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Mysterious headstone will soon be back where it belongs

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The case of the mysterious headstone found along Plaza Drive two weeks ago has been solved.

Francis Willard’s 157-year-old gravestone will be back today in the hands of the Lowville Rural Cemetery, a small graveyard off Rural Avenue.

The 150-pound, 4-foot-tall headstone and two others were found along Plaza Drive on Nov. 19 by a woman walking home from the grocery store. No one knows how they got there.

But some good detective work and genealogy research determined the mysterious gravestone belonged to Mr. Willard, a longago Lowville resident and the father of a state senator who served in the state Legislature during the 1850s and was also a brigadier general.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Detective Gary M. Belch and Deputy John M. Gleason worked hard to find the rightful owners of all three monuments.

Detective Belch said Wednesday that he was thrilled Mr. Willard’s headstone will be back where it belongs. Ronald L. Wright, the cemetery’s caretaker, intends to pick it from the sheriff’s department today.

“It’s a happy ending for everyone,” the detective said.

The added historical aspect involving a state senator makes it more important to get the headstone back to the cemetery, he said.

He and Deputy Gleason were able to find the rightful owners of two of the gravestones, but that left a mystery with the third. It contained only Mr. Willard’s name and that he died at age 78 on March 4, 1855. No other information was available.

That’s where Janet A. Fish, a local genealogy enthusiast from Rodman, got involved in her part of solving the mystery. She read a story about the mystery in the Watertown Daily Times and completed some subsequent research. Through her help, Detective Belch learned that Mr. Willard was buried in the Lowville cemetery, where his wife, Sally Northrup Willard, also was laid to rest.

No one knows how it became missing from Mr. Willard’s grave site. Mr. Wright, who has been at the cemetery for the past 16 years, had no idea that it was missing.

“It’s a nice looking stone,” he said. “I won’t know more until I pick it up.”

Most likely, either it was stolen years ago as a part of prank or it was removed by the family, replaced by a larger stone and then thrown away, said Jerry E. Perrin, treasurer of the Lewis County Historical Society.

As for her research. Mrs. Fish started by finding Francis Willard’s name in the 1850 U.S. Census and then went to look on Ancestry.com to find more information. She knew there had to be a connection between the census, Francis Willard and the gravestone because no one else was found with that name in the north country.

Mr. Perrin then tracked down Mr. Willard’s March 7, 1855, obituary in the now-defunct Northern New York Journal. He also learned the man was born in 1776 and died at his residence.

According to his obituary, “Mr. Willard removed to our village in the fall of 1847 from Castleton, Vt., since which time he has been known as well by his exemplary character as a Christian as by his venerable appearance. During a brief, but painful illness, his patience was only equalled by his resignation at death.”

Without much information to go on, the sleuths were able to return the other two stones to their rightful cemeteries.

The headstone for Sherman E. Laflin, who died at age 28 on Nov. 29, 1860, is now back in North Watertown Cemetery, Bradley Street. The other stone did not have a name, only an age, 59, and a date of death, May 16, 1851. Yet the detective and deputy deduced the illegible headstone belongs to Sophia Sill, the first wife of William Sill. The Sills were buried at Brookside Cemetery in the town of Watertown, where the stone has been returned.

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