Construction Crew Unearths Colonial Gravestone

Thomas MacMillan PhotoNearly 243 years after he died, the specter of a colonial New Havener returned, as an “orphan” found alone on Orange Street.

The “orphan” is an ancient footstone from a grave belonging to Stephen Howell, a man who died in 1770. Construction workers uncovered the stone this week at the corner of Orange and George streets while working underground on a drainage project associated with the Rt. 34 overhaul nearby.

Click the play arrow to see the stone emerge.

The find, just in time for Halloween, comes almost a year after New Haven’s colonial past emerged in a similarly spooky fashion. Just before the All Hallow’s Eve last year, a skeleton appeared on the Green, tangled in the roots of an overturned tree.

This year’s seasonal surprise didn’t include bones, just a long-buried stone marking the passing of a New Havener who walked the streets when they still belonged to England.

Upon finding the footstone this week, the C.J. Fucci workers initially left it where they found it. The company contacted the state to report the discovery. On Thursday afternoon, workers hauled it up again in order to hand it over to the state archaeologist.

“We were digging to put some drainage in and we just found it,” said a construction supervisor, who asked not to be named. “There’s no bones. We just came upon it. We actually took it out and didn’t know. And then we looked at it and saw the name.”

When the stone came up Thursday, local historian Rob Greenberg was ready, filming the exhumation with his iPad. Greenberg, who has a passion for local lore, is the history buff who first (correctly) surmised that last year’s skeletal discovery also included a time capsule.

Greenberg said the gravestone is a footstone, a marker for the end of a grave opposite the headstone. The stone has a jagged bottom and is carved into a semi-circles at the top. It reads simply “Mr. Stephen Howell.”

Greenberg came equipped with a historical map depicting the homes of prominent New Haveners as they stood in 1748. He pointed to the image of a home that once stood near State and George, only steps away. The name listed next to the house: “Ste. Howell. Merchant.” He lived just next door to Chatterton the shoemaker and Miles the cooper.

“He was a merchant in the Ninth Square in the sea captains’ quarters,” Greenberg said. “And this, quite possibly, is his footstone.”

Greenberg said Howell must have been a “pretty prominent merchant” to have a large house on the map. 

So how did the marker end up underground, so far from any of New Haven’s historical cemeteries?

“It would be amazing if he’s actually here,” said Greenberg (pictured). He said he thinks Howell’s remains may not be far away from his footstone. “If this is here and not behind Center Church or in the Grove Street cemetery, he’s probably here.”

The construction supervisor said his workers didn’t find any bones, just the stone.

They’re not likely to find any of Howell’s remains, because he’s buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, according to Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archaeologist.

Bellantoni said he was notified Wednesday about the find and did some research. He found that Howell’s headstone is in the Grove Street Cemetery. That stone indicates that died on Nov. 2, 1770, at the age of 87 years old.

Somehow, Howell’s footstone was separated from his headstone, Bellantoni said. “How did it end up on Orange Street? Who knows?”

It might be that Howell’s was among the graves that were moved from the Green—historically a cemetery—to Grove Street, Bellantoni said. In that process, the footstone may have wandered off. He said the footstone will be given to the Grove Street Cemetery.

As it turns out, gravestones turn up in unexpected spots more often than you might imagine.

“Tombstones show up in many, many places far from their places of origin,” Bellantoni said. “They kind of move around, for some reason.”

A gravestone found apart from its grave is called an “orphan,” Bellantoni said.

“We must get calls on a weekly basis of people finding tombstones,” he said. He recalled one call from a guy who bought a house near Hartford in the winter, then discovered a tombstone on his lawn when the snow melted. The stone was from Glastonbury.

“There’s nothing in my deed that says there’s a burial in my backyard!” the man said, Bellantoni recalled.

Someone else found a tombstone when he was dismantling a pool, Bellantoni said. It had been used as the base for a pump. They’re also used as a base for furnaces, Bellantoni said.

“It just amazed me that hasn’t been seen before,” said the construction supervisor. The area where it was found is riddled with utility lines, and has been dug over countless times, he said.

“It’s just and amazing find in the middle of the street,” said Greenberg.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on October 17, 2013  10:20pm

No matter how hard New Haven has tried to ‘forget’ its history, the spirit of these old souls ain’t having it…...

posted by: Liam Skye on October 18, 2013  7:25am

Dude! - Don’t mess with it! Haven’t you been watching Sleepy Hollow?

posted by: David S Baker on October 18, 2013  7:56am

Frequently headstones are found in old cellar holes or nearby sheds.  Apparently replacing a marble headstone with granite or adding a new one when the spouse died often resulted in bringing the old stone home as a super heavy curio.  Strangest looking coffee tables ever.
Reporting the headstone to the state might have caused this work site to become an architectural dig.  Digs often delay projects long enough that it erases the profit margin or causes a loss for the contractor.  Praise is due to this contractor for doing the right thing considering the risk.

posted by: robn on October 18, 2013  10:42am

Ghoul…I mean cool.

posted by: GarbageCanBeFun on October 20, 2013  3:47pm

It looks like Stephen Howell’s headstone is already at Grove Street cemetery

In Memory of Mr. STEPHEN HOWELL who died Nov’r 21d 1770 in his 87th year.

Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven
Plot: Locust Ave., Lot 10