The Damned Story: Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport is one of the most scenic graveyards in the state but is particularly known for being the final resting place of the legendary showman P.T. Barnum, who also had a hand in founding the cemetery. In addition to being where more than 40,000 former Connecticut residents have been laid to rest, the 125-acre burying ground also is home to the grave of Charles Stratton, native son of Bridgeport and little person who rose to international fame as Gen. Tom Thumb.
Some also allege that the cemetery is haunted by numerous entities, from the spirits of Native Americans who supposedly lived in a village that was once on the same spot, to the ghost of a young boy who can be heard crying out for his mother, to other random phantoms. Bridgeport police officer and ghosthunter James Myers mentioned possible hauntings at Mountain Grove a few times during our interview with him, also noting that there were incidents involving Santeria rites having been performed in the cemetery—in 2010, two human skulls were discovered there along with bloodied papers that contained the names of potential curse victims.
Mountain Grove was established in 1849 on land purchased by Barnum and others near the western edge of Bridgeport. Thanks to Barnum’s political influence, it soon became the replacement for the old Bridgeport and Stratfield Burying Ground, with many of those who had been buried there moved over to the newer Mountain Grove during the 1850s and ’60s. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Barnum owned the land adjacent to the old burying ground, and eventually took control of it all after all the remains had been re-interred at Mountain Grove.) In addition to Barnum and Stratton, other notables who can now be found in Mountain Grove include gospel lyricist Fanny J. Crosby, Pepperidge Farm founder Margaret Rudkin, children’s author Robert Lawson and noted country singer Vernon Dalhart.
Mountain Grove was also the site of an unusual incident involving its most famous denizen. In late May 1891, a few weeks after Barnum’s death, it was reported that there was an attempt to break into his grave to steal his body as part of a plot to hold it for ransom. (Apparenlty, this type of crime was commonplace during the era, including a foiled attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body.) The story goes that around 2 a.m. on the night of May 29, 1891, the cemetery’s two night watchmen heard noises that sounded like digging in the area of Barnum’s grave, and when they went to investigate, discovered three men trying to break into the crypt. Startled by the watchmen, the perpetrators quickly ran off into the night and were never apprehended.
Bridgeport historian (and Damned CT interview subject) Michael Bielawa has written a terrific and well-researched account for Fortean Times of the “attempt” to kidnap Barnum’s body from Mountain Grove. He describes the incident in great detail, and offers a number of theories as to what may have really occurred that night, including the possibility that it was all an elaborate hoax to publicize Barnum’s former circus coming to town that week, which would be a fitting tribute to Barnum, who made his fame by perpetrating such attention-grabbing acts and became known as “Prince of the Humbugs.”
Barnum’s connection to his beloved Bridgeport has been well-documented; in addition to his eponymous museum, he was mayor of the Park City in 1875, built multiple mansions in tonw and supported numerous philanthropical causes. His connection to things “damned” is also significant; from the Feejee mermaid and the Cardiff Giant to the Bunker Brothers and Tom Thumb, he was no stranger to oddities. If he’s watching from up above (or down below!), he would be amused that the place he is buried at has enjoyed such an unusual history—although he’d probably be irked that he was not somehow making money from it.
Our Damned Experience: We visited Mountain Grove Cemetery on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon in April 2014. Like many cemeteries, it’s a quiet, peaceful place with well-manicured lawns, a few small hills, two ponds, above- and below-ground mausoleums, a crematory, a chapel and an impressive array of funerary art and sculpture.
Seriously, this isn’t ancient Greece—it’s in the middle of Mountain Grove Cemetery, in Bridgeport!
Mountain Grove is an “active” cemetery in the sense that people are interred there on a regular basis—plenty of fresh graves and newly sealed crypts all around. It also means that there are many visitors who come to pay their respects to recently departed loved ones, so it’s as “busy” as you’d expect any big city graveyard to be.
Of course, we immediately went to P.T. Barnum’s final resting place (which is in section 9, if you’re following along in your scorecard). Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the biggest memorials in the park, although not the biggest, which would surely disappoint the great egomaniac, who never met a story about himself that the didn’t like.
As you can see, it’s still an prominent monument, set off from the ones around it by a low stone wall. His wife Charity is also buried in the plot, as are some Barnum descendents, all of whom are listed on the main marker. Overall, it’s a very dignified and modest stone.
Just across the way (in area 8) is the monument dedicated to the Stratton family, topped by a sculpture of Charles Stratton, aka Gen. Tom Thumb.
Overcompensation a bit? Well, we suppose he’s entitled—he was a general, after all.
Although it’s topped by a sculpture of Charles Stratton, it doesn’t specifically note that it’s the “official” monument for him (or Tom Thumb) in the stone itself. However, it does say so on the weatherbeaten plaque affixed to the front of it.
(It’s always “fun” to discover that people were jerks even back in the “good ol’ days” of the 1950s. And by “fun,” we mean “actually pretty sad.”)
Anyway, it’s fitting that Stratton’s monument is only a few steps from Barnum’s, an echo of the close bond that the two men shared during life.
Stratton’s wife Lavinia Warren, also a little person and a performer, is buried with her husband.
After paying our respects to both men and their families, we wandered around the cemetery, checking out random graves and other notable features. It really is a beautiful cemetery, even in the dull browns and greens of early spring (see the gallery below for more photos.)
All seemed to resting in peace—we didn’t see or hear anything otherworldy or unusual . . . until we stumbled across this one crypt.
Okay, we’ve been to midnight ghost hunts, seances and all sorts of abandoned sites and odd graveyards as well as dozens of supposedly haunted locations across the state, but this may be the first time that we were genuinely sort of freaked out for a few moments. We don’t know of any stories associated with the Peet family or this particular mausoleum, nor are we sure who’s even interred here.
It’s hard to see from this picture but the main crypt beyond the old metal doors is actually open and you can clearly see in, which is unusual (the others in this row of mausoleums look to have been sealed for decades). You could also see that it goes down into the hillside and then opens up into a large marble vault with back wall containing a number of sealed individual resting places (like an above-ground mausoleum). What appeared to be a single wooden casket was sitting silently in the middle of the crypt, possibly awaiting internment . . . . or for some dumbasses with cameras to get too close before zombie corpses could jump out, grab them and drag their godless souls straightaway to the underworld—
Okay, maybe we’ve seen too many episodes of “The Walking Dead” and let our imaginations get carried away a bit here. Still, it was midday in the bright sunlight in the middle of an enormous city, and yet it was incredibly quiet and somehow remarkably disturbing. Ultimately, we didn’t see or experience anything truly unusual here, it was just that for a few seconds, things seemed … weird. Just sayin’.
So other than our overactive imaginations getting the best of us (probably), our visit to Mountain Grove Cemetery was fairly non eventful—no spirits, no bizarre rites, no grave robbers and no zombies, which may have disappointed the Barnum the Mighty Impresario, but seemed to suit Barnum the Still Dead Man—and the thousands of others resting in peace here—just fine.
Note: We didn’t observe any signs pointing the way to the egress, but were able to find the way out nonetheless.
If You Go: Mountain Grove Cemetery is located at 2675 North Avenue in Bridgeport. It is open daily to the public year round; in winter, the last gate (Swan Gate on Dewey St.) closes at 5 p.m. while the rest of the year, it closes at 6:30 p.m. All other gates close one hour before Swan Gate.
As with any active cemetery, we encourage any visitors to be respectful of all rules and regulations.