At the heart of Gothic literature is love–doomed love, perhaps, but love nonetheless. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem “Annabel Lee” set the standard for passion undeterred by death. It tells the tale of a living ghost, a man haunting the tomb of his beloved.
Not long after “Annabel Lee” was published, a man in Providence, Rhode Island, took the story to heart. Rush Hawkins, born in Vermont in 1831, had risen to great wealth. Like most prosperous New Englanders of the 19th century, he considered himself a collector, though his interests were a bit eccentric. He collected art, of course, but he also acquired a library of 450 incunabula (printed books published before 1501) and also bought any book by or about anyone named Hawkins.
His clearest passion, however, was for his wife, Annmary Brown, a member of Providence’s famous Brown clan and the daughter of a diplomat. The couple lived in New York, though they often traveled to climates that were more agreeable to Annmary’s poor health. In 1903, she succumbed to pneumonia, leaving Hawkins alone with his collections. Distraught, he resolved to inter all of his loves together.
If you walk down Brown Street today, just a few paces from Brown University’s quad, you’ll stumble upon Hawkins’ legacy. Set amid the neighborhood’s regal homes and brick dorms there’s a large, windowless building you can’t mistake for anything other than a tomb. It’s massive, however–about the size of a small library. Even more peculiar, its bronze front doors stand open to visitors.
Inside, selections from Hawkins’ art collection hang upon marble walls. There are four rooms, the first three of which contain many of his treasures, along with items from other collections (including Dr. Cyril Mazansky’s toy soldiers, marching 5,000 strong in formation under glass). Hawkins’ books once resided here, as well, but were removed to the university’s Hay Library, a location more conducive to preservation. In the fourth room, Hawkins laid his wife to rest, and 17 years later–after being struck by a car at the age of 89–he joined her there.
The majority of the tomb’s exhibits came straight from the couple’s apartment in New York–all the things they both loved in life. And although Hawkins left an endowment to care for the tomb and to keep it open to the public (it’s now owned by Brown University), you get the impression that this ghostly mansion is still meant for Annmary, not for us.
As a final act of love, Hawkins stipulated that each year on March 9, Annmary’s birthday, money be taken from the endowment to decorate her grave with flowers, which were to be left there all year. If you visit, you’ll find the blossoms slowly wilting, framing Annmary’s epitaph: “Like some rare flower entombed in night, its beauty shedding everlasting light.”