You Asked, We Answered: What's The Story Behind That Mysterious Gravestone In New Boston?

Mar 9, 2018

If you were murdered, would you want your murder story on your gravestone?

The cemetery in New Boston, New Hampshire sits at the top of a hill, what was once the center of town. Now it overlooks Main Street and the Piscataquog River valley.

But the cemetery - and one gravestone in particular - still draws visitors.

New Boston is a small town on the Piscataquog River, a half hour drive from Manchester. It’s famous for its annual Fourth of July firing of the town’s Molly Stark cannon, perhaps the oldest cannon in the world still in use.

Lisa and Dan Rothman are New Boston residents and amateur historians. They’re married, and both volunteer at the New Boston Historical Society.

Lisa read the gravestone's inscription to me. It's unusual, because it tells the story of the way the person buried there died.

"Here she is. Sevilla. 'Daughter of George and Sarah Jones. MURDERED by Henry N. Sargent. January 13, 1854. Aged 17 years and 9 months. Thus fell this lovely blooming daughter, by the revengeful hand, a malicious Henry, when on her way to school, he met her and with a six self-cocked pistol, shot her.' That’s pretty unusual to see something like that on a stone."

(Just a quick note here: Sevilla’s name is spelled a couple different ways, but we think it might have been pronounced "Servilla" back in the day, so that’s how we pronounce it in the radio version of this story.)

Sevilla’s is a story that appears in many New Hampshire history books. And even though it’s been over 160 years, every few decades or so, there’s a new flurry of interest, another newspaper article, or, you know, a radio story.

But despite the fact that Sevilla Jones’ gravestone marks such a well-known murder in the state, much of her story remains a mystery.

Which brings us to the question posed by listener Kaitlin Archibald, as part of our Only in New Hampshire series: What's the real story behind Sevilla Jones and her grave?

Kaitlin lives in the center of New Boston, not two minutes from the cemetery.

Only in New Hampshire is a series in which we answer listener questions about the Granite State

"I thought it was interesting because definitely nowadays you would not see the name of the murderer in the stone. It made me wonder who wrote it - because that’s another thing I’m interested - nobody knows who actually engraved the stone. That she was murdered by the vengeful hand of Henry Sargent. So it’s interesting to me that somebody would actually mark her resting place with his name and the fact that he murdered her."

It struck me, too, that this memorial to Sevilla was all about this horrible moment, her murder.

"Exactly," Kaitlin said.

"And Henry is buried a hundred feet from her grave."

Kaitlin wanted to know more about the story of Sevilla and Henry. A lot of the story is readily available, thanks to the New Boston Historical Society, and mostly to Dan and Lisa Rothman. They drew from historical census data and old newspaper articles to piece together what happened.

A few years ago, they were even asked to play the parts of Henry and Sevilla in a historical reenactment.

When it comes to New Boston history, Lisa and Dan Rothman are your go-to Nancy Drews
Credit Justine Paradis for NHPR

"We don’t know much about Sevilla," Dan said. 

"She was one of the younger children of George and Sarah Jones. We surmise she was a student, but we don’t know that. So we have very little detail about her. Henry, we know, was a woodsman. He would go out into the forest and cut wood. Probably spent too much time living out in his tent in the woods. I don’t know if that affected him."

Sevilla’s father George was a farmer, and he had a good estate, worth $6000. He died in 1853, just three months before she did, leaving Sevilla, her mother, and her siblings - three brothers and two sisters.

As legend has it, Sevilla and Henry were courting, but then her mother - Mrs. Jones - and a Mrs. Bartlett turned Sevilla against Henry and perhaps toward Mrs. Bartlett’s son. We don’t know that son's first name.

Henry was distraught. On his final evening, he stayed up writing his last will and suicide note (excerpted below) late in the night.

Folks of the world ought to know that they ruined me, once happy.

I never should have got so tied up with her if she had not given me encouragement, time and again.

And now see what you brought me - from a happy boy to the grave.

I am better off in hell, than I am here for the world to laugh at.

I am well aware that I make you trouble, by taking Servilla away from you, but I can’t help it. She belongs to me, and you know it.

Mother, why do you cry? You ought to think that your son Henry is better dead, than a poor love sick fellow which you see about stores and places and shops.

The world will not have Henry N. Sargent for a laughing pot

I am not afraid to say, who I think made the disturbance. I think and know , that the Bartlett’s folks made their part

I used to think that love would never hurt me.

All people take warning by this, and avoid the strings of love as you would the angel of death.

I write the most of this with tears on my cheeks.

Good bye, hypocrites.

(The full text of Henry's letter is available here.)

Henry had also spent weeks laying his plans.

"He had actually made arrangements to have his grave dug in advance," Dan told me. "He went to Boston to acquire not only two guns, but also a razor to end it all if the guns failed."

We don’t know whether Sevilla or her family had caught wind of Henry’s plans, but Henry does write in his note that he’d intercepted her at school before, but that she would not hear him.

It sounds like Henry could have been harassing her. But even if Sevilla did know that Henry was dangerous, what could she have done? Her father had died a few months before, and with no police presence to speak of, it’s hard to imagine how she could have protected herself.

So, on her last morning alive - Friday, January 13, 1854 - Sevilla and her younger brother Plummer were walking to school.

Dan, Lisa, and I tried to retrace some of these steps on Sevilla’s last day. But you can only get so close. The whole encounter went down on what is now the New Boston Air Force base, which you need special permission to visit.

But you can still get a good view of the cliffs.

The day we were there was bright and sunny, so we had to squint a little to look over the tops of the trees, at those stony forbidden cliffs, by Sevilla’s schoolhouse.

"Schoolhouse #3 is Sevilla’s schoolhouse," Dan said. "She was on her way there. So she and her brother Plummer left their home. Walked by Mrs. Sargent’s home and were on their way to schoolhouse #3 in the shadow of Joe English Hill. And that’s where Henry greeted them with his guns."

With her 15 year-old brother watching, Henry shot Sevilla four times in the head. And then he shot himself.

"She died instantly and he did not. People heard the shots. They came to see what the problem was. The doctor came, and was so distraught, so upset with Henry because of what he’d done, he refused to treat him, and Henry died a few hours later."

A lot of what we know about this story comes from the article in the newspaper, The Union Democrat. The story was also picked up by The New York Times.

The article included Henry’s murder-suicide note - all 1589 words. It also describes a visit to Henry’s house, where his body lay.

“We saw his lifeless form; his face bore no indication of malice in his last hour, but rather of joy with having died by the side of the only one he could ever love. How bitter the tears, how poignant the grief of that family.”

But in the next paragraph...

“Though near the house where Servilla lay a corpse in the house of her mother, we had no heart to enter another abode of sorrow.”

Maybe the Jones family was too overcome by grief  to talk, or maybe the reporter really just didn’t feel up to visiting. Whatever the reason, Henry gets to tell most of the story. And we hear very little - nothing, actually - from the perspective of Sevilla or her family in this article.

So who was Sevilla Jones?

Dan and Lisa helped me scour all kinds of records for hints of Sevilla's story.
Credit Justine Paradis for NHPR

Here’s what we know: she’s described as “lovely” and “blooming." She was almost 18. she was walking to school, so she was probably a student or an assistant teacher.

Kaitlin Archibald, the listener who wondered about Sevilla Jones, had already read this whole story and visited the grave. But what she really wanted to know went beyond the tale told in the newspapers.

"It sounded to me that maybe she was never involved with Henry and he was just obsessed with her. But as it reads from the articles and the research I’ve  done, it sounds like the other gentleman who supposedly stole her heart away from him, he appeared overnight, and he believes that the mother was conspiring, but it just seems to all be theory.  So I ran an idea past Dan and Lisa Rothman.

"My theory is, I think that maybe she had maybe been interested, and maybe then she said, maybe I’m not interested in this person. And started backing off. And he’s projecting all of this. Like, why do we think she proved false by bad advice? Maybe she just didn’t like him anymore."

"Oh, I don’t presume to know what she thought," Dan said. "But in his mind…yup."

I point out to Dan that the article about Sevilla's murder published Henry's suicide note in its entirety. The reporter visited his house, but did not visit her house. And they did not get a comment from her family, but did get a comment from his family.

"So to me this is an interesting bit of reporting too. It’s pretty biased. Oh he looked so peaceful, happy at last, sympathy for him. So to me. I’m like, Sevilla’s a little wronged here."

Dan agrees with me.

"She’s a lot wronged. Is it sympathetic to Henry? Perhaps. He’s not a sympathetic character, particularly."

I still wanted to see if I could find something real….a scrap or a whisper from Sevilla or her family.

By the time the 1860 Census rolled around, Sevilla's family had moved away from New Boston.

First, I tried finding descendants of her siblings, any living relatives. With the help of Dan and Lisa Rothman, I searched  genealogy websites, and census records. And what we found was that by the 1860 Census, the entire Jones family moved out of New Boston. They’d left that small New Hampshire town for another: Mont Vernon.

But as far as I can tell, all those branches lead to dead ends.

On one of the websites we searched - FindaGrave.Com - there are pictures of both Sevilla and Henry. And Dan says that struck him as unusual.

"I had trouble believing that in 1854, which is early days of photography, there would be these absolutely lovely miniature photographs of these two characters."

But then, Dan reread Henry’s letter, which also serves as his will. Henry lists his possessions and what should be done with them, and among them, he lists “two miniatures,” and then, writing to Sevilla’s mother, “I suppose you ought to have hers, although I paid for both.”

So, maybe the picture of Sevilla on that website really is her. But the only copy is digital, and it’s a crappy file, really poor resolution. So where’s the original? It seemed like another dead end.

These are the terrible, low-resolution photos of (maybe) Sevilla and Henry from FindAGrave.com

But there was one other thread to follow,  a place where we might be able to hear from Sevilla’s family.

Dan told me there was a rumored existence of a letter, mentioned almost as an aside in a write-up on the grave from the 1970s.

The Manchester City Library has archives of a number of old New Hampshire newspapers on microfilm. And after a couple hours of searching, I found the letter from Servilla’s younger sister.

In July 1905, she’d written into The Union, a column called “The Observant Citizen” in response to another letter inquiring about that odd grave in New Boston.

“Dear Observant Citizen: I saw in the Daily Union the verses that are on my sister’s gravestone in New Boston cemetery, Servilla Jones, who was killed by Henry Sargent on her way to school near Joe English Hill.”

And then she goes on to say:

“I have the paper, The Daily Mirror, that was printed at that time, which tells all about the tragedy. Sargent sat up the night before, making his will and laying his plans to meet Servilla on her way to school. It is a very sad story and I am the sister of Servilla Jones. Mrs. Elnora Winn.”

Elnora.

Half a century later, she still had the newspaper article. And maybe because she was just two or three years old at the time of the murder. she doesn’t add anything or try to correct the record.

Elnora!

So maybe the newspaper did get it right. Maybe Servilla had once been interested Henry and then fell for Mr. Bartlett.

Other readers also wrote in, a couple suggesting that it was Mrs. Bartlett who wrote that curious inscription on the grave, another writing that it was a Mr. Butterfield.  But the author of the column, who just went by the pen name “the Observant Citizen,” evidently asked around too, and wrote that the inscription was carved by the late Moses Davis in Nashua.

“The inscription on the stone was ordered by the mother of the murdered girl. Mr. Davis strongly advised her to leave off or modify the epitaph, suggesting that the future might change her feelings, but she insisted, and on the penalty of having the job done elsewhere he performed the work.”

If that's true, it means Sevilla's mother created a memorial not of her life, but of the violent way she died.

Thus fell this lovely blooming daughter, by the revengeful hand, a malicious Henry, when on her way to school, he met her and with a six self-cocked pistol, shot her.

"I would not have chosen that script," Dan said.

Back at the New Boston cemetery, Dan and Lisa bring me to another grave. Eben Bartlett's.

"Short for Ebenezer Bartlett," Dan explained. "Born 1835. About Sevilla’s age. So is this young man the third part of the love triangle? We don’t know."

A few years after Sevilla died, Eben Bartlett married someone else, a woman named Abbie. They had three children, and were buried together in New Boston.

If Sevilla had lived, that probably would have been her life. Maybe.

We still don’t know the real story. Maybe there was a love triangle. Maybe Sevilla wanted to marry Eben, or maybe she didn’t.

Maybe they would have had children.

Maybe she would have taken care of her widowed mother, moved to Mont Vernon, and never married.

Maybe she’d have become a nurse in the Civil War, worked in the mills in Manchester, become a schoolteacher.

Or maybe none of those things.

On our walk through the New Boston cemetery, 164 years after  Servilla’s death, Dan Rothman pointed up the hill.

"Over there is at the town tomb. Is that a familiar concept to you?"

I told him it wasn't.

"So if you died today, we can’t bury you in the frozen ground till spring time. So you’d spend time in the town tomb. After Henry shot Sevilla, his dream was - his wish - stated in his letter, was that he’d be buried side by side with Sevilla. But of course the family wanted none of that. But they did spend, they died in January. They did spend the winter together in the town tomb, that’s a newer town tomb. But basically they did spend some time side by side."

There’s a poem called “The Death Bridal” published in New Boston 1854, which calls Henry and Sevilla “a dead man and his bride” and asks the reader to “judge them not.”

But, Sevilla’s gravestone refused to refrain from judgment. If it’s true that Sevilla’s mother Mrs. Jones insisted on the epitaph, it changes the way I feel about it.

Perhaps she read the newspaper article and that horrible “Death Bridal” poem and decided that the gravestone was her way to set the record straight about her daughter. After all, stone is much more enduring than paper.

Perhaps Mrs. Jones decided that the headstone was the one place where she could have a voice and tell Sevilla's story, and make sure everyone who saw it would know one thing: 

This is not a love story.

Do you have a question about something in your community or some other quirk of the Granite State? Submit it here at our Only in New Hampshire project page.

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