A Grave Story of Castleton State College

Human bones on display in the Old Chapel on Castleton State College campus. (Joanna Tebbs Young / photo)

Human bones on display in the Old Chapel on Castleton State College campus. (Joanna Tebbs Young / photo)

It may have been because I was expecting (hoping?) to feel something when I entered the basement of the Old Chapel on Seminary Street on the campus of Castleton State College — my stomach flipped. A strange sensation of, not fear, but what? Unease. A slight pressure inside.

While it may not be its original cellar hole — the building had been moved from its original site on Main Street and, as such, is hardly a representation of its former self — the air, it felt, well … just different.

Apparently I’m not the only person who has felt something unusual. Although a former campus public safety officer assured me he had never experienced anything on his many late-night security checks, a current employee — who wished to stay anonymous — notes there have been students over the years who have refused to be in the Old Chapel after dark.

Retired Academic Dean Joseph Mark could recall no “close encounter” stories from those students, who in the 1980s and ’90s were granted permission to stay the night in the Old Chapel on Halloween. Nevertheless, on occasion other staff members and students have experienced strange things. For example, audiovisual equipment set up the night before an event and kept behind a locked door, has been discovered moved around.

It would seem that if any building was going to be haunted on the Castleton campus — and there are a few (all of them, according to some sources) — it would be the Old Chapel. Why?

Staring sightlessly from behind glass in the chapel lobby are a number of partial human skulls. Posed around them, bones lie in repose. In another case are cold, metal — and in some cases, such as the set of rectal expanders, quite alarming — medical instruments from a time long gone. These relics provide clues to the former purpose of this building. The Old Chapel, used for music classes and other functions over the years, was once the “medical house” of Castleton Medical School.

With boasting rights as the oldest building on campus, it was built in 1821 and, according to Ron Powers in “Big Heart: The Journey to Castleton’s Two Hundred and Twenty-fifth Birthday,” it featured a lecture room, a chemical laboratory and a library. The second floor housed an “anatomical museum” displaying “various minerals and natural curiosities.” Also on the second floor in the Great Hall was the anatomical theater and dissecting room.

Yes, dissecting room. It was here, in the name of science and medicine, that the grisly task of dissecting human bodies took place. But in a time before donating one’s body to science was considered a benevolent gesture, when the “desecration” of a human body was a sin, where did those wanting to learn the inner workings of the human body find their subjects? Well, they had to dig deep.

Until the early 19th century, medical students had no choice but to resort to becoming — or at the very least, acting in cahoots with — grave robbers, or “resurrectionists.” Bodies were either snatched from local cemeteries or shipped from slums in various cities in barrels of brine marked as food. In Castleton’s case, the local grocer was a trustee of the medical school. (I can’t help but wonder how many shopkeepers had a nasty surprise when a shipment was mis-routed.)

Within two nights of a burial, using hooks under the shoulders or chin of the deceased, the body-snatchers would slide the body from as small a hole in the coffin and ground as possible. Items on and around the burial site were studied before disturbance and replaced meticulously to disguise the robbery.

But one November night in 1830, some residents of Hubbardton outwitted the robbers. By carefully marking the gravesite of an unfortunate victim of consumption, one Mrs. Penfield Churchill, they were able to determine that it had been disturbed during the night. When the coffin was indeed found empty, 300 townspeople marched into Castleton demanding access to the medical school and the return of the body.

According to a story in the Rutland Herald from Dec. 1, 1830, “a general search of the medical buildings in this village took place. The remains of a person, with exception of the head, were discovered, which the husband recognized as those of his deceased wife, and which were taken Hubbardton to be re-interred.”

What the news clipping leaves out is the details of the story, which became known as the Hubbardton Raid. When the townspeople stamped angrily into Castleton, the dean managed to stall them temporarily while sending someone to fetch the building keys (they were actually in his pocket).

Meanwhile, the students inside were decapitating the poor Mrs. Churchill to render her unidentifiable. They stuffed her body under the floorboards and, as the mob streamed into the building, a student managed to run out undetected with the head hidden under his coat and hid it in a barn.

But a sharp-eyed Hubbardtonian noticed a nail on the floor, prompting a search which, in turn, produced the body. In return for the head, the dean negotiated that the students not be arrested. Apparently the sheriff, one General Dike, didn’t keep his word. The 1830 news article states, “two students were immediately arrested on suspicion. Their examination, we understand, took place yesterday. We have not yet heard the result.”

That result — despite the Rutland Herald’s editors’ plea for the perpetrators to “be ferreted out, and made to suffer the severe penalties of the violated laws,” — was, as Powers writes, “a couple of token expulsions, and the episode passed into local folklore.”

Forty-nine years later (it was meant to be 50, but someone had mistaken the date), the scandal was still very much a topic of conversation. At an oyster supper for members of the Rutland County Medical and Surgical Society on Nov. 29, 1879, a 500-line poem, titled “Song of the Hubbardton Raid,” was presented by Dr. John Currier (and later printed in pamphlet form by Rutland’s own Tuttle Publishing).

Although far from a masterpiece, one section of the poem made me laugh out loud. The townspeople have entered the medical building only to discover “partly dissected bodies … limbs … in the chairs and on the tables … mingled with the students’ dinner pails … Bones, muscles, and parts of flesh … in piles …” So the students “offered these raiders / Bones and flesh enough to make a wife / If they would quietly take them and depart …”

Apparently, the people of Hubbardton didn’t take too kindly to the “celebration” of the robbery and decapitation of one of their own. On May 12, 1880, G.D. Spencer, in reply to Dr. Currier, delivered his own poem at the Congregationalist Church in Hubbardton in response to “the insinuating, sneering and lying slang … (through which) the author shows himself destitute of the finer feelings of a gentleman, and merits the scorn and contempt of this community.”

And what about Mrs. Penfield Churchill? Where was she while the towns of Castleton and Hubbardton were fighting a battle of words? According to a Rutland Herald article from 1964, neither she nor Mr. Churchill have marked gravestones in the Churchill family lot in Hubbardton. Was she interred somewhere else out of fear of further robberies? Was she buried in secret in response to the indignity of her first infamous burial? Or is “Penny,” as some have apparently witnessed, according to Joseph Citro in the “Vermont Ghost Guide,” still wandering around the Old Chapel trying to find her head?

Originally published 10/16/13 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young

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