If you live in Connecticut, chances are that you’ve walked across the New Haven Green at least once. It may be hard to believe, but buried just six feet below the surface are the remains of somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
Between 1638 and 1796, the New Haven Green, then known as “the marketplace,” was a commonly used burial ground for the colony’s residents. After about 150 years of use, the grounds started to become much too cluttered with gravestones and a new burial ground had to be established. The last burial took place in 1821, and the practice was permanently abolished. In the mid-1800’s a beautification project placed several feet of dirt over the graves, hiding nearly all evidence of the thousands of people buried there.
The Green has been the home to several meetinghouses and churches since it’s earliest days. Currently, there are three 17th century churches lined up in the center along Temple Street. The one in the middle, known as the Center Church on the Green, is the fourth meetinghouse of the First Society. The Center Church Crypt marks the last remaining evidence of the early settlers of the New Haven Colony who were buried on the Green.
In 1812 when the building was being planned they ran into a major problem—the location was right in the middle of the old burial ground and they did not want to disturb the graves of some of New Haven’s most historical figures. The solution was to elevate the church slightly, and including a basement that would serve as a crypt. This way, the graves could remain entirely untouched and family members could still come to visit.
Beneath the church, The Crypt contains the identified remains of about 137 people. Several historically important individuals are buried there including:
- Margaret Arnold—the first wife of Benedict Arnold
- Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge—who has the oldest dated stone, dating back to 1687
- President Rutherford B. Hayes’ grandmother and aunt (Hayes visited the Center Church in 1880)
- Theophilus Eaton—one of the founders of New Haven and the church, and for nineteen years the governor of New Haven Colony
- Reverend James Pierpont—the founder of Yale University
Buried near the church’s foundation is John Dixwell, one of the three regicide judges who heroically tried and condemned King Charles I to death, which automatically earned him his own death sentence from the crown. He escaped punishment by fleeing to New Haven, where he hid in a cave on West Rock for some time and then later changed his name. His grave simply reads J.D. because his relatives feared that if the British ever found out he was buried there they would exhume his remains, viciously tear them up, and display them on staves for the public to view.
Though you may hesitate to visit this rather “spooky” location, it is worthwhile to take a quick trip. Protected by the church for over 200 years, this unique New England historical preservation site is quite fascinating. Filled with the rich history of religious beliefs, education, art and culture, this site is a source of information for all of Connecticut residents. This site is one of many that makes New Haven such a unique city.
The crypt is open to the public, and the gravestones remain in very good condition. If you have any interest in local history you should definitely give the Center Church and crypt a visit. It’s open to the public from April to October on Saturdays from 11am to 1pm.
Note: This post was originally written for my personal blog and posted as “Underneath the New Haven Green” in February of 2007.