Friday, January 22, 2016

Charlotte Temple: Trinity Church Cemetery

Tourists file past the grave of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church cemetery, but there is a grave on the other side of the churchyard that was once more popular than Hamilton's big monument. Charlotte Temple's grave might not get much attention now, but in the past, her tombstone marked a popular plot in the cemetery to visit.

Grave site of Charlotte Temple, Trinity Cemetery.

Who Was Charlotte Temple?

If you asked "Who was Charlotte Temple?" two centuries ago, just about everyone would know, and people might reply - that poor, unlucky girl - as if Charlotte were a real person. But, she was not. Charlotte was the main character of America's first best-selling novel, Charlotte, A Tale of Truth by Susanna Rowson, published in 1794.

Plenty of people were convinced the story was literally a tale of truth and that Charlotte actually existed. Since there is a real tombstone in a real cemetery, it would be easy to assume they were right. In the story, Charlotte was a teenager who suffered betrayal. She was turned away by her lover, and young Charlotte died soon after giving birth to a daughter. That poor, unlucky girl.

A number of real-life young women have been suggested as the true identity of the character, but Charlotte Temple is a "tale of truth" because her story could belong to any young woman of that era who had been betrayed. The author of the book, Susanna Rowson, was an actress in addition to being a novelist, poet, and songwriter. In other words, she knew how to tell a story and how to pull material from the world around her to use in her work. Whether or not Charlotte was based on a specific person - or was a composite of several people - interests me less than the fact there is a gravestone for a fictional character in Trinity Church graveyard.

I want to know how that happened.

Getting the story straight

After reading some old newspaper articles, I couldn't get a straight story about Charlotte and her grave. There are as many theories about the tombstone as there are about the identity of Charlotte. To keep focused, I made a list of the earliest dates that Charlotte appeared in the papers, and here is what I found:
  • In the early 1800s and prior, the mentions of Charlotte Temple were largely in advertisements for shops that carried the book. 
  • In the 1820s, references to a theatrical play based on the novel started to appear. 
  • In the 1830s (as well as later in the 1860s), there was a horse named Charlotte Temple that shows up in racing reports.
  • In the 1840s, Charlotte Temple is written about in periodicals as a person/character for the first time when stories appeared that her house burned down. (Well, the building that people speculated was her house, based on the novel.)
  • In the 1850s, there is it - the first mention of the grave at Trinity Churchyard, printed in the New York Times. It seems that coverage of Charlotte Temple from this time forward routinely includes the grave.
What to make of that? Why did the grave appear in the 1850s?

Meanwhile, up on Ann Street

I followed a clue I found in The Sun newspaper from 1918 that at first I dismissed as silly. The clue lead me up Broadway to Ann Street and to the American Museum once located there.

In this old image, the American Museum is the large white building in the left foreground. You can see the steeple of Trinity Church in the distance on the right side of the image. The distance from the museum to the Trinity graveyard is about six short blocks, and there was a reason a person would walk from one place directly to the other, as you will see.

Print by J.W. Hill, Jos. Laing & Co. From the collection of Museum of the City of New York.

In 1850, a theatrical version of Charlotte Temple opened as a matinee at the American Museum, six blocks from Trinity. The performances were part of a new trend in entertainment. In previous times, the theater could be a raunchy place with entertainments offered beyond what was on stage, if you know what I mean - the theater was not the sort of place you would bring a family. But times were changing in the Victorian era, and theater promoters were offering wholesome and affordable shows for all ages. One such place of theatrical respectability was the American Museum on Ann Street.

Theater at theAmerican Museum.
From: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The newspaper piece provided another clue by mentioning the crowds after the matinee on Ann Street trampled on the graves at Trinity. That little detail - that I first dismissed as a silly throw-away comment - sparked an understanding about how the fictional Charlotte Temple got a real grave.

It turns out that the owner of the American Museum, the person who helped make theater respectable with morality tales like Charlotte Temple, was none other than P.T. Barnum, one of America's finest publicity men. 
From New-York Daily Tribune.

It's my guess that P.T. Barnum gave Charlotte Temple a grave. 

Barnum had a knack for creating stories that got into the papers. In fact, he wrote in 1869 in his book Struggles and Triumphs:
"Leaving nothing undone that would bring Barnum and his museum before the public, I often engage some exhibition, knowing that it would directly bring no extra dollars to the treasury, but hoping it would incite a newspaper paragraph which would float through the columns of the American press and be copied, perhaps, abroad, and my hopes in this respect were often gratified."
I think Charlotte Temple's grave was a publicity stunt for the show at Barnum's theater. Compared to some of Barnum's other stunts, a phony grave is rather low-key and perhaps that is why the story of her grave in Trinity cemetery was not questioned much. The tombstone was accepted as something that has been in the cemetery since Charlotte died, even though that defies logic since fictional characters don't have real graves. 

But perhaps the lack of logic is the best part because it leads to speculation and conversations about Charlotte, and that's what Barnum wanted.

The puzzle

It might seem a stretch that Barnum would use a church for his own publicity, but there is evidence he wasn't above doing so. 

Before a July 4th celebration one year, he claims to have asked the leaders of St. Paul's Church, across the street from his American Museum, if he could string American flags from his building over to the tree in St. Paul's churchyard. He was turned down. But, he strung the flags anyway, and when church leaders confronted Barnum in the street, the crowd was on Barnum's side - and they felt quite fulfilled, I'm sure, when they re-told the story of defending the Stars & Stripes on Independence Day. That's how Barnum tells the story anyway, and what's the point of doubting a good story?

From Struggles and Triumphs.

I worried my theory about the 1850s would fall apart when I read Ann Douglas'  introduction to the Penguin 1991 edition of the novel Charlotte. She pointed out that an image "of the tombstone adorned new editions of Charlotte in the 1840s and after." 

Upon further investigation, that 1840s image of the grave was based on an illustrator's imagination and looks nothing like the actual gravestone at Trinity. If the grave existed in 1840s that fans visited, the illustrator would've drawn it accurately. But the illustrator didn't, so we're safe in looking at the 1850s as the first appearance of Charlotte's "real" grave.

According to a story passed around, a man named William Crommelin confessed that he inscribed the stone with the name Charlotte Temple. Crommelin claimed he was working as a stonecutter at Trinity when the church was rebuilt in the 1840s, and after the work was done, he inscribed the stone with Charlotte's name. 

William Crommelin was a real person and he was indeed a stonecutter in New York City. He was born in 1822, which would make him in his early 20s when Trinity Church was rebuilt in the 1840s. However, I find it odd that a young man would inscribe a name of a character from an old romance novel on a tombstone on his own. 

At any rate, the stonecutter confessed to the deed in a letter to the New-York Historical Society librarian, William Kelby. But Mr. Kelby is quoted that the stonecutter made the inscription during church repairs in 1850s, not during the 1840s re-build. Whatever the dates, both the letter and Mr. Kelby's quote happened decades after the fact, and I think it's likely that any supposed correspondence between the two men was all part of the shenanigans anyway. The long-after-the-fact confession kept the story alive and running.

The way I see it, Barnum put Crommelin the stonecutter up to participating in the publicity stunt in the 1850s to entice public interest in Charlotte. The more interest in Charlotte, the more interest in seeing the show at Barnum's theater. The stunt provided wholesome entertainment for the public and indirect advertising for Barnum. Everyone wins.

I can't explain with evidence how the inscription actually happened, and I state my assertions as a hunch rather than a fact. But that's the fun of it. Barnum liked to play with the public, not as a mean-spirited joke, but as part of providing an entertainment package. Even now, well over 160 years after the events, Barnum is puzzling and testing my wits....and I've been enchanted and entertained by his antics.

Seeing is believing

When you make a trip to Trinity Church and stroll the cemetery, you'll find Charlotte Temple's grave exactly where the old references say it is, on the north side of the church behind the fence along Broadway. You can't miss it.
From Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November 1890.

Sources are found here.

Free Kindle version of the novel Charlotte Temple is here.

Note: Trinity Church lifted the stone in 2008 to see if there was a vault or grave underneath, but all that was found was packed earth. The stone was returned to its place and remains there.


  1. well, doesn't that take the biscuit!

  2. Thank you for the comment, Sarah. It certainly was a fun story to research.

  3. Very interesting story and so well researched!

    1. Thank you, Jaclyn, for stopping by and commenting. I never expected to be researching Barnum! What a fascinating character he was.


Comments are welcome! (You don't have to sign in - just chose "anonymous" from the drop-down menu.)