Princeton Cemetery

"If tombstones could talk"

The History and intrigue of the Princeton Cemetery Circ.: 1757

-Pricilla E. Hayes

When the two brothers came in to buy plots in Princeton Cemetery for their murdered parents, they made Claude Sutphen slightly uneasy. On the face of it, the brothers were simply bringing their parents home to Princeton, where the family had lived for many years.

After Jose and Mary Menendez were resting in the plots their sons had selected, Mr. Sutphen--and the world--discovered that the brothers had indeed been hiding something. Lyle and Erik Menendez admitted that they had murdered their own parents. Being in jail has at least temporarily derailed their plans for buying several more grave sites for relatives at the Princeton Cemetery.

Probably all of us have stared at gravestones and wished they could speak--in fact, suspected they could tell stories like this one. Mr. Sutphen, Superintendent at the cemetery, and the person in charge of helping people select grave sites and arrange burials there, has had 43 years to collect stories. He and several members of the cemetery committee at the Nassau Presbyterian Church, which owns the cemetery, have worked for years to give the stones and the cemetery a voice all their own.

Of course, the cemetery has provided plenty of material to work with. From the start, Nassau Presbyterian has made cemetery plots available for purchase by anyone, no matter what their religion, race, or nationality. Over its more than two centuries of operation, it has served as resting place for an escaped slave, Civil War generals, one president of the United States, and most of Princeton University's presidents--just as a starter. So the periodic tours that members of the cemetery committee give, and the map that is made available at all times in a box on the cemetery office can only give a taste of what has made the graveyard one of the most historic in the state.

William Evans, author of Princeton: A Picture Postcard History, 1900 to 1920, and a member of the Nassau Presbyterian committee, shares chief responsibility for tours with Philip Shaver, an attorney in Princeton. Mr. Evans asks his wife Elisabeth to conduct most school tours, bowing to her expertise as a former teacher. Mrs. Evans often finds herself pressed into service by her spouse on other occasions, since Mr. Evans and Mr. Shaver like to divide big groups up into more intimate sizes--and because Mrs. Evans, too, has succumbed to those speaking tombstones.

President Grover Cleveland, who lived in Princeton from 1897 to 1908, is one of the most well known of those buried in the cemetery. Each year on President Cleveland's birthday, March 18, the White House sends a wreath and a military escort to place the wreath on his grave. This is one of the occasions that Mr. Evans and Mr. Shaver always mark with a tour.

What many people do not know is that the famous "Baby Ruth" is buried near President Cleveland, too. Contrary to popular belief, the original "Baby Ruth," namesake for the candy bar, was not the baseball player but Cleveland's daughter, who died at the age of 13.

The history in the cemetery goes back even further, to the eighteenth century. John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), lies here. Aaron Burr Jr. is buried near his father, also a president of the college, but is more famous, having participated in the duel with Alexander Hamilton, and served as vice-president of the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Some of the best stories from the cemetery come from the nineteenth century--and involve people considerably less famous than President Cleveland. Straight up from Greenwood Avenue, a zig and a zag past the flagpole, is a black granite stone commemorating the death of James Johnson in 1902.

Mr. Johnson was an escaped slave from Maryland who arrived in Princeton around 1843. He was making a living selling snacks to students at Princeton, when one of the students recognized him and alerted his master. John Frelinghuysen Hagemann, author of History of Princeton and its Institutions, tells how the slave owner instituted a lawsuit under the Fugitive Slave Law. In spite of the law's great unpopularity in the Princeton area, the owner was successful. Mr. Johnson would have been returned to slavery, but Theodosia Prevost--who Mr. Hagemann notes was a lineal descendent of President Witherspoon--paid to set Mr. Johnson free. Mr. Johnson then proudly sent a portion of his earnings for the next several years to Miss Prevost, until he had completely paid her back.

Mr. Hagemann wrote in 1879, before the end of the story was told. When Mr. Johnson died, Princeton students and alumni who had loved him erected the gravestone at the Princeton Cemetery. The cemetery is also the resting place of three Civil War generals. David Hunter achieved fame not only as a Union General, but also because he presided at the trial of Abraham Lincoln's conspirators--rather aggressively, according to Philip Shaver. General Hunter's resting place is marked with a tall obelisk, crowned with a carved robe, a fashionable Victorian symbol of death.

Representing the Con-federacy is Roger Atkinson Pryor. Two small metal Union and Confederate flags in front of his plain white stone give the only clue to his identity. Indeed, his stone is somewhat overshadowed by that of his wife, Sara Agnes Pryor, who died before him. Mr. Evans and Mr. Shaver argue that Mrs. Pryor's achievements were, in the long run, more well known than those of her husband. Mrs. Pryor and the wife of President Benjamin Harrison founded the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1890.

Captain John H. Margerum also served the Union in the Civil War and is remembered with a plaque that proclaims he "risked his life by climbing to the dome of Nassau Hall to erect the stars and stripes of the Union Jack." While New Jersey was a Union state, it seems that at the time half the Princeton students were from the South, which was part of what made the climb such a dangerous one. "Of course, climbing the outside of Nassau Hall is dangerous anytime," quipped Mr. Evans.

The twentieth century is represented by both national figures, and some people who played very special roles in Princeton's history as a town. Princeton Borough's beloved mayor, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, is easy to find because of the many purple ribbons on the adjoining tree. She is a few hundred feet from the graves of Paul Robeson's parents.

Reverend Robeson carefully chose the sites he and his wife would occupy. He lived across from the Witherspoon Street gate to the cemetery, and when his wife died, he wanted her where he could still see her. He could stand on his own front porch and look through the gate and down the cemetery lane to her grave, until he himself joined her.

Also buried in Princeton Cemetery is another person known for advancing rights for African Americans. When Christine Moore was preparing to go to high school, young black Princeton residents like herself were still forced to go to high school in either Trenton or New Brunswick. Her father owned quite a bit of land in Princeton--and after it was pointed out to him how much he paid in taxes--successfully appealed to have his two daughters be among the first black students admitted to Princeton High School.

Ms. Moore was not done with facing discrimination, however. After high school, she found she was not welcome at any New Jersey beauty school. Her father sent her for training in Paris--where she knew Paul Robeson. When she returned, Ms. Moore talked Governor Edge into changing admission policies, so that blacks could enter beauty schools in New Jersey under the same conditions as whites.

Also from the twentieth century is John O'Hara, a novelist who achieved national fame in the 1950s and 1960s writing about the American middle class in such works as Butterfield 8 and From the Terrace. His gravestone carries the following description: "Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, he was professional, he wrote honestly and well. "Its a wonderful and flowery epitaph--but you have to remember that he wrote it himself," said Mr. Evans.

On Saturday, May 27 at 4 p.m. and on Sunday May 28 at 11:30 a.m you will have the opportunity to be introduced to all these vignettes from history and many more, as Mr. Evans and Mr. Shaver conduct tours of the cemetery. Parking is available along the cemetery's interior drive as well as on Greenwood Avenue. There is no charge for the tours, but donations will be accepted, since the cemetery committee is hoping to buy a bench for people to sit and rest near the cemetery entrance, presumably after getting totally immersed in the history


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