The Man in the Iron Casket
After an 1857 fire destroyed a factory that was central to the town of Shreveville’s economy, an enterprising New Englander named Hezekiah B. Smith bought the town, named it Smithville for himself, and began to make it into his own bizarre vision, including adding a casino and an opera house. New buildings were made of brick and lots of iron, including iron stairways and shelves.
Smithville, which is today part of Mount Holly, is located in an area where the iron was known for not corroding, and Smith liked to use it for business and personal ventures. Remember this later on.
Townsfolk generally accepted Smith’s odd behavior because he revitalized the local economy, in part by establishing a factory to make Star Bicycles. An employee by the name of Hotchkiss would develop what became known as the Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway, which which workers in town would use to take the two-mile trip out to the factory. Weird NJ interviewed Mt. Holly’s very own Lord Whimsy in July 2008 and he told us about the how it worked:
It was basically a rail fence with an iron rail on the top that ran through pastures, creek beds, woods, all the way through over to where the Mt. Holly firehouse is now. That’s where people got on and they went gliding over the landscape to work. Could you imagine that as your morning commute every day?
Smith definitely fit the “eccentric” mold in other ways: He had his own marching band that would travel with him after he won a State congress seat, and not being one to settle for mere horses, he trained moose to pull his carriage along, much to the annoyance of terrified locals.
He also had an interesting family life, marrying and having children while living in his home state of Vermont, but things changed once he set up Smithville. According to Lord Whimsy:
He never fully divorced his wife and his kids up in Vermont. He went back, started an account in their name, put in a lump sum, and said, “Let’s just call it a day.”
He washed his hands of them and came down here, married a woman by the name of Agnes…she was an absolutely gorgeous woman. He put her through school, she became a medical doctor, and a good one by all accounts, but eventually she died of cancer, I think at the age of forty-one. He erected a little shrine to her, a statue.
This statue would later be torn down and pounded into marble dust at the request of one of Smith’s sons. No love lost there.
But it was his own death in November 1887 that brought made his oddness literally iron-clad. His first wife and children never accepted his brushing them off for Agnes, and suspecting that they would try and move his body after it was buried next to hers in Saint Andrews Cemetery in Mount Holly, he made unique burial arrangements to ensure this wouldn’t happen. The Web site New Jersey’s History Mysteries (njhm.com) includes a news account of what was involved:
The base of the grave is composed of solid masonry and cement, in the center of which is the iron casket. Then there are two heavy iron slabs, which are bolted together. At the top of this is an iron enclosure similar to a prisoner’s cage, through which run heavy bars of iron. The whole is filled with cement. The top is capped with more iron bars, from the top of which iron bars project. This is also filled in with cement.
Like we said, Smith liked iron, and he used it to ensure that his body stayed put.
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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