Church Monuments Society


The Lowell Lion

Month: October 2021
Type: Stone carving  
Era: 19th Century

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Lowell Cemetery
77 Knapp Ave, Lowell, MA 01852, United States

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A resplendent lion commemorates a rather more dubious character

At the end of a holiday, we were paying a last visit to a friend, who lived in Andover, Massachusetts, when another visitor arrived and we were introduced as ‘my English friends who enjoy cemeteries’.  The new visitor recommended Lowell Cemetery, adding that we should be sure not to miss the Ayer lion.  There was just time for a speedy visit, one that ensured the cemetery would be on a future schedule.

Lowell, approximately 30 miles north-east of Boston was founded in the 1820s by Francis Cabot Lowell who, with others, was intent on creating a model factory city where workers would be well treated; albeit that women received half the pay of male workers.  As the century progressed Lowell grew to be one of the largest centres of textile production in America.  However, the original vision gave way to social deprivation to the extent that Lowell became known as the ‘Manchester of America.’  The boom lasted scarcely 100 years and by the 1920s southern mills has taken most of Lowell’s business.

It was soon clear that the town required a cemetery that would complement its affluence and Lowell Cemetery was established, on a site of 84 acres, in 1841; it continues to welcome new guests.  George P Worcester designed the cemetery and was influenced by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.  The memorials encompass a wide range of styles including Victorian, Egyptian Revival and Art Deco, it was obvious that James C Ayer would become a permanent resident, but who was he?

James Cook Ayer was born in 1818, in Groton, Connecticut, about a century after the family had come to America from England.  His father, Frederick, fought in the War of 1812.  When James was 19, he apprenticed himself to a pharmacist in order to learn the drug business.  He must have been an able apprentice for, when his employer decided on a trip to Europe Ayer was left in charge.  During this time Ayer developed his first medicine – the Cherry Pectoral, for pulmonary complaints.  He gave the linctus to doctors who found it sufficiently satisfactory to recommend it to their patients, perhaps its popularity owed something to the fact that it contained 3% morphine.  By the time his employer returned Ayer was able to purchase the pharmacy.  Additional products followed including the ‘universally popular’ Ayer’s Pills, Ayer’s Sarsaparilla that not only purified the blood but was recommended for ‘female weakness’.  Ayer’s Hair Vigor, it was claimed, ‘restored gray hair to its natural color’ and promoted abundant growth.  In time Ayer built a factory in Lowell that employed 150 people and with his brother, Frederick, also invested in textile mills.  Frederick, whose daughter married General George Patten, later founded the American Woolen Company.

Ayer was quick to appreciate the advantages of advertising via magazines, trade cards and even paper dolls – the doll was obviously a devotee of Hair Vigor!  Advertisements were aimed at every section of society, thus a Native American, wearing a war bonnet, and a Union Civil War veteran contemplate bottles of Ayer’s Sarsaparilla. Charming children thrived thanks to Cherry Pectoral to the evident delight of their parents.  Even alligators were impressed with the ague cure that was recommended for all malarial disorders.

It is no surprise that Ayer was the most successful patent medicine manufacturer of his time and he accrued a fortune in the region of $20,000,000.  For all his business brilliance, Ayer’s story had an unhappy ending, he decided to stand for election to Congress but he discovered that while his cure-alls were popular, he was not. Indeed, in Ayer, the town named for him, he was burned in effigy.  As his obituary in the New York Times bluntly explained ‘the indignity cast upon him … caused his mind to become unhinged.  In June, 1876, he became so violent that he was conveyed to a private asylum in New Jersey, where he remained for several months.’  Ayer died two years later and his family obviously wanted a monument equal to his standing as a successful businessman and an equally renown sculptor was commissioned – Albert Bruce Joy.

Albert Bruce Joy (also Bruce-Joy) was born in Dublin in 1842 and died in 1924.  He trained with John Henry Foley at the National Art Training School, South Kensington and at the Royal Academy Schools.  He worked as a sculptor and medallist and was the go-to sculptor for eminent Victorians as he was noted for a naturalistic style that reflected the personality of his subjects.  Commissions included Field Marshall, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, VC, HRH Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany and Sir Erskine May.  There were also informal subjects like ‘First Flight’, a charming study of a young girl holding a nest of larks, in the garden of Overbeck, Devon.

It is not certain why the Ayer family decided on a lion, perhaps because he was viewed as a lion of industry or because they had had been impressed by sculptures of lions they had seen on European tours. Also, it was not the family’s first brush with sculpture as Ayer gave Lowell a winged figure of Victory, to commemorate the Union victory in the Civil War. One thing is surely clear – such was Ayer’s fame that an inscription was unnecessary. (Ayer’s plain grave slab records only his name and dates.)

Ayer’s lion was commissioned in 1888 and cost $20,000 (approximately $500,000 today).  The lion was carved from fine white Italian marble and Bruce Joy travelled to Lowell to supervise the installation of the monument.  The monument is 8 feet high and sits on a base of 7 feet by 13 feet.  The lion weighs approximately 25 tonnes or 22.5 imperial tonnes.  The lion lies stretched out, its right paw crossed over the left, its eyebrows raised quizzically with an expression that is both melancholic and pensive.  To protect the lion from the frequently harsh New England winters the Ayer Corporation commissioned a bespoke wooden cover, so winter visitors to the cemetery will only see something that looks like a garden shed, albeit a very smart one.

More about this monument, and about the cemetery, at

Hilary Wheeler