You could easily walk past the small gravestone a hundred times without noticing it. Standing silent sentry in a quiet corner of the Fountain Hill Cemetery in Deep River, just across from the portion of the cemetery reserved for pets, it is hard to find and easy to miss. But after Stephen Gencarella, professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, points it out to me on a recent morning, it’s impossible to look away.
The block tombstone is strikingly spare and lacking in details, its faded gray surface a blank slate except for three letters, “XYZ.”
In this new monthly feature, we take a closer look a what makes a community in our state a great place to visit or live in. First up: the charming small town of Deep River.
This postcard-worthy restaurant in the heart of Deep River is about as quintessential a neighborhood spot as they come.
The man buried beneath the marker and the stories surrounding him have woven their way into local folklore over the last 100-plus years, Gencarella says. It all began in 1899, when a report surfaced that the Deep River Savings Bank had been targeted for a bank heist. Flush from the ivory trade that made Deep River a wealthy town at the turn of the century, the bank reportedly had more than $1 million in its holdings. To protect this fortune, the bank hired Harry D. Tyler as a night watchman. This move proved fortuitous, as in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, between 1 and 1:30 a.m., four men attempted to rob the bank. Spying the would-be bank robbers mid-act, Tyler fired at one of them with a shotgun, killing him. Unidentified, the man was buried in town with a grave marked, for unknown reasons, only with the letters XYZ.
From this real-life occurrence, several legends were born.
According to some accounts, after the botched heist, the grave of XYZ was visited each year by a beautiful woman in black until the late 1940s. She would take a train to Deep River, then walk to the graveyard and leave a wreath of flowers, or a single rose, depending on the account. Then she would walk back to the train, all without speaking to anyone. What her relationship was to the slain criminal is unknown. In some versions she is his sister, in others a lover. According to some, it was the Lady in Black, as she had come to be known, who wrote Tyler and asked him to bury the slain criminal with a grave marked XYZ.
The accounts of the Lady in Black might be apocryphal. The earliest mention of her that Gencarella has found is an article published in the Deep River New Era on Nov. 3, 1939. That article noted that it is “a matter of common report that for several years following the daring bank attempt, a woman dressed in black would get off the train at the Deep River depot, walk down the tracks and up into the cemetery by the back way and visit the grave of XYZ, leaving a bouquet of flowers on it. The woman was never stopped, followed or otherwise investigated, and her relationship with the dead robber has never been learned.”
Gencarella says, “It’s plausible that someone did visit the grave at one point, but it’s pretty clear the legend of her visitations took a few decades to take hold.” In later accounts, he adds, “there is remarkable diversity regarding when she came, December or spring, what she brought, whether she spoke to residents, when she stopped coming, etc. — all reasons to think that her visits were just folklore in the first place, of course.”
There are other problems with the story as it’s been passed down. For instance, in 1900 the XYZ bandit was identified as Frank Ellis, alias Frank Howard and Tommy Brent, a known bank robber, in a report by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The report noted that the identity of his three accomplices had also been determined but they could not prosecute them because they lacked evidence from the crime scene.
Gencarella says no one picked up on this, “and reports for the next century continued to claim he was never identified. This obviously helps make the story a mystery and adds to the legend.”
Today, at the site where Deep River Savings Bank once stood, is a Citizens Bank. Though the building has been rebuilt since 1899, it has a display about the XYZ robbery.
XYZ’s grave marker, which has been replaced twice, most recently in the 1960s, continues to inspire local folklore and attract interest. In the 1990s, children made nighttime trips to the grave, where some claimed to see an apparition of the woman in black. There was also a local legend that you would be haunted by the ghost of XYZ if you said his name three times fast.
During our visit, Gencarella explains that in the most recent iteration of the legend, young people leave coins on the grave so as not to be cursed by XYZ. These coins and other small trinkets are plainly visible atop the grave and spilling over onto the ground around it. It is cold and there is snow on the ground and, quite fittingly, a thin layer of mist, adding to this distinctly Connecticut mystery.