Writing historical novels sometimes takes me to strange places – and this time into the mystery of Elihu Yale’s tomb.
Back in June 2019, I accepted an invitation to do a book-signing at the Yale Bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut. Fabulous book shop just near the university’s campus. And the book in question, of course, was The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale. It’s Part One of my trilogy that tells the story of our own Wrexham nabob, philanthropist – and slave-trader – Elihu Yale. But I told the story through the eyes of his much-maligned wife, Catherine.
Elihu and Yale University
Elihu gave his name to the Connecticut college, of course, that eventually became Yale University. It’s one of the world’s finest establishments for education in the liberal arts. That sparked a whole batch of links between the university and Wrexham itself. Elihu’s tomb became a regular tourist attraction for New England “tourists” from the late 19th Century onwards. And, during the Second World War, American troops who were stationed nearby attended a special commemoration service in the church for Elihu Yale. At that time protective railings still surrounded the tomb itself.
The University’s 300th Anniversary
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. Then, the following day, they hosted a picnic there for the members of St. Giles Church and local townsfolk. It’s a famous landmark, that chest tomb just outside the tower – and a landmark 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.
But here’s the problem – that reputable accounts from the late 18th Century record different final lines. Not massively different, but different all the same. And carefully recorded more than once.
The Mystery of the Tomb
The records of the Yale Corporation show that they were responsible for “restoring” the tomb in 1874. But at the Yale Bookstore I picked up a book by Alexandra Robbins. She’s a New York Times best-seller, a well-respected writer for many magazines and newspapers. A Yale graduate herself, Alexandra’s now famous for her exposé of the university’s three main secret societies.
The most famous of those is known as Skull and Bones. It’s existed since the early 1800s. Its members own an impressive Gothic building within the campus itself simply called The Tomb. Members of the society have included notables like Howard Taft, George Bush Senior, George Bush Junior, John Kerry and many, many others. It’s now famous for the reputation of its members in “procuring” Yale-related memorabilia. Memorabilia from around the world and displaying those items inside The Tomb.
And, according to Alexandra Robbins – one of the few people who claims to have seen inside The Tomb – those artifacts 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, in a room with purple walls.”
BBC Wales interviewed Alexandra back in 2000. A journalist from the Wrexham Leader interviewed her as well. But her story fails to explain a few things. For example, how members of the Skull and Bones secret society actually managed to steal the stone and then sneak it all the way back to the USA.
But Hiram Bingham, Yale’s most distinguished biographer from the 1930s, explains that in 1874 the Corporation restored the tomb. They sent the original carved sandstone slab to New Haven to show how badly a new stone was needed. And, he says, there it seems to have disappeared. So, a more likely scenario – that the slab was taken back to the university by the Yale Corporation itself, for the reason Bingham gives, and was actually stolen in New Haven by the Skull and Bones society. And, 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!