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Rutland Bike Path Renews Interest In Historic Prison Cemetery

VPR/Nina Keck

Vermont has nearly 1,900 cemeteries - some large and well manicured - others, small, tucked-away family plots.  They’re the final resting places for luminaries like Ethan Allen, Robert Frost and Calvin Coolidge.  But Vermont also has cemeteries for paupers and criminals - and officials in Rutland say they’re part of history too.

Tom Giffin is Rutland City’s cemetery commissioner and president of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association.

Giffin lifts the metal latch of a gate and enters an odd little plot of land tucked behind Rutland’s prison near East Creek.

“So what you have here is the cemetery,” says Giffin.  “And these were people who’s bodies were not claimed by their families.”

“What’s interesting is the microcosm here,” says Giffin.  “I mean this is a very small cemetery and Rutland Vermont is not exactly the metropolitan area of northeast.  But yet, we have a guy from China that died here - named Dong, we know nothing about him but he’s buried in the cemetery, we have a gentleman from France who died here, someone from Ireland who was buried here, you have an African American who’s listed as colored who died here.  So for this small cemetery for an area of Rural Vermont at the turn of the century it’s kind of odd that you’d have such a nationality that’s here,” says Giffin.

He says the prison cemetery was used from the late 1800's through the early 1900's and contains at least a dozen graves - though only 11 stone markers remain.

“Most of them are just regular pieces of marble with numbers on them.  Except for Rufus,” says Giffin, “and Rufus was an interesting guy.  He was one of the most prolific horse thieves Vermont has ever produced and they put that in his obituary; that even at a young age he had a tendency to steal horses.”

Tom Giffin says he read how Rufus once stole a horse from a guy in Massachusetts, dyed it brown and sold it back to him.

“Ironically,” Giffin says, “he stole a horse and they caught him in Arlington when the posse was chasing him.  And he fell off the buckboard and his partner fell on top of him and he died at the house of corrections of a ruptured intestines.”  Giffin says Rufus’s marker is one of the few stones that are marked with initials.

According to Giffin, the prison cemetery was largely forgotten and overgrown until Rutland’s new bike path opened last year.  The path, which follows East Creek, runs right alongside the cemetery.  As more people noticed the chipped stone markers, interest grew in learning about those burried there. 

Local schools have provided volunteers to help clean up the overgrowth.  Meanwhile, students at Stafford Technical Center have been putting the final touches on a formal marker that lists the names of those buried. 

Instructor Jeff Fowler says the project has been a good challenge construction wise, but he says it’s also gotten his students thinking about history, their community and personal choices.

“We got the stories behind the people, some of the stories behind the people in this graveyard.  I think of the choices they made that landed them there,” says Fowler.  “Like some of the people on this, four were arrested for tramping, which now we’d call homeless; they were arrested for that.  One of them,” says Fowler, “was arrested for desertion of families which now we’d call dead beat daddies you know.”

Jeff Fowler says it’s not about celebrating criminals, rather learning about local history - warts and all.

Jeff Fowler and his students will attend a special ceremony Wednesday, May 22, to install the new marker at the cemetery.  

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