A Historic Tale of Love and Devotion from Evergreen Cemetery
Surely many people have loved and lost in Bushwick, but Jonathan Reed showed devotion to his wife Mary in a unique way.
Between the Wilson and Bushwick Aberdeen stops the L train emerges from its dark tunnel to pass over the bucolic Evergreen Cemetery. The cemetery is expansive, stretching 225 acres. I remember being struck by its sheer size the first time I saw it.
Recently, I wandered in. Walking through the front gate, my back to the Wash and Lube and the Popeye's, I felt as though I was stepping into a timeless bubble of Brooklyn past. It was a brisk winter day, and as far as I could tell I was the only person dumb enough to brave the cold.
Standing in the cemetery looking out, I could see the outline of high rises through the tree’s naked branches. The reminder of the city made the cemetery feel like an oasis. The hilly terrain is dotted with stones, some marked only with a moniker like "papa" or "baby," and statues of angels and spires reach up toward the sky.
I wandered down to the Whispering Grove in search of a mausoleum I had read about in my googling. It is one of the oldest mausoleums in the cemetery and houses the remains of Mary and Jonathan Reed. It is a modest structure, built into the side of a grassy knoll like a hobbit home.
Mary Reed died in 1893. Shortly after her death, her husband had the mausoleum erected. He then had her casket removed from her father’s vault and moved to the small structure. For more than ten years, Jonathan took up partial residence there, arriving when the gates opened and leaving only when they were closing for the night.
He had the mausoleum outfitted with a wood stove, furniture, and decorations from the home he had shared with his beloved Mary. He even brought her partially finished knitting. Their pet parrot lived there as well, first in life and then as taxidermy.
He never conceded that she was actually gone. In his obituary, the New York Times wrote that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation of her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket.” Believing that she could hear him in her slumbering state, he would chat with her for hours on end.
As word of his peculiar behavior and unprecedented devotion spread, he went from local character to mythic figure. His visitors grew exponentially reaching over 7,000 in the first year. Several monks even made the pilgrimage believing he had special knowledge of the dead.
In March 1905, he was found collapsed on the floor reaching out toward Mary’s casket. He was laid to rest beside her, and the mausoleum door was closed and locked.
I walked around the structure and gazed up at the smooth sphere atop it. The story—which had initially struck me with its sheer absurdity—didn’t feel so absurd as I stood there, alone, surrounded by monuments to the dead.
Featured image by Miriam Mosher for Bushwick Daily.