“Alone in the Dawn” Restorationist James Caffrey joins the conversation with more on Adelaide Crapsey

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from In Mt. Hope Cemetery remembering the tragic vision of Adelaide Crapsey

For those of us ineluctably drawn to the Mount Hope Cemetery, there is always something new and mysterious to be found. Yes, there is Douglass and Anthony. And all the obelisks erected for bygone Rochester aristocrats, magnates and their scions.

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from Spanish-American War Monuments in Rochester

And General Otis’s slightly robbed grave site as he is now interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Remembering General Elwell Otis on his Day, June 15th: Rochester’s imperial war hero

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from Spanish-American War Monuments in Rochester

And the Spanish-American War Trophy Cannon taken from the Spanish flagship Reina Christina  sunk at the battle of Manila Bay. And the graves of 176 Spanish-American War veterans and 73 wives, including the final one in 1984 for Catherine S. Frenchman, aged 101. Spanish-American War Monuments in Rochester

And those macabre evenings at sunset when, biblical-like, tens of thousands of black crows descend onto tree tops.

One of my favorite spots is the Crapsey family plot that includes the famed Rochester poet, Adelaide (1878 – 1914). I first discovered the plot last summer when a special display had been placed describing Adelaide’s life and work.

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from In Mt. Hope Cemetery remembering the tragic vision of Adelaide Crapsey

Like many, I found Adelaide’s story fascinating.

Earlier this Fall, when doing research for Talker of the Town plays Jack the Ripper, I met James Caffrey who lives across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery.

James has been a career restorationist working in many areas of the field for over 40 years. Quite a few years ago, he joined the “Adopt a Plot” program in which volunteers help restore and maintain cemetery mausoleums and plots. Giving his time, expertise, sometimes money, and labor (a labor of love he would call it), James has provided a community service not well known outside the program.

James has worked on the Lindsay, Cutler, Calwell, Sawyer, Turner and Cook Mausoleums. His last big project was the Nathan Stein Mausoleum, probably the most impressive one in the Cemetery. James had to construct a complete very large missing window frame and rebuild the many fractured decorative marble surrounding sections that had collapsed due to the broken window allowing in snow, water and ice.

This exposure to the elements caused the marble to heave and split. then falling to the floor, fracturing into many pieces. Taking well over a year, the Stein project was James’ most difficult, but also the one of which he is most proud.

We should be more than proud of James. We should thank him–not that he asks for it–for his tireless dedication to preserving and beautifying Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I also learned that James is a fan of Adelaide Crapsey. More than just a fan, James has read all Adelaide’s poetry, biographies and has collected much of her rare published works. I had thought that James’s interest was primarily formed by living near her gravesite.

Actually, James–like others–discovered that Adelaide Crapsey is truly an extraordinary early 20th century poet, especially seen in her invention of the “Cinquain.” James compares her favorably with Elizabeth Bishop. We will never know what Adelaide might have produced had she lived past 36.

James very kindly provided us an account of Adelaide’s life he just recently wrote for Talker, “Alone in the Dawn,” with an emphasis on her relationship–both during and after her life–with the architect Claude Bragdon.

Alone in the Dawn

My interest in Adelaide Crapsey was piqued a couple of years after I moved into the 110 year old Claude Bragdon-designed house that I purchased in 1986 and still live in today. This house is situated on the unique “Warner Tract” next to the Warner Castle just across the street from Mt. Hope cemetery. Right next to Bragdon’s own personal residence, mine is one of the two houses Bragdon designed and built for two of his closest friends.

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Claude Bragdon’s house November 2015

The house was built in 1905 for Rochester City Court Judge Delbert C. Hebbard and his wife Bessie. Bragdon, the Delberts and the third family (Withington) living on the “Warner Tract” All were members of the Theosophist Church on S. Clinton Ave (now the First Universalist Church located near Geva Theater) designed by Bragdon in 1907. The Theosophists believed it was possible to contact and communicate with the spirits of people who had passed away.

Adelaide Crapsey’s father, Rev. Algernon Crapsey, was a close friend of Bragdon. Crapsey was the infamous defrocked Episcopalian Priest of St. Andrews Church in the South Wedge — defrocked after a long and very public trial held in Batavia in 1906. He was accused of heresy, having told his parishioners he no longer believed in the “Virgin Birth.”

Bragdon went along with Adelaide each day to attend her father’s heresy trial in Batavia. From reading some of Adelaide’s and Claude’s letters, I believe that Claude Bragdon had a great fondness for Adelaide, and after his first wife Charlotte passed away soon after giving birth to their second child, thought of Adelaide as a possible second wife.

Unlike Bragdon, Adelaide herself did not believe in Spiritualism. And laughed at Theosophy. Although keeping her skepticism to herself, Adelaide thought both were silly. Interestingly, for an ex-ministers daughter, Adelaide said she was even suspicious of heaven.

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Bragdon’s house where Adelaide would visit with chaperon

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Adelaide at Vassar

As Adelaide was in Bragdon’s social circle, she would visit Bragdon’s home was just a short walk from the Crapsey home on Averill Avenue. However, leery of the theosophist widower, Adelaide would never visit Bragdon’s home without bringing one of her brothers along as a kind of chaperone.

Yet, as I will explain shortly, had it not been for her visit in sprit to the home of Claude Bragdon, and through Eugenie Bragdon’s automatic writing, months after her death, Adelaide’s poems might never have been published and all of her work would have remained forever lost.

Adelaide truly was a gifted poet. Like many of her social class, she also taught school. After graduating from Vassar College, she took a position as a teacher of Literature and History in 1902 at Kemper Hall, an all girls school in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Later she lived and studied overseas in Rome along with a college friend. Upon returning, Adelaide took a position at Miss Low’s school for girls in Connecticut. Adelaide never considered teaching her calling. All of this time writing her poetry and keeping a growing manuscript, hoping to be published sometime in the near future.

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Philip Crapsey (1876 – 1907) Mt. Hope Cemetery

In 1907, Adelaide experienced perhaps the greatest loss of her life. Adelaide’s older brother Philip died after complications from malaria he contracted in Cuba while enlisted in the military during the Spanish-American War. Ironically—as the Crapsey family was very sensitive to this subject—that same year, 1907, Adelaide traveled to The Hague along with her father Algernon, who had been chosen to be a United States representative at the Peace Conference held there at the close of the Spanish-American War.

In the next few years, Adelaide’s own health began to deteriorate. She had felt unusually “weak and tired” while in The Hague, and sometime in 1908 decided to return to Rome, thinking the climate in Italy would be good for her. But upon arriving in Rome, she was confined in the Anglo-American Hospital there for one month due to illness. Probably unknown at this time, Adelaide’s “weakness” was really undiagnosed tuberculosis.

Adelaide then traveled from Rome to England, toured around that country also thinking that the “sea air” would be good for her. Still in bad health, Adelaide returned to the States, taking a “Poetics” position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She taught at Smith until that summer, then spending her vacation with her family in Rochester.

Returning to Smith in the fall of 1911, Adelaide confided to her friend Esther Lowenthal that she had been diagnosed by a Rochester doctor as having “Tubercular Meningitis.” a disease that could be fatal within weeks. By the end of the semester, her family sent her to Dr. Trudeau’s tuberculosis clinic at Saranac Lake in July of 1912. hoping for a cure to her illness.

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Adelaide Crapsey

As there seemed to be no hope for a cure to her illness after staying at the clinic for many months Adelaide was returned home to her family in Rochester in August 1914. Her condition kept getting worse. She passed away on October 8th 1914 at only 36 years of age and was buried in the Crapsey family plot in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Through all of Adelaide’s trips overseas, while teaching, and as a patient at the Trudeau Clinic at Saranac Lake, Adelaide kept writing poetry, coming up with a new type of poetic verse called the “Cinquain.”

After her death, her manuscript was not to be found. This is where Claude Bragdon’s second wife Eugenie came into the picture.

Eugenie Bragdon was involved in the Theosophist church along with her husband Claude. Eugenie was considered a type of psychic. Messages would come to her from spirits that had passed away through “automatic writing” — a medium quickly becoming the latest spiritualist fashion. Claude Bragdon said that Eugenie would wake up during the night, get up in darkness and sit at her desk and start writing in a type of trance: “ The eyes saw not, and the mind knew not what was written until afterwards.”

Eugenie had only been married to Claude for two years and had never met Adelaide Crapsey nor knew anything about her. Adelaide had been dead for nine months before Eugenie started to bring forth these messages from Adelaide. There were quite a few messages that Adelaide sent through Eugenie meant to comfort her mother and father. One such message to her parents” “Let me again tell you my story. I died in terror, but I found here a strange new beginning – It was a work full of anguish but so blessed to do – The life that follows death is all so different but so full of thought.”

Through more messages from Adelaide that came to Eugenie, it emerged that Adelaide had left behind a manuscript of poems with the expressed wish that they be published. These were poems that her parents seemed to know nothing about. In fact, only hours after Adelaides death, her friend had handed a sheaf of papers to Adelaide’s mother, telling her of her daughter’s talent and Adelaide’s tormented confrontation with death.

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Jean Webster

Mrs. Crapsey chose to pack away this sheaf of papers. But, Adelaide’s poems had not been written for her parents, but for the world. The poems were the one chance she had that her existence would not end with her death. She had been unsuccessful publishing them while was alive, but the anticipation of having them published after her death was a small but real comfort.

At that time, Claude Bragdon had his own press, the “Manas Press,” where he published many of his own books on theosophy. Adelaide had assumed that her friend Bragdon would publish her book, although she neglected to mention this to him while she was alive.

Discussions about Adelaide and her poetry after her death between Claude and Eugenie Bragdon and Adelaide’s parents—combined with the “Automatic writing” messages transmitted through Eugenie—brought to light the packed away manuscript from her parents. Ultimately, publishing the “little grey book” of poems became a reality.

Within a few months of the spiritual communications through Eugenie, the small book of poetry appeared in1915. Claude Bragdon’s special introduction in the book contributed a great deal to its initial accessibility. A second edition was re-issued by the Alfred A. Knopf, Co. in 1922. Included in this edition, along with the original Claude Bragdon introduction, was added a moving Preface by Jean Webster. Webster was Adelaide’s college friend and her long time and very close traveling companion. It was Webster who had been in possession of Adelaide’s original manuscript before giving them to Adelaide’s mother.

Finding an original 1915 copy of “Verse, Adelaide Crapsey” published by Manas Press or the 1922 Alfred A Knopf edition is not easy today. But Adelaide’s poetry has been re-published in other books. One good book to find all of her work is: The Complete Poems & Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey Edited by Susan Sutton Smith State University of New York Press (1977).

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With some of James’ books November 2015 [Photo: James Caffrey]

If you have the chance to read some of Adelaide’s beautiful work it will be well worth your time. Her poems are very touching and will stay with you for quite a while. I had found an original Manas Press copy many years ago and have enjoyed it very much. I later found the second Alfred A. Knopf edition somewhere in my travels outside of Rochester and feel lucky to now have both original editions. One of my favorite poems of Adelaide’s is called: “The Lonely Death”

In the cold I will rise, I will bathe
In waters of ice; myself
Will shiver, and shrive myself,
Alone in the dawn, and anoint
Forehead and feet and hands;
I will shutter the windows from light,
I will place in their sockets the four
Tall candles and set them a-flame
In the grey of the dawn; and myself
Will lay myself straight in my bed,
And draw the sheet under my chin.

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from the Poet’s Walk outside the Memorial Art Gallery on University Avenue