Tales from the Crypt

Tales from the Crypt

What do Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Rutherford B. Hayes’s grandmother and James Hillhouse’s uncle have in common?

They’re all buried in the crypt beneath Center Church on the Green.

Managing to be both solemn and quirky, the crypt is open for tours every Saturday morning from April through October. What makes it especially unusual is that the graves—now entombed in a low-ceilinged, dimly lit space reached via a stairway from the church’s narthex—stood there before the church did. They were once out in the open air, some of them for more than a century.

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At one time, a large portion of the upper Green was the cemetery for Center Church, officially First Church of Christ in New Haven—the first congregation in the city, founded in 1638, and its only church for 100 years. The first church building and its successors were located in the center of the Green, with a large cemetery behind. In 1784 the city laid out a street down the center of the Green and named it Temple Street for the church itself. Parishioners decided their next building should be located in the best possible alignment with the street.

There was just one problem: the graveyard. “There was considerable opposition to building this church here,” says Harold Peck, a church member and one of seven crypt tour guides. According to notes of a town meeting as quoted by Henry T. Blake in his Chronicles of New Haven Green (1898), permission was given for the church to “build a new brick meeting-house and to extend the walls as far westward as their convenience may require…” The church would be built “partly on ground occupied by its predecessor,” Blake writes. And it would be built partly on top of the graveyard. In 1812, Center Church began construction of its fourth and final building on Temple Street, covering the graves of at least 137 souls.

Those graves stand today much as they did when the New England sun and rain beat down on them. Most of the graves are aligned facing east, symbolizing “the beginning of a new day, the beginning of eternal life,” Peck explains. Some are grand, such as the table-style monument of Jared Ingersoll (1722-1781), at one time the “local tax collector,” Peck says. “He represented the king of England here in the colonies. He was hung in effigy a lot of times. Eventually he changed his politics and became a patriot.”

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Other markers are more humble, like the low, nondescript stone that bears the name of Hester Coster, who, “when she died, left a tract of land… to be used for education in her will,” Peck says. “When Yale found out that there was… land for education, they moved from Saybrook to New Haven, thanks to Hester.” According to Edwin Oviatt’s The Beginnings of Yale (1701-1726), published in 1916, her acre and a quarter fetched 26 pounds from the college.

The oldest grave within the crypt belongs to Sarah Trowbridge, who was born in 1641 and died in 1687. Peck delights in using her stone to give visitors historical context: “She was dead and buried for 100 years, and then George Washington becomes our first president.”

The crypt’s graves make up “one of the exceptional colonial burial grounds to endure untouched,” according to the Center Church website. The Green’s other graves didn’t fare so well. The cemetery was “overgrown,” Peck says, “and very difficult to maintain.” Ultimately, city leaders and voters decided to remove the gravestones rather than bear the expense of erecting a protective wall and cleaning up the site. Following a service on June 26, 1821, the remaining stones on the Green were moved to Grove Street Cemetery. About 5,000 bodies were left behind, as New Haveners were reminded when a tree uprooted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 brought human remains to the surface.

At one time, Peck says, church members thought they might be able to give themselves more head room in the crypt by digging out the floor a bit. That plan was quickly halted by the discovery of coffin nails, skeletal remains and older, fallen stones. “ discovered in all probability, they buried on top of one another,” Peck says. The found stones are arrayed around the edges of the crypt. The remains were re-interred at Grove Street.

Although the church was unable to deepen the crypt, one modification was eventually required. About 80 years ago, Peck says, the crypt’s concrete floor, which had replaced an original dirt floor, was pulled up and bricks laid in its place in order to let the earth breathe. Without that release, the stones themselves were drawing up water “like a wick,” causing them to deteriorate more rapidly. Some were already too far gone, but using detailed drawings made by a young man of the congregation more than a century ago, reproductions were made. “We’ve got a pretty accurate record of what each stone said,” Peck says.

Visitors to the crypt learn other elements of Center Church history. In a brief tour of the sanctuary, Peck may seat you in Eli Whitney’s pew. A stone tablet on the wall in the narthex lists everyone buried below; the most common family name is Trowbridge. Artifacts on display in the crypt include a feather on a long pole used by the deacons of yore to awaken Sunday morning snoozers and a rubber prod used to chastise unruly children.

A catalog of the crypt’s graves and many of the stories behind them can be found at a personal blog created by church historian emeritus Doris Townshend and current historian M.R. Georgevich. Here lie numerous “unburied stories,” such as that of the untimely demise of Mary Porter Edwards, the first wife of Rev. Jonathan Edwards (the son of the famous preacher), at age 34, whose stone is the only one in the crypt to mention a cause of death. Edwards, while “riding out in a carriage<,> was accidentally drowned.”

Tax collector Ingersoll, according to the historians’ blog, became a patriot somewhat under duress after meeting “a band of 500 men on horseback” on his way to Hartford, who forced him to “shout three times ‘Liberty and Prosperity’ and to throw his hat in the air, which he did.”

And then there’s the marker of Sarah Ingersoll Whiting (1726-1769), the tax man’s sister, “a favorite stone of visitors and tour guides both,” the blog says. She’s identified on her stone as “the painful Mother of eight children of whom Six survive… She finished her wearisome pilgrimage in joyful hope & expectation of a glorious immortality.”

Emerging from the crypt, you may be stunned by the bright light of day and the sense that you’ve just skipped through time from the 17th century into the 21st. You may also be struck by the realization that much like the pains of motherhood, disdain for tax collectors and death itself, some things never change.

Center Church Crypt
Center Church on the Green – 250 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Tours April-Oct, Saturdays 11am-1pm
(203) 787-2187 | office@centerchurchonthegreen.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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