This fall I got to cross Timothy Clark Smith’s grave with a window off my “weirdventure” bucket list, and promptly replaced it with my latest obsession: The Ticking Tomb in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, a mysterious grave that served as the inspiration behind Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-Tale Heart.
The legend behind Vandenberg’s Ticking Tomb dates back to 1760, when famous surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were busy planning out the border between the Northern and Southern colonies. According to the legend, the men were interrupted during their meeting when a small child crawled into their tent and began to cry.
Both men were obviously alarmed to find an abandoned baby wandering around in the woods alone, so Mason quickly scooped up the crying child and began to comfort him with his pocket watch. According to the legend, the young boy opened up his mouth and swallowed the entire pocket watch whole.
When Mason and Dixon brought the young boy back to Landerberg, they discovered his name was Fithian Minuit, and he had managed to escape his parents only to wander off into the forest. That was when his parents noticed the mysterious clicking noise coming from their child’s stomach. It was the pocket watch that had continued to tick from inside Fithian’s small body.
This is where different variations of story start to branch off. One version of the tale says that that Mason, who was furious that Fithian had eaten his prized pocket watch, put a curse on the boy, ensuring that he would never get a moment of peace thanks to the constant ticking of his favorite timepiece. Another says that the young boy would grow up to become a very skilled clockmaker thanks to the consistent tick-tock of his literal internal clock.
Eventually Fithian grew up and married a woman named Martha, who once told him that the ticking sound was a perfect representation of their love for one another, and as long as the familiar sound continued to emanate from his stomach, their love would be eternal. As people do, both Martha and Fithian died, and were buried side by side in the unnamed cemetery on London Tract Road in Landernberg, Pennylvania. To this day, locals say that Fithian’s ticking watch still echoes from the ground beneath his grave. They named his final resting place The Ticking Tomb.
It’s a great urban legend, especially considering the fact that it’s true. Well, partially. For the better part of a century, Landernberg locals actually have been putting an ear to Fithian’s grave and hearing a distinct ticking. Of course there’s a far less dramatic explanation for The Ticking Tomb. Years ago there was a spring which ran under the cemetery, and the steady flow of the water probably accounted for the phantom ticking. It might also explain why it’s become more and more difficult to hear the ticking sound throughout the years, as the spring has gradually shifted away from the graveyard
Personally, I like the legend a little better, and so did Edgar Allan Poe, apparently.
The story of the Ticking Tomb is also believed to have been the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s infamous story The Tell-Tale Heart, in which the main character murders an old man, dismembers him, and conceals his body under the floorboards of his house. Slowly, a ringing sound emanating from beneath the hiding spot begins to drive the murderer mad, until he finally breaks down and confesses his crime.
“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? –now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.”
As someone who loves both strange history and the paranormal, the Ticking Tomb checks all my boxes. If you’re anything like me, the next time you’re passing through Landernberg, Pennsylvania, swing by the old unnamed cemetery next to the London Tract Meeting House and press your ear to the grave of Fithian Minuit. If you listen closely enough, you’ll hear the sound of that ancient pocket watch still ticking after all these years.