Dickinson Family Tombstone Unearthed

Posted: November 1, 2006

Students in senior lecturer Martha Ackmann's seminar, Emily Dickinson in Her Times, were convening for their weekly Tuesday afternoon class at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst when they noticed a clutch of workers huddled around some pieces of stone. These pieces of stone, they discovered, weren't just ordinary rocks, they were fragments of a nineteenth-century marble tombstone commemorating General Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert, who died in 1841, was the father of Susan Gilbert Dickinson, who was married to Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin. Austin and Susan Dickinson lived in the Evergreens, the house next door to Emily Dickinson's on Main Street in Amherst.

The November 1 Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that workers on a drainage project found the pieces of the tombstone around 10 am about 18 inches below the surface. According to the Gazette, Gilbert was an innkeeper from the Greenfield area who moved to Amherst in 1832 and owned an inn called the Mansion House. He died in 1841. "We were all amazed," Ackmann said. "It was Halloween, and one of my students was there, dressed in full Emily Dickinson regalia for the occasion." The professor quickly revamped her teaching plan so that she and her students could spend their time assembling the pieces of the tombstone. Ackmann gratefully acknowledged "the generosity of the Dickinson Museum people for letting us handle the pieces and do the jigsaw puzzle work of piecing them together." The students assembled the broken stone on a heavy piece of plywood and carried it to the museum's garage. According to Ackmann, the stone was large and very heavy, requiring six students to carry it.

Ackmann is eager to incorporate the discovery into her seminar, which is a community-based learning class. The students are presently writing biographical profiles of members of the Dickinson family for the Dickinson Museum's updated Web site, and she hopes to have students investigate and report on the discovery of the stone.

It's a mystery why the stone was buried in front of Emily Dickinson's house. Jane Wald, executive director of the museum, told the Gazetteshe believes that the tombstone marked Gilbert's original grave in Amherst's West Cemetery until a larger family monument replaced it. The workers who dug it up told Ackmann that it appeared to have been deliberately laid. "The students came up with lots of ideas about how the stone came to be there," Ackmann said. It was suggested that the marble was valuable enough that the stone was laid aside to be used later for a building project or a step. Ackmann raised the question with MHC anthropology professor Andrew Lass, who referred her to a colleague at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in New England archaeology. "I will definitely get a student on that," Ackmann said. "It was a wonderful Halloween surprise."

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Martha Ackmann - Faculty Profile