G.W. Mark Rests in Secret Peace

Friday morning, raw and rainy, January fading away, and I’m pondering George Washington Mark… again.

You may recall that I wrote about this famous Greenfield folk artist in recent weeks after finding his painting of a storied hound that was once the sporting pet of blacksmith and tavernkeeper Henry A. Ewers (1806-1867), a previous owner of my Greenfield Meadows home.

Mark was born in 1795 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, and in 1817 chose Greenfield as his home. Known as “The Count” and remembered about town for his flashy attire, he died in 1879 – leaving a rich legacy as Franklin County’s all-time finest house, sign, furniture, sleigh, and carriage painter.

When he applied his artistic touch to oil-on-canvas painting and opened a gallery in 1848, his work was largely ignored and eventually even ridiculed by a harsh New York critic from Knickerbocker Magazine. Then, long after Mark had left this world in a custom, 700-pound, metal coffin, his reputation as an American folk artist soared to great heights in the mid-20th century, when his primitive paintings were sought for prestigious American art museums and sophisticated private collections.

Mark’s posthumous celebrity forced art historians and reporters to explore the man as local advertisers trolled for potential surviving examples of his work. The market was ripe.

Greenfield was abuzz with Mark-revival clamor in the wake of regional and national articles appearing in Old-Time New England (Summer 1950) and Antiques magazine (July 1952). Then the man was squarely on the map as an important folk artist, not to mention Greenfield’s only primitive painter of note. His story was destined for intermittent newspaper regurgitation and refreshingly new scholarly avenues of research.

The list of late, 20th- and 21st-century Greenfield newspaper scribes who explored Mark’s life and work included Bill Gorey, Al Oickle, and my old friend Irmarie Jones, known for her popular Just Plain Neighbors column. For parts of five decades, we shared an occasional raucous corner of the Greenfield Recorder newsroom.

In the late 1970s, Greenfield Historical Society president and Recorder freelance columnist Steve Finer took a deep dive into the Mark narrative. The rare-book dealer and historian kept plugging away at the famous artist in his Saturday Editorial Page column. Then, with a bulging Mark file assembled, Finer delivered a comprehensive, well-attended Historical Society presentation.

In the process, Finer placed the most intense community spotlight on Mark since the 1890s, when Greenfield judge Franklin Fessenden scurried to assemble and promote his paintings. Eventually, he gathered more than 30 paintings that ended up in Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s barn before being sold in the 1930s to a New York City department store. Sheldon cherry-picked Old Indian House, which is now displayed at Old Deerfield’s Memorial Hall Museum.

Despite many attempts over the years to fill in missing details about Mark’s fascinating life, the Greenfield artist remains a bit of an enigma today. Cloaked in the allure of the unknown, his story presents many tempting threads of inquiry dangling for further investigation. One never knows what a gentle tug on such a dangler will unravel.

Among many mysteries surrounding Mark are two that most interest me: 1.) who was first wife Mary Ann Skinner (1798-1860), said to be from Gill at the time of their marriage, and 2.) where is Mark buried in that heavy, talk-of-the-town coffin? It’s possible that both questions will never be answered, even in these days of ever-expanding online genealogical resources. That’s no accident, but rather Mr. Mark’s intention. He obviously believed it was nobody’s business, and took special measures to obscure all discovery paths.

I could find no newspaper obituary or death notice announcing his wife’s February 15, 1860 passing – only a February 27 Greenfield Gazette and Courier card of thanks to “the Ladies of all the Religious Societies in this place… for the long and constant kindness [shown] in the last distressing sickness of my partner.” He signed that paid expression of gratitude “Your Affectionate and Humble Servant, G.W.  Mark.”

End of story on Mary Ann.

The online FindAGrave.com database names Mary Ann’s final resting place as the North Meadows Cemetery just down the road from my home. The listing also identifies her birthplace as Williamstown and her maiden name as Skinner, both of which are soft but can be found elsewhere with a little digging. Her gravestone stands over one of four graves in the Henry A. Ewers burial plot. Her parentage is not displayed, and may never be proven.

That said, Ancestry.com and other online sources show a Mary Ann Skinner born in Albany, New York, on July 2, 1798 to Jared and Mary (Drew) Skinner and baptized three weeks later at Albany’s Dutch Reformed Church. Jared Skinner’s parentage is unknown, but he is believed to have been of New England stock descending from John Skinner, an original proprietor of Hartford, Connecticut, where his name graces the Founders Monument. A branch of this family that settled in Colchester, Connecticut, sent members to Shelburne and Williamstown before the Revolution. Jared also likely came from that Colchester line.

If the Albany Mary Ann Skinner was the woman who married G.W. Mark in 1818, what brought her to Gill? There is no trace of her parents ever living there, and she was married not there but in Mark’s childhood New Hampshire town.

Well, let’s suppose she was orphaned and adopted into a needy Gill family. Mary Ann Skinner’s Albany father was dead by 1813 when she was 15, and soon thereafter her mother disappears from the public record. Perhaps her Williamstown association began then, when her father’s prosperous brother or cousin, tavernkeeper Col. Thompson Joseph Skinner, could have taken her in as a teen. Then, perhaps, rapid-fire Gill developments brought her here.

Mary Ann was 17 when Gill head-of-household Henry Ewers, Sr. (born 1782) died in 1815, leaving widow Lucy (Gould) Ewers (1782-1854) and three young children, of whom young aforementioned son Henry A., 9, was the oldest.

Lucy was the daughter Ebenezer Brewster and Beulah (Steevens) Gould, a colonial couple with temporary Williamstown backgrounds. Perhaps she was seeking to adopt a girl old enough to help her around the house, learned of Mary Ann from a Williamstown acquaintance and promptly adopted her as a stepdaughter? Such arrangements were common among farm families of the day, and would explain why Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark lies in the Ewers cemetery plot beside Lucy, Henry A. and wife Sally.

Enough said. Makes perfect sense to me.

Which brings us to G.W. Mark’s mysterious unmarked grave and that cumbersome metal coffin. I strongly suspect they lie not in Charlestown, New Hampshire, as vaguely reported, but across the Connecticut River at Summer Hill Cemetery in Springfield, Vermont. I base this conclusion on a careful reading of G.W. Mark’s mother’s FindAGrave listing. Mark was just 4 when Hannah (Thomas) Mark died in 1799. An early Summer Hill burial, she lies next to G.W.’s infant older brother William, whose stone posts only a name. There is, however, a helpful little clue as to G.W.’s final resting place etched across the bottom of his mother’s humble stone. It reads “Erected by her son G.W., 1866.”

So, there it is. At the age of 71, knowing his own life was near the end, George Washington Mark started “making arrangements.” He ponied up to mark the graves of his mother and brother, and very likely secured permission for his own burial in a secret, unmarked grave beside them. The artist his six siblings were all born in Springfield, Vermont.

The timing is perfect. He is said to have purchased the coffin eight years before his death because he didn’t want to encumber anyone with unexpected expenses. That would have been circa 1871, five years after he spruced up his mother’s Summer Hill plot. His will eliminated funeral services and stipulated that his metal casket be tightly sealed with a special cement concoction prepared by him.

If, indeed, Mark is buried at Summer Hill, it would be easy enough to prove it with a metal detector. But why? The eccentric Greenfield artist wanted to rest in peace and never be bothered in an unmarked grave.


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