Unlike even some of the oldest cemeteries I have been to in New Jersey on my ghostly travels, none came close to what I saw in Hartford, Connecticut this past week when it comes to tombstone descriptions. Readers of my blog and viewers of my web-series can recall episodes filmed at Rose Hill Cemetery in New Jersey or the Solebury Baptist Church Graveyard in Pennsylvania, and photo shoots at other old graveyards which are falling apart — some almost forgotten. Located smack-dab in the middle of Hartford, the Ancient Burying Ground (as it is named, though I would not exactly consider it to be "ancient") is, in my eyes, the model by which old cemeteries should be preserved for the public. It was evident after just a few minutes how strong of a restoration effort has been undergone on the grounds.
The oldest stone dates back to 1648, and the cemetery was active for burials until the 1800's. In just one spot, you can see how burial and death traditions changed throughout history. The "death's head", or a winged skull, is prominently located at the top of many stones from the 1600's and early 1700's. The skull design can vary regionally. At the Dorsett Old Town Historic Cemetery in Holmdel, New Jersey, the skull itself was a literal skull, an even sort of creepy at that. In Connecticut, though, the skull was a bit curvier and easier on the eyes. Almost angelic. However, the one fundamental difference in tombstone traditions comes with the labeling.
We noticed one stone of a young Richard Bernham bore the description that he was killed while "blowing up a school". There was not much other information to go along with this. To our modern eyes, reading those words would lead us to think that perhaps I was standing at the plot of America's first domestic terrorist. Upon researching the individual, though, we found that his cause of death was actually quite innocent. The cemetery itself has brochures for a self-guided tour at the gate (which, unfortunately, we did not read until after we finished filming and exploring) and noted the following: "Hartford went wild with joy in May of 1766 at the news of the British Parliament's repeal of the despised Stamp Act, which taxed paper products used in the colonies, ranging from newspapers to legal documents. Thirty young men met in the brick school-house on May 23 to prepare a fireworks display in celebration. Gunpowder stored in the schoolhouse was accidentally ignited, causing an explosion that 'in an Instant reduced the Building to a Heap of Rubbish,' according to the Connecticut Courant newspaper. The blast killed Bernham and five other men."
Other tombstone descriptions note how someone was "murdered" and if you watch the video above, which is a walk-through I filmed for my web-series Ghosts on the Coast, you will see another stone which reads how a Mr. John Foot was "drownded" in the Connecticut River back in 1803. A mix of Old English and different writing/speaking styles can actually make deciphering what some of the stones say difficult, even though the letters themselves are clearly cut. You will see random words capitalized while sometimes the last name of a person will not be capitalized even though the first name is. I'm no funerary scholar, so I don't know if there is any rhyme or reason to much of what was written. Some of it reminded me of a picture that was floating around on the internet a few years ago. It was purported to be from the late 1800's out in the Old West, where a gravestone inscription read that the victim had been "eaten by mountain rats." I always thought it was a joke — a clever Photoshop. But who knows? Maybe it was real.
Please check out our video from Hartford's Ancient Burying Ground. We did not conduct the usual paranormal investigation because it was broad daylight and very noisy due to the city being around us. Even though our group's name bears the word "Ghosts" in the title, our main focus is still history and what we can learn at a historic site or even a cemetery. It is not often that the tombstones actually tell us a story. Usually, it is quite the opposite. But this site in Hartford allows the past to come alive because we can really gain some insight into how some of the city's early occupant's lived and died. I highly recommend you check it out if you ever find yourself in the area.
Feature image via Flickr user Doug Butchy.