The Diseased, the Ancient, and the Opulent: Milford Cemetery

September 21, 2013 — I went to Milford Cemetery in Connecticut, for one reason: The mass grave of 46 smallpox-infected Revolutionary War POWs. That's enough of a reason, and I wasn’t expecting much else there, but the graveyard surprised me.

But let’s talk about that mass grave first.

On January 1, 1777, British ships dumped 200 American soldiers onto the shores of Milford Harbor. These men were all suffering from smallpox, and the Redcoats wanted none of that business. Those of the soldiers who could, left for their homes, but many were too sick to travel and were cared for by the people of Milford.

However, within a month, 46 soldiers had died of the contagious disease, along with one of their Milford caregivers, a Captain Stephen Stow. The soldiers and Stow were buried in single grave in the local cemetery. But that chapter in the town’s life stuck with the people of Milford and, in 1852, a large brownstone obelisk called the Soldiers’ Monument was erected on the spot. It both tells the story of the soldiers and lists their names and hometowns. Captain Stow gets an entire side of the obelisk.

For some reason, this story seems particularly vivid to me, and I pretty much had tunnel vision for the monument when we entered the relatively small cemetery. But after reading every word inscribed on it and taking a pic of it from every angle (only to post one here, apparently), I came up for air and looked around.

What I hadn’t noticed at first, and what I should have known outright just from the existence of the Soldier’s Monument, was how ancient this graveyard was. The sections near the Gulf Street entrance contained more modern tombstones, making the graveyard seem deceptively plain from the outside. But dotting the southern area near the Soldiers’ Monument was a plethora of aging stones.

We took this photo from below ground, somehow.
I’d find out later that the cemetery was established in 1642, so more than a hundred years of history is buried there even before the smallpox incident. And the history after it is nothing to overlook, either. For instance, somewhere beneath that grass is one of the original explorers of the American continent, Peter Pond (1740-1807).

Some of the graves are no more than nubs of stone, sculpted back when there were more important, survival-ish things to do than make grandiose deadboards. Others are the classic New England stones, thin, poetically epitaph’d, and topped by engravings of skulls. Despite not being a secluded cemetery at all, we found its older bits to be exquisitely atmospheric …until a passenger train roared by. The tracks basically form its southern border.

But aside from these many gems of history, is an extremely precious gem of art. The Nathan A. Baldwin memorial.

We passed this on the way to the Soldiers’ Monument, and were immediately struck, even through my tunnel vision…but we still saved it for dessert. So to speak.

Baldwin lived from 1824 to 1898, but he has no real story that I can find. However, having an awesome funeral monument might be story enough for anybody.

The large glass case holds the life-sized marble sculpture of a grieving woman, but it’s the four women at the corners of it that really make it stand out. Each one is a unique sculpture, and each bears her name on a crown: Grace, Hope, Love, and Charity.

Ordinarily, those are all things I want in my life. But, hell no, if they’re really that spooky looking.

Overall, Milford Cemetery is the kind of place you want to take stone by stone, puzzling out each aged epitaph, hunting for the oldest death years, and just feeling history and mortality brushing at the bottoms of your shoes.


  1. My wife and I lived in Milford CT for just 2 short years. We visited the Milford Cemetery which is a great monument to American history. You can spend hours there just reading and discovering many stories in this quiet gem.

    Another thing to see are the memorial stones on Main Street (New Haven Ave) just east of downtown. They line the street over a bridge. Very interesting stories there as well. Milford CT is a great town to visit. Great restaurants and lots of history.

  2. Was any part of the Milford Cemetery haunted? I'd go back to being a ghost hunter if there's any sighting of any ghosts or apperitions!!

  3. Wonderful pictures! I too, love to walk through old cemeteries and read the stones. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Two things:
    First, it is not certain that the samllpox victims of 1777 are buried in Milford Cemetery, even though an early historian writing in the 1830s says so. The state archaeologist visited the cemetery twice with ground penetrating radar and no trace of a mass burial was found, unless it's under the railroad tracks. This is possible since the railroad took a bit of the cemetery when it was built in the 1840s.
    Smallpox was known to be highly contagious so it was the practice to put those suffering from the disease in a pest house away from the settled areas. Food was brought to the site, left outside, and those physically able then came out and got it. Similarly, when one of the victims died, he would be buried nearby by those who were able. There was, in fact, a pest house as early as 1774 on present-day East Rutland Road, which in those days was known as Pox Lane. I think it very likely that the 46 soldiers plus Capt. Stow were buried there.

    Second, there is more of a story to the "Weeping Woman" monument. It appears to be a memorial to Nathan A. Baldwin who was a wealthy Milford industrialist who owned the straw hat factory on what is now Factory Lane in the center of town. In fact, the monument is a memorial to his daughter Natalie. If you look carefully at the white marble under the weeping woman's hands, you will see a rectangular box with an inscription saying "Natalie Baldwin Grinnell" and then giving her parents' names and her dates. She had married Morton Grinnell, brother of George Bird Grinnell, a founder of the Audubon Society. She suffered from poor health most of her life and died young. This monument, then, is a sentimental Victorian memorial to her.

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  6. I just zoomed by this cemetery as a passenger on the train. What caught my eye most were the dilapidated stones I could see from the train. After a little google search I found this post! Thank you for the info. I love the pockets of history you can simply stumble upon in New England. I will have to plan a proper visit to the cemetery!