Monday, August 28, 2017

Finding Footstones

On our most recent Open Day, while seeking the shade of our trees on a blazingly hot day, a couple of our volunteers came across some footstones that had somehow become separated from their headstones but bore initials that might make it possible to identify them.  The result was some excellent sleuthing by Louise Kennedy, our TCPA Secretary and genealogical expert, and Nick McAuliffe, our Vice President and archeaologist.  And this is what they found...

First of all, what is a footstone?  Basically, it was just a small marker to indicate the end of the grave, and was placed at the opposite end from the headstone. It generally bore only the initials of the deceased, although occasionally it included the date of death. Footstones seem to have entered into common use in England in the 17th century, and many 18th century English cemeteries have them.  It is also thought that, in some places in England, footstones bearing only initials and placed at the foot of a burial without a headstone were used to mark the graves of felons.  But generally, they simply represented the termination of that particular individual's cemetery plot, and in fact, many of them were later removed to reduce cemetery clutter and make it easier to cut the grass.

Tolomato has a number of footstones, some of them nearly sunken into oblivion with only a tiny band of marble remaining, others with no identification at all on them, and a few others with initials but no identifiable headstones to associated with them.

And then there are the wandering ones, such as the one Nick discovered, blackened and mildew-covered because of its long exile at the edge of the cemetery.  The marker was found near the remains of the cast iron grave enclosure on the south side of the cemetery.  When the new fence was put in, workers removed a tree - which as you can see, wasn't easy, since it had "swallowed" some of the metal parts of the enclosure - and we think that the stone was half-buried in the ground behind or very near to the tree.

It was certainly not the most legible thing, and it took us awhile to discern the letters E.F.M.  They are in the dark part of the marker. At first we weren't sure if the footstone was dark from earth staining, having somehow been turned upside down and stuck in the ground with the inscribed part at the bottom. But it turned out that the white part had actually been the buried part, protected from the elements and the pervasive lichen and mold.

Initially we hoped that we had found something associated with the grave enclosure, since we have never found any hints as to the identity of the person or persons buried there.  But Louise hit on the answer:  the footstone belongs to the grave of Fr. Edward Francis Mayne, priest at what is now the Cathedral from 1827 up to his death in 1834.  The footstone had somehow ended up about 30 feet from the headstone.

As you can see, Fr. Mayne has an imposing marker, nearly 6 feet tall, with "shoulders." (Yes, we plan to have it straightened.) Perhaps it was given to him to compensate for his trials at the Cathedral, since he was the parish priest during the "Wardens Period."  This refers to a period during the transition of Florida from a Spanish settlement to an American territory, when the resulting changes of diocesan authority and delays in assigning priests let to the establishment of a group of church wardens to run the parish.  Unfortunately, they seem to have been a fractious group, and drove more than one priest out of the parish.

When the Irish-born Fr. Mayne was assigned in 1827, he became embroiled in a conflict with the wardens when one warden, Antonio Alvarez, tried to prevent him from doing the burial rites for Jose M. Sanchez on the grounds that Sanchez was a Mason.  Fr. Mayne felt that the decision was his to make, after which the wardens locked him out of the church and he was able to conduct only a graveside burial service at Tolomato for Sanchez (who had been a political rival of Alvarez for the position of Mayor of St Augustine). In fact, the wardens would not let him reenter the church and he was forced for some time to say Mass in a private residence.

The struggle over his authority went from bad to worse over the years, even ending up in the secular courts, and was finally resolved at the end of 1832 during a meeting with the French-born Bishop Portier, Bishop of Mobile and Vicar of Florida, when the bishop threatened to excommunicate the wardens.  They settled down, but poor Fr. Mayne lived little more than another year, dying in January of 1834.

The Latin inscription on his marker records that he died in the 33rd year of his life and that he was a faithful pastor, "gentle and humble of heart."  So perhaps some recognition of his trials came from the faithful of St Augustine, and his beautiful headstone - which we plan to reunite with its footstone - represents this.

But that's not all!  Yet another grave enclosure yielded another footstone to study and once again, Louise Kennedy went into action.

This enclosure is under one of our two huge oak trees, and is slowly being pulled out of the ground by the tree. It contains some fragments of stone, along with a footstone that didn't belong there but was put into the ground in the recent past just to keep it from being run over by the lawn tractor.  And while nobody knows the identity of the "owner" of the enclosure - a relatively small enclosure possibly for just one burial - the footstone bore the initials C. D. G.  And who else could that be but Charles Dominique Gobert, whose simple but dignified and well-preserved headstone is located about fifteen feet away from the grave enclosure?

Like Fr. Mayne, he had a dramatic and conflict ridden life, and Louise uncovered his story for us.

Charles Gobert was born in France in 1767 but emigrated to the new United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1794. He started his life in the US as a merchant in Philadelphia, marrying the daughter of Lewis Ogden, an important figure in the War of 1812, and eventually moving with her to Spanish St Augustine. Unfortunately, he lost his fortune as a penalty for his involvement in a duel with a Spanish officer and returned north, this time to New York, where he filed for bankruptcy.  He seems to have moved around to various positions and then was employed as a civil engineer at the Washington Navy Yard, during which time he ended up defaulting on a contract for producing musket balls, perhaps because he was too busy with his own invention: a "hydro-war-ship."

In this tense period before and during the War of 1812, Gobert tried to interest the Mayor of Newark and other authorities in his "Machines for public harbor Defense."  He even wrote to President James Madison in 1814, shortly before the end of the war, to describe his project and get support. And while he got a cash advance from Newark for this work, he never seems to have delivered the product.  In fact, no plans for it have ever been found and it is not clear what this "machine for blowing up Ships of War" looked like or  how it functioned.

Gobert took off again and ended up getting arrested for treason after it was found that he was dealing with and sending clandestine communications to the British in the Chesapeake.  Somehow he seems to have gotten out of this predicament, and was merely jailed, once again, for bankruptcy, this time in Washington.  When he was released, he bounced around a bit, pursuing interests and seemingly phantom opportunities in Baltimore, Havana and New York.

Finally, in 1816, President Monroe accepted his claims of innocence of the charge of treason and the State Department restored his papers.

And then at last, in 1821, we find a mention of him in the "Florida Territorial Papers," where he appears as a translator and interpreter of French and Spanish.  The other mentions of him are in a census and a couple of civic and property records - and, true to form, in records of a 1826 lawsuit over rental payments.

Louise cites the report of the New York Evening Post:  "Charles Gobert, native of France, resident merchant in New York City, for the last 9 years residing in St. Augustine, died 26 March 1830."

And all this information was found by Louise from the finding of that small, stray slab of marble that was the footstone installed at Tolomato Cemetery 137 years ago.  So even the humble footstone deserves its measure of historical respect.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing that in 2019, we are reading the 1830 obituary notice of Mr. Gobert... and that all his misdealings are still underscored for the world to know. May God forgive him and us. Loved this, good job Louise!!!!