The Strange Tale of Elihu Yale’s Tomb

The Strange Tale of Elihu Yale’s Tomb

Writing historical novels sometimes takes me to strange places – back in June, I accepted an invitation to do a book-signing at the fabulous Yale Bookstore near Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut. This was a promotion for The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale, part one of my trilogy that tells the story of our own Wrexham nabob, philanthropist – and slave-trader – Elihu Yale. The story differs in that it’s told through the eyes of his much-maligned wife, Catherine.

Yale’s Tomb at St Giles

Elihu gave his name to the Connecticut college that of course eventually became Yale University – one of the finest establishments for education in the liberal arts. That sparked a whole batch of links between the university and Wrexham itself and Elihu’s tomb has become a regular tourist attraction for New England “tourists” since the late 19th century. During the Second World War, American troops who were stationed nearby attended a special commemoration service in the church for Elihu Yale when the tomb was still surrounded by protective railings.

In July 2001, the university’s Alumni Chorus performed at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen before coming to Wrexham for a memorial concert at Yale’s grave. The following day they hosted a picnic there for the members of St Giles Church and local townsfolk. The tower the grave sits next to was the inspiration for the famous Harkness Tower at Yale University. The chest tomb itself is a famous landmark and is inscribed with a famous poem:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed
Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even
And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.

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Mischief Abounds

Now here’s the problem – reputable accounts from the late 18th century record different final lines:

You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
For only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.

Not massively different, but different all the same. And carefully recorded more than once. The records of the Yale Corporation show that they were responsible for “restoring” the tomb in 1874, but at the Yale Bookstore I was handed a book by Alexandra Robbins, a New York Times best-seller, a well-respected writer for many magazines and newspapers and a Yale graduate herself. She’s now famous for her exposé of the university’s three main secret societies: Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and The Hidden Paths.

The most famous of these, Skull and Bones, has existed since the early 1800s. Its members own an impressive and ominous windowless and temple-like Gothic building within the University campus simply called ‘The Tomb’. Members of the society have included notables like Howard Taft, George Bush Senior, George Bush Junior, John Kerry and many others. It’s become famous for the reputation of its members “procuring” Yale-related memorabilia from around the world and displaying those items inside The Tomb.

According to Alexandra Robbins, one of the few people who claim to have seen inside The Tomb, those artefacts include the original slab from the side of Elihu’s grave. “The gravestone of Elihu Yale,” she says, “the eponymous 18th century merchant, was stolen years ago from its proper setting in Wrexham and is displayed in a glass case inside a room with purple walls.” She goes on to say: “Unless the large stone in the tomb is a stunningly accurate replica that society members paid for with time and money they likely would not have spent, the encased tombstone, labelled ‘TABLET FROM THE GRAVE OF ELIHU YALE TAKEN FROM WREXHAM CHURCHYARD’ and set on a black mantle, is real.”

The Plot Thickens


BBC Wales interviewed Alexandra back in 2000. She was interviewed too by a journalist from the Wrexham Leader and her story explains a few things. For example, why the Yale Corporation apparently felt it was their responsibility to “restore” the tomb, why there is this apparent discrepancy in the words of the poem between the late 18th century and now, and why the tomb was fenced off by railings for so long. There are, however, still more questions than answers, such as in the account by Alexandra Robbins – or, indeed, those of other eye-witness accounts she cites – nowhere does it say that it’s the “tablet” that has the poem inscribed rather than some other section of the grave. How members of the Skull and Bones secret society managed to steal the stone and then sneak it all the way back to the USA is not addressed either.

Hiram Bingham, Yale’s most distinguished biographer from the 1930s, has written, however, that in 1874, when the Corporation restored the tomb, the original carved sandstone slab was sent to New Haven to show the Corporation how badly a new stone was needed. He says it seems to have disappeared there so a more likely scenario is that the slab was taken back to the university by the Yale Corporation itself for the reason Bingham gives and was stolen in New Haven by the Skull and Bones society. And, with it already being scheduled for replacement, nobody would have cared very much!

In any event, I wrote recently to Alexandra Robbins in the hope of chatting to her about some of these things but, so far, no response. Still, the game, as they say, is afoot and maybe soon we’ll have some more of those answers. But, for now, an intriguing story!

Dave McCall writes historical fiction as David Ebsworth. His novel ‘The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale’ (“Shades of James Clavell’s Shogun and Winston Graham’s Poldark.”) is available now through all normal outlets.


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