The Secret History of the Tomb in McDonough

If you go to the Chenango County Chamber of Commerce website you'll find a bit about a boy in a tomb who was afraid of the dark.

So the fable goes, Merritt Beardsley told his father, William, in December of 1865, that he didn't want to be left in the dark when he died; therefore there's a tomb with a window in Miller Cemetery outside of Oxford, NY. The thing is, this history is based on a story from a book of Upstate folktales: Oxcarts Along the Chenango [Oxcarts Along The Chenango by Roy Gallinger; published 1965 Fay Edward Faulkner, Heritage Press, Sherburne, NY.]

Here is the Oxcarts story.

which is referred to by the historian of Oxford town, which is the basis of the history being presented to news journalists [Press and Sun-Bulletin 10/31/06] and tourists. Every reference is coming right out of the Gallinger tale which admits its source as a folktale, "the story of little Merritt Beardsley has been forgotten by all but the very old folks."

Another interesting fact of the tomb is that the kid's name is spelled wrong above the window(Little Merrits Tomb) but correctly (or maybe both are wrong) on the birth-death marker. While it's believed as part of the tale, that the writing above the tomb was added after the kid died, there's no reference to it in the Oxcarts book- besides for Gallinger using the adjective 'little' a whole bunch of times in the story when talking of Meritt, his hands, a grove of pines...

So the inscription could have been added in the 1960's or later, or it may have been there since the kid died, but it probably would have been corrected by the immediate family. Although, I tend to believe that the people of the area and the chamber of commerce took notice of the story when it appeared in the Oxcarts book; then it became official history, then the inscription was placed above the tomb.

Now for the folklorist; it's obvious that no one was around when this kid died, so a dialogue between the kid and his father couldn't be recounted by the "very old folks" to the collector. So imagine that Gallinger is told about a grave of an 8-year-old with a window, maybe it doesn't have the inscription above yet, and so Gallinger tells the tale of a little boy who's afraid of the dark- of his own accounting; maybe the bit about being afraid of the dark was already a part of the folktale.

My interpretation is more mundane, that the family wanted to view their son after he died, much like windows into tombs throughout history ala Lenin, a zillion catacombed Italians- specifically the perfectly embalmed little girl behind the glass window. So the family is forgotten, and a folktale emerges from middle-of-nowhere York State, remembering a beloved son who was afraid of the dark.


Does the tomb window get the light of the morning sun every day of the year?

Is Gallinger still alive, if not, how can we recover his sources for this folktale?

What year was the inscription made?

What is the real spelling of this kid's first name?

This story has been reappearing in upstate newspapers since at least the 1970's, was it ever referred to in the Norwich Sun/Evening Sun before 1965?

Does the historian of Oxford town know more folktales than history?

-By Joe


Jesse said...

I really like this story because it raises some fascinating questions. How do we construct history? Joe's final question: "Does the historian of Oxford town know more folktales than history?" is one that can probably be asked in every town, state and at our national level. History, it seems, can never be 'completely' told or told without bias since any historical account is a selective act that singles out the 'important.' Likewise, so much of history is based off of memory and the stories we tell about it. So perhaps I would ask as a companion to Joe's final question: "And when we tell ourselves folklore and pass it off as history, what does that mean about who we are and who we wish to be?"

Anonymous said...

I lived very near that grave for many years. The only thing is the sadness of the state is is kept in. Overun by weeds and the stones making up the tomb are leaning and the window has been broken by vandals several times. It matters not if the story as told by Ghallager is the absolute truth or not. What does matter is that it is the final resting place of a young child and as such should be viewed as sacred as any other burial site. Over the years it has been robbed and desecrated without much consequence. What does that say about who we are?

Anonymous said...

My dad's taking me up for a visit tomorrow. My dad always told me stories about Little Merritt's tomb. Even the part about the man that broke the glass and stole the skull in the 1970's. They police found the skull painted glow in the dark hanging from his ceiling during a drug bust, so there's now bars across the glass. Creepy.