Searching for a Foremother’s Stolen Gravestone


 “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”    — Intro,   Village of Madison NY, Facebook Page

            In May of 2016, I gave a talk as part of Madison, NY’s Bicentennial celebration, a talk to honor Madison’s foremothers.  I began by speaking about my own Madison foremother, Caroline MacEwan Ford (1809-1880), one of the town’s earliest settlers.  I made a point of noting that her gravestone was right behind the building in which I spoke.  I also noted that in 1816, a woman would never speak in public as I was doing; it would not be considered proper, especially to a mixed (male and female) audience.  In 1816 women were under male rule, under the firm patriarchy of early America:  a woman’s father and then husband determined her status.  A wife had no rights and was not considered a “person” before the law.  Only men had those rights and that power.  I included a cemetery walk after the talk, showing what could be learned from women’s gravestone dates, descriptions, and epitaphs.

My foremother Caroline, whom I had recently found out about, continued to interest me a great deal, especially in establishing my Scottish clan ancestry.  I visited the gravestone of Caroline MacEwan and husband John Ely Ford (1800-1887), situated in a large section of early settlers’ gravestones,  every few weeks beginning in early 2016.  In September of 2021 I did my usual visit, having not been there since mid-August.  Her gravestone—a simple rectangle of sandstone or shale—was gone.  In its place was a cheap granite stone, new, small, and modern, with my ancestors’ names and dates.  It seemed unlikely it was a simple theft since there was a replacement stone.

I was incredulous and determined to find out what happened to my ancestors’ gravestone, to find out who took it and why.  What I would find would be an elaborate plot to steal and replace the stone.  It would be a local paradigm of modern patriarchal power, of people willing to break the law and lie to protect and help those in power, and having no problem ignoring those wronged in the process, especially if they have no local standing and are female.  Living a life under early America’s rigid patriarchal system, the life of my foremother Caroline was difficult:  she had 11 children and was the wife of a travelling laborer.  Did she deserve to have her resting place desecrated, her monument stolen?

Fairly certain of some family involvement, I contacted my (estranged) brother and sister in December about what had happened to the stone.  I was told that the stone now at the site, apparently because of a lack of clear memory capability or good vision on my part, was “probably” the “original stone, cleaned up.”  I was told of a wonderful new product called “Wet and Forget” (!) that cleans up old stones to look like new, or as my sister put it, “clean and bright.”  Beginning my inquiries with the Madison Village Cemetery Board (a private company), I was met with some sympathy, but with all the board members saying they had no knowledge of who may have taken the original stone and replaced it.  We (my husband and I) also spoke to the mayor, the town historian, and to an amateur gravestone restorer familiar with the cemetery—all of them concerned and offering their help.  We then spoke to the local funeral director, who said he knew nothing and was a bit hostile.  The president of the board had told me that the director had once okayed a stone replacement without telling him.

But then one of the senior members of the board told me that a second cousin of mine, a local historian who does photo and newspaper article collection-type histories,  had shown “a great deal of interest” in that stone.  When we contacted my cousin with pictures we had taken of the new gravestone, he replied, as my siblings had, that the new stone was actually the old stone “cleaned up.”  He insisted the stone pictured now at the site was the original stone (and one which he said appeared on the site).  He then wrote, as to who might have cleaned it up, he didn’t know.  But:  “[T]he mystery of the stone is solved.  Thanks for your concern.”  We were dismissed.  According to the woman who restores gravestones, he had called her, as did the town historian (after she had decided not to help me), apparently to get her to admit to cleaning that stone.  But she told them both she had not done so.  One of the board members, a man I went to school with, did go to the site with me and said the stone was “definitely not an old stone.”  This was repeated to us by our local monument company proprietor, who had not supplied the replacement stone, but was quite sure a local company where he used to work had.

Once it became obvious that I was not willing to accept that no one knew anything and nothing could be done to get my foremother’s gravestone back, I started to run into all sorts of stonewalling.  And, more importantly, once I made my suspicions, actually more like certainty, as to who the thieves were—any cooperation, interest, or concern, just stopped.  My cousin soon called that senior member of the board who had told me of my cousin’s interest in the stone, and after their conversation, none of the board members would speak to me, much less “investigate” what happened, even after we sent them two formal requests to do so.  Our thought was to pressure them into doing their job and find the historic stone.  We complained to them about how their members’ initial sympathy had changed to a refusal to return our calls.  Our second request was sent after the first was ignored.  In this one we asked that they send us a copy of their by-laws and any written documentation the board may have given any Ford family member to move the stone.  We told them we hoped the matter could be “resolved in an equitable, reasonable and neighborly manner.”  In actuality, I had little hope of any such thing.  They ignored the second letter also.

The board officers’ last contact with me was to tell me they “had nothing to do with the stones.”  The Secretary who said this is in charge of buying stones, making arrangements for their placement, and keeping all of the records regarding the stones.  The President told me his only job is to “measure bases for new stones,” which, weirdly, he admitted doing for our new stone.  When I pointed this out, he got angry and said the stone was “not his responsibility and that’s it!”  Then he blustered that my problem was “a family matter.”

And a family matter it is.  In the course of investigating this theft, I have found many people have been reluctant to be involved in or favor pursuing the search for the missing monument, because it’s a “family matter.”  The thing is, family members often commit all sorts of crimes against other family members.  And in this particular case, it seems obvious the stone was not taken by some random thief; only a family member would install a replacement stone, and care enough to want the original stone.  I believe what happened was that my cousin (with whom I am not close), aided by my brother (with whom I am even less close), took the stone and replaced it.  They are both retired high school history teachers who consider themselves expert historians.  They probably think it only right that they display the stone, this important part of FORD family history, for themselves.  It appears they made an arrangement with the cemetery board—a board which, according to some locals’ accounts, has engaged in some possibly shaky dealings in the past.  The deal made here was to take over the “ownership” of my ancestors’ plot.  Under NYS law, the board is supposed to do this with proper paperwork and notification of interested relatives.  Since none of this has been offered for me to view, it is unlikely they followed proper procedure.  For most of those involved, they still wanted me to believe—“gaslighting”—that this cheap new granite stone is from the 19th century.  Beyond my personal family interest, the theft of the gravestone of two early settlers of the village is obviously a very serious matter.

As with most rural women in 19th century America, few details of my great-great-great grandmother’s life are known.  Caroline MacEwan’s family came from Scotland to Connecticut, and then to Central New York.  Farmland was getting harder to find in New England by the 1790s, so the migration to rural New York began.  The women who settled here tended to bark-covered cabins and farm animals, while raising their, often many, children.  Caroline McCune (the spelling then), born in 1809, would have lived with white neighbors, but also have been very familiar with the Oneida women who shared the area.  Their numbers diminished during the early 1800s, as the white settlers made and broke over 30 treaties.  The European settlers’ farm culture prevailed.  The McCune family had farms to the South and Northwest of Madison, and in time Caroline would meet and marry John E. Ford. Her role would include innumerable farm, stock, home, and child-rearing tasks, and there would be little doubt that the men in her family were in charge. The gravestone of Caroline M. and John E. Ford was modest, but apparently valuable enough to those who took it.

By February I had already begun my outreach—attempting to find support, pressure, leverage and/or redress for the crime of taking my ancestors’ stone.  But it was a tough slog.  The local power elites were one thing, but it was amazing to experience the commonalities of indifference and/or hostility of institutions, coupled with governmental and public laziness and inertia.  You looked in vain for respect for the truth or the law; what you found was blanket obedience to whatever authority was being recognized.  Sometimes it felt like I was investigating a Mafia crime the way people suddenly got deaf, dumb and blind—whether cemetery officials, reporters, or historians!  What did they have on these people?!  Authority, contacts, and political privilege and pull.

There are strict laws on the books criminalizing theft of remains, grave décor and gravestones.  Nevertheless, people sometimes steal bodies, but more often, monuments and burial objects.  According to a 1983 New York Times piece, the Association of Gravestone Studies asserted that thousands of early American gravestones were lost because of “erosion, vandalism, theft.”  New England gravestones with statues of cherubs and quaint epitaphs were stolen to be eventually sold to collectors of “primitive folk art.” The worst example of grave desecration is what has been done to Native-American and African-American gravesites.  American industry has plowed through Native sacred sites, as in the Dakota Access Pipeline; and covered over graves, as in numerous African American, especially slave, burial grounds. Honoring ancestors was not paramount here.

New York State has numerous laws to prevent gravestone thefts and desecration.  It tends to be a bit murky, but it is clear that all interested and relevant family members have to at least be informed if a family gravestone is moved and/or replaced.  Under NY Penal Law 145.23, stealing a gravestone is an “aggravated cemetery desecration,” punishable by up to a year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of $2,000.  The owner of a “plot deed” is responsible for the grave and can pass that “ownership” to a next of kin.  It “might be possible” for the cemetery authorities to “reassign” the ownership of the deed and “burial rights.”  But all of that must be in writing, and recorded by the cemetery authorities.

After directly contacting the NYS Division of Cemeteries, which oversees private cemeteries like the Madison Village Cemetery, we were assigned an “investigator,” Mr. Michael D. Seelman.  We had an odd conversation with him, but a typical political/bureaucratic one of stops and starts and back and forths.  Seelman did agree, looking at our pictures, the stone at the site was not an old 19th century stone.  He said our story seemed like “straight-up theft,” but then said the Board could authorize the moving of the stone—although they’re supposed to advertise to “warn the family” for three weeks in local papers.  Seelman twice said he’d make some calls, including to the suspected monument maker, and especially to the Madison Board.  He did say though, that perhaps this episode was a police matter, not the Division’s.  My formal complaint against the Madison Board of February 21 outlined my story, and also outlined all the NYS procedures the Madison Board did not do, including no help, cooperation, or transparency, and refusal to deal with our inquiries.

We finally had a reply from the State on March 21.  Mr. Seelman wrote that they were “not the proper agency” to investigate allegations of theft.  We should call the police.  He said he’d spoken to the Madison  Board who told him they didn’t remove the stone or authorize its removal, and (kicker!) “assuming this monument was in fact removed and replaced.”  So he “closed” our complaint.  He didn’t speak to me or question anything the Board told him.  He didn’t contact any monument companies or come to the gravesite.  So we filed a complaint against the Complaint Division, sent to Seelman, his superior Alicia Young, and others up to the governor’s level.  We were ignored.

The state police, not surprisingly, in spite of Seelman’s insistence they were the proper agency to pursue the matter, were of no help.  The police told my husband in a nutshell, that we don’t “have standing” to bring charges against anyone because I don’t “own” the stone.  Only the cemetery has standing if they wanted to press charges.  (As if).  The job of the police was to tell us (surprise!) that they could do nothing.  There was no monetary value, it was not a crime, and it was replaced.  And really, the “family,” anyone in it, can replace a stone.  “So why bitch?”  Right.  Obviously none of these public servants, including the state Division of Cemeteries, which says on its website it is tasked to promote “public welfare” and “protect” cemeteries, are serious about actually preserving historic gravestones.

At the beginning of March we decided to put pressure on the board through the media, and at the same time, possibly damage them and the perpetrators of the theft in the court of public opinion.  And again, some support, but also some barriers erected: protecting authority and obedience to authority remained paramount.  We began with a “Missing in Madison” poster asking for information about the missing gravestone, which we put up in the post offices, libraries, and town offices in surrounding towns, as well as on the cemetery fence near the gravesite.  This did elicit real shock and sympathy from some people.  We then prepared a press release and sent it to all the local papers.  The release stressed how I was “mystified and appalled” about my ancestors’ missing gravestone, how the Madison cemetery board has not been able to discover the facts, and again, asked for information.  We got the mayor to state for the record that the monument “is NOT just a stone, but part of the Town and Village history.”  We got no takers for this story from all the papers save one.

One Utica reporter did get back to us about doing a story on the gravestone theft.  Another odd encounter ensued.  The reporter contacted me with sympathy for the theft.  When we next heard from him, he told us the State Cemetery Board’s deputy director had hung up on him, but he wasn’t giving up.  We sent him information and pictures as background, including my suspicion about my cousin’s involvement.  After a week, he emailed that he had been in touch with my cousin who had told him the stone there now “has been there right along.”  He asked me when I had last seen the stone.  Clearly he was having doubts that the old stone had been stolen.  That same day he said his editor thought our story had more questions than answers, so could not be run.  After doing some research on the reporter’s stories, we found he had done four laudatory articles about my cousin and his local histories.  My husband formally complained to his editor that the reporter should have revealed his conflict of interest once he knew my cousin’s suspected involvement in the theft.  His complaints were met with denials of wrongdoing and assurances that the reporter had kept my cousin “at arm’s length.” (!)  Sometimes those you think are advocates become adversaries—certainly regarding my gravestone theft!

Searching for advocates in early March, we put out our story on social media, in this case principally, but also on facebook and twitter.  We included details of the gravestone theft, documentation such as the “Request” to the Madison board, and updates as they happened.  We did get a number of supportive comments and suggestions—not all were friendly of course, but they ran in favor of the fact that the present stone is not old, and it had to be a family member who did it.  We even created a Gone Great Grandmother’s Gravestone Group on NextDoor.  There were those who knew and loved my cousin or brother, who dropped away when they were mentioned as suspects.  And as we found out later, and had actually hoped, the Madison board had been keeping track of these social media posts and were not at all happy.

One aspect of this case is the lengths to which my cousin and brother were willing to go to muddy the waters, obfuscate, lie, and involve other people in their scheme.  One of the strangest of those efforts involved the ancestry/ site which has photos, “memorial” pages of gravesites.  Find a Grave has been taken over by Ancestry, which is apparently busily putting other gravestone sites out of business by buying them out.  When you look for the John E. and Caroline M. Ford gravestone on their site, you find a picture of the new replacement stone at the site, dated 2011, or sometimes 2012.  Now I know very well that stone was not at that site until late 2021.  Somehow the thieves and friends manipulated the dates, the metadata, and/or site management to make these new dates appear.  We’ve never been able to discover exactly how.  According to, Ancestry has a very low consumer rating, with most customers “generally dissatisfied,” especially with very bad customer service and problems with accessing records.  On April 22, my husband wrote to Ancestry explaining our situation and asking them to query their server for evidence of the actual date of the upload, because the metadata seem to retain the original photo’s dates.  They answered that they “regretted our frustration,” but they have no more data except what is shown on the present memorial page.  They advised, if we wanted more, to “follow the steps outlined in our ‘Ancestry Guide to Law Enforcement.’”  Indeed.

From the beginning, I had thought it would be helpful to play the historian card.  In April, I began sharing my experience with surrounding localities’ historians, and to a man and woman, I was ignored or rebuffed.  Of course, some knew my brother or cousin.  One historian in a nearby city gave me some advice, but then literally backed away from me and said, “You didn’t hear it here!”  She was sympathetic, but apparently had a job to protect.  My best outreach was to the Association for Gravestone Studies, whose administrator kindly published my story in their monthly e-newsletter.  It did not quite go viral, but I did get some supportive responses.  One local expert on cemetery art, after seeing the picture of the present stone, said, “The new one is cute—but definitely not your old stone.”  A Texas gravestone conservator shared his similar bad experiences with ahistorical monument companies, and unhelpful municipalities and law enforcement.  He’s interested in sharing my experience in his presentations for genealogical and historical groups.  Fine, if they’re interested in nightmares!

As to the subject of my own genealogy, by the time Caroline married John Ely, Madison had changed from the birch-bark cabin settlement.  It had schools, stores, churches, businesses, laws, social groups, and class divisions.  Women like Rebekah Cleaveland (1774-1862, with a large monument in the Madison Cemetery), married to a wealthy town leader, lived in a big brick house overlooking the town.  She had 12 children (and no doubt thus), was called “a woman every way worthy of the highest praise.”  Caroline would have known Rebekah.  She herself lived in town raising her own family of 11 children.  But unlike Rebekah, her husband was a travelling laborer, with masonry one of his skills, and so lived very modestly.

Of her 11 children, the first, son Leland, was born in 1830, and the last, son Adelbert, was born in 1853.  She had eight sons and three daughters.  Leland’s son Andrew, born in 1859, was my great grandfather.  What is most well-known about her family is the men’s military service:  husband John fought in America’s Mexican War, son Henry O. fought with the NY 157th in the Civil War, and son Isaac in the Spanish-American War.  Caroline lived through the worry and hardship that war brings, but had the comfort of her remaining children around her, in the town where she lived for many years.  Her memory should have the symbolic presence of the monument dedicated to her.

My foremother’s original gravestone should be at her gravesite.  But this is not the case.  It is not the case because two of her male descendants decided that they should take possession of that part of the Ford heritage.  It is not the case because they were willing to lie about the new stone being the old, and were willing (and able) to get cemetery and local authorities and preservationists, historians, reporters and site managers to cover for them.  They got people to grant them this theft without proper authorization or documentation, and they were lucky enough to get bureaucratic inertia and people’s indifference to work in their favor.  But the evidence was there; the calls, the emails, the timing, the admissions of people with whom we spoke.  We knew who, why, and how now and the reaction to our sharing that information in public was going to be hatred and more lies.

At this stage of my quest, the full force of local patriarchal/elitist authority was put into play.  It was governed by lies, turning of blame and confrontations colored by ignorance and hate.  My next attempt to make some noise just fueled those sentiments.  On Memorial Day weekend, I exhorted my nextdoor followers to meet me at the gravesite, where I had constructed a replica of the old stone, and had signs that said “Bring Back the Stone!”  Only my good friend—and she was, having been a rock of support and provider of graphics and posters and flyers—was there, as was my husband.  But emails I sent of my display, with the message, “Do the Right Thing—Bring Back the Stone!” sent to relevant parties, must have struck a nerve.

The mayor, who has a manner of friendly befuddlement, made it obvious she did not want to disturb her status quo.  She had offered to talk to my erstwhile “friend” and board member, who just happens to be her village clerk, as to why he never got back to me about the calls he was going to make.  She emailed that he told her that he had “told me everything he could tell me” and “he cannot help me.”  When I got back to her on this report, she said perhaps she could speak to some board members and email my cousin about the stone. (!)  I never heard back from her.  When I decided to talk to former friend/clerk myself, it was disturbing.  He told me the calls he made were to the secretary and president of the board.  They told him that the stone at the site “had been there for a year and a half or two.”  And why didn’t he tell me that in January?  “Because you wouldn’t want to hear it.”  He just kept repeating his new lie: after originally telling me it was not the old stone at the site, and that he believed the old stone was taken, now he was telling me the new stone had been there for years.

In what would be my final confrontation with local board members, I paid a visit to the secretary of the board.  She was primed and ready, and very hostile.  She told me, “We’re done!”  “You’re done!”  The state had cleared them.  I’d been telling lies about them in the papers (by which she meant NextDoor).  I’m hurting their business (excellent news, if true).  And she had a brand new lie and further confirmation of my cousin’s guilt.  She said my cousin had told the board that he took his history class to the gravesite in 1985 and the present stone was there then.  And it matches all the other cemetery stones from 1985.  So there!  What happened to the old stone cleaned up?  Or the clerk’s recent story the stone had been there a year and a half or two?  She bristled when I mentioned the former lies.  When I asked if she had a record of it, and of what happened to the original stone, it was:  no records—not her problem—family matter.  The Board was “very upset” and it was “all your fault.”  When I told her about my recent hatemail (below), she smiled from ear to ear.  She “loved that letter.”

The hatemail letter is the strange denouement to this whole incredible, sordid business.  It was in plastic on a metal holder, right up against the present gravestone.  It was purportedly from John and  Caroline Ford. (!!)  It read:

“We are writing this to let you know how disappointed and disgusted we are by your false and libelous allegations about our stone, certain family members, as well as members of our community.  We were among the founders of this community, and your behavior is shameful, embarrassing [sic], and unforgivable.

Our stone has not been stolen, a loving and thoughtful descendant has simply cleaned it.  We are so grateful to our Grandsons for their ongoing works that honors our history here, and who have cared for our stone and our memories for years.  They are our true caretakers and memory keepers.

We do not understand why you continue spreading your malicious lies that have made you outcasts in your family and pariahs in your community.  Use your energies to clean up some other old stones or do some other kind action that would honor us rather than continuing to dishonor both of us.

John and Caroline Ford”

This letter is a clear admission of guilt by “our grandsons.”  It’s my brother’s style to generate this sort of venom.  Our actions have made us “outcasts in your family and pariahs in your community”; my accusations are “false and libelous,” my behavior, “shameful, embarrassing and unforgivable.”  Again, the stories don’t quite mesh with their supporters’; they’re back to the old stone being “simply cleaned” by a “loving and thoughtful descendant.”  The total weirdness of making this letter from our ancestors is unbelievable.  The grandsons are their “true caretakers and memory keepers.”  This letter provides an unmistakable link between the “grandsons” and the crime.  And its hateful message is a clear example of what authorities—patriarchal, elite authorities, both family and community—do when they are confronted and crossed.  I have sent a letter to my male relatives, asking them directly to bring back the stone.  I expect no response.  I expect never to see my great-great-great grandmother’s original gravestone again.

My male relatives are not “honoring” Caroline, but are desecrating her grave.  This woman had a difficult life.  Ironically, the source for the tale of the end of her life comes from my cousin’s local history’s collection of newspaper articles.  On an early Sabbath morning in April 1879, a fire broke out at “the residence of John E. Ford.”  There was a great deal of damage to the home, and it would be a severe loss since they had no insurance.  And, “[t]he elder Mrs. Ford is an invalid.”  How did the fire start?  “A little grandson of Mr. Ford took a match and set a bunch of rubbish on fire.”  !  A grandson.  Caroline died the following year.  I sometimes walk by the site of that house.  The house is gone now.  And so is Caroline’s gravestone.

My lack of power has some parallels with Caroline’s.  The grandsons of this small world rule.  This small world reflects the greater culture of enforcing obedience to (male) authority.  It reflects the people’s willingness to lie—and lie again—to protect that authority and that authority’s reality.  It has nothing to do with justice, or right and wrong.  It has nothing to do with the truth or the courage to do what should be done.  It has nothing to do with “people in small villages” who “take care of each other.”

Linda Ford is a retired history professor, living in Madison, NY.  She is the author of Iron-Jawed Angels:  The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, and most recently, Women Politicals:  From Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart.


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