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Chester County Press

The Mystery of the Ticking Tomb - Examining Famous Local Legend Near Landenberg

10/19/2020 09:43PM ● By Steven Hoffman

The spooky season is upon us and it’s a great time of the year to explore the unusual and the unexplained.

One of the most famous and enduring local legends is the ticking tomb near Landenberg. Tales about the mysterious grave have been shared for more than 200 years. Some people believe that the ticking tomb, situated in a small church cemetery, served as the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” While it seems unlikely that the master of the macabre actually based one of his most terrifying tales on the ticking tomb, it is still a worthwhile destination for anyone who enjoys a little bit of mystery—or history. Visitors can put their ears to the gravestone and determine for themselves whether they can hear the steady tick…tick…tick

Or, if visiting a ghostly graveyard is just a little too spooky for you, even at Halloween, then you can read about the ticking tomb in books like “Weird Pennsylvania,” “Ghost Stories of Chester County and the Brandywine Valley” by Charles J. Adams III, and “Up the Back Stairway,” which is Volume VII in the Spirits Between the Bays series by Ed Okonowicz.

How the legend began

Okonowicz writes extensively about how the legend of the ticking tomb developed in his book about true Mid-Atlantic ghost stories. 

The story dates back to a time before the American Revolution. Royal charters had been granted to the Penns of Pennsylvania and Delaware and the Calverts of Maryland, but these charters sometimes overlapped. At this time, maps were inaccurate and the legal descriptions were confusing, at best. Residents in small towns like Oxford and Rising Sun were sometimes paying taxes to both the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Calverts in Maryland because there were ongoing boundary disputes between the two colonies, and there was confusion about which colony the taxes were rightfully owed to.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, a pair of master surveyors, were sent to mark out the definite boundaries between the colonies. One day in 1764, Mason and Dixon were working in the Landenberg area and mapping out the route for their Mason-Dixon rail line when a local youngster named Fithian Minuit managed to grab a portable chronometer that Mason had been working on. The child, who was notorious for eating anything he could get his hands on, crawled into Mason’s tent. One of Mason’s assistants panicked when the baby started to cry and used Mason’s invention to calm him. The boy grabbed the object and swallowed it before the assistant could stop him. Mason, the legend goes, was quite upset at Fithian Minuit that day. Some versions of the story maintain that it was Mason who put a curse on the boy, and for the rest of his life the timepiece remained inside him where it ticked continually.

Love is eternal

While Mason and Dixon gained notoriety—they have their names attached to the Mason-Dixon line—Minuit lived a comparatively quiet life. Oddly, the boy who swallowed a timepiece grew up to be a clockmaker and worked in a shop filled with the sounds of ticking.

Okonowicz writes that Fithian Minuit met a sea captain who had a broken chronometer that needed to be repaired. A friendship started between the two men. The sea captain had a daughter, Martha, and eventually Minuit agreed to take care of her if anything should happen to the captain. Something did happen to him. Within a year, his ship was lost at sea and Minuit and Martha were married.

It wasn’t long before she heard the steady tick…tick…tick in her new husband’s chest, and he explained the strange encounter that he’d had with Mason and Dixon as a child. They agreed that the ticking would symbolize the love that they had for each other, and that it should go on for eternity, even after they died.

They were very happy and shared 40 years of marriage before Martha died. She was buried in the New London “Hardshell” Baptist Church just a few miles from the intersection of three states where her husband had swallowed Mason’s prized chronometer.

According to legend, Minuit lived to be almost 80. He died at the gravesite of his beloved Martha, and was discovered by a group of men who were hunting. They said that he had a blissful smile on his face, and once he was buried, the ticking continued—just as the couple had said it would because it symbolized their eternal love.

Locating the ticking tomb

If you want to find out if a distinctive “tick…tick…tick…” can be heard from the tomb, you’ll have to visit the gravesite yourself.

In order to reach the ticking tomb, travelers will need to follow a long and winding path that leads deeper into the woods and to the ancient London Tract Meeting House. Heading south on Route 896 toward Delaware, turn left on to South Bank Road. This country road will wind down into the woods to the bottom of a steep hill that leads directly to the White Clay Creek Preserve. 

The small graveyard that is adjacent to the London Tract Meeting House is a suitably eerie setting. Once you pass the small stone church, walk to the end of the sidewalk. Once there, the ticking tomb is only about 20 feet away, in the direction of eleven o’clock. The cemetery is enclosed by a stone wall. Most of the tombstones in the cemetery are leaning over and a good many are illegible after so many years of being exposed to the weather. The one most commonly said to be the ticking tomb is small and gray and it is flush to the ground. It is to the left of a black, heart-shaped tomb with the name “John Devonold” clearly visible on it. While the ticking tomb is not visually impressive itself, the fact that this local legend has endured for nearly more than 250 years certainly is.