The Mearns Sisters – A Story Spark

Last week The Playwright and I went to the small cemetery where several of his family members are buried. We were on a slightly strange, sad errand to photograph family headstones, so that his parents can decide on a headstone for his dad – one in a series of strange, sad errands that one participates in when a family member is dying. Anyway, we were wandering the cemetery looking for the family tombstones, but we weren’t sure where they were, so it involved a lot of meandering around. I didn’t mind because I love cemeteries, especially older ones. There are so many stories in them. Sometimes I take a notebook with me so I can jot down interesting historical names or evocative surnames.

Last week I stumbled upon something even better: these four headstones.

mearns sisters

They were old. Blackened and partially sunken, the design identical save the names and dates. Engraved on the top of each was the word SISTER. Four sisters – born in 1831, 1833, 1837, and 1839. Four sisters – died in 1895, 1899, 1899, and 1900. Four sisters – Mary, Frances, Semelia, and Vianna Mearnes.

My mind started spinning stories about the Mearns sisters immediately. I don’t know what about it sparked the magic – maybe my childhood love for Little Women? – but The Playwright practically had to drag me away. “What’s your story, ladies?” I muttered to their headstones. Four unmarried sisters, born and died within 8 years of each other. Were they close – inseparable, even? My imagination said yes.

Semelia Mearns


What did they have in common? What did they fight about? What rivalries, petty and otherwise, rose up between them? Who and what did they love? What were they afraid of? They were in their thirties during the Civil War – how did it affect them?

I went home and looked them up. Thanks to the 1880 census, I discovered that Mary, Frances, and Vianna lived with their widowed brother Robert, and at one time Vianna was a schoolteacher. Semelia lived with other relatives and was listed as a milliner.

Then I promptly put away what I’d just learned and began to imagine. There’s a story brewing now. Not those sisters, not those names, not even that time period. But if this story is ever written, it will owe something to that graveyard trip and the Mearns sisters.

7 Responses

  1. You grow up in Biglerville, Right? I have an interesting story about the grave yard on Gurnsey or Mill road. I can't remember which road it is. I just know that my family is buried there and my imagination was going wild when I saw their dates. The Father died first (my great, great, great (?) grand dad a month before my other reliatvies, then Christmas so did the mother and daughter – on the same day. Then years later the nanny was buried right next to them with a very elebrate tomb stone – unlike my grand father & grandmother. And I remember reading somewhere that the Nanny got all the money and the house that they lived in… I think she secretly killed them for their money… that's my what my imagination though… I could totally be off… but it just doesn't make sense that If my grand dad grand mother and their daughter all die close together in the date range… why in the world didn't the Nanny – if they all got sick or something? Why didn't it take out the Nanny too? It just didn't make any sense to me.

    Well, I just thought I'd share.

    1. Hi! I DID grow up in Biglerville & I know where you mean, though I've never been in that cemetery. That story sounds fascinating! You should write a murder mystery about it someday!

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