A grave business: Searching for the truth, after years of mystery

  • The electronic readout of the GPR machine that Jesse Perry uses to look for anomalies at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jesse Perry walks along a grid he set up to use the GPR machine at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown on Wednesday August 9, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The sign for the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The lone marker at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown. The grave was for Elizabeth Burgin who died in 1832 at the age of 93. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jesse Perry marks out a grid for his GPR at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Armand Verville of the Allenstown Historical Society touches the lower half of the grave marker of Elizabeth Burgin that was found drilled into the ground. The upper half of the marker was found in Vermont and brought back to the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jesse Perry notices an anomaly on his ground penetrating radar at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown on Wednesday as Armand Verville of the Allenstown Historical Society look on. Perry found 31 such anomalies during his visit. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Jesse Perry walks along a grid with GPR at the Bergin Family Cemetery in Allenstown on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jesse Perry uses a rod to check for roots around the grave marker of Elizabeth Burgin after finding an anomaly near her maker at the Burgin Family Cemetery in Allenstown on August 9, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, August 10, 2017

At first glance, it’s easy to poke fun at Jesse Perry and the thing he pushed around this week at the old cemetery in Allenstown.

Do you get HBO? Can you mow my lawn when you finish here? Oh, what a cute baby.

Once you get through the wisecracks, though, the focus of Perry’s work becomes clear, like the images projected from underground at the Burgin Family Cemetery.

There, with lifelong Allenstown resident Armand Verville watching, Perry searched for unmarked graves, trying to find what he called “anomalies,” a softer way of saying the remains of dead bodies.

His GPR, short for ground penetrating radar, has three dirt-gripping tires and a small computer-like screen near the handlebars. It transmits a signal into the ground and receives a reflected signal back, showing on the monitor what’s below, up to nine feet down; bodies are normally about four feet deep, Perry said.

And when Perry sees what he calls “an upside down shark’s tooth” on the screen, he quite possibly has unlocked a mystery common to many cemeteries that have been ignored for decades.

“Like this one that’s old, you will find unmarked burials in here,” Perry told me. “Hopefully we’ll find a whole bunch today. We’ll see what happens.”

History says there were five people buried at the Burgin Family Cemetery, but Perry found evidence that there were 31. That’s what the Perry business, founded by Jesse’s father, Bob Perry, does.

The Litchfield men have gone national since Bob started the business, called Topographix, 15 years ago. They’ve been featured in the Washington Post.

The paper reported on a search of a cemetery in Washington, D.C., for congressmen who were in office 200 years ago, but whose final resting place became flat ground without identifying tombstones.

Naming them won’t happen without expensive exhumation and DNA testing, but at least a computerized mapping system was created to show where the long-forgotten bodies lay.

Jesse was brought here to do the same thing, hired by Verville, who’s been living in Allenstown for 74 years. Most little New England towns have their own version of Verville.

He’s president of the Allenstown Historical Society. He’s chairman of the Old Meeting House Committee. He’s a retired state worker who loves his home, and he knows all about the meeting house that sits across the street from the cemetery.

It was built in 1815. It’s been damaged by fire and renovated. Its ownership has gone from the town, to the Daughters of the American Revolution, to the state, then back to the town.

It’s officially a national and state historic site, with its own green sign, a freshly painted historic marker, out front. The sign identifies five people buried in the nearby Burgin Family Cemetery. It reads, in part, “in the early 1900s, two gravestones remained visible.”

Yet, at present, there’s only one lonely headstone there, for Elizabeth Burgin, who died in 1832 at the age of 93. That’s it.

Its writing is faded, its granite dull, its odyssey strange. A lightning bolt-shaped crack shows where the stone was fitted together like two pieces of a puzzle, after the top part, found under a Vermont bed and then moved to Texas by a Burgin family member, was reunited with the bottom half and reattached a few years ago.

Today, the other four markers in the 75-by-95 foot area, surrounded by a three-layered rock wall and full of giant white pines and intrigue, remain missing. For years, Verville wondered where the bodies lay, and how many more might be hidden there.

“No one remembers seeing a stone in this cemetery for at least 40 or 50 years,” Verville told me, shortly before Perry’s arrival. “How many people are in there? We don’t know.”

With the formation of the Allenstown Historical Society 23 years ago, Verville saw a chance to one day figure out the location of others in the cemetery.

“I’ve just been thinking about it and every so often it comes up,” Verville said. “We’ve done a lot of projects, restored all the stones in nine other cemeteries that are in this area of town, the ones that were practically abandoned with the stones broken and trees all over the place. We cleaned those up, and now we’re at this point.”

Using $2,800 of the Historical Society’s money, Perry was hired to dig up some information. His father invested in the odd-looking stroller – Jesse guessed it cost his dad at least $20,000 – and first saw it used to find enemy snipers hidden in tunnels during the Vietnam War.

It found about 3,000 unmarked graves at Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery. It found soldiers killed during the Revolutionary war.

It found the grave of a girl named Anna Pease, who died in 1829 at age 10 and supposedly haunts a small cemetery in the Massachusetts Berkshires.

“Ghosts don’t bother me,” said Perry. “Not one bit.”

They scare his father, though.

“He was in Savannah, Ga., and getting ready to pack up, put the equipment in the truck, and it was dusk,” Perry said. “Out of the corner of his eye he saw something move and he saw an image go into an old out house. He ran to the truck and turned on the headlights and there was nothing there.”

There was something at the cemetery in Allenstown. Wearing a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones between the words “Bone Finder” and “Tracking the Dead,” Perry said he found “shark teeth” imagery showing the remains of 31 people, in a gaveyard for people who died as far back as the 1800s.

“If you see this in a cemetery, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be human remains,” Perry said.

The wooden coffins or cloth used during burials have withered away, meaning what Perry found was most likely “bone, from the hips to the torso,” he said. “That’s the area that is picked up, the largest part of the body.”

So now, finally, Verville has an answer to one of his questions, that 31 people, not just five, rest at Burgin Family Cemetery.

But beyond Elizabeth Burgin’s gravesite, no one will ever know the exact location of the other four people listed on that historic green marker, nor will the identities of the other 26 people buried there ever be known.

“This is very different than anything that we’ve ever done,” Verville said. “We’ll talk to people, do some research and try to fill in the blanks later.”