In the Old Burial Ground is an odd grave maker. It reads, “In memory of Elizabeth, who Should have been the Wife of Mr. Simeon Palmer… died Augst 14th 1776 in the 64th year of her age.” A clue to the meaning of this inscription may lie in a 1901 account by a Little Compton resident of an eccentric belief held by local minister Richard Billings, who “firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose.”
Little Compton’s original proprietors set aside the land for the Burial Ground in 1678, and the oldest marker belongs to Mary Rouse Price, who died in 1698. Other stones mark the graves of children who died with alarming frequency in the early years of the town, victims of epidemics, and many of Little Compton’s most notable residents including Primus Collins and Betty Alden, whose stories are also available on Rhode Tour.
The story of Simeon and Elizabeth Palmer might be the Burial Ground’s most unusual. Lying next to the woman who “should have been the wife of Simeon Palmer” is the grave of Lidia Palmer, identified as the “Wife of Simeon Palmer.” According to one local legend, Simeon Palmer jilted Elizabeth during their courtship and married Lidia instead. In fact, Elizabeth actually was the wife of Simeon for 21 years. They married in 1755, after Simeon’s first wife, Lidia, died.
In 1901, Little Compton resident M.L.T. Alden offered another explanation for the perplexing stone. If his account is true, it is even more fascinating than the legend.
According to Alden, whose source was “the antiquarian of the village,” Simeon Palmer adopted Reverend Billings’ habit of including cat meat as part of his regular diet, perhaps because an attack of heat stroke left him “mildly insane.” Simeon attempted to force his wife and baby daughter to partake in his cat meat diet, but Elizabeth would not have it. She took their daughter and moved into her parents’ home.
Simeon and Elizabeth continued to maintain a semblance of a marriage. Simeon visited his wife and daughter on Sundays, and Elizabeth took care of her husband’s laundry and mending. But Simeon remained bitter about this arrangement, and when Elizabeth died he ordered her gravestone engraved with the unusual epitaph. The “should have been” referred to Elizabeth’s refusal to perform her duties as a wife by living with her husband.
Church records indicate that Simeon married a third time and moved to New York State. Whether he continued to eat cats is unknown.