In Episode 327 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger take a stroll through Williams Memorial Park in New London, Connecticut, to see the site of a former cemetery. The park was created in 1885 after Mayor Charles Williams generously agreed to fund the transfer of hundreds of graves to a newer cemetery on the outskirts of town. Today there’s an apartment building and houses on the land, but for more than a century, rumors have dogged this park that the workers only moved the headstones and that the bodies are still there. Special bonus content: An audiobook excerpt from Jeff Belanger’s new book, The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters.
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JEFF: Okay, we’re going to make a right up here onto Hempstead Street here in New London.
RAY: Got it. Okay, I see a park on our left.
JEFF: That’s our destination. This is Williams Memorial Park Historic District. Park anywhere you can and we’ll walk over.
[CAR STOPS / DOORS CLOSE]
RAY: It’s a nice little park here in the middle of New London, Connecticut. There’s an eight-story apartment building off to our right a little ways. We’re walking along a sidewalk pathway through the middle of the park. There’s a bunch of trees. I’m sure this is a perfect place for a stroll or a picnic in the summer.
JEFF: Well… almost perfect.
RAY: Why’s that.
JEFF: Because this land wasn’t always a park, apartment building, and upscale housing on the other side of that apartment building.
RAY: What was it before?
JEFF: This land used to be the town’s Second Burial Ground.
RAY: Oh no. I don’t like where this is going.
JEFF: The cemetery was established in 1793, but as New London expanded this eventually became prime real estate.
RAY: Nope. I don’t like this one bit.
JEFF: So the cemetery was relocated just down the street to make way for the park and new housing… but there are rumors swirling that in some cases… they only moved the headstones.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger. And welcome to Episode 327 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger.
JEFF: This is a unique episode because if you keep listening at the very end I have a special treat for you. An audio excerpt from my new book, The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters. It’s available now in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook narrated by yours truly. The book is available everywhere with links to buy it in our episode description. Keep listening at the end to hear some of the audiobook. A special treat for New England Legends podcast listeners!
RAY: Hey, did you know most of our story leads come from you? This one did. We got this email from Alexis G. who wrote: “Hello from Florida! I visit New London, Connecticut, once a year to see family and friends. There’s an interesting thing about Williams Memorial Park. It used to be a cemetery. The headstones are now down the road. The legend is that they only moved the headstones! I’d love to know if this is true or not.” Well, here we are looking into it, Alexis.
JEFF: That we are. And we’ll get to it right after this quick word from our sponsor.
RAY: Okay, Jeff. I’ve seen this movie before.
JEFF: Ahhh yes. The 1982 movie Poltergeist. A classic. Written by Stephen Spielberg and starring Craig T. Nelson. In the movie, a fancy housing development was built over a graveyard and that’s why the Freeling Family’s new home was already haunted when they moved in.
RAY: The developer moved the headstones but not the graves. Who would do such a thing!
JEFF: Right! Who WOULD do such a thing?
RAY: So some people believe that happened here at Williams Memorial Park Historic District? They only moved the headstones?
JEFF: That’s the legend. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it.
RAY: Got it. First, a little more on Williams Memorial Park Historic District.
RAY: The whole 4-acre site is bordered by Hempstead Street—where we parked, Broad, Mercer, and Williams Streets too. There are historic houses on Broad and Cottage Streets that are part of this district that was established in 1885. In 1987 the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
JEFF: Got it. So let’s head back to 1885, and see what this park looked like back then.
RAY: It’s the Spring of 1885 here in downtown New London, Connecticut. Grover Cleveland is in the White House, and New London is in a period of expansion. The whaling business has been good to New London. The city is located right at the mouth of the Thames River where it pours into Long Island sound. Between whaling and shipping, industries are growing, some locals are growing wealthy, and the town is expanding.
JEFF: Here at the Second Burial Ground located across the street from the Second Congregational Church, some nice homes are starting to encroach on the bone yard and the stone quarry located on the far side. What was once the outskirts of town is turning into prime real estate.
RAY: Sure, but have some respect for the dead, Jeff!
JEFF: Right. Burial places are sacred. It’s true in almost every culture. BUT… the living will always take precedent. Time and tide wait for no one. Not even the dead.
RAY: This burial ground was first used in 1793. Mary Rice was the first to be interred.
JEFF: Back in 1793, New London looked very different. First, the population was about half of what it is now. And there weren’t near as many buildings and homes. Almost a century later, New London is on the move. Enter The Honorable Charles Augustus Williams. Williams had been the director of the New London Cemetery Association, and now he’s the Mayor of New London.
RAY: Charles Williams is wealthy. He has a vision for New London. He knows that cities often have a public park in the center while the city sprawls outward and upward. New London is sprawling, he doesn’t think it’s right that the center of town now features a boneyard and quarry, and Mayor Williams is willing to put his money where his mouth is too.
JEFF: What do you mean?
RAY: The mayor is willing to personally guarantee the price tag for relocating all of the bodies from Second Burial Ground to the newer Cedar Grove Cemetery on the outskirts of town. And he’ll pay to get the land graded into a public park after. He believes a park will draw in more investments and developers. No one wants to live near a cemetery.
JEFF: So a public notice is put forth that these bodies are being moved from the burial grounds. 770 graves in total. If you have a loved one interred here, you have the option of having them moved to a different cemetery at your own expense, or the city will relocate the grave at Mayor Williams’s expense.
RAY: Pretty soon… the work begins.
[DIGGING SOUNDS SLOWLY FADE]
RAY: The work takes about a year. Caskets and headstones are pulled up from the ground here and moved a little over a mile to the northwest to Cedar Grove Cemetery. As you can imagine, it’s quite a site to see. Neighborhood kids love to watch and gawk at the gruesome job.
JEFF: Cedar Grove Cemetery was established in 1851 and still has plenty of room to accommodate the needs of New London. When Cedar Grove was established, it was called the city’s permanent cemetery. In fact, some locals had already paid to have their loved ones exhumed from here at Second Burial Ground and moved over to Cedar Grove. Mayor Williams is really just finishing the trend. By 1886, any graves not spoken for by families were exhumed and moved to Cedar Grove.
RAY: The total cost for this project is about $8,000. Fortunately for Mayor Williams, two other prominent local people, Mrs. Anna Haven Perkins and Mrs. Chapell join in to add funds for the park project. But Mayor Williams foots most of the bill.
JEFF: With the Second Burial Grounds now cleared and graded, a new park is dedicated. And who better to name it after than Mayor Williams. And so, Williams Memorial Park is born. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Okay… so do we think they took all the graves or just moved the headstones?
JEFF: Right. To answer that, first, let’s head a mile or so up Broad Street and check out Cedar Grove Cemetery.
[CAR DRIVES OFF / DOORS CLOSE]
RAY: Cedar Grove Cemetery is huge. And check it out. It’s pretty obvious where the moved headstones from Second Burial Ground are located.
JEFF: Yes it is.
RAY: You can see there’s hundreds of headstones very close to each other in neat rows.
JEFF: Yup. That’s the graves from Second Burial Grounds.
RAY: I’m not going to count them all, but I wouldn’t argue if someone told me all 770 are here.
JEFF: Right, there are obviously hundreds of them.
RAY: Which again begs the question that was asked of us in the beginning: Did they get them all or are there still a few bodies buried under Williams Memorial Park today?
JEFF: Right… that.
RAY: Yeah.. you know… the reason we’re here.
JEFF: Let’s head back to Williams Park.
[CAR DRIVES OFF / DOORS CLOSE]
JEFF: So I dove into the newspaper archives and got a copy of the December 21, 1946 New London Evening Day newspaper, where someone asked the very same question. They had heard the headstones were moved but not the bodies. All of this came about because some folks in New London wanted to repurpose Williams Memorial Park to be the site of a new civic center. Many people opposed the construction project because they wanted to keep the place a public park. Besides… they reasoned… this park is still burial grounds!
RAY: How did they figure that?
JEFF: In 1938 a hurricane passed through New London and uprooted one of the trees in the park.
RAY: I know where this is going… AGAIN thanks to the movie Poltergeist.
JEFF: Right. The tree topples over and suddenly some human bones come to the surface.
RAY: Okay, so maybe a few graves were missed during the move?
JEFF: Maybe… but… if we’re to believe the reports… and I do. More than a few were NOT moved.
RAY: How many are we talking?
JEFF: Frederic W. Mercer, the Vice President of National Bank of Commerce in New London back in 1946 was quoted in the 1946 article as recalling watching the removal of bodies from the cemetery when he was a young man.
RAY: Yeah… that checks out. When I was a kid if I heard they were moving a bunch of bodies from a local graveyard, I would have watched that too.
JEFF: Right?! Go ahead and read this last part of the article citing Frederic Mercer.
RAY: Okay… it says quote “It is his recollection that about 770 persons were buried in the Second Burial ground and he insists that no more than 70 bodies were ever removed, indicating that some 700 still remain. 700?!
JEFF: Or the overwhelming majority. All right under our feet.
RAY: How does that happen?
JEFF: The first time I saw Poltergeist was with my dad. I remember him telling him this was fiction. It would never happen that they would move the headstones and not the graves. Well, dad, after doing the work I do for the last 25 years I can tell you… IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME!
JEFF: When you see an old burial ground you see the headstones. There’s a chance there’s a casket containing the person named on the stone just below. It DOES happen. What also happens is old-time grave diggers working for minimum wage dig into the ground and hit a big rock or ledge… so they move over a few feet. Or they recall the guy they buried last week had plenty of soft dirt, so they dig him up again and lay the new casket right on top. Soooo…
RAY: So if you’re going to dig up a bunch of graves to move them and you don’t find the casket beneath the headstone, you’re probably not going to break your back digging up acres of land looking for it.
RAY: You move the headstone and call it a day.
RAY: So people stroll the Williams Memorial Park, have picnics here and all the other things people do at public parks, and all of that is on top of hundred and hundreds of dead bodies?
RAY: And now I’m glancing over at that apartment building and some of these nearby houses and wondering if… they’re herrrrre…
JEFF: Oh they’re here. Which brings us to After the Legend where we dig deeper into this week’s story and sometimes we find a corpse and sometimes we go way off course.
RAY: After the Legend is brought to you by our Patreon Patrons! We dig this group of amazing people who support us with all of the costs it takes to bring you two stories each week. We can’t do it without these insiders who get early ad-free access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. We’d consider it a holiday season gift if you’d join us there. It’s just $3 bucks per month. That’s like buying me and Jeff a beer… that we have to split. Just head over to patreon.com/NewEnglandLegends to sign up.
To see some pictures of Williams Memorial Park just click on the link in our episode description, or go to our Web site and click on episode 327. And stay tuned for the audio excerpt from my new Fright Before Christmas book!
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Also be sure to keep listening for an excerpt from my new book, The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters. Available now in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook… which you’ll hear in just a few seconds. Thank you to our sponsors, thank you to our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.