A Rabbit's Tale 2/17/2011
A cemetery lies forgotten under the foundation of a high school in Israel. Across the globe, in Groton, Massachusetts, a marble obelisk marks the grave of the victims of a terrible tragedy. Five granite stones lie in an abandoned graveyard on the outskirts of Lowell, Massachusetts. This is the story of the Steinbeck family, and the event that ties together these memorials.
I first came across Edward J. Steinbeck’s gravestone in 2005. In the northeast corner of the old neglected Hunt-Clark Burial Ground, covered in poison ivy, I found the Steinbeck family lot. Tewksbury Vital Records show that Edward’s wife was Susan Clark and that Edward was born in Palestine in 1857. Looking into the Steinbeck genealogy, I delved into names and dates. It wasn’t until a link was discovered to the scholarly paper by Yaron Perry that light was shed on the family tragedy.
Friedrich and Johann Grosssteinbeck immigrated to Palestine from Germany in 1849 and soon went by the last name Steinbeck. The brothers were part of a Christian Protestant settlement on the outskirts of Jaffa, and the intent was to teach farming skills to the Jewish inhabitants. The Crimean War, which broke out in 1853 between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, caused the native population to grow angry and distrustful of the Christian settlers. In 1854 the Steinbecks were joined by the Dickson family of Groton, Massachusetts and Mary Dickson soon wed Friedrich Steinbeck while her sister Almira wed Johann Steinbeck. Sarah Gertrude was born to Friedrich and Mary in 1855, and in 1857, after Edward Joseph was born, the family moved closer to the main settlement with Mary’s parents, Walter and Sarah Dickson, and her young sister Samuelette Caroline, who was called Caroline. Unsanitary conditions brought on bouts of malaria, and gangs roamed the areas outside the city.
On the night of January 11, 1858, a group of Palestinian men came to the Dickson home. Caroline Dickson’s testimony reveals that the men shot Friedrich and injured Walter Dickson before brutally assaulting Mary and her mother in front of Caroline and the Steinbeck children. After robbing the household, the men disappeared into the night.
The Dickson and Steinbeck families returned to Groton, MA in September of 1858. In the Groton Cemetery is the Dickson-Steinbeck Monument dedicated to those who were attacked. The name of Walter and his wife Sarah are inscribed on the west side, and Frederick and Mary Steinbeck are listed on the north side. Mary died in 1867 at age 34, having never fully recovered from her attack.
Friedrich was buried on Mount Hope in the settlers’ cemetery, which is now under the Shevah Mofet School in South Tel-Aviv. John Ernst Steinbeck, grandson of Johann Steinbeck and Almira Dickson, came to the hill while visiting Jerusalem in 1966. Many scholars argue that his family history influenced his work, as they show characters that take risks to achieve their goals and a struggle between good and evil. Although John never met his great-uncle or grandfather, he must have been aware of the family history.
Johann and Almira Steinbeck moved to several different states before settling in California. Almira’s younger sister Caroline moved to San Benito County, California, and the 1930 U.S. Census for Hollister lists the household of Caroline (Dickson) Banks. Living with her was her widower nephew Edward J. Steinbeck and her widowed niece Sarah Gertrude Park.
Edward J. Steinbeck died in 1935, and he was buried in the old Hunt-Clark Burial Ground in Lowell, Massachusetts next to his wife Susan and their three young children, Frederick, Mary, and Ruth.