In Episode 291 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hike up a wooded hill in Chester, Massachusetts, searching for a unique tomb carved into a glacial boulder. In 1873, Hiram Smith and his sister, Isabell Toogood were entombed in a rock that took masons two years to chisel. One story goes that Hiram wanted to be buried above ground so the Devil couldn’t get him. But maybe it was a childhood memory that haunted Hiram all of his long years.
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[ROCK OF AGES SONG]
RAY: How well did you know him?
JEFF: Not all that well. You?
RAY: No, me neither. Like you, I was mostly friends with his son.
JEFF: Right. Still, I’m glad we’re here showing support. A well-attended funeral means a lot to people grieving.
[THUNDER AND THEN LIGHT RAIN STARTS]
RAY: Annnd here comes the rain. Now it’s perfect.
JEFF: We should probably get going anyway. We have another grave to visit today.
RAY: Where’s the other grave?
JEFF: We’re heading out to Chester, Massachusetts, to find a unique tomb that dates back to 1873. They say the man inside wanted to be buried above ground so the devil couldn’t get him.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 291 of the New England Legends Podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Did you know most of our story leads come from you? This one did. Thank you to Gale LaScala for sending it in. If you’ve got a strange tale you think we should check out, feel free to contact us anytime through our web site.
JEFF: Before we go searching for this one-of-a-kind tomb in Chester, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
RAY: Do you ever feel like the world is getting too faceless?
JEFF: What do you mean?
RAY: You know, you buy things online from other countries made by machines, they show up at your doorstep. It seems so impersonal.
JEFF: That’s part of the reason we’re proud to have Nuwati Herbals as a sponsor. They’ve been in business for 20 years right here in the USA. They started by making their all-natural teas, balms, and other products by hand, and though the volume of products they make has increased exponentially, there’s still a real live person packaging every product. AND Rod and Kimberly love it when you email or call them with question, or if you’re looking for suggestions. Go ahead and reach out through their Web site. Tell them Jeff and Ray sent you, and ask them which of their products might be right for you.
RAY: Let Nuwati Herbals help support your healthy lifestyle. Check out the Nuwati Herbals Web site to see all of their great products AND you get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.
[CAR STARTING AND DRIVING OFF]
JEFF: So we’re heading out to Chester, Massachusetts, out in the western part of the state.
RAY: I found a few fun facts about the town of Chester.
JEFF: Let’s hear it.
RAY: Located northwest of Springfield, the town was first settled in the 1750s, then incorporated in 1783. On August 2nd, 1975, temperatures reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the highest temperature ever recorded in Massachusetts. On January 12, 1981, temperatures in Chester fell to -37 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the state. This makes Chester one of only three towns in the United States to hold the record high and record low temperatures for their state.
JEFF: So Chester is a town of extremes. Which makes sense considering the grave we’re going to visit. Ray, have you thought about your own final wishes for when it’s your turn to become a ghost?
RAY: I’d like to be cremated.
JEFF: Me too. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and all that…
RAY: I mean cremated after my friends use my corpse for some kind of Weekend at Bernie’s adventure.
JEFF: No, that makes total sense. Okay, we’re almost here. We’ll bang a left onto Maynard Road.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: And we can park over there on the left near the trail head.
[CAR STOPS WE GET OUT]
RAY: This doesn’t look like a cemetery at all.
JEFF: No. There’s nothing typical about the grave we’re going to visit. It’s not even in a graveyard. (BEAT) Let’s head up the trail.
[HIKING IN WOODS]
RAY: It’s a good day for a hike. The hill is pretty gradual, and the trail is well groomed. It almost looks like this could have been a road at one time. This is more of a stroll than a hike.
JEFF: This area is pretty well-wooded. Trees everywhere. It looks like lots of forests here in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. So we’re looking for a big boulder.
RAY: Okay, there’s a large one coming up on our left. Is the grave near the boulder?
JEFF: Not exactly NEAR the boulder so much as IN it.
RAY: Inside the boulder?!
JEFF: That’s what they say. Okay, I see the big rock you’re talking about. Let’s check it out.
RAY: This boulder sticks out.
JEFF: Yeah it does. But this isn’t our rock. There’s no markings on it at all. Let’s keep going.
RAY: Okay, there’s another one coming up.
JEFF: These are glacial boulders. These rocks were carried here by glaciers thousands of years ago from further north and just dropped here. Hmmm maybe this is our boulder. Let’s get closer.
JEFF: This is it!
RAY: Woah… look at that! This boulder is about the size of a large van—maybe even a small house. It looks a lot like some of the other boulders up here as far as size, shape, and color. But there’s this flat front face to this one. And there’s an inscription like you’d find on a headstone. It says: The Grave of Hiram Smith, born September 2, 1794, Died February 21, 1873. And just below that is another inscription. That one says: Isabell Toogood, died February 12, 1869, age 84. So there’s two graves inside this boulder!
JEFF: That’s right.
RAY: And they did this because they were afraid to be buried in the ground because the devil might get them?
JEFF: That’s a story some people tell. I can tell you that Isabell was Hiram’s sister. And this was all once Hiram’s land. To find out how these two got inside, let’s head back to 1865.
RAY: It’s May of 1865, and we’re standing on the Chester, Massachusetts, farm of Hiram Smith. Hiram is 70 years old. Though he’s getting long in the tooth, he’s still strong enough to work his farm. But old enough to feel his mortality.
JEFF: Hiram’s farm is nestled in a pretty spot here in the rolling hills of the Berkshires. There are pastures on his property, with various boulders sprinkled around, plus clumps of trees here and there. Hiram lives on the farm with his older sister, Isabel Toogood. Though he affectionately calls her Izzy.
RAY: It’s natural when you get older to think about your mortality, where you’d like to be buried, and things like that. But it’s fair to say Hiram is obsessed. The problem is he can’t shake a childhood memory. He relives the vision in his dreams, and thinks about it when he’s awake. As he’s gotten older, the memory has only intensified.
[POURING RAIN OVER FLASHBACK WITH A LONG BUILD FOR TRANSITION]
JEFF: Way back when Hiram was a five-year-old boy, he had to accompany his mother, Elisabeth to a funeral. It had been raining hard for a while. The ground was soaked and muddy. Walking through the cemetery was slippery. The minister said his blessing over the casket and awaiting grave…
[MINISTER]: We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life…
JEFF: But as the minister says his blessing, young Hiram stares at the hole dug for the casket. The muddy dirt. The finality of it all. But what’s worse is that there’s so much rain that the grave is filling with water.
[BUCKETS OF WATER BAILING OUT GRAVE]
JEFF: Some men with buckets try to bail out the water so the casket can be lowered inside. All the while young Hiram just stares… Finally the casket was lowered and it bubbled as the water began to seep inside… finally sinking the casket to the bottom of the watery muddy hole so it could be buried.
[RAIN FADES OUT]
RAY: That experience rattled Hiram for life. The idea of the body drowning before burial. The mud. The rain. He told others about his fears too. One day not too long ago, Hiram accompanied Dr. Thaddeus DeWolfe on his rounds. Hiram confessed that he didn’t want to be buried in the ground. And he wanted to do something about that but worried the people in town would think he’s crazy. Dr. DeWolfe assured him he wouldn’t be the first person to request and above-ground crypt for burial.
JEFF: That’s true! There are other examples of above-ground tombs. We see them in cemeteries all over. I guess each person has their reasons for wanting something like that.
RAY: What makes today different is that today Hiram decides he’s going to do something about it. While scanning the horizon of his pastures and property, he notices one particular boulder on the hill. This boulder is huge. Left here by a glacier thousands of years ago. It’s got a particularly flat face on one side. And the view from the boulder is spectacular. You can look down the hill and see an incredible panorama of the middle branch of the Westfield River. And that settles it. Hiram hires some stone masons.
[CHISELING ON STONE]
RAY: Who get to work chiseling and carving out a chamber into this boulder.
[CHISELING ON STONE]
JEFF: The work continues for days. Weeks. And then months. It doesn’t take long for word to spread around Chester as to what Hiram Smith is up to. And folks get curious.
RAY: Look at that! A young man and woman came here with a picnic lunch to watch the masons chisel at the stone.
JEFF: Others come by to check the progress too. This project is becoming the talk of the town.
[CHISELING ON STONE SLOW FADE]
RAY: Two years… It takes two years for skilled masons to carve a tomb seven feet and two inches deep. Four feet, five inches tall, and a little over five feet wide. But there it is. Complete.
JEFF: Now it just needs an occupant. It’s February 12, 1889 when Hiram’s sister, Izzy, dies at 84 years old. But Hiram can’t bring himself to put his sister’s body in the ground either. He decides she’ll join him in his stone crypt when his time comes.
RAY: And Hiram’s time comes almost four years to the day after Izzy’s. Hiram passes away February 2nd, 1873 at 79 years old.
[CHISEL SOUNDS ON ROCK]
RAY: Hiram and his sister are placed into the stone sarcophagus. And the stone masons get to one last task. The saved the stone face of the rock to put back into place over the coffins. They carve the epitaph into the stone….
[STONE ON STONE DRAGGING]
RAY: And seal it up forever.
JEFF: Hiram left enough money in his will to maintain the road up to his tomb so people in town could visit. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: That well-maintained road is long gone at this point. It’s more of a path.
JEFF: I’m guessing the money or interest ran out many decades ago. So this boulder makes a lot of lists of oddities in Massachusetts. But no one seems to know much beyond the legend of him being afraid of being buried below ground because that’s where the devil dwells.
RAY: I guess it’s easy to make up stories when you don’t have much to go on.
JEFF: We learned most of our information from an August 3, 1989 Berkshire Eagle newspaper article written by Dorothy W. Chapman. As the article points out, every few years this boulder makes the news because enough time had passed since the last article explained everything. Most of the source material came from Sara DeWolfe Gamwell.
RAY: The same DeWolfe family as Dr. Thaddeus DeWolfe, who we mentioned in the story?
JEFF: That’s the one. Sarah was Thaddeus’s daughter. She mentioned how Hiram intended to be buried dressed in all white to go up to heaven after he’s gone. Her old notes and journals also noted the story of young Hiram witnessing the grave filling with water.
RAY: Yeah, that image would leave a mark on me too.
JEFF: As far as Hiram’s sister being buried with him, considering she died four years earlier, she may not have had any say in the matter. What’s unclear is where her body was stored for four years. It’s a little unclear if she was entombed first or if she had to wait so they could do it all at once.
RAY: It’s amazing how some of these mysteries get lost to time. But the boulder and grave remains. The view of the river is long gone because a forest grew up where the pasture once was. The former road is now a trail.
JEFF: But the legend remains. And this rock will be here for the ages, and unless you know the backstory, if you hike by you may wonder what would cause a person to go through so much trouble in such a remote place. You may even find yourself wondering if maybe it’s a little safer being above ground for all of eternity.
RAY: Or until the next Ice Age.
JEFF: Good point. And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.