In 1849, P.T. Barnum and several other investors founded Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, CT. It was a rural cemetery design, similar in concept to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia: by moving the old, dirty, overcrowded burial sites in churchyards to park-like settings outside the city center, relatives and friends could visit their loved ones in peaceful, well-kept graveyards, and perhaps even enjoy a picnic on the grounds. With the establishment of Mountain Grove, bodies were removed from the Bridgeport and Stratfield Burying Ground and reinterred there; considering that this cemetery was next to P.T. Barnum’s property and he promptly purchased the old cemetery, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the entire project was simply so he could expand his land.
Whatever the case may be, Mountain Grove Cemetery’s 125 acres now are the resting place for the remains of over 40,000 dead, including Barnum himself. Shortly after he was buried in 1891, a night watchman interrupted three grave robbers attempting to steal Barnum’s corpse. The trio fled and were never captured but theft of the bodies of famous people was not entirely uncommon during this period and would perhaps have been a fitting fate for a man who charged spectators to watch the dissection of the corpse of an African-American woman who he had claimed was George Washington’s nurse. Considering the man’s reputation for defrauding the public to make a quick buck, many were skeptical that the attempted grave robbery had even occurred and speculated that it was just publicity stunt for the arrival of his circus.
Across from Barnum’s grave is the monument to Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb. The grave site is topped with a life-size statue of Stratton, and he is buried next to his spouse Lavinia Warren, whose grave only reads “His Wife”. Barnum had trained Stratton to perform when Stratton was only five years old and he had been a part of Barnum’s tours from then on, achieving international fame and eventually becoming wealthy enough to purchase several homes and a steam-powered yacht.
Other noteworthy figures in Mountain Grove include: – Margaret Rudkin, the founder of Pepperidge Farm
– Neal Ball, an African-America baseball player who held the record for most assists by a rookie for decades and whose glove is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ball also trained Babe Ruth and the two were good friends, despite Ball claiming Ruth was the “dumbest and yet the strongest player” he’d coached.
– Robert Hall, award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books
– John E. W. Thompson, diplomat and one of New York City’s first African American physicians
– Fanny Crosby, the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers”
Our visit to Mountain Grove on a warm summer afternoon was pleasant – the grounds are gorgeous, and there’s an odd but serene stillness to the place. Wandering into the center, you can easily forget that it is now in the middle of a city. It’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you appreciate decorative statues and monuments, and it’s a great place to learn a little more about Bridgeport’s past.
Matthew Christopher CT Bridgeport Jul 29, 2021 Cemeteries Memorials