the new one. On the opposite (blank) side of the granite stone, it was decided to carve the identical epitaph within an etched line showing the shape of the original tombstone. That side, with the new inscription, is what visitors see today. Only by walking around "behind" the tombstone can one see the original tombstone of Thomas Brown. The number in question really is unreadable to me. Was Thomas Brown a seventy-seven year old man when he laid out the town of Brownsville, or was he a man of forty seven?
The story does not end there, of course. The mystery of his age still had not been solved. Several more years passed. In May 1996, I visited Christ Episcopal Church during National Pike Days. The church's priest, Father Burdock, was greeting visitors who came to see the church and its graveyard. I had brought along my video camera to photograph both sides of Brown's tombstone, so that I could show my class what the new one and the old one looked like.
Father Burdock was standing near Brown's tombstone. I said to him, "I've always believed that there is a mistake on this tombstone." I went on to tell him that I thought Brown was thirty years younger when he died than the stone stated he was.
The priest told me he had something inside the church which might help. He went into the church to get it. He reappeared with a small booklet in his hand. It was a graveyard registry. I watched as he turned a few pages. Then he read the words which resolved the matter. "Thomas Brown, born in 1738, died in 1797."
That settled it. He was fifty-nine when he died. The tombstone now standing in Christ Episcopal cemetery bears an incorrect age of eighty-nine. He laid out the streets when he was forty-seven, and he died "young" at the age of fifty-nine. The mystery was solved.
But there is some information which has eluded me. Perhaps someone reading these words can help. I have three questions. In what year were the tombstones in the town's original cemetery on Front Street moved to Christ Episcopal Church? Secondly, why were the tombstones moved? And perhaps most intriguing of all to me is one final question. Near the western end of the Commons along Front Street, does there lie somewhere beneath the grass the body of Thomas Brown?
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