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The curious story of the grave of XYZ of Deep River, Connecticut

5 min read

They were a gang of four bank robbers, who set their sights on the Deep River Savings Bank, a year before they arrived on a cold December night.
Once all was over, the number was down to three.
In fact the lead man, caught trying to pry open one of the bank’s tall windows, was shot and killed.
With his body, unclaimed by family or not even a friend, the town buried him in Fountain Hill Cemetery where his little headstone sits in a remote corner, marked only with the initials “XYZ.”

At the end of the 19th century, Deep River, Conn., had acquired great wealth from the ivory trade. Deacon Phineas Pratt, the descendant of one of the town’s original settlers, invented a device to cut ivory, which gave U.S. manufacturers a chance to compete against Europeans.
At the time, ivory was in great demand for combs and for piano keys, and factories in Deep River and in nearby Ivoryton dominated the market. Most ivory that came into the United States from the Civil War to World War II came through those two towns, and the Deep River Savings Bank was believed to have more than $1 million in deposits.
It was the winter of 1899, and the bank had been tipped off a year before to a possible robbery.
They were ready with a hired guard, a local man named Harry Tyler, vigilant and good with a gun. How the bank knew so far in advance isn’t quite clear, but they put Tyler on the case, and every night he sat, waiting for something to happen.
On December 13th the four showed up, including one with a long black mustache, who tried to open the window. Tyler took his sawed-off shotgun and fired at the robber, blowing away part of his face.
After Tyler’s one shot, the other three scattered, leaving their accomplice to die in Deep River, never to be find again. The unidentified man was buried in a donated plot near the railroad tracks.
Shortly after the burial, Tyler received a letter, anonymous, but in a woman’s handwriting.
She asked that the grave be marked only with the letters XYZ, and the cemetery complied, first with a simple engraved cross, and eventually with a little stone.
For decades, it was the biggest and most prestigious cemetery in the area, and people were even brought in by train and boat to get buried in Fountain Hill.
This was the resting place to be laid in, literally, and it was all understandable, as those were the days when the ivory and piano industries had made Deep River the Queen of the Valley. Really a proud and prosperous town, and you can see this in Fountain Hill, with so many great and fine monuments.
Some folks visit it just to visit it, and actually they know none of its inhabitants.

Either way, that startling crime made big news way back in 1899, and the mystery of XYZ grew over time, kept alive by the yearly sighting of a woman in black who arrived at Deep River Landing every December.
Without a single word spoken, it’s said she would walk the tracks from the tiny station to the cemetery, only a mile or so away, visit the grave, and leave a small flower.
For 40 years people claimed to see her, but she was never stopped, followed or otherwise investigated, and her relationship with the dead robber has never been discovered.

The legend of XYZ is well known in this small Connecticut town, and most claim that the bank robber’s name has always been a mystery.
But a look back at newspaper coverage did finally identify him as a professional criminal named Frank Howard, who went by several other names over the course of his career.
But his last one has only three letters.

In any case, Deep River is on the Connecticut River, in the south central part of the state, and Fountain Hill Cemetery is just east of downtown.
The XYZ grave is located on the eastern back edge, towards the railroad tracks.
It is of the smallest on the grounds and is about half the size of a shoe box. Actually, the grave is hard to find. Drive to the far farthest right until you see a house in the graveyard. Keep going and, once you see a sign for the pet cemetery on your right you can park. The grave will be on the left side of the road. Look for a big tree, and It’s near it, in the second row of graves away from the driving path. Today, young children leave coins on the gravestone so XYZ won’t put a curse on them.
On XYZ’s left under a much bigger monument rests Timothy Hore Cole, a World War I vet. His neighbor on his right is Josef Hnilicka, also remembered with an imposing monument. Surely Honorable men. Unlike XYZ. Other monuments grace the tranquil green slope, as well as a fine, giant oak, probably as old as this old cemetery.
On the other hand, Citizens Bank, at 141 Main Street, is not the original Deep River Savings Bank building, but here you can still see the small display case with the gun, shell casing, and some photos and accounts of the story.
Or put a coin on his grave.

Images from web – Google Research

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