The serenity of one of the city’s most historic quiet spots – Washington Street’s Oak Grove Cemetery – is being ritually and repeatedly desecrated by young partiers and vandals, with seemingly neither police, trustees nor neighbors able to end or repair it.
Dozens of aged headstones lie toppled and marred, including parts of the soaring gothic monument to Emma Abbott, famous opera singer from the 1800s. The memorial has had nearly all the tops of its carved granite benchmarks broken off and tossed in a nearby pile.
The desecration of headstones has increased dramatically in the past two weeks, said Ron Ross, a neighbor who walks his dog there daily.
The unassuming flat headstone for famed artist Fitz Hugh Lane, for instance, is kept company by empty cheap vodka bottles and soda cans.
“I used to bring a garbage bag and put it in the dumpster,” said Ross, “but then they took away the dumpster. Probably because the kids would tip it over.”
Consecrated in 1855, and resting place to more than 7,500 former Gloucesterites, including city fathers like Addison Gilbert, Samuel Sawyer (funder of the library), Lane, Babsons, Tarrs, Moreys and numerous Civil War veterans and just about every surname that is now a street name, the cemetery is privately owned, with a small endowment and no custodian, according to trustees.
“We are very mindful of the vandalism,” said Mary Black, a local lawy
er who is president of the trustees. “It is an ongoing problem not unique to our cemetery. We hope to hire someone in the early fall to begin to repair the headstones.”
Vandals party in the copses, said neighbors, creating garbage and noise. The gates are not locked at night because there is no one to perform that task, said Black, who was disinclined to talk about the issues.
“It’s terrible, every night,” said Ross who lives on Maplewood Avenue, which abuts the cemetery. “The cops come with lights on, the kids hide, the cops leave and the kids are back.”
Modeled on the famed Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Oak Grove was planned to be used as a people’s park as well as a gravesite. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Its 11 bucolic acres are divided into 14 sections, along 48 paths.
Desecration is nothing new.
In the 1980s, letters to the Times railed against the “despicable” problem. “Visitors need a pith helmet, safari jacket and machete to find headstones,” one writer wrote in 1986.
Gloucester police officer Brian Aiello said the Police Department receives occasional calls about vandals in t
he cemetery – and after a call from the Times, Mary Black last week asked police to step up patrols – but when patrol cars arrive, often “there’s nothing going on,” said Aiello.
One such police forray bore fruit. On May 30, police broke up a primarily underage drinking party in Oak Grove, and charged eight young people — ages 17 to 20 — with disorderly conduct. But all eight saw their charges dismissed last month in Gloucester District Court, pending the completion of 16 hours of community service or payment of court costs.
Ross said he’s been walking through the Grove for 3 1/2 years while recovering from illness and injuries.
“This place has saved my life,” said the former deep sea diver. “I’ve really gotten attached to it. What I see the kids do really breaks my heart.”
Trustee Black said people who see or suspect vandalism should contact her at her office, 978-283-1219.
But while the trustees — unpaid volunteers — oversee the landscape contract, tree repair and maintenance, they have no funds for a custodian or night guard, said a trustee who didn’t want her name used.
“If there is trouble in the middle of the night, when things like that happen, what are we to do?” she said. “I don’t know.”
Nancy Gaines is a regular Times correspondent and a longtime writer and editor for both Boston-based and national publications.