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Michael Bell
McKinney, Te...

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Posted By Michael Bell

The text of the Hartford Courant (1915) narrative, “Tragic Legend Of West Stafford Cemetery,” was labelled “special to the Courant.” It should seem at least vaguely familiar.

    ON THE HILL north of the village of West Stafford is an old cemetery well worth visiting. It is the burial place of many of the early settlers of the town who, following the custom of early times, selected an elevated situation on which to build their homes, and the hilltop became the seat of a thriving village. In the olden days two churches stood nearby and the county turnpike passed the place. Near at hand a tavern did a thriving business and the stage drivers changed their horses there. On training days the state militia assembled here and the place was the center of the social activities of that section of the town.

    With  the passing of years, villages sprang up in the valleys and the churches were moved away, one to West Stafford and the other to Stafford Hollow. The tavern long since closed has been torn down and a farmhouse stands on its former site. Some of the old homesteads have been burned and others have gone to decay, until the old cemetery is all that is left to remind one that once there was life here.

    A strange tale is told of a tragic scene enacted in this old cemetery many years ago. Of a family of six sisters living in the village, five had died of consumption. The sixth seemed doomed to follow the others. There was an old superstition in such cases that the vital organs of the dead still retain a flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living. Instances were cited where dead bodies had been exhumed and the vital organs burned, after which a living relative apparently about to die had suddenly and miraculously recovered. In the hope that this might prove true and bring about the recovery of the dying girl, it was determined to exhume the body of the sister last to die and perform the strange rite. The superstition held that to secure the desired results the ceremony must be conducted at night at the open grave by a single individual. No one was willing to undertake the gruesome task, but finally the lover of the sick girl volunteered to do it. He went to the graveyard in the dead of night and dug up the body. Silently he performed the weird autopsy and carried out the strange program in every detail. The story goes that the girl recovered and lived to be a very old woman.

This text provided the specific location of the cemetery (absent in Cole’s text), but it also generated additional questions: At night? Alone? In silence? Exhuming a corpse single-handedly is difficult, a fact one quickly learns when researching exhumations and reading numerous accounts of “resurrections” by body-snatchers. Additionally, there is the ailing girl’s lover finally agreeing to undertake the exhumation. These motifs certainly lend an air of folk tradition, capped off by the afflicted girl living happily ever after (or at least to a ripe old age). Of course, it would have been simple for someone to add these elements precisely for the purpose of “improving” the story. Although this text did little to move the investigation forward, it did at least identify which of West Stafford’s three cemeteries the sisters are (supposedly) interred.

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