inkeraser inkeraser

Looney Tombs

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first post by award-winning filmmaker and regular Guest Brewer Pes.

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in the fabulous Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx — doing research for a new short film. It’s been no hardship to pass the day here…Woodlawn is one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen and feels more like an impeccably manicured park than a burial ground.

Woodlawn is home to many creative luminaries including Miles Davis, Herman Melville and Thomas Nast, and curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to stop by their graves to see what’s going on. I was slightly horrified to find that people choose to pay their respects to Herman Melville by balancing BIC and other cheap clickable ballpoint pens (the free kind you get at a bank) on his tombstone — so that it now looks a bit like a trash can. Despite this, I really like that Melville’s tombstone has a blank sheet of paper sculpted into the front, as if encouraging every visitor to think for a moment about the dreaded blank page at the end of life. I wondered momentarily if this was Melville’s last brilliant idea.

Herman Melville's Tombstone

In my wanderings in the cemetery, some other interesting things have happened. For instance, one day I was photographing a tombstone and just as I clicked the camera, a rabid wolf or wild dog thing jumped from behind the tombstone baring his teeth at me. My heart raced. I was in the center of the cemetery, alone, and I hadn’t seen anyone for at least an hour. I instantly thought about being mauled alive by this thing. Would my tombstone read something like “Eaten alive by a wolf right on this spot”? Fortunately, I held my ground and the thing ran away. Evidently he was more scared of me than I of him. I later learned from a groundskeeper that what I had seen was one of the cemetery’s resident (and harmless) coyotes and that I should be happy to have seen him without having to pay admission to the nearby Bronx Zoo.

In another corner of the cemetery, on another day of research, I stumbled upon this fascinating tombstone, which tells of a 15-year-old boy who died on his birthday in 1909 in a most unfortunate manner. The tombstone has to be seen to be believed: click to enlarge.

Curious, I did a little research. First, the Penbid website (yes, an Ebay for pens!) clarified this little thing called an “ink eraser” : “Modern ink is dye or stain, but writing of the early period was done with inks containing carbon as a pigment and on animal skins (such as vellum or parchment) or on paper made entirely from rags. Carbon ink did not penetrate these writing surfaces but dried on the surface, sort of like paint. This explains the tools known as steel erasers or ink scrapers [aka ‘ink eraser’], which were used for scraping mistakes from the writing surface.”

So, basically an “ink eraser” was a knife, kind of like an X-Acto blade: and George Spencer Millet fell on his while trying to avoid getting the cooties on his 15th birthday.

The Ink Eraser

But did the ink eraser stab him in the eye or in the heart when he fell on it? And what about the girls, throwing birthday kisses at him? What happened to them? Just how did this horrifying scene unfold? After a bit more research I uncovered this New York Times article from February 16, 1909 (links to downloadable PDF article) which helps reconstruct the horrifying event and adds some interesting plot details along the way.

  • An excellent piece, thanks. My mother lives adjacent to the cemetery, so I have spent many hours there and have shot lots of movies pixillated or real time. It’s a great break from the city.

  • There are some great cemeteries in Brooklyn, too. A few Jewish ones in Borough Park, and another- I wish I knew exactly where -somewhere around Bedford Avenue in East New York, I think, where the stone walls climb ten feet above the winding road and the landscape is a silhouette out of Edward Gorey.

  • My God, what a story. I’m afraid I can’t find it funny at all and wonder at his parents allowing the bizarre cause of death to be inscribed on his tombstone as if he were a “Ripley’s” newspaper comic(which he may have been). Death is death. The poor kid. And the poor, poor girls who were only trying to tease him. For all we know one or more may have had a crush on him. What a horrible accident to live with for the rest of your life.

  • silvia

    what a luck, Pes: you met a coyote!!
    well…in a quite bizzare way, I’m sure that in the future you’ll laugh about it!!

  • The article mentions the knife cut on the inside of his coat, so I’m guessing he was stabbed either in the abdomen, or somewhere just under the rib cage.

  • amid

    What an inscription! The cemetery sounds like an untapped source of inspiration and story ideas for any filmmaker. I’d previously made plans to visit one next weekend and now I’m really excited.

  • Yes, all cemeteries have great stories in them…the older the better, usually. The old Hollywood Memorial behind Paramount is an incredible place. It was there I discovered the story of an anarchist’s bomb(!) killing Times employees in 1910-killing 21 people. There’s a cenotaph/tombstone to them. Who knew?

  • i sure hope those six young women felt bad for killing that kid. one can only wonder–were they ever able to love again?

    that’s why i’ve got the cootie vaccine.

  • …and welcome PES. I’m a fan of your work.

  • My birthday is coming soon… guess I’d better stop avoiding hugs, just in case ;-)

  • Robert Schaad

    Not sure if it’s Woodlawn or not, but there are quite a number of luminaries buried throughout the NY area. Eric Weiss (Houdini), Duke Ellington, etc. Which now makes me curious as to where the departed cartoonist/illustrators/animators lay/lie…

  • Poor Mr. Millet died of complications resulting from sexual harassment. At least it didn’t go unreported.

  • ridgecity

    A stab in the chest or stomach could have made him lose blood until collapse, a direct stab to the heart can kill you since the tip only needs 2 inches to reach your heart.

    It’s weird that they wrote how he died… I could not be able to go to the cemetery if I knew how everyone there died…

  • Pete Murphey


    Great films, fun graveyard observations, what’s up with your name?

  • Great post. Well done on the research, I love the stories behind odd little experiences like that. Stumbling upon wonder!

  • Nice piece PES.

  • Wow. Just wow.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Well, I like to think I escaped death once when I accidentally stabbed my right hand with a pencil. Course I was evading homework, and that really isn’t the best excuse in the world, but the piece of lead had stayed inside my hand for the next 3-4 years. Course if we still had those ink erasers around, it would be a different story.

  • I’m just floored by that story! I can’t help finding it a bit funny, (I know i shouldn’t) and just way too tragic at the same time. Poor girls, and poor boy. I’m never ever terrorizing anyone with kisses or hugs for that matter, ever again. It’s just too confusing a way to go.

  • pat

    yes fun story!

    Woodlawn cemetary helped inspire the first novel by Peter Beagle, “A Fine and Private Place” (fantastic book about a guy who lives in the cemetary). Peter also wrote “The last unicorn” (novel and screenplay) and the screenplay for the animated Lord of the Rings. Such an imagination, and the place sounds great to inspire it.

  • When I saw the coyote in that picture i thought of the hell hounds from Resident Evil, damn they are so hard to kill.

  • Next year is the century anniversary of this tragic event, and just maybe the chain of how you came to expose this event, (that is similar to one dramatized in “Six Feet Under” ‘s opening prolog- where you see the demise of the family run mortuary’s latest customer), will continue til next year’s 100 year mark day, making it one to remember all of those who die in mundane or unexplainable outcomes of life’s daily chores.

  • Danny R. Santos

    Great piece Pes, the feeling of being in a cemetary all by yourself reminds me of a night when I would be driving by myself through the winding roads of Poughkeepsie in upstate N.Y. during the winter. Is as if I stepped in one of those Edgar Allan Poe’sstories, spooky yet tantalizing. Do go to Brooklyn’s cemetary, you may find good matirial there to, and while your there do stop by Winsor McCay’s tombstone. I hope you get good inspiration there too. Best of luck on your project!

  • Michael Shoshani

    Of all the ironies, to meet one’s end through misadventure while in the building (and employ) of a life insurance company…

  • I was so shocked by the story of young Mr Millett!! Even as my children were rushing for school I read it beginning to end with sad disbelief – poor mother, I don’t blame her for putting that on the tombstone – if she hadn’t we wouldn’t be remember her son here in 2008! How curious =D
    The ‘coyote’ is rather a pathetic looking creature! lol I just had one of my bottle-fed calves massacred by a bear (second one this summer) and have been witness to many a coyote – ours look quite healthy in comparison to this poor thing! But so you know – bears aren’t cute like Teddy Bears, and coyotes aren’t nostalgic nomads like in the movies, or Wile E. Coyote. When I’m sitting here at 2am in the Colorado Mountains and the coyotes are yipping next to my window – I close shop and go to bed…. too creepy is their actual sound. And when you find a bear would rather tear the entrails from live animals then eat the leavings of their day-before kill, makes you wonder why people portray them as fuzzy cuddly misunderstood kids?

    Ah, for the movie’s sake …

    But anyway, enough of my rant – beautiful piece that I enjoyed immensely! Thanks for bringing all of your exploits in Woodlawn to light – it was wonderful!

  • Jacob

    Strange that I should read about this incident on an animation blog site, as it is practically impossible for me to read the newspaper account and not imagine the entire scenario unfolding before my mind’s eye like a strange short episode of some twisted reality. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. who thinks of this stuff anyways

  • Pinkerton

    Excellent writeup. I just found your site tonight, welcome to my Live Bookmarks.

    If it wasn’t for the blasted knife, he probably would have (reluctantly) had the time of his life.

  • I want to go find this tombstone. Can you give some explanation of where it is or how I would find it?

  • So he died on Feb 15 and his birthday was the day before…Valentine’s Day!

  • Ben

    I find it amazing how much detail they go into surrounding the event. You don’t see detail like that in the papers today.

  • Knife and 6 kisses
    Oh my….. life is bizarre!

  • What a sad story. And his birthday was also Valentine’s Day? If only he had let the girls kiss him, he would still be alive. It just goes to show you when our parents told us not to run around with a sharp implement in our hand, they weren’t joking.

  • Wow. That’s a great find! Thanks for sharing.

  • Rachel Coldbreah

    Nicely followed up (and written up) story! Thank you for sharing it. Am rather glad you were not eaten by a ravening beast.