Malden is six miles north of Boston, and was settled in 1640. In 1648, it is believed the first internments were made at Bell Rock Cemetery, which was originally called Sandy Bank Burial Ground. The oldest marker in the cemetery is dated 1670.
Puritans were very superstitious, and ghost stories were passed down for generations. This tale is of a mad scientist of sorts, that experimented with chemicals and concoctions, which terrified his neighbors. Just before the man died he stated that his flesh would never rot, implying that his body would remain undead forever.
The story goes that a group of people opened up the mad scientist's tomb after several years, and were shocked and amazed to find that his flesh had not decayed as expected. A medical student impetuously decided to sneak into the tomb that night and try to steal the corpse's head, but was tormented by apparitions and frantically ran out of the cemetery. He tossed the severed head into the tomb, and it is believed that a headless ghost walked the cemetery at night searching for its missing head.
The following story, The Walking Corpse of Malden, was published in American Myths & Legends by Charles Skinner. The yarn appears to be a compilation of different stories from throughout the nineteenth century. Wandering ghost stories were very popular in the early 1800s, while body snatching for medical research experiments actually occurred quite frequently much later in the century.
IN the old graveyard of Malden, Massachusetts, is the burial place of a citizen who disturbed the town for years, because he would not rest after he was dead. He had been moody and misunderstood in his life, and had given his nights to the study of strange things.
Odors of abhorrent chemicals had issued from his house and choked
people in the street, unaccountable noises had been heard in his
laboratory, shadows had flitted athwart his curtains so goblinesque and
frightening that two people who saw them lay down on the spot and had
fits. When his death-hour came the man called an attendant, who had
braved the terrors of the mansion, and with mouth at his
ear he gasped: "In my life I have differed from other men, and by the foul fiend I will continue different after I am dead. My flesh is not common flesh, like yours. It will never rot."
Nor did it. His body was put into one of the old-fashioned tombs,
five feet below the ground and reached by an iron door in a granite
gable. Some years afterward this tomb was opened, and the corpse was
almost as it had been in life, save that it had grown brown and hard and
dreadful. A medical student, who was greatly exercised by this
discovery, and had doubts if it were really a man's body that
had been coffined there, visited the cemetery alone on a squally night, entered the tomb, lighted a lantern, and with some composure sawed the head from the body and put it into a bag, intending to remove it to his home, where he could examine it at leisure. No sooner had he finished this grewsome business than there came to his ears whispers from the other coffins in the sepulchre, soft treading in the wet grass outside, moans and wails, stifled, gibbering cries; and shadows passed—he saw them on the green and slimy wall of the tomb. His heart was shaken. With a yell for mercy, he flung the head upon the floor, leaped out of the pit, and ran at a
frenzied speed toward home, hurting himself grievously by falls and stumbles over graves and stones.
Some months elapsed before any one else took courage to visit the desecrated place, but curiosity would not be stayed, and after a time adventurous boys would go into the tomb and exhibit the head at the door to scare their smaller friends, especially the girls. This was always in the daytime, with a bright sun shining, for nobody would enter the yard at night lest they should see the fearful thing that happened when the clock struck twelve. On the last stroke of the bell the tomb door opened, the brown trunk in its mildewed garments crawled out of its coffin, pulled itself up by the door-ledge, and went stalking about the cemetery as if in search of its head. At the first crowing of the cock it went back to its rest.
Seventy-five years ago [c.1825] a man bathing in the river just before sunrise saw a white-robed figure scramble out of the tomb, and, too horrified to realize what he was doing, he fled through the Malden streets, unclad as he was, waking the public with his yells. It was found that the figure was no corpse, but a poor, insane creature that had crawled into the house of death to sleep. The man was so frightened that he would not believe this. He insisted that he had been ummoned by a ghost, and from that very day he began to change, becoming silent and self-absorbed, and his death occurred soon after. Then the authorities banked earth against the tomb until its door was buried, and the corpse was never afterward seen abroad.
Bell Rock Cemetery National Historic Site
Medford & Green Streets, Malden, MA 02148