Essex Mass. Cemetery

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The Old Burying Ground, Essex, Mass.

"Robbed the Graveyard"

A nine page handwritten manuscript by Maidee P. Polleys (not dated). Probably prepared as a talk at a Essex Historical Society meeting.

Many years ago, in what was then known as Chebacco Parish of Ipswich, now the Town of Essex, there lived a certain physician widely known and highly respected for his medical skill and learning. As he went in and out among the homes of the hamlet, ministering to the sick and dying, he had the confidence and esteem of all the country-side far and near. He was a regular attendant at Divine Worship, and in the strict Puritan standards of the day was held blameless.

In the northern part of the settlement, on one of the farms of that section, there lived a young maiden, fair and promising, but who, as years passed by, drooped and faded, marked by the dread consumption so common in that day. The village physician was called in but was unable to check the disease, neighbors prescribed herbs and roots for healing as was the custom of that period, but slowly and steadily, day by day, the disease made progress, until one morning the young life passed onto Him who gave it, and a mourning family was left with only a memory of the sweet blossom that bloomed for a brief time in their midst. Tenderly they carried all that was mortal of the loved daughter to the village burying ground, a mile distant, and with prayers and tears laid her away beneath the sod on the hillside. On the mother, broken by weeks and months of watching and care, the loss fell the hardest, and the lonely days were followed by nights of broken rest, when the shattered nerves refused to quiet, and sleep when it came was filled with disturbing dreams. One night in the dream world, so the story runs, she seemed to visit the old village burying ground, and going to the spot where so recently all that was mortal of her daughter had been laid away, what was her horror and consternation to find sod and soil upturned, and at the bottom of the grave an empty coffin. The body had been removed! As daylight brought a return of consciousness, and she went about the routine duties of the day she strove to banish from her memory what was only a dream, but when, the following night, and the one succeeding that, brought the same horrible vision before her, common sense refused to cast it aside. She told her husband. She visited the cemetery time after time, and more and more she felt convinced that her daughter's grave had been disturbed. She talked with her neighbors, and while at first they were skeptical of what was evidently a case of nerves, little by little they began to wonder, and one and another to recall little things which they had seen in the graveyard, which had looked at trifle strange at the time but had been quickly dismissed from the mind. One had found a bit of ribbon near a newly made grave, another something else, and now as stealthily they visited the graveyard, they were convinced that there was something more that fancy in a neighbor G's dream. Mrs. B. whose home adjoined the graveyard and whose windows looked out onto its grassy slopes, recalled how, as she had been up at night with a sick child, as she had looked out, she had wondered at what looked for an instant like a light in the graveyard. A heavy team had been heard with more or less regularity, passing in the night. This, on that little traveled country road had seemed singular, and so the excitement grew, until from a little whispering among the neighborhood, it became "town talk," and when one day someone said they had "heard tell how the Colleges took bodies and dissected them to learn about diseases, and some doctors got good prices for furnishing material for those dissecting rooms," heads began to wag and sideways looks to be cast on the good doctor of the community, and people said he must be concerned in this affair. Then it was ascertained that he was about putting up a building down back of the graveyard in the grove of willow trees there. To make a long story short - finally the citizens of the little hamlet in a body charged their "loved physician" with the crime of robbing the graves, and demanded that an investigation be made, and so one day from far and near were gathered in the old burying ground, the people of Chebacco, with many friends from old Ipswich and other nearby settlements, prepared to unearth the mystery, if mystery there was, and visit justice on the perpetrator of the crime, if crime there be. It is easy to picture the scene. The sturdy fathers of the [sic] long ago, with faces firmly set, resolved to see this matter through, women pressing forward weeping and frightened, and in the foreground the pastor of the flock, and near him the sexton or grave-digger and others with shovels, ready for their gruesome task. In the front ranks of on-lookers we find neighbor Giddings and his wife whose "dream" raised the first inquiry. Now the word is given and the sexton raises his shovel and the thud of the falling clod breaks the hushed silence of the waiting crowd. Then strange sight! after a foot or two of soil has been turned out from the grave, the sturdy sexton falters at his task, and with a plea of faintness is unable to continue. "If you can't dig, I can." shouts Mr. Giddings, and jumping into the grave, which is that of his daughter, grasped the shovel and quickly clears the way to the coffin below. Eagerly the crowd presses forward, slowly the lid is raised, a piercing scream from the mother as she looks into the empty box, and then the crowd of stoical New England farmers goes wild. Grave after grave is opened until twenty or thirty have been found empty. The doctor is accused, together with accomplices, and justice is demanded. The plea that the work was done in the interest of science falls on deaf ears, and in the court room of a nearby city, the case is tried and the doctor driven from the town. Far and wide the story spread. "ahead of his time!" Yes. "A great scientist!" "learned beyond his day!" but to the people of the little Chebacco village branded as an unfeeling monster. So the queer, gruesome story has come down to us whose forefathers lived in the little town, and who remembered that far off day, when Then came the day when again the citizens gathered in the old burying ground for a funeral service over the empty caskets which were buried in one grave near the entrance.

Appended are some line given me some years ago by an old lady whose parents were present when the graves were opened, and who knew the person who wrote the "lines" about the time of the event in 1818.

[signed] Maidee P. Polleys

"Lines on a recent inhuman, barbarous and atrocious affair lately perpetrated at Chebacco in Ipswich. A deed without a name. The following lines were written by a young person whose feelings were much excited by hearing the bell tolling in Ipswich South Parish; at the same time viewing a number of graves in the burying place that have evidently been disturbed by the hand of some notorious villain."

Robbed the Graveyard

"Hark! the sad tidings from the bell now sounding;
To warn the people of some wretched monster,
Who for the sake of gain and filthy lucre
Robbed the grave-yard!

"Greatly affecting to all human feelings,
See the black coffins by the grave-side lying,
For weeping mourners to lament the loss of
Their dear relations.

"Aged and feeble in the grave-yard trembling,
Orphans and widows weeping, mourning, crying.
Ah! this must rend your stubborn heart asunder
Vile perpetrator.

"No longer will mine eyes refrain from weeping,
When I behold the tenderest affections
Of my companions most severely wounded
By wretched mortals.

"See crowds of females, like the weeping willow,
With grief and sorrow wipe the falling tear;
From thy kind bosom lend them consolation
Propitious Heaven.

"Methinks I hear some guilty one explaining,
These things are needful, why this lamentation.
But Oh! remember, you have much offended
God your Creator.

"Seek no protection under such delusion
Tis like the thorny shadow of a bramble
Your case is desperate, Satan hath deceived you
Oh! wretched mortal

"No longer let your crimes remain concealed.
Boldly confess them, lest you be condemned:
God had declared He will not spare the guilty
This you remember!!!"

Copyright 2006, 2010 by Kurt A. Wilhelm