The Stories Behind the Objects: The Horse-drawn Hearse

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As we approach Halloween it might be fitting to tell you the story behind our horse-drawn hearse. Visitors to the Old Town Hall exhibits at the Portsmouth Historical Society either love the hearse or back away from it with dread.

At first glance people remark that the hearse looks short and therefore people must have been shorter a hundred and fifty years ago. If you look closer you can see that the coffin would fit under the coachman’s seat. There are spikes that can be raised to hold the coffin in place and rollers to make it easier to slide. Our hearse looks grey, but we have determined that it was originally black – the traditional color. On top of the carriage there are six “urns” with carved wood flames that can be removed so that black feathers could be inserted instead. The more important the deceased the more feathers would be on display.

How did we come to have a hearse? At first we thought it had belonged to the Christian Union Church that now is the Portsmouth Historical Society headquarters. Indeed, church records say they bought one in 1871. Later church records show that hearse was disposed of in 1903. So whose hearse did we have? Newspaper clippings from the 1940s about the donation of the hearse led to the discovery that it had belonged to Asa Anthony, the Portsmouth Town Coroner in the 1880s. He used it to transport the deceased to his home until a funeral was arranged. Ironically, his home is today the Connor’s Funeral Home. When the Society received the hearse there was no place to store it, so it was housed at the Breaker’s Stables. A fire there in 1970 forced it to be moved to and stored by the Little Compton Historical Society. When Old Town Hall became available as an exhibit space, we moved it here in 2009.

The hearse has let us to explore Victorian mourning customs and aspects of Portsmouth history. We are still looking for photos of the hearse in 1943 when it won prizes in a parade. No doubt it will lead us to more stories.

This is the first of a series of blog entries on items in our Old Town Hall collection. We were not able to open the Old Town Hall exhibits this summer, so these blogs can serve as a virtual tour as well. If you learn more about the stories behind the items you might appreciate them and what they can teach you about Portsmouth history.

Why Local History is Important

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Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time researching local history. I enjoy doing the research, but does it really matter? Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? I am going to share some of my personal struggles with these questions.

Does local history matter? When I was a college history major there was a new wave of interest. Historians had been placing a great deal of emphasis on political and economic history. Wars, explorations, nation building, etc. had been the dominating topics for historians. In the 1960s there began to be more interest in social history, how people actually lived. This is what interested me. What was daily life like in families, in the workplace, in the schools, in local organizations? These are the topics that a local historian and local history museum can share with our town.

Does our local historical society have a role to play in Portsmouth culture? Some people may see the collection of the historical society as “grandma’s attic.” I see it as a touch stone to the past. As a historian I value “primary sources” – the photos, documents, diaries, maps and objects that were created at a past time. A local history collection is meant to visually illustrate the past. What did people wear? What tools did they use? How did they cook? The objects lead us to a story and those stories from the past help us to understand our common heritage as people of Portsmouth. Our horse drawn hearse, for example, led us to stories about the town coroner and his role in town. As we tried to understand its ornamentation, it lead us to research how people mourned in the past. As people we have so much in common with those our ancestors. We struggle with the same core human issues. These stories can actually unite us in a time when there is much that divides us.

So why am I struggling with these questions? I always wonder about how I spend my time so that will be a continuing question for me. I struggle with the questions about the historical museum because I hear too many voices who don’t value what a small town history collection can provide for a town. Perhaps I am too old fashioned – just like the history collection that inspires me as a local historian.

Cordelia Holman Lawrence’s Sketchbook: Portsmouth Art 1865


Items in the Portsmouth Historical Society collection lead us to uncover stories about our past. A few years ago Portsmouth Historical Society curator, Nancy Crawford, discovered a sketchbook while we were doing an inventory. The members of the curator’s committee enjoyed the brightly colored sketches and I was asked to scan the images so we might use them in the future. I am researching the arts in Portsmouth for a display next year and I thought of those sketches. Who was the artist? What is her story?

The first page of the sketch book provided the answer of the artist’s identity. In a beautiful handwriting is the name Cordelia Holman Lawrence. It was clear that the Lawrence was written at a different time with a different writing implement. The date was recorded as 1865 with Portsmouth, Rhode Island as the location.

Who was Cordelia? She was the daughter of Thomas Holman and Mary Durfee Sherman. I already knew Thomas’ story. He came to Portsmouth from Cornwall and worked his way to the position of Superintendent of the Coal Mines in Portsmouth. In 1843 he married Mary Sherman who came from old established Portsmouth families. Cordelia, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1852. Her mother died when she was only four. ┬áCordelia was only 13 when she did her sketchbook drawings.

Thomas Holman wanted to move away from mining and into farming. He first bought farms close to the mines, but by 1860 he resided on his farm which is now known as the “Seameadow”area today. I uncovered Thomas’ story as I researched a murder that took place in the coal mines housing. In June of 1875 Elizabeth Holman Casey was murdered by her husband and Thomas was a witness at the murder trial. As I researched the story I was surprised to find that Thomas Holman was the uncle of Elizabeth Casey. Cordelia would have been the victim’s cousin!

Cordelia married Albert T. Lawrence in 1870. Albert grew up in Portsmouth, but left home to be a sailor on ships to China and the East Indies. In 1869 he gave up his seafaring life and returned home to farm with his father. He was known as a successful farmer who specialized in market gardening and fruit raising.

Cordelia settled into the life as wife and mother. She would have lived on the farm known even today as “Lawrence Farm.” She was active in the Friends Meeting House with the Ladies Mission Society. In the records of the Society of Friends in 1912 you can read this obituary.

“Cordelia Lawrence, a beloved member and elder of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting, died of heart failure at Portsmouth, R.I., December 20, 1912, aged sixty years. She leaves a husband, son and daughter and a host of friends to mourn her loss. Converted in early life, her later years were an exemplification of the “life hid with Christ in God” with a “heart of leisure from itself to sooth and sympathize.”

Cordelia is an excellent example of Portsmouth’s amateur artists who enjoy painting as a hobby. Her work is colorful and lovely.