“Oh, Those Stones” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters shares the following on some Lowell history:

I have been asked to  write my meanderings on something other than my meanderings, so I took them at their word and am writing about the meanderings of three, not well-known, souls who once meandered through Lowell before dying.  Two died in the Civil War, which means that their names are etched in stone in the Memorial Library.  One died at work.  I have tried my best to find out what these men were doing while they were alive.  I have had some success.  We will start with the man who lived the longest, first.  His name was Ezra W. Wright.  I cannot find out what the middle W. stood for, although I believe it was William.  William was a very popular name in that age, in 1822, and for that reason, I have taken poetic license with his middle name.

     Ezra Wright was a menial laborer who was on the payroll of the Locks and Canals, Inc..  He worked at various low-paying jobs during his long (for that day) life and died while performing one of those jobs.  He was a lucky man, blessed to have good health for most of his life,with the possible exception of a passing bout of smallpox as a young boy.  Smallpox was loathed then, because the cowpox vaccine had not yet been passed on to poor young boys in Lowell.  Polio was another killer, but it would be one hundred fifty years before a vaccine was found for that.
    Interestingly, we always seem to have a new deadly disease to take the place of one once it is cured.  Now that smallpox, polio, and consumption (tuberculosis) have been cured we raise money for cancer research.  We are living longer, it is true, but there are still diseases that are frightening just by name.  Cancer is one of them.
      Anyway, Ezra did not have to worry about that.  The average mortality rate for men at that time was fifty years.  The normal man would live for fifty years and then die.  Fifty was considered old age.  Ezra lived until his fifty-eighth year.  He was an antique during this time of his life.  He died while laboring for the mill-owners in Lowell.  Not that any of them knew him, there is no evidence of that.  His epitaph states that he died instantly on the dam at Pawtucket Falls.  Specifically, it says:
Ezra W. Wright
Feb. 21, 1822
Killed instantly at
Pawtucket Dam
June 15, 1875
Aged 58 years
“Call forth or name
but not them with hearts.”
    Since he died fairly early in Lowell’s birth, he was buried at the original Lowell Cemetery which is on School Street in Lowell.  The large Lowell Cemetery we have now was purchased to make room for the many people who would die and had to be buried in a larger place.  I take it that Ezra Wright was well-loved by his poignant saying at the bottom of the tombstone.  I took it to mean that he had a large heart and his family wanted him remembered.  There is also the cryptic “Killed instantly at Pawtucket Dam…”  His survivors apparently wanted him remembered for his life, not his quick death.  The dangerous job was to replace the boards in March.  He was on the dam in June of 1875.  June can be fairly unforgiving on the dam.  It certainly appears that way in this account.
    I combed the newspapers for Ezra Wright and I had some success.  He is listed in the City Directory as living at 60 Butterfield Street.  He owned his own home.  As stated, he was employed by the Locks and Canals Corporation.  He was married and his wife lived on the street until her death on September 17, 1890.    She moved at some point to number 40 Butterfield Street in Lowell.  She is not buried with him, probably because the small graveyard was closed to the newly dead by 1890.
    Ezra was not a veteran of any wars.  The other two men I am writing about are not only veterans, they died during their time in the service.
    We are telling this story in reverse chronological order.  Therefore, the next man to be highlighted is an army veteran who died during the second day of the attack on Gettysburg.  His name is John L. Fiske.  I have no idea what his middle name was, although I feel it was, because of his birthdate and age, Luther, after Martin Luther.  Maybe it was and probably it was not.
    John L. Fiske died on July 2, 1863, the second day of the attack on Gettysburg.  After extensive research at the Memorial Library, it is most likely that he was in the infantry.  According to the barely legible lettering on his memorial stone, he was a member of the Massachusetts Volunteers, in the Seventh Battery.  According to the records, he was a cannoneer.  He fired cannons, and Gettysburg was the site of the greatest cannon battle of all time.  It was common in the medical field of that time that a wound which caused the amputation of a limb resulted in the death of the wounded person.  It is unknown whether he died of a wound or a direct shot, all that is known is that his father was well-off enough to have his body transported by rail to Lowell for burial in the Lowell Cemetery.  That would have been an expensive proposition.
    I believe that his father was Amos Fiske of 34 Cabot Street in Lowell.  Cabot Street is no longer there.  Nothing is mentioned about his mother.  According to his gravestone, he was born in Lowell in 1839 on April 3rd.  He volunteered for three years, the longest allowed, and served in Regiment II or 11, I cannot tell which one.  His stone is barely readable, and that is recent, in the past twenty years.  When I first found it, you could read the stone, even the Latin inscription on the bottom of the stone.  Now it is virtually unreadable.
    In July of 1863, the Lowell “Courier-Citizen” reported local news.  Stories included a speech given by Texas General A.J. Hamilton which was enjoyed by all,  “…not since Sumner has spoken,” had they had a better time.  It says alot for Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.  The Sumner Tunnel in Boston is named for him.
    What was interesting about reviewing the newspaper was that it was so mundane.  War news was briefly written, and was not very flattering.  It took until July 4th. to tell about Gettysburg.  Mr. Fiske had been dead for two days by that point.  It was more interesting to talk about the rumor of a great grain yield in the Confederate states.  The report simply says that that report “…is not true.  The report has been got up by speculators for their own advantage.”  {Thursday, July 2, 1863}  When they talked about the war, they made comments such as:
    “The strange delay of Lee to get moving is thought by judges to put him in great peril.”  {July 4, 1863}
    The newspaper stated, in its article, “War Matters” that “In Pennsylvania a battle took place at Gettysburg on Wednesday between General Reynold’s and Howard’s Corp and the rebels under Generals Hill and Longstreet.” {July 4, 1863}
    According to the stone for George Sherman IV hewas the son of Otis Sherman, who is listed as a real estate broker.  Judging by his advertising in the “Courier-Citizen” he was fairly good at it.  His son died in Anderson, Georgia.  It was later to be referred to as Andersonville.  George died there in 1861.  His body was sent back to the Lowell Cemetery.  Again, that was an expensive move.  He is in Lowell, where he grew up.
    In 1861, there was a column on City and County events.  There was more space dedicated to “The Sale of Sea Shells” than war news.  Other articles that dominated the news were “Lowell Post Office Summer Sale Announcement.” and the need for the “…warm feeling of womanly and simple mercy. {July 4}”  While extolling that warm feeling, they wrote in the same page that a Cininnati “crazy woman,” went to her daughter’s school armed with butcher knives to kill the pretty girls and leave the homely ones at the school.  Since no one knew who the homely girls were, they all assumed that they would be labeled “pretty” and killed so they escaped.  She was later arrested and sentenced.
    So that is the story of the three men.  The New York Herald stated that, at Gettysburg, “the fighting yesterday (Friday, Pickett’s Charge) was beyond all parallel.” {Page 3, July 4, 1863}  By that point, Ezra was probably home for the July 4, celebration; John L. Fiske was dead for two days; and George IV had been buried for one year.  By July 8, 1863, the newspaper reported that Grant had taken Vicksburg.  That was on Page 1.  The fortunes of General Lee were changing.

The Civil War was slated to last for another two years.  Brutal killing marked the battles.  Grant was not interested in death tolls, he was interested in victories.  Many Lowell veterans would come home, where they kept track of them in the local hospitals.  Their behavior was monitored.  History often shows that the soldier is permanently scarred.  Today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  It had its own name after the Civil War.  But it was recognized.