Tales From the Crypt
Center Church Crypt, New Haven
July 21, 2007
2020 Update: Yet another page I’m looking at for the first time in over a decade and saying to myself, “I should revisit this place.” Sigh.
This place is wicked cool. So wicked cool that I’ve used the pure New Englandism: “wicked” – because old cemeteries are pure New England. I did write back in my report on the equally interesting Cedar Hill Cemetery Tour that I didn’t care about cemeteries and I wouldn’t let CTMQ get caught up in them. Regardless, the Center Church Crypt is definitely a hidden gem and should be visited by anyone in the area.
First, above ground: New Haven’s Center Church on-the-Green is a right lovely church built in 1813 – the 4th iteration since the inception. New Haven’s green has been around since white people have been in New Haven. The church was founded in 1638 by the Reverend John Davenport and Theopilus Eaton; a couple of Puritans from Boston. The current building has a Tiffany window that cost $10,000 in 1893 which is just insane. Mr. Cotton Gin Eli Whitney was a church regular; Daniel Webster, Presidents Hayes and Monroe all visited – on and on the history goes.
“Church schmurch” you say, “Tell me about the crypt!” Fair enough… I didn’t even tour the church because really, a church is pretty much a church. A crypt, well… I had never seen a crypt before. And crypts are cool.
Before descending to the dark depths of the spooky crypt, we spoke with a curator who gave us some of the church’s history. As you’ve gathered, this church has a lot of it.
We were also shown the listing of the known dead buried below which contains 137 names but it’s more likely that there are over 1000 people’s remains down there. In fact, New Haven Green is on top of an old colonial cemetery containing between 5000 and 10,000 dead New Haven settlers. Think about that next time you enjoy the Jazz Fest there. (2012 update: Stuff like this is bound to happen from time to time.)
The church was built atop a portion of this colonial cemetery from 1812-1814. All the remains and gravestones were left in their original positions to be protected by the church’s foundation. Today it is now a crypt and remains one of the last “untouched” colonial gravesites in America.
I found the crypt pretty odd. It’s like an old root cellar; musty, dank, and cramped. But instead of old books, baby clothes, and long-forgotten tools, this cellar contains dead people. Really old dead people.
There are gravestones here dating back to 1687 (Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge, of course) through 1812 when they decided to build this church on top of the burial ground. The gravestones around the church were removed and taken away to another cemetery in town. It’s all rather strange and definitely unique.
My friend Rob and I sort of stumbled into a tour group but didn’t pay too much attention. I jotted down two notes from the guide: “The Quinnipiac Indians welcomed the 500 colonialists in the 17th century and they had a very fruitful relationship, protecting each other against those mean Pequots,” and, “Some remains are only six inches beneath the dirt.”
Buried here in the crypt are Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Margaret and President Rutherford B. Hayes’s relatives. That’s pretty much it and to be honest, that last one is certainly a stretch. I mean, Rutherford B. Who?
Actually, the crypt has a site listing all the historic figures buried here and it’s quite interesting.
The church is beautiful, the Green is great on a perfect day like we had, and the Crypt is absolutely worth checking out.