Thursday, October 1, 2020

Romanus Emerson's Obituaries, 1852

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) 21 October 1852, page 1

Romanus Emerson, born 1 September 1782 in Townsend, Massachusetts, and died 10 October 1852 in South Boston, Massachusetts was a curious character.  His parents, John Emerson and Katherine Eaton, were quite religious.  John was a deacon, and Katherine’s lengthy obituary was written up in the August 1809 magazine, The Panoplist and Missionary Magazine United (a religious tract).  They had eleven children, including eight boys (seven lived to adulthood).  Of those seven living sons, five became ministers.  You can read her obituary HERE.

The Emerson family was from a long line of ministers that go back to Rev. Joseph Emerson, born in England about 1620 who was a minister in Mendon, Massachusetts, and several other towns.  He married Elizabeth Bulkely, the daughter of Rev. Edward Bulkely (1614 – 1696) the first minister of Concord, Massachusetts. This is the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), son of a Concord minister, who studied for the ministry at Harvard, yet later reconsidered religion and became a transcendentalist philosopher.
Romanus Emerson, my 4th great grandfather, and cousin to “The Sage of Concord” Ralph Waldo Emerson, also studied for the ministry like his brothers.  Somewhere along the way he changed his mind about religion, too, and began to espouse atheism.  It was quite shocking for his time period, and he was well known in Boston, being a founding member of the Boston Infidel Society.  But he was also an ardent abolitionist, and a member of the Humane Society, and other progressive organizations that made him a popular, but controversial, figure in Boston society.  Emerson Street in South Boston was named for him, since he had his house and land there before it was developed into a neighborhood of Boston and all the surrounding streets are named for numbers and letters of the alphabet. 

I was surprised to learn that Romanus Emerson’s obituary was carried in newspapers across the United States in 1852.  When I used Genealogy Bank and put in his name and didn’t limit it to Massachusetts, results poured in from all over. Five years ago, the last time I had searched his name in newspapers I had limited it to just Massachusetts.  This was a big shock to learn that news of his death was carried outside of New England!

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) 21 October 1852, page 1
"Romanus Emerson, Esq., an old citizen of Boston, died a few days ago. He was, it is said, a confirmed infidel, and the main support of all the infidels in that city.  His dying request was that no clergyman should officiate at his funeral, but that an address written by himself, avowing his principles, should be read.  This request was not complied with."

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), 22 October 1852
"Death of an Old Resident - Romanus Emerson, Esq., one of the oldest residents in South Boston, died on Saturday last, aged 70 years.  Mr. Emerson, in 1809, took up his residence in South Boston, and built a house on the old road, just before Mt. Washington, in what is now known as the Lower Village.  In this house he continued to reside until his death, a period of 43 years.  When he first lived in South Boston, there were but about six houses in the place, and he has lived to watch the rapid growth of the place until he had gathered about him a population of 15,000 souls.  In early life, Mr. Emerson was a firm Baptist.  about 18 years since, he suddenly became infidel, and continued so until his death, avowing to his end that there was no God, no Heaven, no Hell, and denying the immortality of the soul.  He has been for some time the main supporter of the infidels in this city. His dying request was that no clergyman should officiate at his funeral, but that an address written by himself, avowing his principles, should be read.  This request is not to be complied with, and he was buried yesterday afternoon from the Hawes place church.  Boston Times, October 14."

Romanus never traveled, and he was not famous, so I do not know why he was in the out of state newspapers except for the curious fact that he was an “infidel” or an avowed atheist.

Finding all this interesting information on my ancestor, Romanus Emerson, also sent me back to Find A Grave to re-search his name in the Boston Cemeteries.  I had read some of the Boston obituaries years ago, and like above, they all mentioned the Hawes Burial Ground in South Boston, not far from where his house stood.  I had searched this cemetery on foot and not found any Emersons.  But, according to Find A Grave I finally found him!  "Gravesite details - AE 71 y, 1 m, 9d (b. 1781?) orig. interred at Hawes Cemetery, re-interred Nov. 1852 at Mount Hope"  No photo, but I put in a photo request and hope to visit Mount Hope when the pandemic is over.

Thus, it paid off well to re-search for Romanus Emerson twice where I did not expect to find him!

For the truly curious, I did a series of blog posts on Romanus Emerson back in 2010:
Part 1 - "The 'Odd' Romanus Emerson"

Part 2 - "Romanus Emerson Died an Infidel"

Part 3 - "Romanus Emerson buried in a Christian Cemetery, whether he liked it or not!"

Part 4 - "Romanus Emerson, in his own words" (He wrote his own eulogy which was NOT read at his funeral):

Part 5- "Romanus Emerson, a few words from the Infidels":

Romanus Emerson's 1852 Last Will and Testament blog post: 

My Surname Saturday post about my EMERSON lineage:

UPDATE 2 February 2021
I published some of the Boston Obituaries for Romanus Emerson! Lots of good biographical information for Romanus were included in these newspaper articles...


Cite/Link to this post:  Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Romanus Emerson's Obituaries, 1852", Nutfield Genealogy, posted October 1, 2020, (


  1. Does the 'address written by himself' survive? It would be interesting to see what he said!

    1. Yes, it did survive! It was published in the Boston Investigator on 20 October 1852. I have a transcribed version at this blog post:

  2. I love obituaries of old! The writing, the adjectives, the opinions, so colorful and yes, full of information. Thanks for sharing.