Once upon a time the renowned British author Charles Dickens visited the United States. While his visit ultimately did not leave him with positive thoughts for our country, he did perform one act that to this day remains a mystery.
During his journey across the United States he made his way to Virginia around February or March in 1842. It is documented well that Dickens left with a distaste of Virginia because of its dependency on slavery. However, when a request is made of him, something that ultimately will align Virginia with the only evidence of his visit to the United States, he complies.
Deep in the thickets of Cumberland State Forest remains the unique literary gift that Charles Dickens bestowed upon a grieving family. On March 12, 1842, thirteen month old Charles Irving Thornton died and upon the request of a family friend, (thought to be American writer, Washington Irving) Dickens inscribed the epitaph that now rests quietly on the aging tombstone that remains hidden from the world.
To find it is no easy task as the forest likes to keep its treasures however with careful steps and patience, I was able to find the Thornton Family Cemetery where it remains and is quite literally deep in the shadows of the woods. Without the help of technology by way of my smart compass, I doubt I would have been able to uncover its hiding place.
As you can see from the images I was able to capture, it shows its age, the writing barely legible in some places and the tombstone itself suffering a full horizontal crack along its base. The following is the epitaph that Dickens inscribed upon it:
“THIS IS THE GRAVE
of a Little Child whom God in his goodness Called to a Bright Eternity when he was very young. Hard as it is for Human Affection to reconcile itself to Death In any shape (and most of all, perhaps First In This)
HIS PARENTS can even now believe That it will be a Consolation to them Throughout their lives and when they shall have grown old and grey always to think of him as a Child IN HEAVEN and Jesus Called a little Child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. He was the son of ANTHONY and M.I. THORNTON Called CHARLES IRVING. He was born on the 20 th day of January 1841, and he died on the 12 th day of March 1842. Having lived only 13 months and 19 days.”
While it was commemorated in the Virginia Landmarks Register and in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, its remembrance thrives only with the trees within the forest. The family cemetery as a whole which seemed to be about five visible headstones, in its nearly two hundred year old existence has been taken over by nature. It’s significance, however is still very much prominent. This literary gift remains the only one of its kind in the United States and one of only two of existence in the world, the other belonging to that of Dickens’ sister-in-law.
It was a rewarding experience to actually find it albeit sad to see the lack of its upkeep. Its literary significance shall remain and the gift it became to a grieving family shall never die.