Ideas/Commentary

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.

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