Pierce Tomb & Old Burying Ground

Newburyport Massachusetts



Field Investigation: 2 October 2005

by Daniel V. Boudillion






Have you ever felt like breaking into an old crypt and parading around town in the clothes of the dead?  Of course not.  And yet it seems to be something of a tradition with the Pierce Tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Read on.

   Old Hill Burying Ground and the Tunnels

It all begins with the Old Hill Burying Ground established in 1729, behind Frog Pond and the Newburyport Superior Courthouse.    According to local legend, there is supposed to be "an intricate tunnel system" under the Old Hill Burying Ground that extends down past High Street into the center of town and the old wharf area.  If newspaper accounts are to be believed, some old brick tunnels do exist under the town.  They are generally referred to as "slave tunnels" from the Underground Railroad era.  But other researches believe they are pre-Revolutionary War smuggling tunnels. 


Frog Pond, Newburyport


Considering the time and expense required to make such a network, it makes sense only in the context of some sort of community for-profit operation, which conditions and activities in pre-Revolution Newburyport would fulfill.  It also explains why they do not show up in the history of the time. 


Old Hill Burying Ground

Photo permission pending from Matt at Soul Fan Paranormal


Regardless of whatever is beneath the cemetery, on top, Old Hill Burying Ground is a scenic jumble of old headstones and small crumbling above-ground tombs.  It is the final resting place of many Revolutionary War veterans and heroes, including Caleb Haskell.  


Recently woodchucks have made a home of Old Hill, burrowing hither and yon in a true maze of tunnels though graves and tombs alike.  Indeed, some tombs are so crumbled and woodchuck-dug that a casual glance reveals human bones

   Pierce Tomb

The structure in the Old Hill Burying Ground known as the Pierce Tomb is the Pierce family crypt, with the simple inscription of "1863 Pierce" carved above the marble door.  It is said to be the final resting place of seven members of the Pierce family, with the first interred in 1838.  There is one woman and six men interred here, including a drowning victim and a Civil War veteran.  According to a newspaper report in 1985, three of the interred had died of contagious diseases.  This was clarified in 2005 newspaper reports to be interments for tuberculosis made between 1863 and 1899. 


Pierce Tomb


The Pierce Tomb, while a simple structure, is nevertheless the largest and most imposing edifice in Old Hill.  It is set into the side of the hill and faces roughly northwest.  For those interested in such things its GPS coordinates are roughly 42.807n x -70.876w. 


There are rumors that the tomb is haunted by a man and a woman.  Robert Ellis Cahill reports in Haunted Happenings that his friend Brian the ghost hunter, using infra-red binoculars, observed two ghostly figures.  He described the specters as a man and woman who left the tomb, walked to the edge of Greenleaf Street overlooking Bartlett Mall and Frog Pond, and then returned to the tomb.



The Ghostly Groundhog of Old Hill Burying Ground

Newburyport, Massachusetts

By Daniel V. Boudillion

5 May 2007


Old Hill Burying Ground is considered to be haunted. Sightings of ghosts have been reported at the often-vandalized Pierce Tomb.  Close by, a ghostly head is said to appear at the Titcomb grave. 


Robert Ellis Cahill recounts how his friend Brian captured a picture of what appears to be Colonel Moses Titcomb’s ghostly head poking out of the ground in front of his gravestone for a look-see.  This picture is reproduced in Cahill’s book Haunted Happenings, along with a portrait of Titcomb.  The ghost head and the portrait do indeed bear a resemblance. 



Colonel Moses Titcomb & Ghost Photo


Having lived on nearby Plum Island in the early 1990’s and being interested in history, I had gotten to know Old Hill Burying Ground in Newburyport quite well.  Thus I was intrigued, especially since I had the nagging feeling that I too had once seen a head poking out the ground at the Titcomb grave. 


I returned to the burial ground with camera in hand.  On October 2, 2005, my nephew, Carlton Jablonski and I packed up the truck and headed out for Old Hill Burying Ground and the Secret of the Ghostly Head.  On arrival, I did some preliminary photography of the vandalized Pierce Tomb.  Then we got down to work. 


We hid behind one of the large stones near the Titcomb grave and waited 15 minutes for things to "settle down" and the spooks to come out.  I savored my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee - large regular - while Carlton locked and loaded the camera for ghost, and set the dial on "boo!."


Judging the time to be right, I took the camera and began belly crawling out towards the Titcomb grave.  Carlton remained behind the stone and kept an eye on the visitors who were keeping an eye on me and my unusual behavior.  As I inched towards the stone, I saw a sudden movement and froze!  Something was stirring at the grave.  Lying flat on my stomach and holding the camera out in front of me at ground level, I watched a strange apparition poke its nose out of the ground in front of the Titcomb stone. 


First a black nose, then little ears, followed by a furtive brown head and beady eyes.  The dark specter started at me.  I stared back and franticly snapped away at the camera while reciting the Lord’s Prayer under my breath.  Then the Head, no doubt sensing my prayers, snapped out of sight and totally disappeared!  I crawled back to Carlton and waved at the now considerable audience that had gathered. 


The Head!


With shaky hands we brought the pictures up on the digital viewing screen.  Success!  There it was!  The Head! … of a woodchuck.  How strange, I thought – the mysterious powers of the Cemetery had transmogrified Old Titcomb into a Woodchuck.  It was an awesome realization. 


I left the cemetery that day a little more solemn and thoughtful than I had arrived. 



   The Best Clubhouse in Town

The curious events of the Pierce Tomb began in 1925.  According to Cahill, at that time some local teenage boys had dug their way in from behind the tomb and lowered themselves in on ropes.  This mode of entry is not as unlikely as it seems.  The Tomb is set into the side of the hill near the top, and the top of the crypt is level with the top of the hill.  Thus it seems they simply dug down at the rear of the crypt, broke into the chamber, and let themselves in.  Indeed, my recent investigation reveals that one of Old Hill’s numerous woodchucks is currently employing the same means at the same location if its hole is any indication.  I did not see the woodchuck using any ropes, though. 


Back of Pierce Tomb


Having broken into the Pierce Tomb, the teenagers proceeded to remove the brown winding shrouds from the bodies.  Cahill goes on to inform us that they then proceeded to poke the mummified corpses with sticks.  A strange detail – and a macabre act – yet one with brings to mind the Monty Python poked-with-a-stick routine.  And lest I seem disrespectful of the dead, I can only say that when I go you can poke me with a stick all you want - just so long as you do it with a bad Python accent. 


Having got the stick-poking out of their system, the lads proceeded to sit the bodies up in their coffins to resemble attendees at the candlelight meetings that ensued.  And in a clear display of going from strength to strength, the lads then had the bright idea of dressing up in the corpses’ clothes, and parading around Frog Pond.  Which of the boys wore the woman’s clothes is not recorded.  However, it is recorded that their gadding about in 19th century garb is what tipped off the police and got them arrested.  The boys confessed, the clothes were returned, the corpses laid back to rest, the ropes removed, and the hole filled.  End of story?  Sadly, no. 

   Drinking Beer with the Dead

Two generations later in February of 1985, as reported in The Newburyport News, ten teenagers reprised their predecessors’ antics.  They broke into the Pierce Tomb and set up a clubhouse inside.  Three mummified corpses were removed from their coffins and inducted into the "club."  Beer was drunk, wine was tasted, toasts were made.  And being generous lads, they shared their underage alcohol activities with the dead bodies by pouring it down the corpse’s throats.  An act so bizarre that it renders me speechless.  Yet Cahill in Haunted Happenings reports that there then followed "a few more bizarre rituals" involving the corpses.  A thought that beggars the imagination. 


After about three weeks of such freakish behavior in the clubhouse, the cemetery caretaker discovered the break-in, and the Pierce Tomb was once again a news item of the most bizarre sort.  The Newburyport News cleverly front-paged a report that three of the people in the tomb had died of dangerous contagious diseases, (tuberculosis) and appealed to the miscreants to turn themselves in to the police station for the sake of their health.  The article worked like a charm as the teens panicked and turned themselves in over the next few days. 


Pierce Tomb


In my investigation of the Pierce Tomb, I was struck by its obviously smallish size.  It is hard to imagine that ten teenagers and seven corpses could have packed into such a small place.  The Pierce Tomb must literally be the clown car of crypts.  Interestingly, according to Cahill, previous Sheriff of Salem, Massachusetts, the sardine teens were ignorant of the previous break-in two generations before.  And speaking of ignorant. . .

   Photograph Me with a Skull, Please!

Lets move forward one generation to August 2005. I was reading The Boston Globe when I chanced upon an article titled "Man, 19, Accused Of Desecrating Civil War Corpse," datelined Newburyport, Massachusetts.  I turned to my wife and said, "Pierce Tomb."  And I was not disappointed. 


Indeed, on August 17, a young man on probation, while doing community service at Old Hill Burying Ground as punishment for home invasion managed to elude supervision and kick apart the thin marble door of the Pierce Tomb.  According to police in newspaper accounts, the man then entered the crypt and desecrated a male body by twisting off the spine and collarbone, and then hacking the head off with a stone. 


Pierce Tomb, Door Kicked In


The fellow then proceeded to cavort around the cemetery with some bones and the head, even posing for pictures with the head balanced on his shoulder.  And as pressing as his need to document this for posterity, it was these same pictures when sent anonymously to police that ended his frolics at Old Hill and led to his arrest – and put the Pierce Tomb back in the news once more.  Seemingly speaking for us all, Lieutenant Richard Siemasko said, "It’s bizarre, absolutely bizarre." 


The head was recovered from a woodchuck hole about fifteen feet from the tomb and was taken to the police station lobby where it languished in a cardboard box.  For some reason law requires remains to be claimed before they can be returned to their graves.  It is not recorded in the papers if or when this happened.  The curator of the Historical Society of Old Newbury did volunteer the possibility that the remains were of Willard Balch Pierce.  And other published reports identify the desecrated corpse as a Civil War veteran. 


On November 30, 2005, the young man pleaded guilty to charges, according to The Boston Globe, earning a sentence of 2-1/2 years in prison.  Ironically, the sentencing occurred less then half a mile from the Tomb.  It is not recorded if the previous incidents resulted in sentences.  The door of the tomb has been solidly bricked up. 

   What's up with the Pierce Tomb?

So far we’ve documented three instances of breaking into the Pierce Tomb and dickering with corpses.  And yet an AP story run in both The Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette reporting the 2005 incident reports that "the crypt has been vandalized at least three other times."  The reports go on to say that in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, high school students broke in and removed a skeleton from the Pierce Tomb.  It is unclear if this was part of the 1985 incident, or a separate incident of its own. 


Pierce Tomb, Door Boarded Up


What is up with the Pierce Tomb?  Brian the ghost hunter, according to Cahill’s Haunted Happenings, believes that "evil forces are at work all around the Frog Pond."  In my own investigation, and in the many times I searched out Revolutionary Era graves in Old Hill Burying Ground when I lived on Plum Island on the Newburyport coast, I never got an evil feeling from the cemetery or the adjacent Frog Pond. 

   Repeat Phenomena, the Mystery

However, I can’t help but notice the strange repeat abnormality that surrounds the Pierce Tomb: teenage boys breaking into the tomb and playing with corpses, and at regular 20 year generational intervals.  It’s not normal behavior by any means, nor is it the kind of thing that one would ever expect to repeat itself.  And therein lies the mystery. 


The first incident was in 1925.  Two generations later in 1985 it happened again.  And then one generation later in 2005 it happened once more.  Have old tales circulating around town given rise new behavior?  Have recollections of past misdeeds given life to new ones?  Cahill reports that the teens in 1985 were unaware of the 1925 incident.  And the fellow in the 2005 incident was from nearby Salisbury, Massachusetts, not Newburyport.  It does indeed suggest that a sinister, invisible force is working from within the Pierce Tomb, beckoning the young within to perform macabre rites. 


Entrance, Old Hill Burying Ground

Photo permission pending from Matt at Soul Fan Paranormal


Were it not for the apparent ignorance in each incident to the previous incidents, I would simply chalk it up to one generation trying to outdo the previous one.  But how do we account for it if there was no knowledge of previous incidents?  The Pierce Tomb doesn’t – at least to me – scream, "Break in and desecrate my corpses!"  And why does it happen in 20 year intervals?  How weird a coincidence is that?  And with this in mind, can we expect the Pierce Tomb to be back in the news in some ghastly way in 2025 or 2045? 


I, for one, will be following the local news with considerable interest 20 years hence. 



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Copyright © 2007, 2009 by Daniel V. Boudillion