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Massachusetts Historical Society: Online Collections

Online: Object of the Month

In Death Lamented: A Mourning Ring for Mary Otis Gray

Anne Bentley
Curator of Art

Mary Otis Gray mourning ring Gold, amethyst, enamel, crystal

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Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

This ring, crafted in 1763 of gold, enamel, amethyst, and crystal, commemorates the death of Mary Otis Gray, wife of Boston merchant John Gray and sister of Mercy Otis Warren.

A Virtuous and Amiable Consort

Mary Otis Gray’s life is encapsulated in a one-sentence obituary printed in the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser on 7 November 1763:

Last Thursday died in the 33d Year of her Age, greatly lamented, Mrs. Mary Gray, the virtuous and amiable Consort of Mr. John Gray of this Town, and second Daughter of the Honorable James Otis, Esq; of Barnstable.

Unlike her famed older sister Mercy Otis Warren, Mary Gray did not figure on the national stage as a patriot, author, and historian, so her obituary follows the custom of the day in framing her life through her husband and father. By using artifacts and church and civic records we can tease out a few more facts concerning her life. She was born on 9 September 1730, the fourth child in a large family born to James and Mary (Allyne) Otis of Barnstable. The Reverend Oakes Shaw solemnized her marriage to Boston merchant and ropewalk owner John Gray on 14 May 1761 when she was not yet 31—a rather advanced age to marry in colonial New England. We know that she and her sister Mercy sat to John Singleton Copley for their portraits in 1763: Mary’s portrait is in our collection and Mercy’s portrait is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See the online presentation of Mary's portrait. Through the records of the First Church in Boston, we discover that later that same year she bore a son, John, who was baptized and died at home on 17 September. A ring commissioned by his grieving parents records that he died at the age of 6 days. See the online presentation of the ring created to commemorate John’s death.

Greatly Lamented

Town records note that Mary herself died “suddenly” three months later, on 5 November 1763 and, except for a single artifact, her documented history ends there. Following his wife’s death, John Gray observed the prevailing fashion and ordered rings made to distribute to family and friends in her memory. Our example, fashioned of gold with black enamel on a scrolled band that reads “M: GRAY OB:5 NOV 1763•Æ 33,” also has a center amethyst in a raised bezel, flanked by two smaller cut crystals. More ornate than the typical ring of the period, it was likely made for a family member, who definitely wore it for a long period of time, given the damaged condition of the stones and worn gold mounting. We cannot say for a certainty that this ring belonged to Mary’s sister, Mercy Otis Warren, but it and Mary’s portrait came to the MHS through Mercy’s great-grandson, Pelham Winslow Warren, in 1923.

The Tradition of Mourning Jewelry

Mary Gray’s ring is an example of traditional English funeral customs imported by New England’s settlers. Scarves, gloves, and rings inscribed with the deceased’s name and date of death were distributed to the mourners before the procession to the graveyard. The earliest examples of New England funeral rings were gold bands embellished with winged death heads. By the mid-18th century the more graceful rococo scrolled bands with faceted stones like the Gray rings were the height of fashion. These gave way to the neoclassical style of the late 18th century, when the weeping willow and urn became symbolic with mourning. Later, hair as a component of memorial jewels came into widespread use. By the mid to late 19th century, jewelry made almost entirely of braided and woven hair was all the rage, along with the use of jet, pearls, and other stones in ornate settings. The practice of wearing mourning jewels declined sharply following the death in 1901 of Queen Victoria, whose example had set the standard for mourning both in England and America.

Featured Exhibition: In Death Lamented

The Gray family rings are among the many examples of mourning jewelry and related artifacts on display in our exhibition, In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry from 28 September 2012 through 31 January 2013. The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The companion volume to the exhibition is available for purchase from Amazon.com.

Sources for Further Reading

Bell, C. Jeanenne. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry. Paducah, Ky.: Collector Books, 1998.

Bullock, Steven C. “Often concerned in funerals”: Ritual, Material Culture, and the Large Funeral in the Age of Samuel Sewall.” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 82: New Views of New England: Studies in Material and Visual Culture, 1680-1830.

Dawes, Ginny Redington and Olivia Collings. Georgian Jewellery, 1714-1830. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2007.

DeLorme, Maureen. Mourning Art and Jewelry. Atglen, Penn.: Schiffer, 2004.

Fales, Martha Gandy. Jewelry in America, 1600-1900. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1995.

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Love and Loss: American Mourning and Portrait Miniatures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2004.

Nehama, Sarah. In Death Lamented: the Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2012.

Sheumaker, Helen. Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

West, Larry and Patricia Abbot. Tokens of Affection and Regard: Antique Photographic Jewelry. New York: West Companies, 2005.

Web Resources

Art of Mourning: A Resource for Memorial, Mourning, Sentimental Jewellery and Art, Hayden Peters, www.artofmourning.com

Historic New England, “Not Lost but Gone Before: Mourning Jewelry.” www.historicnewengland.org/collections-archives-exhibitions/online-exhibitions/JewelryHistory/themes/Mourning.htm

Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/features/mourning-jewelry

Victorian Hairwork Society Website, www.hairworksociety.org

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