Graves and Gravestones of Cape Cod, Part I: A Murder Victim, a Curse, and a Depressed Cemetery

September 23, 2020 — We spent a week on Cape Cod earlier this month. I only like beaches in that being at one puts me closer to shellfish dinners and the weird wonders of tide pools. I don’t like beaches for swimming or sunning or doing anything atop an expanse of bland sand. But the kids love water, so we went to Cape Cod. Still, we balanced out those trips to the sand with trips to cemeteries and saw lots of graves on this vacation. But don’t take my word for it. Take my words for it.

Grave of the Lady of the Dunes (Provincetown)

She was found in the summer of 1974 among the Racine Dunes of Provincetown, both hands and one forearm missing, teeth gone, naked, almost severed head lying on a blue bandana and pair of jeans. I know, I know. You were just reading about my kids having fun at the beach. Nobody knew who she was or who killed her, but you can go deep down an internet hole looking into this cold case. There have been plenty of suspect theories and three different exhumations, and while she hasn’t received justice, she has received a nickname, the Lady of the Dunes.

In 2015, author Joe Hill sent us down another Internet hole when he observed that an extra in the background of Jaws seemed to look like the composites of the Lady in the Dunes, and that she was wearing jeans and a blue bandana. On top of that, Jaws was filmed that same summer of 1974 and about a 100 miles from Provincetown.

Whoever she was, her grave is in St. Peter’s Cemetery at the bottom of the steep hill beside the church. The grave refers to her as an “unidentified female body.” After we saw it, we drove through the Racine Dunes, and at some point we’ll rewatch Jaws. Or the backgrounds of Jaws.

Grave with a Curse (Yarmouth Port)

The place was called Ancient Cemetery, but I was headed to a relatively new gravestone, one of the few times I’ve done that in my life. The stone I wanted to see was placed in the 1980s above the earthly remains of Mary C. Dolencie. Her grave is a simple square of rock, but her epitaph is fire and brimstone.

She’s in section J3, not too far away from the storage shed. On one side of the stone is her name and “best used by” dates, 1906-1985. On the other, the following inscription:

May eternal damnation be upon those in Whaling Port who, without knowing me, have maliciously vilified me. May the curse of God be upon them and theirs.

That’s right. She didn’t pay to have her life summarized, her best features immortalized, or to impart hard-won wisdom. She cursed the neighborhood in which she had lived.

Whaling Port is a subdivision in Yarmouth Port, and while the mid-to-late 20th century isn’t an ancient time, those decades are still far enough back that the events that inspired that dramatic curse are vague and unknown and starting to accrete lore.

Some say she had too many cats, that the cats attracted coyotes, that those coyotes ate her neighbors’ pets. That she fed the pigeons, making a mess of the neighborhood. That she shined lights into her neighbors’ windows. Mostly minor, but annoying stuff, that probably resulted in few awkward conversations and “get-off-my-property”-type arguments in the ’hood. I mean, she was probably “that neighbor.” We’ve all got one. And hopefully they don’t read our blogs.

But she thought her neighbors were out to get her and her cats and her pigeons and her coyotes, so she left them a stone middle finger under perpetual care. Apparently, an effort was made to bar that inscription, either by her neighbors or the MSPCA to which she left her estate, but the stone carver stayed firm. He’d been paid, given instructions, and, I have to think, knew what a rare opportunity he had to engrave a curse into a gravestone. And I’m glad he did. 

A Depressed Cemetery (Wellfleet)

Duck Creek Cemetery dates back to around 1740, when it was also the site of the area’s congregational meeting house. It’s full of sea captains and skull-topped stones and grave slates broken into sharp shards. Many of its white stones and tree limbs sport matching yellow fungus growths, and it’s most notable feature is how the whole thing slopes to a depression in the center. Some kind of gully or kettle hole, like you’re at the bottom of a giant antlion pit of the dead. There’s not a lot of information about the cemetery out there, so I have to resort to such imagery as “giant antlion pit of the dead.”

Continue to Part II!