I read in Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World, Wil Verhoeven’s 2008 biography, that very little remains of the Imlay family burying ground—even in the late nineteenth century much was gone. In early October 2011, I find the website of the Monmouth County Historical Association and post an inquiry about those gravesites. On 5 October I get an answer: By 1960, all the gravestones were knocked over or buried or destroyed; by 1990, only some footstones remained. But in 1885 a local historian transcribed the inscriptions on eight of the stones; all but one recording deaths from the nineteenth century. Still standing, however, was the marker of Peter Imlay, Gilbert’s father, who died on 26 January 1789. But now, those remains and the remains of the earlier and other Imlays—Gilbert’s mother, immediate relatives—are hidden by history, neglect, vandalism, and New Jersey foliage.
Later, online, I find in a local paper, the Examiner, a piece about the old Imlaystown mill, a piece that ran on 3 July 2008—“Preserving Americana: Salter’s Mill Restored.” (The spelling of Saltar, the family’s name, has apparently changed.) The story tells about a couple of entrepreneurs who decided to renovate the mill, converting some of it to professional office space but leaving the mill works intact. But there’s no sign of any current occupancy now. Something seems to have gone wrong. A dream deferred? Or denied? Or dead?
As I walk around town, I think that this is surely the only place that Gilbert Imlay ever knew that remains somewhat recognizable from the mid-eighteenth century. If you summoned him from Beyond and plopped him down in, say, Pittsburgh or Paris or London, he would surely scream in terror, London’s traffic these days being more frightening than the torments of the netherworld. But Imlaystown? Still quiet, still rural (farmers’ fields nudging into the settlement). Gilbert Imlay, though bewildered, would know where he was.
I smile now as I look over what I wrote about him in my Mary Shelley biography. I called him a businessman. That was generous—a generosity born of ignorance. Conman might be a better word, and now I fight the urge to write though the two words are certainly synonymous. (That’s just too cynical.) But he was slippery. As I read Verhoeven’s biography, I am astonished at Imlay’s moves. Land swindles in Kentucky—he ripped off Daniel Boone, for pity’s sake!—flights to avoid arrest and prosecution, habitual failures to pay creditors, investments in slave trading (all of this before he left America, before he met Mary Wollstonecraft). And, later, shady French import schemes subsidized by Robespierre.
I don’t stay long in Imlaystown. I don’t see anyone except a jogger who runs by while I’m standing in front of the Happy Apple Inn. She waves and says hello.
I say, “Good morning.” Then realize it’s about four in the afternoon. I try to correct myself, but she is gone, probably worrying about the weird old guy mumbling nonsense in front of the Happy Apple. Should she call someone, just to check if I’ve wandered off from somewhere? You need to be careful. Old guys can wander off, you know, get lost—maybe even fall through the floor of the old mill …