Old Mortality and His Pony at Laurel Hill Cemetery

By David Gurmai

“An old man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered Presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the inscription, which, announcing, in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain…”

Sir Walter Scott thus introduced readers to an otherwise unnamed character, bestowed only with the sobriquet “Old Mortality,” in his serial Tales of My Landlord: The Tale of Old Mortality. Not purely manifested from Scott’s imagination, Old Mortality was modeled after a very real stonemason, Robert Paterson. Paterson roamed the Scottish countryside in the second half of the 18th century, refreshing the faded inscriptions on the grave markers of Presbyterian martyrs. Scott personally met Paterson in 1793, when the former visited Dunnottar Castle while the latter was fabricating a headstone in Dunnottar Parish Churchyard. The rest of the English-speaking world met Old Mortality, whose semblance and enterprise in fiction was faithful to the original man, when Scott’s tale was published in 1816, fifteen years after Paterson’s death.

Creative Commons The Covenanters Stone, Dunnottar Church, Stonehaven by Rosser1954 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

How Old Mortality came to be a monument at Laurel Hill Cemetery requires a brief initiation to Laurel Hill’s origins. American cities underwent extraordinary growth in the early 1800s. Neighborhood churchyards were being surrounded by businesses and residences, quickly becoming overcrowded with burials, and were poorly maintained. Developers had a keen eye on the value of the land occupied by city graveyards, resulting in many cemeteries being vacated with the remains being dumped in mass graves and causing at least one riot of protest in Philadelphia. In particularly egregious cases, the cemeteries were simply built over with the bodies never being removed. One of Laurel Hill’s founders fell victim to a poorly kept Quaker cemetery, having buried a young daughter whose grave he was later unable to locate. He and three other prominent Philadelphians decided to establish Laurel Hill Cemetery as an alternative, using Paris’ Père Lachaise as the exemplar. The land chosen was well above the local water table, with rolling hills accented by trees and other plantings, and possessed a grand view of the Schuylkill River. The cemetery’s charter and lot deeds were written in a way that precluded the land from ever being taken over by developers for other purposes. The idea was to have a truly permanent resting place for the dead while creating a beautiful escape from the city for the living.

Serendipity brought sculptor James Thom into the picture. He was a self-taught artist from Ayrshire in southwest Scotland, whose work focused on bringing Scots literature to life; his first popular work was a life-sized sculpture depicting Robert Burns’ poem “Tam O’Shanter.” The cultural link between American Victorians and those of the British Isles meant that James Thom’s subjects were familiar to American audiences, as were the works of Sir Walter Scott. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Thom’s statuary was featured in American exhibitions, and it is believed that one of those shows brought his work to the attention of Laurel Hill’s founders. The timing of Thom’s exhibitions with the founding of Laurel Hill formed a perfect confluence.

Circa 1890

Thom’s first Old Mortality sculpture was made in 1834. The inclusion of Sir Walter Scott in conversation with Robert Paterson seems to be Thom’s invention, as other depictions with a figure of Scott present all appear to be derived from Thom’s version. In 1836, Laurel Hill Cemetery’s founders ordered the sculpture group from Thom but an unfortunate fall from a cart damaged the likenesses of Scott and the pony. For multiple reasons, including the repair of the sculpture, Thom came to America in late 1836, set up shop in New Jersey, and used local stone to recreate the two damaged figures. In April of 1837, after receiving the repaired statues at the cemetery, one of Laurel Hill’s founders invited Thom to his house for tea and supper and the two spent the evening conversing. His host described Thom in his diary as “a fine intelligent Scotsman,” and later added, “I have quite made up my mind that Old Mortality is a suitable object for the grounds.”

From “Illustrated Guide To and Through Laurel Hill Cemetery”, 1852

The statue group, and the idea it represents of maintaining permanent memory in stone, was so fitting that Old Mortality was featured in the first pamphlet promoting the cemetery, printed in 1838. Old Mortality continues to be an enduring image of Laurel Hill Cemetery. It greets everyone entering via the archway of the gatehouse, with a bust of James Thom situated in the background of the group (when the bust was added is unknown). Today, the cemetery’s visitors are much removed by time from Sir Walter Scott’s writings, so the narrative needs retelling. However, after hearing the story of Robert Paterson’s mission to keep headstones in good repair, everyone understands how appropriate it is for Old Mortality to be the first thing seen upon entering the cemetery.

Circa 1910


“And if it be my lot to return to this village after ye are gane hame to your ain place, these auld withered hands will frame a stane of memorial, that your name may not perish from amang the people.”

– Departing salutation from Old Mortality in Tales of My Landlord

1 thought on “Old Mortality and His Pony at Laurel Hill Cemetery

  1. Excellent article, David! Thanks very much. Evidently another one of James Thom’s sculptural groups based on Burns, “Tam O’Shanter,” graced Fairmount Park until a car smashed into it in 1961 and reduced it to smithereens.


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