29 October 2021

These Stones Shall Weep

Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

This is the month we’re all supposed to be spooked by headstones. I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but at this very moment the Target, Big Box home stores, and giant orange tent in the parking lot of our local mall are selling countless whimsical plastic and plaster headstones to people determined to transform the Modern American Halloween into as big and as outrageous a production as the Modern American Christmas.

The witches who call my area of Appalachia home say this is the time of year when the fragile veil separating the living and dead grows thin, and souls find it easier to ascend to the realm where the living dwell. (Yes, I follow the blogs of numerous actual witches in Western North Carolina. Among other things, they know a lot about gardening.)

I find most modern cemeteries a little dull. At veterans’ cemeteries, for instance, the graves look like unadorned mail slots in which human remains have been inserted, either into the earth or into the shelves of upright mausoleums.

That’s why obsessive taphophiles gravitate to old boneyards, where, I’d argue, the spookiness can be chalked up to three things—unkempt nature, the antiquated craftsmanship of the stones, and melancholy prose.

The curators of the cemetery in Charleston that I shared with you three weeks ago have chosen to let nature run wild over the handiwork of the stonecarvers. You’ll recall that it was only by a stroke of chance that I managed to snap some photos before a landscaper went to work on the graves with a weed-whacker.

Today’s visit is all about the writing.

Once upon a time, armed only with a paper map and a magazine called Weird New Jersey, my old roommate and I traveled from our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, to the Mansfield Woodhouse Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Washington, New Jersey. In the pages of the magazine, we had learned the story of a heinous murder that had taken place in this area in May 1843. The article assured us that the tombstone inscriptions alone were well worth the visit. It always drove me crazy that this fanzine, which was (and still is) devoted to the oddities of my home state, didn’t simply reproduce the inscriptions, thus saving us the trip. But in retrospect I’m glad I went.

I don’t go in for true crime. Life is miserable enough, which is why I traffic in murderous fiction. But in order to appreciate the headstones, you have to know a little of the story.

On that spring night in 1843, a wealthy farmer, his younger sister, his three-year-old niece, and his niece’s husband were all murdered—hacked with an axe or bludgeoned—in and around the farmhouse where they lived in nearby Changewater, New Jersey. Two young boys, sons of the young couple, were sleeping in another room and escaped unharmed. At the time, the US was only on its 10th president, John Tyler. The murders occurred in Warren County, which hugs the Delaware River on the far western part of the state. Nevertheless, the crimes were heinous enough to attract the attention of newspapers in Newark and New York City.

The motive was presumed to be robbery. John B. Parke, the oldest victim, was known to keep cash in the house. I’ve seen figures saying his bankroll as high as $15,000, but the true amount was never nailed down to anyone’s satisfaction. Suspicion naturally fell upon family members or friends who knew of Parke’s stash. The investigation, trials, and appeals dragged on for two years, and strike modern readers as an appalling mess. At least four men were arrested. Some were indicted, tried, acquitted, then inexplicably arrested and tried again. I count at least two instances of double jeopardy, but I could be wrong. Two men, both relations, were eventually hanged for the crime, their bodies deposited in unmarked graves at a county crossroads, which I’m told was the typical treatment for criminals.

The four victims were laid to rest in the local churchyard. On my visit in those pre-smartphone days, I never took photos of the headstones, which were tall, lean, and nicely cut. (See images here and here.) But after 150-plus years, they were painfully hard to read. Some of the text was italicized, which further complicated matters. What follows is a mix of the inscriptions I took by hand the day I visited, amended and corrected with other sources I’ve since found online. What strikes me most are the length of the verses, the heartfelt language, and the obvious passion of the writer(s).

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash


In Memory of 
Maria the Wife & Mary M[atilda]
the daughter of John Castner
who were murdered on the night
of the 1st of May 1843,
Age of the Mother 42 years
Age of the Child 3 years

O friends and passers by pursue
this tale of woe
and seek the guilty hands which
aim’d the deadly blow
A murdered mother’s prayer
ascends from this sad ground
That ye will never rest till all
of them be found

I turned and saw the murderer’s blow
His wild and fearful eye
And for this sad imploring look
For only one in pity took
A child was doomed to die

I could forgive my murderer
had they not slain my child. Our 
mingled blood cries out to God 
for Vengeance


In Memory of
John Castner
Who with his wife
and Child and John Parke
were murdered in a most
brutal and cold blooded
manner on the night of the
1st of May 1843
in the 37th year of his age

O Friends, look here upon these wounds
on my temples and on my cheeks.
Children, think often on your Sire, his agony and shrieks
And bend around my lowly grave and drop the filial tear
And as ye value life and peace and things that ye hold dear,
O, seek ye out my murderers all for naught but cruel hate
Hath hurried me along to meet so direful a fate.

The Judgement Day is rolling on and should any of
my murderers escape the eye of man the wrath of God will
abide with them forever


Memory of
John B. Parke
who with John Castner, his wife and child
was murdered in a most brutal
and cold blooded manner
on the night of the 1st of May, 1843
in the 61st year of his age

Stop, traveler, pause a moment o’er this silent lowly grave
Here lies the dust of one who found a most untimely end.
When balmy sleep to sweet repose his careworn body gave
The murderer came, and with one blow all earthly ties did rend
And to the Judgement bar his spirit quickly made its way
To meet the Judge and the awards of that tremendous day

But in that awful day how will the murderer quail
when wrath of God Almighty shall with vengeance him assail.

Erected by Sarah Parke

* * *


Murder along the Musconetcong: a tale of Jersey justice, by Ruth Trask Farrow (T.F.H. Publications, 1973).

The Changewater murders: a true historical account, by Sharon & Robert Meeker, (Key West, FL: S. & R. Meeker, 1998).


On a lighter note, this week writer Scott D. Parker reviewed a wonderful out-of-print Halloween mystery anthology at Do Some Damage that I wish I could get my hands on. Edited by Isaac Asimov, it features 13 tales by writers including Asimov, Ellery Queen, Edith Wharton, Anthony Boucher, Ray Bradbury, Gahan Wilson, Edward D. Hoch, and more. (TOC reproduced below.) It sounds like a winner, but of course locating the book online is tough, not to mention pricey. Luckily most of the stories are collected elsewhere.

See you in three weeks!



  1. Sad story! And I may have that anthology under another name. I love the Asimov story!

  2. What a horror. Thanks for sharing the tale.

  3. Old cemeteries are a passion of mine. The South has some wonderful ones, especially in Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, and the one on St. Simon's Island (GA).

  4. Taphophile– I had not run across that before!

    Whoa. What gruesome murders and fascinating pursuit of justice… perhaps.

    Our family cemetery had brick pillars with spiked iron fence and gate. It would have been about 200 years old, but was ripped out by the county to plant an industrial park. It wasn't quite unkempt… but almost.

  5. Fascinating! Everything fades, even stone.

  6. Hi,
    Thanks so much for sharing. I recently bought the old Castner house and would love it if you shared any other thing else you found in your research. It is a truly fascinating story, and the house is a beautiful Victorian/Colonial. I was told it was also a stop on the underground railroad, in addition to the site of the murders.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>