Romance of a different sort – a beautiful corpse stolen from the grave – and the man who married her! But it’s not what you think!
By Jim Ignasher
Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2014
Author’s note: A few years ago the Smith-Appleby House put on a Halloween program involving a fictional story about a stubborn man and a witch that incorporated real features of the property. Since then, people occasionally contact the historical society wanting information about the so called “witch’s curse”, believing it to be true.
When I learned of the following story I wondered if it too was a work of fiction, or at least great exaggeration, so I traveled to western Massachusetts to investigate. After sifting through town records, cemetery records, and microfilm newspaper collections, I was able to separate fact from folklore. This is what I found.
It was a bizarre tale that newspapers clamored to report for it had the elements of a dime-store novel: the midnight robbing of a grave, the re-animation of a beautiful female corpse, and her subsequent marriage to the man who “rescued” her from the tomb! The year was 1884. The setting was the rural town of Egremont, Massachusetts, a close-knit community tucked away in the Berkshire Hills along the New York border. The exact spot where it all took place can still be seen today, denoted by a seven-foot tall granite tombstone with the name Newman chiseled on its side.
Stella Newman was born and raised in Egremont, and by all accounts was an attractive and well respected woman. Death took her at the tender age of twenty just before Christmas in 1879 after she contracted spinal-meningitis. Her funeral was held in the same church where she once played the organ at mass, and she was laid to rest in Egremont’s Riverside Cemetery.
Stella’s passing is a documented fact, and it’s likely this would have been the last ever heard of her had it not been for an incredible story that appeared in the New York Dial five years later telling of a man who married Stella post-mortem after robbing her grave!
The source of the story was a New York City physician being interviewed by a Dial reporter for an article about medical students allegedly robbing newly dug graves to secure subjects for dissection. The doctor explained how students attending Albany Medical College in upstate New York were sometimes short of legally secured bodies to dissect, so robbing “fresh” graves offered an alternative. A case in point was the grave of Stella Newman.
“I am a Bellevue alumnus,’ the physician told the reporter, ‘and Bellevue furnishes no ghouls.” However, he knew of a case involving Albany medical students, told to him by his friend who was also an Albany graduate.
“He has told the story many times to my knowledge, and I presume would have no objection to my telling you, though he wouldn’t want his name published.” (For the purpose of this story the man shall be called “Smith”.)
The doctor related that when Stella Newman died, one of Smith’s classmates, a man named H. Worth Wright, left Albany to attend the funeral. Smith subsequently learned the details, and forty-eight hours later set out with three other classmates to rob her grave and bring the corpse back to Albany.
Each took a different route to Egremont so as not to be seen together, but Smith got lost, and ironically, unknowingly stopped at Stella’s house and spoke to her mother to ask directions! After finding his way to the cemetery, he and his accomplices opened the grave, placed the body in a sack, filled the hole, and then took a midnight train back to Albany.
Once back at the school they placed Stella on a dissecting table, and as her clothing was being removed, someone noticed signs of life! Amazed at the discovery, Smith and the others began resuscitation efforts, and before long Stella regained consciousness! This was a time before embalming was standard practice, and the fear of premature burial was well founded. The student doctors concluded that Stella had been in a trance-like coma which mimicked death, and was mistakenly buried alive. Had they not “rescued” her, she might have awakened to a horrible nightmare.
However, their exuberance quickly dissipated when they realized that they couldn’t explain Stella’s “resurrection” without implicating themselves in criminal activity. Yet fortunately for them, they soon discovered that due to her ordeal, Stella had apparently lost her memory and cognitive skills. Taking advantage of this, they concocted a story and brought her to the campus hospital where she was admitted under a fictitious name. Given her condition, they assumed she wouldn’t live very long, and if she died at the hospital their consciences would be clear.
Their scheme might have worked had rumors of their midnight adventure not begun to spread about campus over the next few days. As a result, Smith was summoned before the Dean where he was confronted by Mr. Wright and Stella’s mother. Mrs. Newman immediately recognized Smith as the man needing directions to the cemetery. Wright subsequently accused him of grave robbery, but Smith denied it, and offered an alibi which was corroborated by his three cohorts, none of whom incidentally were suspected of being complicit in the crime. The evidence against Smith was circumstantial, and with no proof that Stella was actually missing from her grave, Smith was never charged.
However, with Worth’s allegations hounding him, Smith knew he had to get Stella out of the hospital lest someone put two-and-two together and realize who she was. He made arrangements to have her taken to his uncle’s home about fifty miles distant. The sympathetic uncle was also a doctor, and neighbors in the tiny village were told Stella was a relative from New York City sent to the country to be under his care. There Stella’s health improved, but not her mind. She continued to live with the uncle over the ensuing months, and when Smith graduated he went to live with them and went into medical practice with his uncle.
Wright was never able to establish proof of Smith’s crime, and in a cruel twist of Fate, was found murdered in 1881. His death was reported in New York papers, and when Smith mentioned it to his uncle in Stella’s presence, she suddenly blurted out, “I knew him!” From that moment forward she began to regain her mental faculties. As Stella’s memory improved, Smith thought it wise to marry her, for in 1884 a wife couldn’t testify against her husband.
“Sometime this winter’, the New York physician went on, ‘he shall visit Massachusetts with his wife, and I expect to hear of a sensation being created up there!”
Such an amazing story had to be written, and upon publication readers were left wondering; could it be true? It had enough verifiable facts to seem credible. Stella Newman had died in Egremont as described, and there was a Doctor Wright who had graduated from Albany Medical School and was later murdered.
As the story spread, reporters eagerly contacted authorities in Egremont for further details, but unfortunately officials had no information to give, for they were as surprised as anyone to learn of the tale. This lack of response led to suspicion, so like bloodhounds on the scent of prey, reporters rushed to Egremont, each hoping to be the first to uncover the truth.
Yet the truth was elusive, and like the childhood game of Telephone, the facts became twisted with each re-telling. Before long, it was being reported that Doctor Wright himself had committed the crime shortly after the funeral, possibly due to unrequited love, and had revealed the story to his brother on his deathbed.
Reporters found no shortage of local citizens wanting to tell what they knew about the case. One woman claimed she helped prepare Stella’s body for burial, and said it still felt warm through the clothing. Others said Stella looked very much alive as she lay in her coffin due to a rosy hue in her cheeks. In their opinion, she had been buried alive.
Two men recalled seeing suspicious figures lurking about Riverside Cemetery after the burial, thereby supporting the possibility that the grave had been opened.
The New York Times reported that Stella’s uncle, a prominent judge and town official, as well as executor to her estate, was reluctant to open the grave and have “his worst fears confirmed.”
Within two weeks the story was like a runaway train with no way to stop it.
To its credit, one newspaper that refused to add fuel to the fire was the Berkshire Currier. Instead, the Currier’s editor tried to point out inconsistencies in the story, as well as the fact that neither the New York physician, nor the Dial reporter had come forward to be identified. Yet it was to no avail, for so many people now believed the story to be fact that Egremont officials were forced to take action before some locals made good on their threats to take matters into their own hands.
Therefore, on December 12, 1884, Stella’s grave was exhumed in the presence of about thirty witnesses, and when the coffin was opened it was clear that Stella’s earthly remains were where they had been all along, well on their way to returning to dust.
“As the men departed (the cemetery)’, the Berkshire Currier reported, ‘one after another made haste to remark that he had never for a moment given belief to the story.” They weren’t alone. Many locals found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to recant previous statements. Most just wanted to forget the whole affair and let it fade into history. It is perhaps for this reason that the tale hasn’t received much attention since 1884.
Who was responsible for perpetrating such a cruel hoax, and why? The mystery surrounding Stella Newman was conclusively put to rest, so to speak, but those questions will remain forever.