Travel

Gay history comes alive on Mount Auburn Cemetery tour

Ned Warren and John Marshall.
Robin Ray
Ned Warren and John Marshall.

On a warm June afternoon, a small group braves the on-and-off rain for a walking tour at the Mount Auburn Cemetery. Founded in 1831, the artfully landscaped graveyard hosts bird, flower, and historic tours. Since it’s June, author and volunteer Robin Hazard Ray is leading visitors on her “Pride Week Walk” to the graves of the Mount Auburn’s gays and lesbians.

They head past extra weepy willows to Catalpa Path and the first stop — a tiny marker at the grave of William Sturgis Bigelow, grandson of one of the cemetery founders. A super-wealthy art collector, the younger Bigelow’s contributions make up the core of Asia collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ray says. Like several on the tour, he was a friend of arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner.

“He was a confirmed bachelor — that was the language of the time. He was never out and we don’t know of any lovers he had,” says Ray.

Advertisement

But, he was, apparently, a same-sex nudist, at least for part of the summer, she says. Bigelow hosted annual, all-male retreats on Tuckernuck, an island off Nantucket. All the servants were male and, reportedly, clothes were optional. Ray reads from the three-ring binder that holds pictures and background for each tour stop. The guest noted that “pajamas, or less, are the only wear.” He gushes about “living independently in the open air, golfing, playing tennis, bathing in the magnificent surf without hampering garments, to dry in the sun, like seals afterward in the warm sand.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

From there, the tour moves on to Arethusa Path and the grave of Charles Sumner, a noted abolitionist and senator and apparent rival for the affection of Julia Ward Howe’s husband. Ray says she put this together after reading Howe’s papers, including an entry complaining that “Sumner should have been a woman and Daniel Howe should have married her.” That — from the woman who wrote lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — combined with some amorous letters from Mr. Howe to Sumner, landed all three on the tour.

Ray notes that lesbians had more options than gay men back then. On Palm Avenue, actress Charlotte Cushman’s grave is marked with an obelisk, her name carved boldly on the base. The self-made Charlestown native was “not a standard beauty,” but had a successful acting career in Europe, Ray says. Cushman had portraits taken with three different women friends, including one who married and had children with Cushman’s nephew. “It was a fascinating solution to a difficult problem in the mid-19th century,” Ray says.

Historical research on gays is a challenge because, according to Ray, they hid their tracks so well. Few were public about their relationships and the terms gay and lesbian are relatively new, said Libby Bouvier, an archivist and a longtime member of The History Project, a group that unearthed much of Boston’s LGBT history.

“What we say is that they lived together and they were intimate — whatever that means to people,” Bouvier said in a later interview. “They were close friends and companions, they traveled together, they wrote to each other. You can decide whether that was intimacy of a sexual type.”

Advertisement

Back at Mount Auburn, the tour stops at the gravesite of Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, offering a lesson on why many may have stayed in the closet. Lowell sanctioned Harvard’s “Secret Court,” whose members interrogated students about their sexual preferences, firing one professor and expelling eight students in 1920. It was so secret, the records of the court remained sealed for 80 years.

Honeysuckle Path leads to the wealthy Warren family’s plot to acknowledge someone who is not there. Ned Warren fled to Italy to escape his family’s disapproval. He’s buried there, Ray says, with this life partner, John Marshall. The photo in her binder depicts the two men in matching suits, mustaches, and bowler-like hats, each holding a small terrier in his arms.

The last stop arrives at the 21st century with Boston College professor, theologian and lesbian feminist Mary Daly. Her simple marble plaque reads, “Radical, Feminist, Philosopher.” Carved next to the words – an image of a battle axe like the one on the cover of her feminist classic, “Gynecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism.”

Ray says she is a bit of a cemetery buff. In addition to volunteering at Mount Auburn, she’s written the first in a series of mystery novels, this one called “Murder at the Cemetery.”

She says she researched and organized the tour to put gay and lesbian life in a historic context.

Advertisement

“It’s not a lifestyle people suddenly started to take up in the 1970s,” she says. “It is, in fact, something that has been with us for centuries.”

Contact Robin Hazard Ray via friends@mountauburn.orgfor more information on the tour.