Oscar Mason Wheeler died on June 23, 1864, at the age of 17 from convulsions most likely brought on by Rheumatic Fever. He was laid to rest in his father Jonathan’s family burial lot in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.
Jonathan Martin Wheeler was a retired jeweler who was once part-owner of Wheeler, Knight & Company. A veteran of the Civil War, where he served as a colonel in the 3rd Rhode Island Regiment, he lived in Warwick with his wife Adeline Matilda (Lawrence) and their two servants. Daughter Emma Louise, a music teacher, had married and left the family home.
In May of 1890, Emma died of gastritis at the age of 46. By this time, Jonathan had lost his whole family. Adeline had died of cancer on March 12, 1882, and been lain to rest in the Wheeler family lot. Suddenly, the 73-year-old man was all alone.
Six months after his daughter’s death, Jonathan married 35-year-old Laura Quinton. The union lasted for four years before he took his final breath on Jan. 2, 1894, at his home in the Edgewood section of Cranston. In his will, he left Laura the entirety of his estate, which included the family lot at Swan Point Cemetery.
The ground where Jonathan now reposed with his first wife and their son also held the remains of his mother, Barbara (Mason) Wheeler, and other relatives. His father, Jonathan Martin Wheeler Sr., had died in 1822 and been buried in Louisiana.
Jonathan’s niece, Seraphine Augusta Gardner, the daughter of his sister Matilda, had reserved the burial lot next to his. Soon, she would be dragging his young widow into court.
Laura’s desire was to repose beside her late husband when her time came. However, Jonathan’s son Oscar had been occupying that grave for decades. As the new owner of the lot, Laura arranged with the authorities of Swan Point Cemetery to move Oscar’s remains to another location so that she could eventually have his burial spot.
The move was made and the now-empty grave beside Jonathan was noted to be “Reserved for Laura, wife of J.M. Wheeler.”
When Seraphine discovered what had transpired, she appealed to the cemetery authorities to return Oscar’s body to its original location. Her request was refused and she filed a lawsuit. In 1894, it was decided by the court that neither Laura nor the cemetery authorities had a legal right to relocate Oscar’s remains, and ruled in favor of Seraphine’s request.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.