Mystery in stone

The Coffin Man's calling card

The Coffin Man’s calling card

There once was an itinerant stone carver who traveled the dusty roads of upstate New York in a horse-drawn wagon loaded with quarried pieces of sandstone. He was looking for families who had recently buried loved ones, to sell them a headstone for the grave. His “signature” was the coffin shape he would chisel at the base of each headstone. The size, and the number of these coffin shapes would indicate whether the occupant was an adult or a child, and how many rested beneath this headstone.

The headstone in the Sanford Cemetery for George Sands, who died August 8, 1816 at age 83, was so inscribed. There are two coffins at the base; it is not known who the second person might have been.

For decades, the carver remained anonymous, known only as “The Coffin Man.” Researcher Mary Dexter of Cortland became obsessed with locating as many of his stones as she could (she found more than 200 of them over 30 years) and of trying to determine the carver’s name. At last, she discovered, in estate papers of one of his “customers,” a record of payment of $5 for a headstone and footstone to one Jonas W. Stewart.

Stewart, it turns out, came from a family of stone carvers. Father Jonas was a well known carver in the Clermont, NH area. Jonas W. Stewart II was born in Clermont in 1778. J. W. and his brother James followed in their father’s footsteps, but each developed a unique, recognizable carving style, and each staked out stone peddling territories of their own.

J. W., the “Coffin Man,” settled in Coventryville, Chenango County, near a quarry where he got the stone for his craft. J. W. Stewart traveled throughout eastern New York and northern Pennsylvania. His stones have been found in a 4,000-square mile area – the one for George Sands, who was originally buried in an area now under the waters of the Pepacton Reservoir, is the easternmost example of Stewart’s work that Mary Dexter has found. She believes he carved from 1811 to 1822, though many of his stones bear earlier dates, because it was often years before a family had a monument erected for a deceased loved one.

The Coffin Man may have been prolific, but he wasn’t perfect: He left the ‘r’ out of George Sands’ name. But at least George got a headstone. The same cannot be said for The Coffin Man, whose own grave has never been found.

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