Meet Your City: Creepy Hartford

Silent Wishes, Unconscious Prayers and Dreams…Fulfilled

This is not about normal creepy or anything on the level of unfathomable disaster.

Normal creepy is what you’d expect from cemeteries in general, the curbside memorials that pop up following car wrecks and murders, hospitals, jails, orphan asylums of yore, and the like. This is more of the “I came here for Monet’s Water Lilies and ended up staring at furniture made from human bones” variety of creepy.

Zion Hill Cemetery

One day I opened an email from my friend Johnna who lives on the Connecticut shoreline. To my delight, she was asking if I would be up for waking up early and wandering through a graveyard with her. There are a few people on the planet who understand me, and she is one of them.

Johnna was researching an article about the oldest person to be executed in the state of Connecticut, a man apparently buried a few blocks from my home. Our outing would mean scouring Zion Hill Cemetery — an unevenly maintained cemetery like most in Hartford — for the grave of Gershom Marx. She had some indication of where his stone might be, but if you have ever visited older cemeteries that sort of have other cemeteries crammed in them, the lines are not always as clear as they could be, not to mention that there is the practice of fencing off and locking sections.

Cemeteries are inherently creepy, some more than others. This one has a stretch of overgrown lawn in between rows and rows of monuments. To those who don’t know, it looks neglected and nothing more; if you look at this on Google Maps using the satellite view, this is the yellow-brown swatch just about in the center of Zion Hill. But, that area is a potter’s field — burial space for those who could not afford markers. If you thought you just happened to be walking on unused cemetery space, you were ever so wrong. This is not the only potter’s field in the city, but it is to me the most noticeable.

Johnna and I wandered through nearly the entire Zion Hill Cemetery searching for the Marx grave and were doubling back, ready to give up, when I noticed a grave separated from all others, covered with grass. Brushing the weeds aside, it revealed itself to be the one for which we were searching. This separation and neglect is what happens when your community values you enough as a human being to give you a proper monument, but is not sure if you deserve to rest right next to others. It’s a step up from an unmarked site, I suppose.

 

Connecticut Historical Society

CHS can feel bubbly at a glance, depending on what is on exhibit at the moment. But take a Behind-the-Scenes tour and find something to cringe over: the corpse preserver. Sometimes it’s best not to think too hard on the details, but here it is — essentially a casket insulated with horse hair and filled with ice. Oh, and there’s a little window so people get look at the deceased.

 

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

St. Patrick – St. Anthony Church

George and Mary Keller’s ashes are contained within the arch. Give them a wave next time you take a spin on the carousel.

 

Circus Fire Memorial

You can’t be in Hartford for more than five minutes before learning about the Hartford Circus Fire, responsible for claiming 168 lives.

In 2005 a memorial was created at the site of this disaster. It’s right behind the Wish School at 350 Barbour Street.

 

Sigourney Square Park

Here’s something to mull over the next time you roll in here for one of those free films after dark. Under a portion of this park, 49 smallpox victims are buried from when this land was part of the Alms House and Town Farm. At the time, it was not considered strange for people dying of this disease to be isolated after death.

 

125 Market Street

This is the only remaining structure from Hartford’s East Side neighborhood. It was a church. Then another church. Then a Catholic book store. Then Catholic Charities. It is currently owned by Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan but appears to have no use.

Two people — Dr. Norman Morrison and his son — are buried on this property, reportedly at the north-east corner of the church. If you walk by, there is nothing really indicating grave sites except for a small, walled-off area that looks like a tiny patio. You’d have to climb around to see anything, and with construction of some variety going on next door, that’s a quick way to look suspicious. As part of a generally neglected piece of property, it contains pill bottles and other pieces of litter. When buried in the 1700’s, this had been the edge of Morrison’s orchard. Good luck finding any trees in the vicinity today.

The presence of Morrison and his son seems to be the only constant. The son ended up here first because he was not allowed burial in a public graveyard, having died from smallpox. It’s reported that the elder Morrison was justifiably outraged over this insensitive and medically useless decision.

Before Dr. Morrison died, he made some legal stuff happen to ensure that his son’s grave would never be disturbed. Reasonable. What you would expect from any loving father.

In 1984, The Hartford Courant reported that this was interfering with plans to build a shopping mall. Former City Councilman Allan B. Taylor (currently Chair of the CT State Board of Education) is quoted as saying: “‘It is not an impossible situation there. If need be, the city’s power of eminent domain may have to be used to clear some titles. It is sufficiently important to the city for that piece or any other piece,’ to not stand in the way of the project.”

That shopping mall was never built.

 

Connecticut Old State House

Before this was the Old State House, the site was known as “Meeting House Square.” Sounds friendly enough, unless you were accused of being a witch, as was the case with Alse Young, the first person executed for witchcraft in the colonies.

Inside the Connecticut Old State House, there is a cooler variety of creepy — lots of taxidermied and preserved animals.

 

Wadsworth Atheneum

Being able to view a mummy would be enough to get the Wadsworth listed, but there’s more death to be found in the museum. In the Antiquities collection, there are multiple canopic jar covers. They have had Charles LeDray’s “Untitled/Tower” on view — a work carved from human bone. How did he obtain that material? Who can know?!

There’s the Colt Collection: many guns.

The Cabinet of Art and Curiosity contains various dead things: butterflies, other insects, coral, shells, blowfish, snapping turtle, a narwhal tooth, and an ostrich’s egg. There are ivory and bone carvings; presumably, the latter are from non-human animals.

 

St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church

It’s easy to miss an obvious grave by a church. What’s one more cross?!

At the main entrance to Pat and Tony’s is the marker indicating the burial location of a priest.

Just something to think about next time you see people posing for wedding pictures in this location.

 

Colt Park

Before getting relocated to Cedar Hill Cemetery, Sam Colt and four of his children were originally interred on the property. Various sources have described the location as being under willow trees, by the lake, where the giant monument is now, and on the grounds of Armsmear.

 

Silent Wishes, Unconscious Prayers and Dreams…Fulfilled

Back in 1996, Carl Pope Jr. engraved brownstone slabs with the words of eleven people who died from drug abuse, AIDS, or violence. Originally, these were installed in a vacant lot on Albany Avenue. In 2011, they were moved to the Church of the Good Shepherd’s front lawn.

 

BONUS

Christ Church Cathedral, Grace Episcopal Church, Center Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, Asylum Hill Congregational Church, and possibly others are all reported to have memorial gardens. That sounds like a bucolic place for a stroll while thinking of loved ones, but it’s a euphemism for spaces containing human cremains. The Unitarian Society of Hartford has a pet memorial garden.

Is there anything that should have made the list but was missed?