Podcast 353 – The Ghoul of Chebacco Parish

In 1817, a grave robber plagued the town of Essex, Massachusetts. Eight bodies were snatched from the local cemetery.

The Ghoul of Chebacco Parish

In Episode 353 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the Old Burying Ground in Essex, Massachusetts. Back in October of 1817, a ghoul snatched eight bodies from the local cemetery causing a huge stir in town. An investigation was launched with shocking results. But who done it? And why?

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Guest Voice Talent: Michael Legge
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Old Burying Ground in Essex, Massachusetts. In 1817, eight bodies were snatched from this boneyard.

The Old Burying Ground in Essex, Massachusetts. In 1817, eight bodies were snatched from this boneyard.

The Hearse House in the Old Burying Ground sits over the eight recovered caskets.

The Hearse House in the Old Burying Ground sits over the eight recovered caskets.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: This is one old boneyard here, Jeff.
JEFF: Yes it is, Ray. The sign in front of us reads: The Old Burying Ground, 1634, Ipswich Historical Commission.
RAY: There are so many great old burial grounds in the greater Boston area. Plymouth of course has some graves that go back even further but not much! But up here on the North Shore, this is old. And it’s pretty large too. There are over 2,000 graves in a cemetery that kind of stair-steps up the hill away from High Street. And the back of Old North Burying Ground touches the more modern Highland Cemetery.
JEFF: There’s a lot of dead people around us right now.
RAY: A LOT of dead people. And some go back to the very earliest days of Essex.
JEFF: Back to when this town was called Chebacco Parish.
RAY: So I’m guessing we’re here looking for an historic grave?
JEFF: We are indeed! We’re looking for several historic graves to be exact. But I’m afraid all we’ll be able to see today are the headstones because the bodies have been snatched! But who done it, and why? We’ve come to Essex, Massachusetts, to search for the Ghoul of Chebacco Parish.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 353 of the New England Legends podcast. 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! Thanks to our buddy John Gatley for sending this in. If you’ve got a story you think we should check out please send us an email anytime through our Web site. We love to hear from you!
JEFF: We’ll go looking for the Ghoul of Chebacco Parish right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: So Jeff, this is not the first ghoul we’ve gone looking for.
JEFF: No, back in Episode 283 we explored a ghoul from Cranston, Rhode Island.
RAY: Over the years we’ve learned that grave robbing and body snatching was a big problem. Especially in the 1800s. There were all kinds of reasons people broke into graves. Stealing jewelry and gold teeth was one, but sometimes entire bodies were stolen.
JEFF: That’s true… and that’s the case here. We have a mystery of some missing bodies.
RAY: Here’s a little more about Essex, Massachusetts. The region was first settled by the Agawam tribe many centuries ago. In fact, it was first called Agawam when English settlers arrived back in 1633. But they soon referred to their new home as Ipswich. They incorporated a year later.
JEFF: And obviously lost its first resident the year it was incorporated according to the cemetery sign in front of us.
RAY: Right. Ipswich was founded by the son of one of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s founders, John Winthrop. A fleet of ships sailed from England to settle the area north of modern-day Boston. This part of town was known as Chebacco Parish until it broke off from Ipswich and incorporated as Essex back in 1819. Being a coastal town, it’s always been known for its fishing and for being a seaport.
JEFF: But back in 1817, this town was known for something much more sinister. Grave robbing. So let’s head back there and see if we can solve this mystery.
RAY: It’s October of 1817 here in Chebacco Parish, and locals are spooked.
JEFF: They’re spooked because for the last several nights people have noticed strange glowing lights drifting through the cemetery at night. Look Ray…
RAY: Ghost lights!
JEFF: That’s what people around here think too. And they’re too scared to go see for themselves… not at night.
JEFF: It’s the following morning when the gravediggers come to examine the cemetery. They’re shocked at what they find.
RAY: Look! Over there!
JEFF: Yeah, I see it.
RAY: A grave has been dug up.
JEFF: It’s the grave of Sally Andrews. She was 26 when she died of tuberculosis.
RAY: Do you think someone thought she was a vampire?
JEFF: I don’t know. Digging up the graves of suspected vampires who were sick with a plague like tuberculosis has been a thing for a long time.
RAY: But usually in those cases the body is either burned or disturbed in some significant way. The body of Sally Andrews is missing!
JEFF: Wait…. Look over there!
RAY: It looks like another dug-up grave!
RAY: This grave belonged to Isaac Allen. He was only ten years old and died just a few weeks ago.
JEFF: By the time the search of the Chebacco Parish burying ground is over, it was discovered eight graves had been dug up and the bodies stolen.
RAY: In addition to Sally Andrews and Isaac Allen who we already mentioned, among the missing bodies are that of Phillip Harlow, also 10-years-old, Mary Millet who was 35, William Burnham who was 79, Elisha Story who was 65, and Samuel Burnham who was 26.
JEFF: As you can imagine, people in town are beside themselves. Grave-robbing is one thing. These ghouls snatched bodies! A committee puts together a notice of a reward with the huge sum of $500 dollars. Go ahead and give this a read, Ray.
RAY: It says: 500 Dollars Reward. Most daring and sacrilegious robbery. Stolen from the graveyard in Chebacco Parish in Ipswich, the bodies of eight persons, seven of whom were interred since the 13th of October last. The other, a colored man, about six years ago. As without doubt they have all, ere this time, passed under the dissecting knife of the anatomist, either of the rude novice in the art, or of the skillful professor.
JEFF: Right. Doctors and medical students have been known to snatch bodies for dissection. And given the deaths were recent, that makes sense. As the notice concludes, they have little hope of recovering the bodies.
JEFF: The empty caskets are pulled from the ground, and buried in a group on the far side of the cemetery. Minister Robert Crowell delivers a sermon for the somber occasion.
CROWELL: Some of them, indeed, in the hour of dismay, were betrayed into cowardice, and into a treacherous forsaking of their friend in the hour of adversity; but they soon “recover themselves out of the snare of the devil,” and exhibited, ever after, a diligence, and fidelity, and courage in their Master’s service, as praiseworthy, as their flight had been shameful.
RAY: Meanwhile, folks in Chebacco Parish are looking at anyone in the medical profession… anyone with an interest in medicine… with a suspicious eye.
JEFF: Pretty soon, they have a suspect. Dr. Thomas Sewall.
RAY: Dr. Sewall is a regular attendant at worship each Sunday. He’s respected in the community as a skilled doctor who ministers to the sick and dying. Though he’s an outsider from Maine, he married Mary Choate, the daughter of Captain David Choate and Miriam Foster, both of Chebacco. The family vouches for him. But still, some are suspicious.
JEFF: Look over there… a small group of councilmen are snooping around Dr. Sewall’s home where he sees patients.
RAY: I can see some of them looking in the windows.
JEFF: What do they see?
RAY: I’m trying to see inside…. I don’t…
JEFF: Oh my… there’s a corpse inside on the table. (PAUSE) And that’s all it takes. Dr. Sewell is arrested for being in possession of an unsanctioned corpse.
RAY: A law passed in 1815 made it a felony to rob a grave. And Dr. Sewell is accused of robbing eight of them. He hires a lawyer to defend himself. None other than the famous Daniel Webster.
RAY: Still, in the end, even with the great Daniel Webster defending him, Dr. Sewell is found guilty and fined $800 dollars. He’s ordered to leave the community forever. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: You may think things ended badly for Dr. Sewell, but he moved from Massachusetts to Washington DC where he founded the medical school at Columbian College, which is now part of George Washington University. He was appointed professor of anatomy at the National Medical College in 1821, and held that chair for the rest of his life, which was 1845 when he died from tuberculosis at the age of 58.
RAY: Today there’s a hearse house building on the cemetery grounds. We’re told the mass casket grave is located underneath it.
JEFF: Also, that $500 dollar reward back in 1817, would be about $12,000 in today’s money. So it was a huge reward for information.
RAY: The reward notice seemed like they were pretty sure it was a medical body snatching. Which we know was fairly common back then. And most of the snatched bodies had died from tuberculosis. I’m sure Dr. Sewall justified his action because if he could cure tuberculosis, he could change the world.
JEFF: Today, thankfully, people willingly donate their bodies to research like this so in the future there can be better treatment for diseases and afflictions.
RAY: That’s great, but does it justify snatching bodies from graveyards more than a century ago?
JEFF: Disturbing a place of the dead is typically a universal taboo. Meaning almost every culture around the world believes the dead shouldn’t be disturbed. But given the choice between the dead and the living, we’ve shown again and again that the living always take precedent… even if that means sometimes we gotta commit a sacrilege… dig up the dead and snatch them away.
RAY: Gross. And that takes us to After the Legend where we dig deeper into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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To see some pictures of the old Burying ground in Essex today click on the link in our episode description, or go to our Web site and click on episode 353.

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