Trinity ChurchyardTrinity Churchyard (all photographs by the author)

Squeezed between towering skyscrapers, Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan and its adjacent cemetery is a one-of-a-kind sanctuary, a curious contrast reminding us of the city’s past. Offering a pleasant oasis for Wall Street lunch breaks, the cemetery is often animated by snackers who overlook the macabre note of this setting they picked for eating their takeaway food. Lined up between the narrow pathways of the cemetery, every tombstone tells a different story. One of them, the grave of James Leeson, is a discreet, but peculiar, monument to esoteric Americana. 

Born in 1756, Leeson died 38 years later, and nothing much is known of his life, even if it seems his grave has made him one of the more fascinating internments in Trinity. In fact, Leeson seems to enjoy a second existence through the attention he draws from a small gathering of curiosity enthusiasts, funeral art amateurs, and even… secret codes freaks. Nowadays half-damaged, the carved stone memorial still bears a few visual elements that gives us clues on our mystery man. Not much, but enough to puzzle the viewer.

Cryptogram in Trinity ChurchyardJames Leeson’s grave

With what did Leeson choose to decorate his last home? A winged hourglass, a classic in terms of funeral iconography, which stands for “Tempus Fugit” — time literally flees. Leeson wanted to remind the next generation that life is short. The flaming urn is here to inform us about the immortality of the soul, as the faithful Leeson believed. Finally, on the right side, are carved Masonic paraphernalia: a compass, a square, and a level, entangled together. Leeson was indeed a Mason. But unlike the many other Masons buried in Trinity Churchyard, Leeson’s grave has a cryptic bonus.  

Bowing on the superior side of the tombstone is a suite of bizarre-looking pictograms, made out of dots and dashes. Is it some Venusian language, a black magic spell, or even a secret warning to prevent potential body snatchers? The answer would be published a century later, in 1899, in the publication of the Trinity Record. The square-like markings are in fact an example of a Free Mason cipher, pretty unique since the cuneiform code appears usually in esoteric manuals, to prevent profane access to information and keep rituals in secrecy. 

Pigment Cyper, Masonic CypherThe Pigpen Cypher also known as Masonic Cypher. From Secret New York - An Unusual Guide

Understood only by a minority at the time, the insoluble epitaph translates as “Remember Death.” A simple, but still striking, message left behind. Leeson could be remembered as the man warning the Masons, in the privacy of their own language, that even they will take part in the great dance of death. 


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