The Center Church Crypt is the perfect setting of a good ghost story.
The story might go something like this: one gray, dreary afternoon, a hapless reporter entered a seemingly empty church. The door slammed behind her. She heard a creak and whipped her head around to discover, horrified — Harold Peck, a smiling man in his early 70s wearing a yellow windbreaker.
“Are you from the paper?” Peck asked. “Welcome to the crypt.”
Featuring tombstones dating back to 1687, the Center Church Crypt is one of only a handful of crypts like it in the United States. Located on the New Haven Green, the crypt holds the identifiable remains of 139 people, including many names familiar to Yale lore.
Peck is one of ten guides who give tours of the crypt twice a week. Before retiring, Peck taught eighth-grade U.S. history, and said he sees his volunteer work at the crypt as a continuation of this historical interest. So much for the ghoulish cryptkeeper I had imagined.
But we were still only in the church; there was yet hope for the crypt itself. Joining Peck and me were a mother and daughter, Dorothy and Lia Peterson, who had come to New England from Los Angeles for a “genealogy tour.” Their ancestor, Reverend Thomas James, was a member of Center Church from 1638 to 1647, they said.
The four of us trooped down to the crypt, Peck leading the way. The stairs down were steep, but covered in rubber to prevent slips. At the bottom of the stairs, an old sign said “To the Crypt” in gothic lettering, but had a cartoon-like hand pointing the way.
When Peck opened the door to the crypt, no bats flew out. Instead, we entered a well-lit room filled with headstones. This was the crypt?
I expressed my surprise, prompting a chuckle from Peck. Many people, he said, have a different image of a crypt.
“A lot of people expect — well, I don’t know what they expect,” Peck said.
Though I was disappointed by the bright wholesomeness of the crypt, my fellow explorers seemed pleasantly surprised.
“I picture a crypt like the catacombs,” Lia Peterson said. “This is so much nicer.”
Dorothy Peterson said she admired the upkeep of the crypt.
“This is very well-lit, well-preserved,” she said.
The crypt has, in fact, been given the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation Special Merit Award. But I was not there for historic value — I was there for scary stories. It seemed that I would be disappointed.
“We’ve never seen any ghosts or spirits,” Peck said.
There was one almost-encounter with the paranormal: while we were examining one headstone, there was a loud noise. But it turned out to be the photographer, arriving late.
Giving up on my ghost hunt, I focused instead on the wide array of headstones in the crypt. The headstones vary in size, depending on what the family of the deceased could afford, Peck said. They also vary in shape — one, a large rectangular box, is called a “wolf-stone” because it was designed to keep out wolves from scratching at the grave.
Have there ever been any werewolf sightings?
The inscriptions on the headstones also vary widely. Peck said that for a crypt of its size, the Center Church Crypt does not have many unusual inscriptions, but there are some. Sarah Whiting is remembered forever as “the painful mother of eight children.” John Noyes is honored as “distinguished for his innocent, inoffensive behavior.”
The crypt even has its own small-scale historical celebrities. Margaret Arnold, the first wife of Benedict Arnold, is buried in the crypt, as is New Haven’s James Hillhouse. Also buried in the crypt is Hestor Coster who, when she died in 1691, dedicated a large tract of land to education and enabled Yale to move from Saybrook to New Haven, Peck said.
The crypt hosts many tours throughout the year. Close to 500 schoolchildren tour the crypt each year, Peck said, as do 400 to 500 other visitors.
Okay, maybe no scary stories, but are there any interesting anecdotes from the crypt?
“One time, a group of nuns came through and sang two hymns in the middle of the crypt at the end of the tour,” Peck said.
And then they were attacked by a werewolf?
Once, Peck said, a group of schoolchildren came through and one of the lights in the crypt went out, frightening the children.
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