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Historical California Stone Carvers, Stone Cutters, & Monument Dealers

“Tombstones, and the Men who created them”
Presentation by Mary-ellen Jones

To the Contra Costa County Genealogical Society, Concord, California.

Published in the “Diablo Descendants Newsletter,” November 1996, Vol. 11, No. 11, pp. 89, 91.
(Used with permission.)

(Transcribed by Peggy B. Perazzo.)


Speaker: Mary Ellen Jones

Reporter: John Peeples

“Our guest speaker for the October 10 meeting was Mary Ellen Jones, former Archivist for the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley. Her topic was ‘Tombstones, and the Men who created them.’

“Ms. Jones displayed slide pictures of the tombstones that she has photographed over the years, primarily from cemeteries in the Sierra foothills ‘Gold Country’ of California, while she told about the lives of some of the men who carved them. In addition to the slides, she had black and white photos to study. Her talk was as follows:

“‘I belong to the Association for Gravestone Studies. It started in 1977 with a handful of us and now there are about 1000 members, and as you might suspect we hold our annual meeting in a cemetery. Once a year we publish a Journal called ‘Marble.’ Today I will focus on a tombstone carver who was an ex-‘49er of the gold rush era. As you may know there will be a California Sesquicentennial celebration over the next few years, and the Oakland Museum is preparing an enormous exhibit of photo images of the times. A book will be published, cataloging these photos.

“‘In 1848, the discovery of gold started the stampede to California. Thousands of men abandoned their families and headed west to become rich. A few became millionaires, but many went home broke and many perished. Many others stayed, but went back to their old occupations. Some of these men established tombstone marble works in such towns as Sacramento, Sonora, Columbia, and other Mother Lode towns.

“‘The new Californians wanted to have, when they died, the same type of tombstone as those back East. These needs were fulfilled by such stone carvers as Israel Luce. 1 He learned his trade in New York and in Massachusetts. He headed west, and in 1851, he purchased some marble in San Francisco and shipped it 90 miles to Sacramento. I know very little about him except that he wrote a lot of sentimental Victorian style verses, which were really awful. With his partner, Andrew Atkins 1 (sic), he produced many stones, all signed Atkins 2 and Luce, none signed by him alone. They were in business from 1853 to 1878. Mr. Luce died in 1898.

“‘The tombstones of those days reflect the romanticism of the Victorian era. I have several epitaph books from that period, they are in the coffee table style and size. Excessive displays of grief were mandatory in those days to show how much you loved the person. Excessive burial displays, a custom of the time, decreed a suitable monument, and the expense often left families in debt.

“‘Andrew Aitken was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada. He worked as a stone cutter in Massachusetts until 1850. He sailed around Cape Horn to the gold fields and met with some success in mining. From some old city/county directories I learned that he started a marble yard in Sacramento in 1853. This is the first evidence that I have of California stone being quarried for tombstones. Aitken advertised widely and had one of the largest yards in California. His stones are found throughout the Mother Lode country.

“‘For my research, on breaks and lunch hours, I would go and search through state directories, line by line, looking for names of stone carvers, stone masons, marble polishers or anyone possibly connected with tombstones.

“(At this point Ms. Jones was asked how she got interested in tombstones.)

“‘In 1942 my family moved to the small town of Muncie, PA. Life there was much like small town life in New England. If you weren’t born there, you were looked on with a lot of suspicion. It took a while to make friends, so after school I would take my bike and ride around town, and one day I passed a cemetery. I was always interested in history, and having been born in Illinois, I was always interested in Abraham Lincoln.

“‘I thought I might find a lot of history in the cemetery, but was undecided about going in. When I did go in I found the names of kids from school. I don’t know why, but I was fascinated by the whole thing, at first the information and native art work on the stones, and then other things. I did that for a month or so, until I made friends, and then forgot about it.

“‘The family moved to California, I graduated from U.C. Berkeley and then I bought a Volkswagen. In my travels, I fell in love with the gold country, and my cemetery interest came back. At that time it was not something you could talk about. But there are many of us now, and people don’t grab their kids and run when they see you in the cemetery.

“‘A third 49’er stone cutter was Edwin Roberts. In those days the cutter would put his name in the lower right corner of the tombstone, probably as a form of advertising. Edwin learned his trade in Connecticut. He came to California via the isthmus of Panama, worked at mining for three years, and then returned to his trade of stone cutting. In 1854 he opened a yard in Columbia, a major gold rush town. In 1857 he moved to Stockton and set up a yard there. Roberts was not the first man to work marble in California. I went to look for his tombstone and the man on duty at the cemetery pointed out the plot, but there was no stone. Apparently he never had one, and he died a pauper. There is a picture of his house in an old Thompson & West History of San Joaquin County.

“‘Israel Luce and Andrew Aitken worked in Stockton and there were other carvers at the numerous mining camps whose work was equal to any in the east. Here shown are some stone carvers advertisements from old directories. Alexander Caldwell and L. E. Nelson were others. They were traditional carvers producing stones of the period. California cemeteries were eastern look-alikes, since they used the same pattern books. The pattern books were created by the Vermont marble works. 3 Most stones already had the motif of doves or other figures carved in them. It remained for the local stone carver to put in the appropriate names.

“‘In Sutter Creek I once found a stone shaped like a shell, with a sleeping child inside and one leg draped out. I thought I had something really unique until I found the same thing in a pattern book. One tombstone shows the adopted daughters of Andrew Aitken. I am probably the only person west of the Mississippi doing work on this subject. I tried stone cutting once. I spent three hours in a class and only got a badly deformed ‘H’. I now appreciate the amount of work involved.

“‘The three chain links shown on many old tombstones indicate a member of the Old Fellows organization. A figure of a tent also signifies Odd Fellows membership. Fraternal organizations were very popular in those days. I chose these examples primarily to show a particular stone carver, not for their presentation. Some old tombstones are two inches or less in thickness, and it is amazing that they are still there. There is a lot of vandalism in the old cemeteries. The stones fall, then break and finally are pulled out of the ground. At one graveyard that I visited I could see that certain tombstones got progressively worse from vandalism.’

“Ms. Jones described the features of various tombstones as they came on the screen, such as doves, rose blossoms, and a hand pointing upward. ‘You will notice that you never see a hand pointing downward!’

“‘This is a hard subject to research since typically when a business closes, the records are thrown out. Very few records remain. When taking photos, a side glancing light is best. I even used to sleep in the cemetery, because the early morning light is best. Most tombstones face east, so that on the day of Resurrection the deceased can rise up and won’t even have to turn around. That was the tradition. In California it was common in the early period to tell the person’s place of origin on the tombstone. You don’t see a weeping widow depicted very often, usually it was the other way around. I don’t do much cleaning of the stones, it is best to leave them alone to prevent corrosion. I spend a lot of my time on my stomach taking close-up photos. There are many tombstones of children, which today’s children can’t really comprehend.

“‘Another stone cutter, who broke with tradition, was Hugh Coyle, born in Ireland. I am not sure where he learned his trade, but he learned it well. He was erratic at times, but highly skilled. While I was doing an article for the Contra Costa Times, I heard from a woman who claimed to be Mr. Coyle’s grand-daughter. At first I thought it was a joke, but it turned out to be true. She did not know Hugh, but her mother, Hugh’s youngest daughter, lived with her. She still had her mother’s rocking chair. Hugh came to the gold rush town of Columbia in 1861. His stone of choice was from the local Columbia marble belt, and he opened a yard in 1865, using his own designs. Mr. Coyle used a lot of semicolons, which I thought unusual, but they are shown in the patterns. There is still a lot of research to be done on the types of marble, etc. The only thing that I use to clean the stone is an old rag, or perhaps a piece of Styrofoam. Using shaving cream and such only contributes to the deterioration.

“‘A cemetery caretaker in Columbia had reproduced a wrought iron fence with wood, and it looked very nice. I came upon a brown and red stone that had been totally buried. I then found out that in the winter, this man goes through with a rod, and pokes through the ground looking for buried stones. He has found 40 buried tombstones in Columbia.

“‘In 1875, after mining had virtually ceased and Columbia went in to decline, Coyle moved to Sonora where he founded the Sonora Marble Works. For the next 10 years he created some of his best works. He created original carvings, sometimes on huge slabs of white Columbia marble. One stone that I photographed several times showed that the background had changed; this stone was obviously moved. The Mountain View Cemetery in Sonora is full of Coyle’s stones. He was a strange worker, producing some very good works, and some with jagged edges. His grand-daughter confirmed that he had a drinking problem, a family trait.

“‘Here is a stone signed by McCready, but obviously a Coyle stone. Probably it was his last, maybe left unfinished.

“‘Hugh Coyle died of pneumonia October 16, 1886, and now lies beneath a garish monument provided by a partner that Coyle never would have created in his wildest moment. His works can be found throughout Sonora and the Mother Lode.”

“Mary Ellen Jones ended by saying that ‘these craftsmen truly deserve the recognition that they did not receive in real life, and no one deserves recognition more than Hugh Coyle.’

“There were a few questions from the audience concerning details of some stones.”

“Even a tombstone has good things to say about a man who is down.”

Notes by Peggy B. Perazzo:

  1. If you are interested in information on either Israel Luce or Andrew Aitkin, you can either visit the following sections of our web site: (1) Israel Luce and (2) Andrew Aitken. Another excellent source of information on both Israel Luce and Andrew Aitken in addition to other Gold Rush country carvers is the book, Headstones of the Gold Rush Era: Sculpting Masterpieces in Marble, written by L. M. Rossi, Golden Notes, Vol. 43, Number 3, Fall 1997, Sacramento County Historical Society, Sacramento, California, 1997. This book is available at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.
  2. Throughout this article, “Aitkins” should be “Aitkin.”
  3. “Vermont marble works” should be the “Vermont Marble Company.”

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