Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Brick Street Cemetery Stories: Quaker Stones & Attempted Murder

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Hi all, can you believe it’s already nearly the middle of August? I can’t! It feels like just yesterday that I was starting my work at Woodland Cemetery. Tragically, that contract has ended, and I am working for another local historic cemetery for the next month or so, combing through their archival materials to create a book manuscript about the background of the site, their significant people and stories, and transcriptions of the gravestones themselves. Keep your eyes peeled, folks. It promises to be an interesting project!

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I’ve talked about Brick Street Cemetery on this blog in the past, in Curious Canadian Cemeteries (which I need to keep going with soon, whoops). Brick Street is one of the oldest, if not the oldest settler burial ground in the London area. It likely started off as a family burial ground associated with one of the families whose land it was originally situated on, that of McNames and Sheldon. The first recorded burial is that of the young Eliza Griffith, who died in 1819, although there could be older burials that remain unmarked and unrecorded within the area. I’m super excited to be getting to organise all these archival records, and prepare this manuscript that I hope you all will get to read in the nearish future!

On my most recent visit to the burial ground, David from the Friends of Brick Street Cemetery pointed out two small gravestones to me. These stones looked like field or river stones, and were lightly inscribed, and set facing west in the site. Check out the photos below, aren’t they lovely little stones?

 

These two gravestones mark the graves of W.F. (Frank?) and Henry Dell, dated to 18…. (perhaps 1832) and 1838 respectively. According to discussion with the Friends of Brick Street Cemetery, they were early Quakers in the area, which would lend meaning to their simple, undecorated gravestones. Henry Dell was apparently a United Empire Loyalist, and the father of Elizabeth Frank Maiden, who became the wife of Robert Frank, an early settler in the Brick Street area. I have a soft spot in my burial ground studying heart for field stones, and crudely carved markers that were clearly not ordered from professional stone carvers. Whether they were chosen for economic, practical, or religious reasons, they stand out amidst a sea of marble and granite, as early gravestones to a pair of early settlers.

Today I also wanted to tell you all the story of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Griffith/Griffeth, and a grisly attempted murder that occurred in the community of Brick Street in April 1886. This story was reported in The Advertiser, the London Free Press, and… The New York Times! It was something of an international sensation, but as you will see, the identity of the woman involved is still slightly foggy.

Early in April 1886, Nathan Griffith awoke, startled, to find that his neck was gushing with blood; his wife had attempted to kill him with his own straight razor in a fit of ‘religious’ excitement. Read the new stories below (special thanks to David Hall for hunting down the articles at the archives)!

An Insane Wife Wounds Her Husband with a Razor: [At] an early hour yesterday morning a painful affair transpired at the home of Mrs. Nathan Griffith, a well-known and respected resident of Brick Street, in Westminster. Mrs. Griffith has been in delicate health for some time past, and other troubles, coupled with undue excitement under which she labored at a revival service in the locality some weeks ago unbalanced her mind. Yesterday morning her lunacy took a more serious type, and while her husband slept she unlocked a drawer, took out a razor and gong to the bedside drew it across his throat, making a painful and serious round. Having done this she locked up the weapon and went to another room. Drs. Fraser and Wilson were summoned, and the latter had hopes after a visit late last evening, that Mr. Griffith’s life would be saved. The wife, on realized what she had done, suffered great distress, and is completely prostrated, mentally and otherwise. Her condition was reported very critical’
(The Advertiser, April 2 1886).

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Photo by author 2019

A most lamentable and shocking affair occurred in the township of Westminster yesterday morning, wherein an inoffensive farmer, Mr. Nathan Griffith, was nearly done to death by his wife. The only feature at all consoling in connection with the matter is that the rash deed was apparently not perpetrated through any motive of direct criminal or deliberate intent, but was committed while she was laboring under an hallucination resulting from religious excitement – which has of late years been the fertile source of many crimes. It appears that the misguided woman [bas] of late become infected with “religion,” and through its influence became wrought up to such a degree of excitement as for the time to overcome her mental equilibrium and inspire her with a desire, as she expressed it, to “kill her husband and go preaching.” The idea became so firmly impressed upon her mind as to be utterly irresistible, and it appears that about four o’clock yesterday morning she quietly arose from her bed, opened a drawer in which the husband’s razor was kept, and then opening the murderous weapon approached the bed upon which the unconscious man was peacefully slumbering.

She drew the razor across his through with the intention of terminating his existence, and then restored the weapon to its accustomed receptacle and it is stated returned to bed. The shop quickly roused Griffith, who on feeling his throat realized at once what had happened. He arose with the blood gushing from the wound, and wrapping a towel around his neck, proceeded to arouse a lad in the house, whom he dispatched to a neighbor’s house with a request to have a medical man summoned.

Mr. Griffith’s description of the affair is that he awoke at an early hour and saw his wife standing by the bedside. He did not know what was wrong, but as he rose up and stood on his feet the blood gushed out in a stream, completely saturating his night clothes and the bedding. He felt very faint, but managed to alarm the nearest neighbours. His brother immediately drove to the city and returned with Drs. J.D. Wilson and Fraser, jr. The medical examination revealed the fact that there were two gashes in the throat. One on the left side about three inches long laid the arteries bare, a little lower down as deep as the windpipe, which was no pierced. The man was very low from loss of blood, but his wounds were stitched up and his recovery is probable.

Mrs. Griffith’s mental condition has been weak for some time, and her attendance on revival services held in the neighborhood has tended to over-excite her. She stated when questioned as to the motive that prompted her, that she intended to send her husband to Jesus, where she would soon follow him. When she became sufficiently calm to realize what she had done, her agony was very severe, and she required almost as much attention as her husband. She wanted to remain in the room to watch and help him, but when the doctors told her it was necessary for him to rest and sleep, and that her presence might present that, she showed her anxiety for his recovery by immediately leaving the room. The couple have always lively happily together, and there was no cause whatever for ill-feeling between them” (London Free Press, 1886).

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Photo by David Hall 2015

There you have it. This story is particularly interesting because not only did Nathan survive, but there appeared to be no bad blood between the couple…or at least not in the end because they were buried together at Brick Street Cemetery. Unfortunately, none of the articles reveal the first name of the ‘Mrs.’, but based on dates it is likely to have been Catherine Griffith, or Elizabeth Griffeth, both of whom were around the area at the time of the attack. However, Catherine was not named on the 1881 or the 1891 Canada West census records, so I’m leaning towards Elizabeth Griffeth for these events (the last name is still differently everywhere, it was a huge family line).

I will be trying to determine if Mrs. Griffeth saw any treatment after these events, as it appears she suffered from some sort of mental break to cause the attack, or perhaps was suffering under a great stress. London was home to the large mental health facility at the time, the London Psychiatric Hospital, which first opened in 1870 under the name ‘London Asylum for the Insane’. It is possible she went for treatment there, but I have no idea yet. More research is needed!

There you have it, my first blog post in nearly a month (sorry folks, thanks for sticking with me), and the first stories from my new job! Keep following along for more adventures in historic burial archaeology!

 

 

References

London Free Press. 1886. An Unfortunate Affair. London Free Press, April 2, 1886. Accessed at the Ivey Family London Room, London Public Library.

The Advertiser. 1886. A Painful Affair: An Insane Wife Wounds Her Husband with a Razor. The Advertiser, April 2, 1886. Accessed at the Ivey Family London Room, London Public Library.

The New York Times. 1886. Out Her Husband’s Throat. The New York Times.

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

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