They knocked over the weathered headstones of Andrew Thissell, who was 3 years and 8 days old when he died in 1837, and of Adeline Bradley, who died at just three weeks. They uprooted the mottled granite marker of George J. Fox, who died in Virginia during the Civil War, skewing the American flag honoring his sacrifice.
They toppled entire rows of tombstones, sending them face down among the scattered leaves in the grassy graveyard. They broke others in two, leaving an exposed, ragged edge.
In all, the vandals who desecrated Hildreth Cemetery in Lowell over the weekend damaged more than 80 headstones, many more than two centuries old. Some timeworn memorials, softer stones that had weakened over the years, were destroyed altogether.
The scope of the damage, estimated at more than $10,000, stunned and outraged residents, officials, and local historians, who said they could not recall such wanton destruction.
"It's sacred ground, if you will, and it's also historic ground," said Deputy Superintendent Deborah Friedl of the Lowell Police Department. "It causes a lot of public outcry."
Friedl said investigators have canvassed the neighborhood near the cemetery but as yet do not have any leads. She urged residents with any information about the incident to contact police.
"This is really surprising to have an incident there, especially such a destructive one," Friedl said, noting that the cemetery has never been a gathering place for teenagers. "We've never had problems there."
A patrolling police officer discovered the damage Sunday morning. It was first reported in today's Lowell Sun. An adjacent burial ground, the privately maintained General Butler Cemetery, was not harmed. Enclosed by a tall wrought-iron fence and locked gate, it holds the remains of Civil War generals Adelbert Ames and Benjamin Butler.
The neighboring town of Dracut maintains the Hildreth Cemetery because it was built before Lowell annexed that part of Dracut.
According to a history of Lowell, written in 1920, the Lowell City Treasurer threatened to sell the cemetery in 1913 because Dracut had neglected to pay a $398.13 bill for a sidewalk. Fearing they would have to relocate the graves, Dracut officials won an injunction, arguing that Major Ephraim Hildreth, one of the town's earliest settlers, dedicated the land as a burial ground before his death in 1740.
"The town has always looked after the cemetery and has paid for its upkeep," the Dracut petition read.
Marie Sweeney, a longtime member of the Lowell Historical Society, said she was horrified by the news, and struggled to fathom how anyone could inflict such "senseless pain" on families and a community. The scope of the damage, she said, suggested that the vandalism not simply a mindless prank but a premeditated assault.
"It hurts," she said. "It doesn't make any difference how old the ancestors are, people have a real sense of reverence and connection to the graves."
Dracut Town Manager Dennis Piendak said he hoped the perpetrators would suffer stiff penalties to send a message that such vandalism would not be tolerated, and others said they were sickened by the destruction of so many resting places.
"It's a terrible thing," said Richard Howe Jr, the Middlesex North Register of Deeds who leads tours of historic cemeteries.
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