Vandals hit mausoleum of Tilton's namesake

Vandals broke into the Tilton family mausoleum at Park Cemetery Monday night using power tools, according to cemetery officials. The vandals were not caught on camera because there are no surveillance cameras at the cemetery, which may soon change.

Vandals broke into the Tilton family mausoleum at Park Cemetery Monday night using power tools, according to cemetery officials. The vandals were not caught on camera because there are no surveillance cameras at the cemetery, which may soon change. Gabriel Perry—The Laconia Daily Sun photo

By GABRIEL PERRY

The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 04-19-2024 11:52 AM

The Tilton family mausoleum was vandalized Monday night, according to cemetery officials. 

The mausoleum, which sits atop the tallest hill in the cemetery and was constructed to house the crypts of the Tilton family members, was constructed in the 19th century and was left undisturbed until Monday night. The Tilton family is the town's namesake.

Vandals broke into the mausoleum at Park Cemetery sometime Monday night and stole brass bars, knobs, handles and other hardware from the site and left the casket of Joy Tilton exposed. Cemetery officials discovered the vandalism on Tuesday morning. 

Joy Tilton died at age 85 in 2020 and previously served in the New Hampshire State House of Representatives between 2004 and 2010 and another term from 2012 to 2013. 

“Tuesday morning, I do a drive through every morning,” cemetery sexton Paul Pierney said Thursday morning. 

The vandals cut the bars off of a brass gate using battery-powered tools, likely including a reciprocating saw and a hammer, he said. They took off the brass hinges and removed the door, which they also stole. Then they gained access to the mausoleum, broke brass and granite plate covers off of each slot and stole the brass handles and knobs from those as well. 

The vandals forced their way into the crypt after removing the gate and a solid set of double doors. 

“This stuff was made in the 1800s,” Pierney said. “It’s all antique stuff.”

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The doors, locks, hinges and knobs were all made of brass and could be of value if sold at a pawn shop or to a metal scrapyard, he explained. 

“It’s just like copper and other metals,” he said. “And that door handle is old. Anybody trying to get rid of it will have a hard time unless they’re out-of-state.”

He said police spent around three hours Tuesday searching the area and checking for fingerprints. 

The cemetery does not have any surveillance cameras, but that may soon change as Pierney brought up to the cemetery board the need for them in light of the vandalism. 

Solid granite portions of the tomb were also removed and damaged, leaving one coffin exposed in its wake. 

“When they cut the bars off the gate, the only thing they’re good for after that is to sell it,” he said. “They’ll sell it to a junkie dealer or to a scrap yard, something like that.”

The vandals specifically targeted a granite covering to one of the tombs. 

“Inside the tomb there are sections of squares and you put the casket in that section,” Pierney said. “You could call it a vault.”

But the thieves were not apparently after anything that may have laid inside the vault itself — the coffins and bodies remained undisturbed.

“It’s a sad situation,” he said. “The mausoleum was built in the 1800s and of course the Tilton family is inside.”

The mausoleum is also large — there are 18 distinct sections inside, each one intended to hold one member of the family. Removing the granite coverings over each tomb, including the brass hardware, the brass double doors and the gate would have taken much physical labor. 

“They had to bring a battery-operated sawzall and a hammer or something,” Pierney said. “I was upset of course, I've worked here over 30 years.”

Pierney has worked as the sexton at Park Cemetery since 1983. He said they’ve had isolated incidents of vandalism in the past, mostly restricted to damage done to headstones, but never had an incident as serious as this one. 

“If you go into a cemetery and you see things, report them,” he said. “I have people in here until dark — we don’t lock our cemetery up, you could come in here 24/7.”

The cemetery is open to the public and cannot be locked during working hours because people need to be able to access it, and officials don’t have enough staff in order to lock up at night and then return to open it first thing in the morning, he said. There are only two caretakers who work there. 

“A lot of people are upset about it,” Pierney said. “It’s not only the family of Tilton but it’s just the thought of, ‘it’s just as bad as digging up a grave,’ in principle. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

Representatives of the Tilton Police Department did not return repeated requests for information. 

Vandalism of historical objects has previously occurred in Tilton. A 162-year-old light fixture was stolen out of the Charles E. Tilton mansion last year, only to be recovered days later by a night security officer at the Tilton School named Brent Walterscheid. The Tilton School purchased the mansion in 1962 and stands on the National Registry of Historic Places. 

The glass orb had been suspended just a few feet below the porch’s ceiling and is thought to have been hung when the residence was built in 1861. 

Walterscheid found the missing light fixture less than 50 yards from the mansion’s porch, hidden beneath a pile of leaves, sticks, logs and astroturf. 

But there is a deeper history of vandalism of historical sites in Tilton. 

“Throughout the years, things have been vandalized,” Tilton Historical Society chairman John Ciriello said Thursday. “They say that at the height, Tilton had 150 statues.”

Charles Tilton purchased, imported and installed the statues during the so-called “statue mania” period, wherein middle-class Americans yearned to replicate the tastes of high society in Europe.

Today, historians have managed to document just fifty, most of the other hundred having been either vandalized, stolen or removed in the years following their installation, Ciriello said. 

“The Tilton family are basically what the town is named after,” Ciriello said. 

Tilton was originally part of Sanbornton and was nicknamed Sanbornton Bridge after the bridge connecting Sanbornton and Northfield. Charles Tilton and other early settlers set up shops to service travelers of the stagecoach route there and soon thereafter a small village emerged. 

Tilton convinced enough of his neighbors to secede and formed the Town of Tilton. Residents of Northfield voted not to secede. 

By the age of 24, Charles Tilton had become a millionaire in California, opening up shops to serve settlers partaking in the Gold Rush. He then moved north to Portland, Oregon, where he invested in real estate and other business enterprises. 

Tilton concurrently constructed his mansion in Tilton and brought both the railroad and electricity to the town. He also spearheaded construction of the town hall and the veteran’s home, then the only one in New Hampshire, during the same time period, and curated numerous outdoor parks for Tilton residents.