Len Burgess submits-
The Ancient Burial Ground in the village of Chebacco Parish (now Essex) came back to life this past
weekend. On Sunday afternoon, visitors had the opportunity to experience the burial ground and see
life in the 1700’s to the middle 1800’s through the eyes of some of its prominent citizens and even
one infamous one. The graveyard dates back to 1681. Among those buried there are two of the town’s
earliest ministers, many shipbuilders and veterans of the French and Indian Wars, Revolutionary War,
War of 1812 and Civil War.
The tour started with Emma Frances Burnham portrayed by her relative Becky Axelrod wearing an
authentic Civil War period dress owned by one of her ancestors. Becky also showed guests the Hearse
House, built more than 170 years ago, which holds the town’s original victorian hearse, purchased
in 1861. Also in the Hearse House is an early sleigh hearse and two holding boxes that predate the
practice of embalming. At that time, block ice was used to preserve the body of the deceased until
burial. In all, there are 374 headstones in the Ancient Burial Ground, the oldest ones dating back to the
beginning of the 1700’s.
Then guests met Barry O’Brien who, as Reverend Robert Crowell, introduced the story of the town’s
infamous Grave Robberies. The minister shared his famous sermon, given in 1818, when the empty
caskets of the victims were reburied in a common grave located under the Hearse House. Next thing,
David Gabor who had been lurking behind the building came out of the shadows, shovel in hand. He
was the town’s doctor Thomas Sewall, accused of stealing eight bodies from the Ancient Cemetery to
be used for anatomical study. Then appeared Kerry Breeze aka Sally Andrews, a young patient of Dr.
Sewall’s. Sparks flew. The fact that Dr. Sewall was fined a pittance, asked to leave Essex and the State
only to become a world renowned author on anatomy left guests wondering whether the science and
knowledge gained through the robberies were worth the anguish of the families.
Guests then met Alan Budreau who as Reverend John Cleveland spoke of his ministery in Chebacco,
and his Chaplaincy in the French and Indian War and in the Revolutionary War.
This year’s tour included a new character, the famous Madame Varney, portrayed by her 10th
granddaughter, Laura Doyle. Madame Varney and a few of her women friends orchestrated the
building of Chebacco’s first meetinghouse in 1677. When the town fathers of Ipswich forbade the “men
of Chebacco” from raising a meetinghouse, the woman of the parish took charge and enlisted the help
of men of Wenham, Gloucester and Manchester. Technically speaking, they were outside the ban.
The volunteers arrived from all over and the meetinghouse was up in one day! (Becky Axelrod is also
related to Madame Varney).
Mark Nelson was the Reverend John Wise, who became the town’s first minister in 1683. He served as
a regimental chaplain during the French and Indian War, and was well known for speaking out against
taxation without representation more than a half century before the Revolutionary War.
Jim Witham portrayed Skipper Wesley Burnham, who was a navigator and ships captain. He served
in the militia during the Revolutionary War and witnessed the surrender of General Burgoyne at
Saratoga. He spoke to guests about events leading up to the Revolutionary War including the Stamp
Act and Tea Act. He also spoke of the militia and the role they played during the war and shared
stories of his days as a privateer. One of Skipper Wesley Burnham’s great uncles was Jim’s 8th great
Guests departed by way of the museum to visit the collection and have refreshments. Throughout
the tour guests were treated to music played by Tom Duff on his tenor penny whistle. Jenny
Stephens, Liz Guerin and Sue Harrington assisted with ticket collection. Diana Hughes Maria
Burnham, Mary Wilhelm and Barbara Spyropulos led the guests on their tour of the Ancient Burial
Ground. Len Burgess chronicled the event by taking photographs.
Story by Jim Witham and Laura Doyle