Sometimes delving into the stories behind the gravestones located in the historic cemeteries of our fair town leads to tales and life lessons that play out as affirmations to the spirit and resilience of those that came before us. Sometimes those same gravestones tell tales of bravery, perseverance, and ingenuity; stories that truly lift me up, stories that inspire. And sometimes the stones tell tales that simply break my heart. That’s just the kind of story told by the one marked stone in the ancient Cooper/Whitford family graveyard nestled in the woods right in the heart of Wickford.
That primarily 18th century graveyard is largely populated by unmarked fieldstone graves; the final resting places of the inter-related Coopers and Whitfords that once lived in this section of the village. Also found here are the shallow depressions in the ground that once held the remains of the family members of Capt. Edmund Cooper; all of whom are now buried together in Elm Grove Cemetery. Here as well stands a lovely slate stone, most likely carved in the John Stevens Shop in Newport, which marks the grave of a boy, 3-year-old James Whitford, the son of Capt. John P. and Mary (Cooper) Whitford. The fact that this young child’s grave is marked by the only carved stone in the cemetery speaks volumes about the place that this boy, barely older than a toddler, held in his parents’ heart. A gravestone like this one was a huge investment in the first decade of the 19th century. Not only a financial investment mind you, but an investment of time as well, as it required at least two trips into Newport to order and then pick the stone up. I couldn’t help but wonder what, in an age when the death of a young child was a fairly common event, motivated John and Mary Whitford to go to these lengths for their son. And then I found out. You see, due to Capt. Whitford’s station in life and the unusual circumstances surrounding his son’s passing, the tragedy was noted in the Sept. 23, 1809 edition of the Providence Gazette; one of the few newspapers published in the timeframe. The short entry notes that James, a son of Capt. John P. Whitford of Wickford accidentally sucked a bean into his windpipe and died after surviving for 36 hours during which time his parents frantically tried to dislodge it. No doctors, no hospitals, no Heimlich maneuver, just a mom and a dad trying to save their otherwise healthy boy. I understand the reasoning behind the fine gravestone now.
The Cooper/Whitford Historic Cemetery is one of a group of cemeteries that have been “adopted” by local folks who care deeply about these special places. Work is underway to reclaim it from the woods of Wickford and make it a place worthy of little James Whitford once more. If you’d like information about cemetery adoption, contact me through the paper.