Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Have you ever noticed this gravestone in the Longmeadow Cemetery? While not common, causes of death were sometimes included on gravestones in the 18th and 19th centuries. The largest number of these seem to be for accidental deaths--perhaps meant as a cautionary tale.
"In memory of Gaius son of Mr Gaius and Mrs Eunice Bliss who was instantly killed by a Bull Nov 16, 1814 aged 15"
In 1814, 15 year old Gaius Bliss was "instantly killed by a bull." While horses were used for farm work as well as transportation, oxen were critical for much farm work. They were less selective about what they ate, they needed less gear for control and they were very smart. Typical training could take up to four years, and the animals could learn dozens of commands. According to an issue of Old Sturbridge Visitor, (Summer 2011), oxen start out as a male bull calf, and once neutered they are called steers. They earn the title of oxen when they have been trained to obey commands such as: haw (turn left), gee (turn right), or whoa--we all know what that one means!
In spite of their intelligence, they are large animals, weighing in at nearly a ton when fully grown. We don't know exactly what happened to young Gaius, and the fact that his stone says "bull" and not oxen might suggest a different beast, but the process of yoking or unyoking oxen was inherently dangerous, as these animals have large horns. Another gravestone with a similar story in Warren, MA states that 14 year old Joseph Kar "who was killed June 30th 1770 by onyoking a pair of Oxen." Young boys were often given the responsibility of training a team of oxen.
Young Gaius' unexpected and tragic death was a reminder to all of his family and neighbors of the fragility of life and that tomorrow was promised to no one. A journal belonging to his cousin Hannah Bliss, also of Longmeadow, is now in the collections of the MA Historical Society archives. She mentions the incident in her journal:
"Novem 17 Thurs
Have this morning heard of the death of Cousin Gaius Bliss he was killed by a bull surprising was his death to me O may this solemn dispensation of thy holy providence be the means of preparing of us all for our own great and last change."
A similar fate in Warren, MA 1770
1390 Longmeadow Street, Home of Gaius Bliss
Betsy and Al McKee have made a study of gravestones, with a special interest in causes of death found on gravestones. Their photo collection of gravestones numbers more than 30,000.
Contributed by Betsy McKee, Board Member, Longmeadow Historical Society
Originally published December 3, 2020