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College Row
Emily Dickinson gate

A Gate for Emily

The gate to Emily Dickinson’s grave was returned this spring.

Of course, most people didn’t know it was missing.

Two years ago, historian Charles Marchant stumbled upon a gate on the porch of the Copper Penny, an antique store in Newfane, Vt. The gate bore the name of Edward Dickinson and the date 1858. Intrigued, Marchant investigated the gate’s background and immediately traced it back to Amherst. Contacts who were asked to inspect the Dickinson gravesite reported that its gate was intact—not realizing that they were looking at a replacement. Undaunted, Marchant, a cemetery commissioner, followed other leads for more than a year, putting notices in cemetery-association newsletters and writing inquiries to genealogists all over New England.

After encountering innumerable dead-ends, Marchant decided to start from square one and paid a visit to Amherst himself. Cindy Dickinson, director of The Emily Dickinson Museum, encouraged him to visit the gravesite, where he immediately noticed that the gate did not match the color and patina of the surrounding fence: he surmised that the original gate, installed when the plot was established in the mid-1800s, had gone missing.

Further investigation at the Special Collections Department of the Jones Library in Amherst led to a photograph of the original gate in situ, circa 1948-54. With visual proof of the Vermont gate’s origin, Marchant alerted the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, which seized the gate in mid-February. The antique-store owners were out of town when the gate was taken.

Robert Magovern, president of the Dickinson Family Association, retrieved the gate from the sheriff at the end of February and paid a visit to the Copper Penny’s owners, Donald and Linda Miller, who were unaware of what they had acquired and were happy to see the gate returned. The gate was displayed in The Emily Dickinson Museum during the spring, and returned to its original position shortly before the annual Emily Dickinson poetry walk on Saturday, May 15, the anniversary of the poet’s death.

In the midst of this joyous homecoming, one mystery still lingers: How and when did the gate disappear? “I’ve heard from many people who were living in Amherst who remember vaguely something about the gate being stolen,” said Cindy Dickinson. “It seems to be sort of becoming truth, but it’s hard to prove.” Mary Elizabeth Bernhard, a tour guide at the Dickinson Homestead, has a photograph of the original gate that she dated 1980. She remembers that the gate was stolen in 1984 or 1985. Dickinson scholar Polly Longsworth said, “Emily’s father built the fence around the plot, and put the gate on in 1858. And it stood there until whenever it disappeared. I had the sense that it was a student prank, but I don’t know. Maybe it was somebody who goes around stealing cemetery gates.”

It cannot be conclusively proved that the gate was actually stolen, since no police record of the theft has been found. However, Newfane Detective Sergeant Sherwood Lake, who traced ownership of the gate back to an antique dealer who sold it in 1976, has strong suspicions that the gate was pillaged in the early 1970s.

“We’re saying it was stolen. It looks like it’s brand new. There’s no rust on it. There’s not a mark on it. And there’s no way that anybody just gave that thing away,” Lake said. “I can understand if the thing was rusted, in disrepair or whatever, and somebody in the association cemetery board just got rid of it and put a new one up. But this one’s in perfect condition. Even the mounting bolts are still on it. Nobody gave that [gate] away. They stole it.”

Marchant explained that from the 1960s to 1980s, there was a revived interest in decorative Victorian ironwork, and he notes that many funerary items like cemetery gates and flagstones can easily be removed from their locations. Lake concurred, saying, “Somebody just went in there, and all they would’ve had to do was lift it up. Lift it right off its pins.” Mason Cleveland, the antiques dealer who
owned the gate before 1976, was the last link in the chain. According to Magovern, “Somebody said that he used to deal with a couple of pickers….They’re the ones who will go around to flea markets, or pick up house lots, or do attic cleaning, whatever. And they get these antiques, and they sell it to another dealer, who sells it to another dealer, who sells it to another dealer.” Cleveland has since passed away, and exactly how he acquired the gate seems to have gone with him.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding its disappearance, the Amherst community is thrilled at the gate’s recovery. “The whole thing is exciting,” Longsworth said. “Death was as important as life to Emily Dickinson, so things related to the cemetery are quite sacred.”
Robert Magovern, who kept the gate in his house for several weeks before it was reinstalled at the cemetery, said, “Every night, I would go out into the hall where I had the gate, and I would half expect to see a little white figure hovering above it. I never saw it, but I think Emily’s very pleased that the gate is going home.”

—Charlene Dy ’03

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Photo: Frank Ward

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