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According to Lew Keen of the Newport Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission, theft of historic grave markers for use as patio stones and well covers, among other things, is a chronic issue. In October, five long-missing historic gravestones were finally returned to the Colonial-era cemetery Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island.

Under Rhode Island law, it is a felony to steal a gravestone, and consequences can include prison for up to three years, a fine of up to $5,000, and paying the cost to repair the grave. R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-20-2 (“Every person who shall willfully and maliciously . . . remove any . . . gravestone . . . shall be guilty of a felony and shall be imprisoned not less than one year and not exceeding three (3) years, and/or be fined no more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or both and shall, in addition to imprisonment and/or fine, be ordered to make full restitution to any person, business or entity incurring the expense of repairing the grave.”).

Four stones were from 1835 and earlier, marking the graves of a Newport woman, Elizabeth Cook (1835), and her children Betsy (1799), Isaac (1803), and Edward (1804). The Cook family stones were last seen at Common Burying Ground in 1874. The four gravestones were found in a yard during a home renovation in the 1980s. The homeowners stored the gravestones in the basement until they moved. Pam Kelly discovered the stones when she purchased the home from the previous owners. 

The oldest stone returned in October was for a 1-year-old child, William Mayes III, who died in 1690. This stone was found in August also in a yard by Stephanie Pallas in Pennsylvania. Pallas was landscaping, came across a flat stone in her yard, and realized it was a gravestone that belonged in Rhode Island. The stone had been missing from Common Burying Ground since 1979.

A struggle with returning a gravestone all the way from Pennsylvania to Newport was the cost and reliability of transportation methods. Gravestones are not light; Elizabeth Cook's stone weighed about 450 pounds. Hiring someone to deliver Mayes' stone would cost $1000. Shipping via FedEx was only $100, but the Keen was not convinced the stone would be safe. Had the original thief been arrested and convicted, that person would have been responsible for the cost of transportation. Luckily, Bob Butler, a member of the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission came to the rescue, agreeing to pick up the stone and return it to Newport safely in a pre-planned trip. 

All five stones have been reset in their proper places in Common Burying Ground. Students in a historical cemetery preservation class volunteered to reset the Cook family stones, using a crane due to their weight.

Sarah Saint

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