November 30, 2021

Coffin symbol ignites a passion for cemetery art

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

The Cincinnatus Village Cemetery sign on Nov. 12.

Nothing is absolute when talking about gravestone carvers, Mary L. Dexter said.

“You can never use, ‘always’ or ‘never,’” said the 80-year-old Cortland woman, who has explored the cemeteries of Central New York and beyond for 45 years. She just published “On the Trail of Coffin Man: Researching 19th Century Gravestone Carvers of Central New York State.”

In Print

Copies of “On the Trail of Coffin Man: Researching 19th Century Gravestone Carvers of Central New York State” are available through the Cortland County Historical Society. Call 607-756-6071 to reserve a book.

Dexter was struck by the beautiful folk art on markers from the 1800s to 1850s. Carvers rarely identified themselves. One in particular, who she nicknamed “Coffin Man,” piqued her interest.

“It was in looking at them, getting close to the stone, touching the stone, that I began to read the stories the stones told.”

In 1975, Dexter began a project for the nation’s bicentennial, a resurvey of Cortland County cemeteries. “There are just under 150 burial sites in Cortland County,” she said.

She would go to each burial site and catalog each grave, who was buried there, when they were born, when they died and details of the stone. The work eventually became her honors thesis at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1987.

“There are no vital records before 1890 in New York State. The information on the head stones become vital records,” she said. The state mandated that town and county clerks keep records on births, deaths and marriages in 1892.

“On a particular day like today, I was in Texas Valley Cemetery and I saw this image on top of a stone,” she said of a little heart. “When I got down on my knees and looked at the stone, at the bottom of the stone were these two vertical coffins.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

The symbol that set off the search for Coffin Man, the mysterious grave stone carver who engraved markers in Cortland and Chenango counties and beyond, the early 1800s.

That was unusual. Normally, stone carvers, if they did make a coffin symbol, would portray it horizontally.

“I want to know who carved that stone,” she said. “Every summer for 23 years, I engaged in identifying this carver, who I called Coffin Man.”

“I was finding him in the south and east of Cortland and into Chenango Valley,” Dexter said. “Over that 23 years, from an area west of Cooperstown and east of Ithaca, I found several hundred stones by this carver.”

In the meantime, she discovered traits by four other anonymous carvers:

  • Sunburst Man, for his sun motifs.
  • Comma Man, for his prolific use of commas.
  • Furn Man, for his use of ferns and urns.
  • Eclectic Man, for his wild imagery.

Stone carvers’ work was unique. Eclectic Man used suns and moons, trumpeting angels on his stones. “He was really fun to find,” she said.

Sometimes two carvers worked on the same stone. One would do the lettering, the other would do the imagery. Eclectic Man had a woman mourning two stones, at the tomb of two daughters, and the simple image conveys her grief.

Who is Mary Louise Dexter?

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mary Dexter of Cortland and a grave marker carved by J.W. Stewart at C cinnatus Village Cemetery.

Dexter retired from driving for a transit company in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“I had many occupations before that, both here and in North Carolina,” she said. “But that’s what I did the longest and that’s what I retired from.”

Dexter obtained her bachelor’s degree in history from UNC Chapel Hill in the 1980s “in my old age,” she said of her 40s. “I didn’t go to college after high school. I traveled a lot and had a lot of jobs. For 30 years, I was in North Carolina.”

Dexter would return to Cortland in the summers because she couldn’t stand the North Carolina heat.

Her book is compiled of three essays:

  • “Remember Me, As You Pass By” in 1987, featuring the early gravestone carvers of Cortland County.
  • “It Only Takes One Stone,” written in 2006, about the search for Coffin Man.
  • “The Stewarts: A Family of Gravestone Carvers” written in 2020, about the family of Coffin Man.

Others weigh in

“We are blessed in this community with a bunch of folks who have a passion for graveyards and local history,” said John Hoeschele of Cortland, treasurer of the board of directors at the Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Hoeschele said Dexter is a treasure, like the stone carvers. And they are too often overlooked. “She’s got the passion and more power to her,” he said.

Anita Wright of Cortland, retired research associate at Cortland County Historical Society for 37 years, has known Dexter since 1975.

Wright was part of the project to catalog Cortland County grave sites.

“Nobody here did anything about cemeteries,” Wright said. “They were being destroyed and vandalized.”

Part of the project was to bring attention to the sites and get people to take care of them. In the meantime, Wright got the bug.

“You got into it. You couldn’t stop. This went to this century. This went to that carver. The Es were made this way. Stones carved that way,” she said. “Once you got into this: ‘How many stones did this person create and why did they create it?’”

The TV show “Roots” was popular and people were getting into history. Genealogy took off, people began to care and Dexter would give talks to historical groups, Wright said.

“People became aware of where they came from. And it became an art project. People would do rubbings of these stones,” Wright said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mary Dexter shows two samples of early 1800s stone carvings on Nov. 9 at her Cortland home.

Dexter looks at the stone. Lights it. Measures it. Photographs it. Examines the time period. Knows what quarry the stone comes from, Wright said.

“I think it has taken her a long, long time to have this book produced,” Wright said. “She has been so thorough. She has gone to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut.”

“In the back of my mind, I always wanted to write this up, make this available to other researchers. I just never seemed to get to it,” Dexter said, but others, including gravestone restorers, encouraged her. “A couple in Oxford, Dale and Tina Utter – they became aware of my thesis. They asked, ‘Have I written anything?’ ‘You really need to publish this information, Mary.’”

Who is Coffin Man?

Dexter found a stone in 1998 in Coventryville for a man named Simon Jones, who died in 1817. The stone had all the marks of Coffin Man.

“I took that information and went to Chenango County Courthouse in Norwich. I pulled a probate file for Simon Jones and in that file was a receipt for $5 for a gravestone signed J.W. Stewart.”

Bingo! That identified the Coffin Man carver.

“There was excitement. Relief. And there was exhilaration. At the same time, it was deflating. Now that I know his name, was that all there was to it? To answer my question?”

Not a chance. Dexter would go on. She explored J.W. Stewart’s work, which took her to cemeteries in New Hampshire and Vermont — and she’d explore the work of the other carvers. She discovered that Stewart was part of a family of carvers.

Between 1805 and 1830, carvers used brown sandstone to make their grave markers. Tools were chisels and wooden mallets. Massive markers were delivered by cart, drawn by oxen or horses.

J.W. Stewart had many stones in Coventryville and there was a large quarry in the area. The use of marble for grave markers came in in the 1830, Dexter said.

“Sandstone served its purpose at the time,” she said. “In New England, they had slate.”

Dexter had so many wonderful adventures along the way.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many things happened. Like I would be giving a talk. ‘Have you been to such and such a cemetery. I have seen that carver before,’” a listener would tell her.

“The stories ricochet,” she said.

“Texas Valley has a lot of stones by these guys. It’s a good place to see Coffin Man’s stones.”

And where is J.W. Stewart buried?

“We don’t know what happened to him. He was arrested on July 31, 1822,” she said.

She hasn’t found a record for what he did. Only that he was arrested on a warrant in Chenango County. And she hasn’t found a stone for his grave.

“He just disappeared. Just gone. The two fellows he worked with, Open Urn Man and Eclectic Man split up his territory and did his work.”

But it never ends, Dexter said. “I am always looking.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mary L. Dexter replaces a cemetery stone at the Cincinnatus Village Cemetery in Cincinnatus.