Pierce Tomb & Old Burying Ground
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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,
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
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
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
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