Fancy D Revealed?

We spend much of our time visiting and working in cemeteries and we like to study and research the early sandstone gravestone carvers that plied their trade from about 1800-1845. This can be a challenging endeavor since we are talking about uncovering documentation from 200 years ago where little to no information exists.

The holy grail in gravestone carver research is finding a stone the carver signed. This could be just initials, an initial and last name or the full name. Sometimes they will give the name of the town they are from or they will say stonecutter or sculptor. Everything is a clue when looking for carver information.

Some carvers never leave their name on their work. In that case, you take the name of an adult male’s stone that they carved and you search the probate records for the carver’s name. That can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, often ending with disappointment.

If no name is found, and you have a grouping of similar stones probably done by the same carver, then the carver is given a nickname or pseudonym. This at least enables researchers to categorize a carver’s work. That is how we came up with “Fancy D” who we have written about in earlier articles. Every stone he carved contained a fancy scripted capital “D,” hence the name Fancy D.

Some carved hundreds of stones and never signed a single one. Other times a carver worked many stones but only signed one occasionally. A carver from Cortland County, Asa Joiner, signed many stones but he is a rare exception. Always keep looking – you never know when that signed stone will identify a carver you have been looking for.

If you are fortunate to have found a carver’s name, having a computer to do internet research is indispensable. Sometimes you get lucky and find documentation on a carver, but usually very little is found. But the internet enables access to census records, local history books, military records, Find a Grave, genealogy records and newspapers and more, all without leaving the comfort of your home. Everything discovered helps recreate a long ago life.

Without a name, a group of similar stones can be collected by observing the kind, size, shape, color, density and thickness of the stone. Did the carver work the edges or back of the stone? What does his detail or decorative work look like on the bottom, sides or top of the stone? What does his engraved work look like? Is the lettering cursive or a block style or is it deep or shallow? Does he write epitaphs or start out the same way on each stone such as “In Memory of?” The carver’s writing style on the stone is just as unique as an individual’s handwriting. An ampersand, or “and” sign, is often most distinctive for each carver.

We have found carvers that engraved stones for 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years. Once they are established, they seem to stick to what they know and like to carve. That said, we know of one carver that has carved more than a dozen distinctly different shapes and another that does more than ten different decorative/detail elements.

Once an inventory of stones done by the same carver is made, start looking at the geographic distribution and date range of the stones. Those details can provide additional clues as to who carved a stone and where he was from. You may be wandering through a cemetery in Oneida County and find a stone that you feel was done by a carver that you know, but realize you haven’t seen his work outside of Delaware County. The stone is dated 1845, yet the last date the carver you are thinking of has never dated a stone beyond 1838. It could still be the same carver, but likely it was someone else.

Things get even more complicated. Thanks to Mary Dexter’s research on Coffin Man, we know he did not come to Chenango County until about 1810. In Sidney’s Pioneer Cemetery you will find a stone that is definitely carved by Coffin Man but it has a date of 1787. It was a common practice for carvers to backdate stones. Often when someone died, they did not have the money for a proper gravestone or there may not have been a professional carver in the area at that time. Years after the burial, the deceased may finally get a proper gravestone.

In other cases, one needs to be very careful of a carver’s latest dated stones. As carvers reached retirement age, they could have taken on apprentices that copied his mentor’s work, making it difficult to distinguish between the two, or the result may be two styles of carving on the same stone – that can get confusing. Or, the carver may have moved out of an area, selling his gravestone inventory to another carver, resulting in both carver’s work on the same stone with a date later than the carver’s other work.

The geographic distribution of a carver’s work can vary greatly. Coffin Man’s work stretches between Andes and Ithaca, a distance of 100 miles. We have found Roswell Hubbard’s work from Utica to Wilkes Barre, Pa., a distance of 180 miles. Many carvers seemed to stay within a 10–20-mile radius of home.

The number of stones carved by individuals also varies greatly. Coffin Man and Roswell Hubbard probably made their living by carving gravestones, hence the greater range of their work. Full- time carvers probably averaged 15-20 stones per year. Some carvers may have had other occupations – farmers or stone masons – and carved gravestones to bring in additional income.

Let’s take a closer look at Fancy D. We first discovered his work near East Branch at Long Flat Cemetery. We were excited to find a carver for Delaware County and a thorough search of the area ensued. We found his work stretching from East Windsor, Deposit, Hancock and East Branch, then north to Downsville and Hamden and thought we had found all of his work – a silly notion. We have since found his work in West Meredith, Center Lisle, Gilbertsville and Unadilla Center in Otsego County, and much to our surprise, we recently found his work in North Brookfield in Madison County.

Fancy D’s work can be distinguished from other carver’s work by, of course, the fancy capital letter “D” that he does which we have found on all 28 stones in New York. In every case he has also used aet which is Latin for “aged.” Most of the time it is in a ligature form where it looks like he makes a capital “T” with an extra-long horizontal bar. Next, he makes a strong capital “E” out of the right side of the T and follows up with a weak cursive style capital “A” on the left side. He often includes horizontal coffins as well as makes a loop from the last “d” in “died” to the first “D” in “died.” These clues all help identify his work.

One day we were in New Hampshire looking for the work of Coffin Man’s father, who was also a gravestone carver. We were shocked when we were about to leave a cemetery and looked down to see a stone with a “looped died” as we had seen so often with Fancy D in New York. Further investigation of nearby cemeteries revealed 17 stones with all having an aet like Fancy D’s and over half having a looped “died.” We feel this is the work of our New York Fancy D carver.

Last October, a Facebook friend, Gavin Esposito, posted a gravestone from eastern Ohio and he wondered if anyone knew who the carver was. We looked at the stone and immediately said, “That is Fancy D.” A short time later we made a trip to Ohio to investigate further. While there we discovered a signed stone with Henray R. Cleland on it. Could this be the name of Fancy D?

Henray Cleland was born in Pennsylvania in 1810. If that is the case, why is he showing up and carving in New Hampshire during the late 1820s until 1830, based on the carved stones we found? The bulk of his work in New York is in the 1831–1837 time frame, so he could have moved from New Hampshire to New York and continued carving. Most of the stones carved in Ohio were carved from 1837-1847. Some records show he had a son in Ohio in 1836. The Ohio time frame is consistent with his work in New York. Henry died of cholera in July, 1849.

Since then, with Gavin’s help, we have found about 40 stones that look like Fancy D’s work but none have a looped “died,” only one has his ligature aet and only some have his distinctive Fancy D lettering. I am inclined to think that Henray Cleland is our Fancy D carver but many questions remain unanswered, so our research continues.

January 5, 2023