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New Haven’s Center Church Crypt, the Puritan City of the Dead

Better duck when you visit the basement above the graveyard

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In the basement of an old Congregational church on New Haven Green lies a small city of the dead. One hundred thirty seven gravestones still stand in the Center Church Crypt, built in 1813 over a portion of an old Puritan graveyard. They tell dozens of stories about the early inhabitants of New Haven. Tales From the Crypt: A Cata-Blog of Stones and Stories From the Basement of the Center Church tells many of them.

The Center Church Crypt

Buried under the bricks are Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Rutherford B. Hayes’ grandmother, Cotton Mather’s crazy cousin, a hated Loyalist and a man and a woman without whom Yale would not exist, at least as we know it. New Haven in 1813 had only about 5,800 residents, and the people interred in the crypt probably either knew each other or were related to someone else lying nearby.

The church itself has other famous names associated with it. Asher Benjamin made the pattern for it in his book, based on James Gibbs’ design for St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Ithiel Town, who bequeathed to New England the lattice truss covered bridge, supervised construction. Eli Whitney’s family pew hasn’t moved from inside the church, and Tiffany Studios designed the stained-glass windows.

Center Church on the Green

Oldest Stone in Center Church Crypt

The oldest stone in the old crypt belongs to Sarah Trowbridge, daughter of well-to-do merchant Henry Rutherford and his wife Sarah.

THE 5th aged 46

She hadn’t turned 16 yet when she married the boy next door, Thomas Trowbridge, who also became a well-to-do merchant. He had studied under a famous Puritan schoolmaster, Ezekiel Cheever and rose to local prominence. He served on the committee to bring the Rev. James Pierpont (also buried in the crypt) to New Haven to fill the pulpit left by the Rev. John Davenport.

Sarah had seven children before dying at the age of 46. Note the use of the title “Ms.” The next known use of “Ms.” came 70 years later, for Sarah Spooner in Plymouth, Mass. But that may have to do with the chiseler’s incompetence rather than early feminism: In addition to leaving off the “r” in “Mrs.,” he ran out of room and left off the “e” at the end of Trowbridge.

James Pierpont

James Pierpont, a Harvard graduate, is credited with co-founding Yale College. The Center Church hosted Yale’s commencement every year until 1895. Commencement exercises still take a detour around Center Church as the bells toll.

Weepy James Pierpont

Pierpont’s descendants include Aaron Burr, J.P. Morgan and James Lord Pierpont, author of Jingle Bells. He died at age 55, perhaps from over-exertion during his emotional sermons. His epitaph explains.

NOV 22d 1714 AETATIS 55

He had three wives, but only one lies buried in the crypt – under a misspelling of her name.


Wives and Mothers in the Center Church Crypt

Pierpont, a Puritan from Boston, made connections – marital connections — in high Connecticut places.

Of his other two wives, Abigail Davenport was the daughter of the co-founder of New Haven Colony, John Davenport. Davenport also co-founded the Center Church. Pierpont’s third and last wife, Mary Hooker, was the daughter of the founder of Connecticut Colony, Thomas Hooker.

Neither of those wives are buried in the crypt, but one of his mother-in-laws is: Abigail Davenport, whom the carver identified as “the relict” of John Davenport. She died in 1717 at 74.

The Real Founder of Yale?

Just after Pierpont arrived as the town minister, one of his devout worshippers, Mrs. Hester Coster, bought a piece of land in town. Before she died in 1691, she bequeathed the lot to the church “to be improved toward the maintaining of a lecture in New Haven in the spring and fall of the year.”

Image of Yale -- Creator of the Wickedest City

“A View of the Buildings of Yale College at New Haven,” lithograph, published by A. Doolittle & Son, New Haven. Courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database.

The church leased the property until 1717. By then, Wethersfield, Saybrook and New Haven were all vying for the Collegiate School. The trustees decided to build the school in New Haven if they could acquire the Coster lot and another piece of land. They could and did, and then renamed it Yale after another benefactor.

Hester Coster also lies buried in the Center Church Crypt under a nondescript stone.

Sarah Whiting, Painful Mother of Eight

Sarah Whiting, a tourist favorite, finished her wearisome pilgrimage in 1769. It’s the inscription describing her as “The painful mother of eight” that the visitors like so much.  She was described as “faithful, virtuous and weary.”

In Memory of
Mrs Sarah Whiting
late virtuous & amiable consort
of John Whiting Esquire
Daughter of Mr Jonathan Ingersoll
of Milford, born on the 22d of October
1726, married on the 7th of Novembr 1751
the painful Mother of eight children of
whom Six survive. On the 4th day of July 1769
She finished her wearisome pilgrimage
in joyful hope & expectation of a glorious immortality.
The hand of the good man fasten on the
skies and bids earth roll nor feels her idle whir.

Sarah had a famous brother, Jared Ingersoll, a Loyalist tax collector hanged in effigy several times.

Jared Ingersoll

The praise of Jared Ingersoll carved into his gravestone in 1781 did not reflect public opinion in 1765.

A prominent New Haven attorney, in 1764 he sailed to England to deliver a load of masts from the Connecticut River. While there, he received a commission as stamp agent for the new and soon-to-be widely loathed Stamp Act.

Upon his return, New Haven residents surrounded his house and demanded he resign. He finally did, but then he decided to go to Hartford under the protection of the Legislature. He did so hoping a mob wouldn’t destroy his house, as it did to Boston’s stamp collector.  under the protection of the Legislature so a mob wouldn’t destroy his house.

Jared Ingersoll, thoughtful, collected and sagacious. Or not.

On the way to Hartford, a posse of 500 men on horseback overtook him and rode him to Wethersfield. There the citizens demanded he shout “Liberty and property” three times, which he did, throwing his hat into the air. He then moved with his family to Philadelphia. Eventually he returned to New Haven, where he died in 1781.

His son, also Jared Ingersoll, sided with the revolutionaries and signed the U.S. Constitution, making him a Founding Father. Jared, Jr., may have hired the spin doctor who chiseled his father’s epitaph in the Center Church Crypt.

The Most Dishonest Epitaph in the Center Church Crypt?

In Memory of
The Honble Jared Ingersoll Esq.
Judge of the Court of Vice Admiralty
in the Middle District
in America.
A man of an uncommon Genius
which was cultivated
By a liberal Education at Yale College,
And improved by the Study of Mankind,
And of Laws, Policy and Government,
He distinguished himself at the Bar,
Where his perspicuity and Energy in Reasoning
And Equality in Conducting Causes,
Elevated him
To the First Eminence in his Profession.
Under the appointment of the General Assembly
He was twice honoured
With the Agency from Connecticut
At the court of Great Britain.
His Morals were unblemished.
He was thoughtful, collected and sagacious,
open and sincere,
mild, affable, and courteous.
Adapting himself to all
By a rich Variety of sentiment and Expression
Yet preserving in his whole Behavior
A graceful and majestic Dignity.
He died Aug. 25th A.D. 1781
AEtat. 60.

Wives of Famous Men

Mary Edwards married Jonathan Edwards, the son of the famous theologian also named Jonathan Edwards.

Benedict Arnold belonged to the church. On April 22, 1775, Arnold led his Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard to capture Fort Ticonderoga. Before they set off, the men gathered on the Green for a blessing by the Rev. Mr. Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards and Benedict Arnold

Mary Edwards undoubtedly knew Margaret Arnold, also buried in the Center Church crypt. Mrs. Margaret Arnold departed this life June 19, 1775, at the age of 31 – just five weeks after her husband captured Fort Ticonderoga.

Not much else is known about Mary Edwards, except the way she died.

Memory of
& daughter of ye Honbl
HADLEY who riding
out in a carriage was
accidentally drowned

Tales from the Crypt tells us,

She had been riding into the country, on horseback, and had stopped at the pond to allow her beast to drink, when it is supposed it waded into the pond beyond its depth and both the horse and rider were drowned.  The sad event greatly excited the community and when Mrs. Edwards was buried in New Haven she was followed to the grave by the largest procession that had ever been seen in that town.

Three Sisters

The Center Church Crypt has a plaque on the wall dedicated to Amelia Broome Jarvis and Maria Broome, “two amiable sisters, lovely they were in life.” However, there was a third sister, Betsy, left unmentioned.

Perhaps Betsy didn’t die in her 20s, as her sisters had. Perhaps she died elsewhere. Or perhaps no one liked her.

One of the two lovely, amiable sisters, Amelia Broome Jarvis, lived with her husband in New York, according to Tales From the Crypt.

She died suddenly of an apoplectic fit during a visit to her wealthy parents in 1788, just 23 years old.

Her gravestone bears a poem.

Swept with a hasty torrent hence
Like a vain dream we pass
Spring up and grow and wither soon
as doth the short lived grass
Alas its gone and quickly too
when Blasting winds blow o’er
And then the place in which it grew
Shall never know it more.

Male Admirers

In life, she had won the admiration of 18-year-old John Quincy Adams. Perhaps he’d met her while the family lived in Boston. In 1785, three years before her death, Adams paid a visit to her father while traveling through New Haven with a friend. The Broome house sat on a hill above the harbor, “a most agreeable situation,” wrote Adams.

I was in great hopes of seeing Mrs. Jarvis (Amelia). Her sister Betsy Broome (Miss) was at home, but not at all sociable. Samuel Broome is a “sincere, open-hearted good man.”

To be fair to Betsy, the Marquis de Chastellux visited the family while they lived in Boston a few years earlier. He praised the “excellent dinner,” “the honors of which were performed by Mrs. Jarvis [Amelia] and her sister [Betsey], with as much politeness and attention as if they had been old and ugly.”

Rutherford B. Hayes

Adams wasn’t the only president of the United States associated with the Center Church Crypt. Rutherford B. Hayes, a genealogy nut, visited the crypt to see the gravestone of his grandmother.

Rutherford B. Hayes

It read,

the amiable & virtuous consort
& daughter of Col. JOHN RUSSEL
late of Br’nford, departed
this Life May 27th 1773 in
the 51st year of her age.

It concludes, “Her children rise up, and call her blessed. Her Husband also praiseth her.”

Cotton’s Cousin in the Center Church Crypt

Warham Mather, Cotton’s cousin, was born in Northampton, Mass., in 1666. After graduating from Harvard he moved to New Haven, where he tried the ministry, medicine and the law. He failed at the first two but had some success as a lawyer. He died in 1745.

When the probate court reviewed his will, witnesses said he was mentally incompetent when he wrote it.

Jared Ingersoll, before people hated him, testified.

At this time I could not discern that Mr. Mather was affected by any pain of Body, but so prodigiously broke as to his Intellectuals, that I must confess I should have soon as thought of pulling a Dead man out of his grave & getting him to execute any Deed or other Instrument as he.

The court ordered the will changed to include “heirs of the whole blood only.”

The last person buried on the City Green was Mrs. Martha Whittelsey, buried by her husband’s side in 1812.

Generally the crypt is open for public tours from the beginning of april to the end of October, but during the pandemic it has been closed. For more information, click here.

Images: Center Church Crypt, By 2112guy – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3146058.  Center Church on the Green By Farragutful – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79676674.  This story updated in 2024.

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