March 5, 2020

Our dead friend, Sophia

Alexandra Nesci ’20

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The Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections is a treasure trove of forgotten pieces of Mount Holyoke history. Housed in the basement of Dwight Hall and under the masterful care of Leslie Fields, the Archives are teeming with mysteries waiting to be uncovered. One such mystery involves Sophia Allen, class of 1853 and former gravesite companion of College founder Mary Lyon.

Alexandra Nesci visits Sophia Allen’s grave, Evergreen Cemetery
Alexandra Nesci visits Sophia Allen’s grave, Evergreen Cemetery

I first learned about Sophia in History of Mount Holyoke, a class taught by Professor of History Mary Renda, in which I wrote a final paper on my own choice of topic: death on the Mount Holyoke campus pre-Civil War. In one of my many visits to the Archives, spent arduously transcribing 19th-century cursive, I discovered an account of the death and burial of this 22-year-old first-year student. 

After nearly two semesters at Mount Holyoke, Sophia fell very sick. The Mount Holyoke community tried to nurse Sophia back to health, and cared for her when it became tragically apparent that she could not be saved. Sophia passed away on April 5, 1851. Her death is recorded in the Archives. A letter from Mary O. Nutting, class of 1852, to her father reads: 

The young lady was Miss Allen of Ellsworth, Ohio. It was three weeks ago last Friday, I think, that she was first absent from table, and on Saturday of Sabbath, she was removed to one of the apartments designed to be occupied in sickness and constructed so as to be as retired as possible. [...] Saturday of that week and for several days of the following week, she seemed constantly sinking, and her death was hourly expected. She was, during these days, perfectly rational, and sent for many of her companions to urge them to seek that Savior who was so precious to her in a dying hour.

She died on campus in the original Seminary Building, surrounded by friends and teachers. Of her final days, Nutting recalled, “When we assembled in the Seminary hall for morning devotions, the windows were [...] opened so that she might for the last time listen to our hymns.”

Very shortly after her death, Sophia was buried beside Mary Lyon, who died in 1849 and was buried near what is now the Gettell Amphitheater. Nutting recounted in her letter: “The funeral exercises were held in the Sem. hall, and her remains were buried in the grounds, east of the Seminary, just within the [enclosure] that surrounds Miss Lyon’s grave.” 

Blog_Nesci_1869 picStereoscopic photograph from 1869 shows Sophia Allen’s grave to the left of Mary Lyon’s grave.
Stereoscopic photograph from 1869 shows Sophia Allen’s grave to the left of Mary Lyon’s grave.

Sophia is, as far as research shows, the only person to have shared the hill in the center of campus with the College’s founder, though there were dozens of other student and faculty deaths on campus during Mount Holyoke’s first two decades. This is likely because Sophia had traveled 550 miles from Ohio to attend Mount Holyoke, and returning her body home may not have been a viable option.

So why is Sophia no longer at rest beside Mary Lyon today? That mystery lives on. However, some photos and documents uncovered in the Archives help shed light on the travels of Sophia’s remains. 

An 1869 stereoscopic photograph of Lyon’s gravesite features Sophia’s slender white gravestone to the left of Lyon’s. In approximately 1880, a photograph taken at the same location shows only Lyon’s gravestone, sans Sophia. An 1884 photograph, though somewhat obstructed by students and trees, confirms Sophia’s absence. This means that at some point between 1869 and 1880, Sophia’s remains were relocated. 

Alexandra Nesci next to the marker for the Old South Hadley Burial Ground section of South Hadley's Evergreen Cemetery
Alexandra Nesci next to the marker for the Old South Hadley Burial Ground section of South Hadley's Evergreen Cemetery

From a record of the Old South Hadley Burial Ground created by Mount Holyoke professor Annah May Soule, who taught American history and political economy from 1896 to 1905, we know that Sophia was moved a few yards off from College Street to the Old South Hadley Cemetery. However, this burial ground no longer exists because, beginning in 1902, it was dug up and moved to the very back of South Hadley’s Evergreen Cemetery in order to make room for South Hadley’s Gaylord Memorial Library. Joining Sophia in the move to Evergreen Cemetery were Elizabeth E. Wolcott (class of 1845), Martha W. Nichols (class of 1857) and about 560 others. 

A comic from the 1904 Mount Holyoke yearbook, Llamarada, makes reference to the exhumation of the Old South Hadley Burial Ground.
A comic from the 1904 Mount Holyoke yearbook, Llamarada, makes reference to the exhumation of the Old South Hadley Burial Ground.

To some, Sophia Allen may mean little more than a small footnote in Mount Holyoke history. However, I hope that students can recognize in Sophia a fellow alumna who experienced some of the same joys of current Mount Holyoke life. Her physical place of honor on campus was disrupted, but she can still be known to living students as one of us, a student and friend, who traveled far from home to receive a higher education. 

My hope is that the knowledge of Sophia will endure at Mount Holyoke after my imminent graduation, and that someday further research will reveal more about her life and death — maybe even why she was removed from Mary Lyon’s little burial hill. 

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Nearly all of the research presented here on Sophia Allen and her three grave sites was made possible by the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections, with additional help from the South Hadley Public Library and Michael R. Koske of the Evergreen Cemetery. 

Alexandra Nesci ’20 of Tucson, Arizona, is a history and Spanish double major at Mount Holyoke College. She is also the captain of the Mount Holyoke western riding team. If anyone reading this knows of a museum job in Arizona where the docents ride horses and speak Spanish, please give her a call.
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