The Holding Tomb

Referred to in old city documents as the City Tomb, the strange structure built into a hill at Oak Grove Cemetery near the entrance is more recently called the holding tomb.  There are two similar structures in the cemetery, the other being only slightly east of the Borden-Almy plot.  The purpose of these tombs was to provide a place in winter where coffins could be stored until the ground thawed enough for a grave to be dug.  There were also other circumstances when a coffin could not be immediately buried, either because of a dispute as to plot ownership, police matters which might require further investigation, or a delayed burial for legal reasons. Early regulations going back to 1856 define time limits for how long a body was allowed to remain in the holding tomb, the shortest of ten days being in the summer months. Except by order of the mayor, the deceased was required to be a citizen of Fall River to be held in the City Tomb.

Today the holding tomb contains gasoline for the lawn equipment and is locked, its former use no longer required.  The descent into the holding bays is steep.  There are four bays on each side of the underground vault, each capable of holding three coffins on tiered shelves inside the bays.

(photo, Ginny Lahman)

Notably, Andrew and Abby Borden spent a week awaiting their full autopsy (done on August 11th in the Ladies’ Comfort Station near the front gate) inside the structure with heads intact, and nearly another week, thanks to Dr. Dolan, with heads removed in the holding tomb before burial at last in the family plot. Even in hot weather, the temperature deep inside the holding tomb remains very cool.

(photo, Ginny Lahman)

(photo, Ginny Lahman)

More about Alexander & Frederick Lawson, Monument Makers

This excerpt is from Representative Men and Old Families of Southeast Massachusetts, Vol. III by J.H. Beers & Co.

 While the family bearing this name is not an ancient Fall River family, it is one of a third of a century’s standing here and one that has given a good account of itself fn the city, where father and son, the late Alexander Lawson and Police Commissioner Frederick W. Lawson, have wrought well; brief outlines of their careers follow.

Alexander Lawson, son of John and Ellen (Bremner) Lawson, was born in Boharm parish, Banffshire, Scotland, Oct. 31, 1838. Along in the early seventies of the last century he came to America on a kind of inspection tour, and after satisfying him6elf of the desirability of this country as a place of opportunity, returned for his family and all came over, locating first at Hallowell, Maine, and a short time later at Westerly, R. I. This was in 1872. Mr. Lawson was employed in the latter place for a period of years, working at his trade of granite cutting.

Five years later, in April, 1877, he removed to Fall River to work on the carving of the then new post office building and customs house. He was for three years thus occupied in carving the capitals of some of the columns on Bedford street and some of the more elaborate parts on Second Street. With the excellence of his handiwork the government inspector was greatly pleased, inquiring who did it and remarking, “That is as fine a piece of work as there is in this country.” When Mr. Lawson completed the work upon the post office for which he had arranged, he established the monumental works at the entrance of Oak Grove cemetery. For a time in the beginning he had a business associate, but for some years before his death he did business alone.

He possessed artistic taste and was an excellent designer. Perhaps his largest works in the way of monuments were those of the Stafford and Davol families, the latter being the largest and most expensive of any up to that time cut in Fall River.

Mr. Lawson was a man of strong religious convictions; next to his family was his church, and the church of which he was a member had no more devoted and faithful friend, he giving liberally to its support, according to his ability, and with fidelity and wisdom managed its finances. He at various times held and creditably filled every office within its gift. He united with the Third Congregational Church of the city in 1877, and the next year was chosen clerk of the society. In 1879 he was chosen deacon, and by successive elections continued such relations until the final summons came. He was from the beginning a teacher in the Sunday school of the church excepting the period of his service as superintendent. As a member of the managing board of the Children’s Home, of the Scottish Clan McWhirr and of King Philip Lodge, Fall River Royal Arch Chapter and Fall River Council of Masons, as well as in business, he had been brought into relation with people in all parts of his adopted city, by all of whom he was held in the highest esteem. All who had business dealings with him had occasion to feel the utmost confidence in his word. What he said could be relied upon, and what he promised .he made every effort to perform. He never wronged anyone intentionally. He was a just man, always carrying on his business with strict regard to equity.

The wife of Alexander Lawson, to whom he was married June 22, 1867, was formerly Christina G. Rae, and she survives him, residing at No. 710 Prospect street, Fall River. Their children were: Isabelle, who died in 1896; Frederick W.; Mary J., who died in 1896; Alonzo W., who is superintendent of the Lawson’s Marble and Granite Works (he married Amey V. Hill and has two children, Dorothy Vernon and Alden); Henry H., a traveling salesman, who resides in Fall River (he married Lillian Sumner); and Christina H., who is connected with the public library at Fall River.

Alexander Lawson died in the afternoon of Jan. 19, 1891, at his home on Prospect street, Fall River, Massachusetts.

Frederick W. Lawson, son of the late Alexander and Christina G. (Rae) Lawson, was born Dec. 11, 1870, in Aberdeen, Scotland. He came to this country with his father’s family in 1872, the latter stopping for a time in Hallowell, Maine, later removing to Westerly, R. I., and in 1877 to Fall River, this Commonwealth. In 1880 the father established the granite and marble monumental works on Prospect street, near Oak Grove cemetery, as referred to in the foregoing. The son, Frederick W. Lawson, acquired his education in the public and high schools in his adopted city, Fall River, being graduated from the latter in the class of 1888. After his graduation he was employed for three years in the King Philip Mills, resigning his position at the end of that time to take charge of his father’s business, his father having died in January, 1891, since when he has actively and successfully prosecuted the same.


Commissioner Lawson, for he is now one of the board of commissioners of the police department of Fall River, has been active and prominent in public affairs. He was appointed commissioner in the summer of 1909, by Governor Draper, to fill the unexpired term of the late Rufus W. Bassett, and in May, 1910, was reappointed for the term of three years. He has served as a member of the common council and for one year was president of that body. Later he was one of the efficient aldermen of his ward, serving three years (1902-03-04) as a member of the board of aldermen and as chairman of the board, 1903 and 1904. He was candidate for mayor at the Republican municipal caucuses in 1904, and was second in a three-cornered contest, being defeated by Hon. George Grime, then mayor of the city; he was the unanimous choice of the Republican party as its candidate for mayor at the municipal caucuses in 1906, but was defeated at election by Hon. John T. Coughlin. He also took an interest in military affairs, being a member of Company F, Naval Brigade, for some eight or ten years, and from the beginning of the Spanish-American war was acting boatswain’s mate on the United States ship “Lehigh,” until that vessel was put out of commission and its crew discharged. Commissioner Lawson is a member of King Philip Lodge, A. F. & A. M., and Fall River Chapter and Council, being a’ past master of the lodge and council. He is a prominent member of the Fowler Congregational Church, of which he was elected a deacon within a year or two after the death of his father, and he has since continued to hold that office, in addition to being superintendent of the Sunday school for a number of years, until January, 1911.

On June 26, 1901, Mr. Lawson was married to Elizabeth J. Carnie, of Westerly, R. I., daughter of Henry and Euphemia Carnie, who are now residents of Providence. They have one son, Henry Carnie, born Feb. 10, 1907. Mrs. Lawson is a member of the Fowler Congregational Church.

The Borden Monument

The Borden Monument

By Shelley Dziedzic (all rights reserved, February 2012)


Click on the photo above to use the ZOOM tool for enlargement

Not surprisingly the Borden plot is the most visited site in Oak Grove Cemetery.  On the day of the funeral of Abby and Andrew Borden, only grass and many trees surrounded the open graves lined with pine branches.  Of course the Bordens were not buried on the date of their joint funeral, August 6, 1892, but instead lingered in a holding tomb at the cemetery awaiting a full autopsy on August 11th and burial at last on August 17th.  It would not be until January 1895 that the stately Westerly blue granite monument would be set in place, along with the rectangular headstones bearing the initials of the victims.

With Fall River being famous for granite, especially rose granite, one wonders why Emma and Lizzie Borden did not shop for a fitting monument in their own home town.  The fact was that Smith’s Granite Company of Westerly, Rhode Island was the most prestigious monument supplier of its day, with offices in many major American cities.  Providence would have been the nearest branch to Fall River. Smith’s could claim orders from all of the finest old families as well as being in demand to supply important statues and civic monuments and memorial stones across the country. Emma and Lizzie chose the very best to mark the site of their eternal rest.

Postcard dated 1903 of Smith’s granite quarry

The stone was ordered on July 2, 1894, almost two years from the date of the burial of Abby and Andrew Borden.  The stone is nine feet in height and is divided into five separate segments.  The cost of the labor and materials is carefully noted in the order book, and the date of each stage of the work is listed when completed at the top of the page by stone numbers 1-5.  The stone was crated and shipped by rail on January 4, 1895. The base is Stone #1, #2 is the section containing A.J. Borden in raised and polished letters, #3 is the panel stone where names and dates are inscribed, #4 is the most intricately carved by master carver, Mr. L. Galli  who was paid $230.79 and #5 is the cap stone.  At the bottom of the page appears the order for the small headstones.  There are four of them with the lettering and polishing done by William Drew and J.F. Murphy.  The four are AJB,(Andrew Jackson Borden) ADB, (Abby Durfee Borden) SAB (Sarah Anthony Borden) and the full name Alice, the sister who died very young.  No doubt the matching headstones of Lizzie and Emma were added at a much later date, and also the inscription on the panel of the main marker added in 1927 or later.

It is interesting to note on this order sheet that the panel engraving had to be done twice due to an error.  Many have remarked that there is an “S” added to Lizzie’s name and wondered if this was an order left by Lizzie to be completed after her death or merely an error on the part of the carver, who may have thought Andrews was a surname and that Andrew was an unlikely middle name for a woman.  Lizzie had, herself, opted to change her name unofficially to Lizbeth, but is not known to have added an “S” to her middle name of Andrew.

It is unknown exactly when the names of Emma and Lizzie, and their dates of birth and death were added to the panel, or whether either sister ever actually saw the panel with their names on it.  It is not uncommon to have names and dates of birth engraved on a stone while the person is still alive, with the death date added after the fact.  This may or may not have been done at the time of the creation of this monument. As particular as Lizzie was known to be, it would be easy to make the case that she never saw the panel in life to catch the error.

Newspapers printed that on the day of the stone’s installation, Lizzie and Emma went out to inspect the work.  It was reported that Lizzie only gave a cursory glance and then went back to her carriage.  Emma is said to have made a careful inspection.  The cost today of the stock and labor for this monument would be many times the figure on this work order.

A list of artisans who worked on the Borden monument:

Pat Holliday, Jas. Brown, Mike Burke, Jas. Dower, Tom Holliday, George Rae, P. Craddick, F. Polletti, J.D. Craddick, Joe Frasier, L. Galli, Dan Kelleher, James Blake, Ira Norman, George Dunn, William Frances, Frank Roads, John Moore, J.F. Murphy and William Drew.

  • Alexander Lawson, a Scottish-born stone carver from Aberdeen, who immigrated in the great Scottish wave which came to America,  lived and worked in Westerly, Rhode Island before moving to Fall River to open his own granite works and monument business on Prospect Street just outside the gates of Oak Grove Cemetery.  The family lived on Robeson Street for many years.  The business was inherited by Frederick Lawson, Alexander’s son and prospered for many years. Alexander Lawson is credited with the carving of the 1873 entry arch at Oak Grove.

The diagram and details for this article were furnished by the Smith-Babcock House Museum on Granite Street in Westerly, R.I. The diagram is reproduced with permission.  Additional information on Smith’s and the granite industry in Westerly may be found in the excellent publication, Built From Stone: The Westerly Granite Story by Linda Smith Chafee, John B. Coduri, and Dr. Ellen L. Madison. Copies may be purchased at Other Tiger Bookstore on High Street in Westerly or at this link

Visit the Smith-Babcock House Museum, which is the premier repository of archived materials relating to the granite industry in Westerly.

At Death’s Door

Our mailbox today has an interesting comment from Jackie:

“Can you tell me what they call the window/door that was used to move the dead body from the home? I have heard it called “death’s door” hence the expression of one being at death’s door. There is some superstition about moving the dead through the front door.”


I am aware of some superstitions surrounding the removal of a body from the home. The deceased was always taken out feet first in the coffin so that the dead could not look back at its home and the spirit remain inside the house.  Many houses of the mid-to-late Victorian period have a special niche called a “coffin corner” cut into the stairwell so that the coffin could make the turn in the flight of stairs by fitting the head of the coffin into this little niche shelf.  Some old homes also have a showcase window in the front of the house, a sort of bay window where the deceased could lie in state for people to pass by on the street and pay their respects.

The expression “at death’s door” is applied to someone so ill as to be at the very brink of death. In funeral statuary in cemeteries, a door is often used as the symbol for passing through the portal from Life to another state.  Arches, windows, and portals carry the same meaning.  Sometimes in remote rural homes, a door was used to lay the body upon when carrying it downstairs (as most died in upstairs bedrooms).  Boards made of wide planks of wood or caned surfaces were used as “cooling boards” to lay out the body during autopsy or embalming before placing the deceased in a casket or coffin. Please write and tell us if you have more information on this expression!

Tour of Fairhaven’s Riverside Cemetery


With the crisp October breeze and Halloween in the air, many historic cemeteries are featuring lantern light evening and afternoon tours of famous graves.  This is the time of year for pumpkins and cider, tales from the Past, and crunching through the falling leaves.  On Sunday, October 9, at 2:00 p.m. the Fairhaven Office of Tourism will be guiding a free, 90-minute walk at Riverside Cemetery, a beautiful rural-style cemetery created in 1850 by Warren Delano II, the grandfather of President FDR.  Riverside is easily located at 274 Main St. Coming over the Rt. 6 (Huttleston St.)  bridge from New Bedford, you will turn left just before the Henry H. Rogers High School, an impressive edifice which is hard to miss.

Many famous and notable graves are on the tour, including Eli Bence, the Fall River pharmacist who claimed Lizzie Borden tried to purchase Prussic acid the day before the Borden homicides.

Oak Grove Facebook Quiz Tonight!


Need more excitement in your life?  Nothing good on T.V.?

Tune in tonight,( September 15th) at 10 p.m. for the first ever (but not the last) So you think you know Oak Grove Cemetery? Jeopardy-style online quiz.

Questions and photo identifications will be posted in rapid fire, each going up after the previous one has been correctly answered.  There will be one winner, with difficult brainbusters in case of a tie. Join us at Friends of Oak Grove Fall River tonight. A prize will be awarded to the winner- and the competition will be fierce! How well do YOU know Oak Grove?