August 06, 2019

Visiting Strange Graves: A Scary Encounter with the Countess

It was a November night in 1984, and we had just seen A Nightmare on Elm Street in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts. The "we" in this case were me, my friend Christine, and Cesar, an exchange student from Mexico spending the year at our high school. We had screamed and been appropriately terrified during the movie, and we were in the mood for more scary stuff after it ended. We had watched teenagers encounter terror and death. Maybe we wanted to encounter them ourselves?

"Let's go to the Countess's grave," Christine suggested in the parking lot.

"Yes!" I said. I knew about the grave but never been there myself.

"What is the Countess's grave?" Cesar asked.

We tried to explain. I had first heard about the grave when I was in fourth grade. Some kids from Haverhill's Rocks Village neighborhood told me what they were doing on Halloween night. They were going to wait outside an old cemetery to see if the Countess emerged from her grave. I'm not sure what would happen next, but having seen old Dracula movies I assumed that a countess must also be a vampire. They seemed to feel the same way too.

As a teenager I knew the vampire legend probably wasn't true but the grave still had a reputation as being spooky and somehow supernatural. Perhaps it was haunted, or possibly cursed. It was the perfect place to visit after seeing a horror movie so we got in Christine's car and followed the river until we reached Rocks Village. The old Colonial homes of Rocks Village are charming during the day but they were pretty spooky that night. The Greenwood Cemetery was even spookier, surrounded as it was by a black iron fence.

The Countess's Grave. Photo from Haverhill Public Library.

We drove into the cemetery. Spookiest of all was the Countess's grave. Her gravestone was surrounded by a black iron cage. What supernatural evil had it been built to contain? What horror was trapped within? What...

Suddenly we heard something scratching on the roof of the car.

"Oh my God!" Christine said. "Did you hear that?!"

Conversation came to a stop as we listened intently. Then we heard it again. Something scratching on the roof. It sounded like fingernails, or maybe knives. We had just seen Freddie Kruger terrorize teenagers with his knife-fingered glove...

Then we heard laughter from the back seat. Christine and I turned around to see Cesar with his hand out an open window, scratching his fingers along the car's roof.


We didn't know it at the time, but the Countess's gravestone had originally been enclosed in the iron cage to keep tourists from chipping pieces off as souvenirs. Mary Ingalls (1786 - 1807) was apparently the United States's first countess, a title she assumed after marrying Count Francois de Vipart when she was only 21. Count de Vipart had wound up in Rocks Village after fleeing a rebellion in Guadaloupe and he supposedly fell in love with Ingalls at first sight. Their marriage was passionate but unfortunately short-lived. Mary died a few years later after they wed and her husband returned to France. 

Their doomed romance was immortalized by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1863 poem "The Countess." The poem was quite popular in the 19th and early 20th century and Mary's grave became a tourist attraction. Fans of the poem who visited the grave chipped off small pieces as souvenirs until an iron cage was put up around it. 

I say Whittier "immortalized" the Countess but none of my friends knew anything about his poem or the Countess's real life. They certainly weren't taught to us in high school literature or history courses. We just knew that it was a strange grave, and a strange grave must have a strange story attached to it. Not knowing the real story we just made one up that seemed appropriate.

This is actually pretty common in New England. There are lots of strange-looking graves that are perfectly innocuous, but strange legends arise because of the grave's unusual appearance. Here are just a few I know about:

Midnight Mary's Grave, New Haven, Connecticut. Mary Hart's epitaph describes how she died at midnight on October 15, 1872 and contains this ominous quote from the Book of Job: "The people shall be troubled at midnight and pass away." Because of that ominous quote, legends have developed claiming that Mary was buried alive, was an evil witch, and/or that she kills anyone who visits her grave at midnight.

Black Agnes, Montpelier, Vermont. This large sculpture of a robed figure is actually titled Thanatos (death in Greek) and marks the grave of a wealthy businessman. Most graves in the Green Mount cemetery are much more modest, and so folklore has transformed Thanatos into Black Agnes, a statue that kills anyone who sits on it.

The Witch's Grave, York Maine. Mary Nasson's grave in York's Old Burying Ground is covered with a huge stone slab. A plaque nearby explains that the slab was placed there to keep animals from digging up her body but local legends claim Mary was a witch. The slab keeps her restless soul from rising out of her grave.

Colonel Buck's Monument, Bucksport, Maine. The large funerary monument erected to honor the founder of Bucksport has a strange stain on it shaped like a boot. The stain is probably caused by iron in the stone. Legends claim that it was placed there as a curse by a witch the Colonel executed.

You get the idea and may even know of some similar graves yourself. These legends may not be historically accurate but they definitely are psychologically powerful. Cemeteries remind us of our own mortality and these strange graves speak to us with particularly loud voices. 

Like a good horror movie they tell us the scary things we secretly long to hear. They tell us about the thin line between the living and the dead, about our darkest fears, and about the inescapable power of death itself. But also like a horror movie, our encounters with these strange graves are voluntary. We choose to visit them and (possibly) experience frightening things, but (usually) escape intact in the end. 

The Countess's gravestone was removed for repairs and sadly no longer stands in the Greenwood cemetery. I haven't seen Christine or Cesar in many, many years but I still fondly remember that night we visited a haunted grave.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like Cesar had a sense of humour and thought the idea of a haunted grave was silly!

We don’t have any cemeteries as old as some of yours - our indigenous folk, who have been here 60,000 years, had their own arrangements that didn’t involve gravestones - and famous graves are just a tourist attraction. My nephew, when he was living across the road from a historic cemetery, used to show visitors around it. He later became a travel agent! :-)

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment Sue! I consider myself very lucky to live someplace with lots of great old cemeteries. They're relaxing places to visit - unless a friend is trying to scare the pants off you.

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post Peter! This is one of the many reasons I love living in New England, all the awesome cemeteries and graveyards!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Rich! I haven't been getting to as many cemeteries as I like because of the pandemic, but hopefully will get back to it next year!

Anonymous said...

I grew up hanging out at Greenwood and was fascinated with the Countess' grave. I wonder if it will ever return? I heard it was in a barn somewhere?

Peter Muise said...

Hi Anonymous! I have also heard the stone is still in storage somewhere. I think people were raising money to restore it?