Feature Story

Beating The Grim Reaper

There are those people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie, even if it didn’t necessarily happen.
-John Steinbeck

By B. K. MARQUARD
Rutland Daily Herald, May 27, 1982

NEW HAVEN – Timothy Clark Smith was afraid of something worse than death. He was afraid of being buried alive.

Just to make sure he wasn’t, Smith had a window built into the mound of his grave in New Haven, along with a large underground chamber and a stairway to the surface. He also supplied himself with tools for escape.

It was the late 1800s – in times before embalming – and folks didn’t have to travel far to hear tales of people who had been presumed dead, only to be buried alive.

One legend has it that Smith particularly feared contracting sleeping sickness, and waking up on the cold side of a coffin cover.

So Smith, a surgeon whose travels took him to Russia and back during his nearly 72 years among the living, devised a plan to make sure he indeed would be dead when he met the grim reaper.

Smith’s plan involved postponing his own burial until there was no doubt he was a corpse.

Legends have grown around the existence of Smith’s windowed grave during the nearly 90 years since his death, and the unmarked burial site remains a favorite of tourists in the out-of-the-way Evergreen Cemetery.

The grave, said cemetery caretaker Betty Bell (Betty is a longtime VOCA member, officer and representative), attracts visitors from as far away as the West Coast.

The little bit that is known about Smith comes from a newspaper clipping of unknown origin which Bell pulled from her grandparents’ scrapbooks. The article detailed some of what purports to be the facts surrounding the unusual burial, and some of the commonly agreed-upon legends.

According to Bell’s newspaper clipping, Smith was born in Monkton in 1821 and graduated from Middlebury College 21 years later.

Through the following decade, Smith moved to North Carolina, back to Monkton and then to Washington, D.C., where he alternately taught, worked as a businessman and clerked in the Treasury Department.

From these disparate experiences, the clipping said, Smith moved along to the University of New York, where he received his M.D. in 1855. With degree in hand, Smith moved to Russia where he served as a surgeon in the Russian army for a year.

During the next few years, Smith became the U.S. Consul, first at Odessa and then at Galatz, Russia. His travels reportedly earned him the nickname “Odessa” Smith.

Smith’s obituary in a 1893 edition of the Middlebury Register said he married the daughter of an English army surgeon while in Russia and sired several children.

Facts about his later years are hard to come by. There are some in New Haven who believe Smith was “an important Civil War Captain”. No mention of it appears in Bell’s solitary clipping.

The clipping does say that death came to Smith quite suddenly at what was then the Logan House in Middlebury. He was just four months short of his 72nd birthday. The year was 1893.

One of Smith’s several children, Harrison T.C. Smith of Gilman, Iowa, traveled to Vermont to supervise construction of the unusual crypt.

The arched underground chamber of stone and cement, four or five feet high, was built beneath a grassy mound near the front and center of the cemetery. A glassed shaft led from the top of the mound into Smith’s resting place.

The concrete cap on the left covers stairs that lead down into the chamber;
the concrete cap on the right houses the glassed shaft.
Closeup of the concrete cap and the glassed shaft.

Area residents who have peeked in at the skeleton in years past say a hammer and chisel, lying at the base of the grave, complete the grisly scene.

Nowadays, overgrown ferns beneath the surface of the grave and condensation inside the glassed shaft prevent the curious from gazing down at what was once Timothy Clark Smith.

But there are those in New Haven who have childhood memories of seeing the remains.

Thomas and Cubby Boise are two who have seen the skeleton.

Thomas Boise remembers that the evergreen cemetery was quiet as he used to bicycle past on summer evenings three decades ago.

But it wasn’t the quiet that bothered him.

It was the memory of the skeleton that lay beneath the large mound – visible to Boise and his friends through the 10-inch-square pane of glass when the light was just right – that made his pulse quicken on each lonely ride past the cemetery.

Nearly three decades later, Boise lives right next to the cemetery, but those memories remain.

“I’d think of the guy lying in there and I’d start to peddlin’ so fast – like a hundred miles an hour or somethin’,” Boise recalled without a trace of a smile.

Boise said it was common for “kids to want to go look down in” at what certainly is one of the strangest burial arrangements in his neck of the woods.

His younger brother remembers how he and his friends used to play near the cemetery in the late 1960s when the skeleton was still visible through the glass.

“Yup, I seen it,” said Cubby Boise. “You can see the face of the skeleton down there with a hammer and chisel crossed on the ground next to it.”

And Timothy Clark Smith just silently stares back out at the curious, as the seasons pass outside his windowed grave.