Where history rests

Pegee Malcolm heads commission overseeing Warwick’s 166 historic cemeteries

Posted 2/8/24

You wouldn’t imagine history could come alive in a cemetery until you talk with Pegee Malcolm.

Malcolm is chair of both the Warwick Historic Cemeteries Commission and the Rhode Island …

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Where history rests

Pegee Malcolm heads commission overseeing Warwick’s 166 historic cemeteries


You wouldn’t imagine history could come alive in a cemetery until you talk with Pegee Malcolm.

Malcolm is chair of both the Warwick Historic Cemeteries Commission and the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historic Cemeteries. The Warwick City Council reappointed her to the Warwick Commission, a position she has held for 20 years, on Monday night.

“I’m happy to be reappointed. I hope they (the commission) can put up with me,” she said.

“Cemeteries have always fascinated me,” she said in an interview Saturday. SheAs drawn-in by the carvings on head stones and the stories they tell. There are 166 historical cemeteries in Warwick, the oldest Warwick cemeteries dating back to the early 1700s. Statewide there are around 3,200 historical cemeteries.

The names and the dates are often the opening chapter to stories, as are the cemeteries themselves. The commission “adopted” the Brayton Cemetery on Post Road in Apponaug after Mr. Richardson, who owned it, died and his daughters assumed proprietorship. They depleted funds set aside for its upkeep and the overgrown and untended cemetery became an eyesore. Area residents Emmett Reinhardt and Bob Darigan teamed up to cut the grass, clear downed limbs, reset grave stones and pick up trash for more than 15 years. The commission helped with their efforts and became the steward after the death of Reinhardt and Darigan. A cemetery stone, set by the commission, memorializes the work done by the two friends.

“We found some neat people in Brayton,” Malcolm says. In addition to numerous Civil War veterans, she mentions the “skinny man” from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. She said commission member Mark Brown came up with that information. Then among the Braytons buried are the two children who were kidnapped by Native Americans and ransomed for a wagon of pumpkins. The cemetery is the home for six historic cemeteries whose stones and interments were moved there to make way for developments in other parts of the city.

Malcolm grew up in Warwick. She attended Lakewood School, Aldrich Junior High and graduated from Pilgrim. She went to Emerson College and Worchester State College and worked for Woonsocket schools as a speech pathologists for 30 years. She married Jeff Gofton, a past president of the Apponaug Improvement Association, and a former chairman of Warwick Democratic City Committee, but kept her maiden name. Gofton died 10 years ago.

“We dated, we married, we divorced and then we got back together again,” she says of Gofton.

Her childhood home

“We went to Civil War battlefields and I would drag him to the cemeteries,” she said. “I like the peace, the history. It’s really history of how the towns and cities were formed.”

Today Malcolm lives in the Lakewood house her late parents bought in 1941 on Irving Avenue. She’s active in the community and was honored as the parade marshal for the first ever Apponaug Winter Fest held this past Dec. 9.

“I thought it was such a treat, I loved it. It was so fun,” she said of the event that drew hundreds to the village.

Apart from the upkeep of Brayton costing $740 every time the grass is cut, which can be six to eight times a summer depending on the weather, the commission repairs broken and toppled headstones and ensures that abutting land owners don’t encroach on cemeteries. Malcolm said the commission has found vegetable gardens, chicken coops and even sheds in cemeteries.

The commission that meets the first Tuesday of every month in the conference room of the Sawtooth Annex Building consists of seven full-time members and two alternates. Susan Cabeceiras, whose office is in the annex, serves as the part-time staff for the commission. She manages the website, handles correspondence, sets meeting agendas and is out at Brayton, rake in hand, for the spring and fall cleanups.

Malcolm credits former City Principal Planner Lucas Murray as the driving force for the work done to restore and make accessible the Greene Cemetery on Tanner Avenue in Apponaug. General George Sears Greene, whose defense of Culps Hill played a critical role in the Battle of Gettysburg, his wife Martha and extended members of the Greene family are buried there. Malcolm was delighted to report that cemetery has been adopted by the Warwick Fraternal Order of Police, whose clubhouse is down the hill from the cemetery. The FOP will take over the upkeep of the cemetery.

Events planned to highlight cemeteries

She said the commission is planning events at the Greene cemetery for the recognition of “historical cemeteries months” throughout April and May. More than 100 events are planned throughout the state during the two months.

Malcolm often receives calls from people doing genealogy research inquiring if she knows the location of the grave of a long lost family member. The commission does have a registry of burials, although at least in one case it wasn’t as easy as identifying a single location.

The story of the only known residents to have been buried in two places at the same time goes back to the founding of Warwick.

Samuel Gorton bought the Shawomet lands (mostly Warwick and West Warwick) from Minatonomi, sachem of the Narragansett Indians, after Gorton and his followers were expelled from Aquidneck Island for disloyalty and not welcomed in Providence.

According to an account written by the late Warwick historian Don D’Amato, who was a teacher and Warwick Beacon columnist, Boston authorities issued a warrant for Gorton’s arrest and sent a contingent of 40 soldiers to bring him and his followers to Boston where he was tried, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to work in iron chains from October 1643 to March 1644. Their livestock were confiscated to defray expenses, and when they were set free they were banished from New England.

Gorton took the case to England, where he befriended the Earl of Warwick. When the court sided with Gorton he named the land after Warwick.

During the King Philip War, John Wickes, one of Gorton’s followers, remained in Warwick while other earlier settlers sought safety from the American natives on Aquidneck Island. Warwick resident and author Les Ralston described what happened on March 17, 1676, during a February 2002 ceremony at John Wickes School. The school has subsequently closed, and the land sold for a development of single-family homes.

As reported by the Warwick Beacon, “evidently concerned for his livestock, Wickes chose to leave the security of the Thomas Greene stone castle, which was located near what is now the Elks Lodge on West Shore Road to check on his livestock. As he had a good relationship with the Narragansett Indians, who had sought to remain neutral during the war, Wickes apparently believed he wouldn't encounter any difficulties. But he didn't meet any Narragansetts. Instead, to his misfortune, he encountered Pequots and Mohegans. The Indians decapitated Wickes, leaving his head on a stake.”

Settlers quickly found Wickes’ body and buried it, but it wasn’t for another three days that they discovered his head and buried that.

As Malcolm relates about 200 years later, George Sears Greene, the general whose troops so gallantly defended Culps Hill and his cousin Christopher Greene acted to reunite Wickes. The story doesn’t end there.

As the Wickes marker became the target of vandals, it was relocated to the school bearing his name. And when the school was sold, the commission stepped in to have it moved to the grounds of the Warwick Public Library for safekeeping.

While historic cemeteries can be places of peace and reflection, as Malcolm knows, they can also be alive and filled with discoveries. She’s glad to continue serving.

Pegee, history, cemeteries


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