The letters XYZ are chiseled into a small grave marker in a corner of a cemetery in Deep River, Conn. Underneath lies a bank robber, killed by a shotgun blast from the night watchman at the Deep River Savings Bank.
Legends have grown up around the tiny gravestone, slightly smaller than a shoebox. Many believe the mystery of XYZ’s identity was never solved.
After all, it’s much more fun to believe that a beautiful woman in black visited the unknown XYZ for every year for 40 years.
At the end of the 19th century, Deep River, Conn., had acquired great wealth from the ivory trade. Deacon Phineas Pratt, the descendant of one of the town’s original settlers, invented a device to cut ivory, which gave U.S. manufacturers a chance to compete against Europeans.
Back then ivory was in great demand for combs and for piano keys. Factories in Deep River and in nearby Ivoryton dominated the market, and most ivory that came into the United States from the Civil War to World War II came through those two towns.
The Deep River Savings Bank was believed to have more than $1 million in deposits, and it received a tip about a planned robbery. So the bank hired a night watchman, a local man named Harry Tyler.
Sure enough, around 1 AM on Dec. 13, 1899, four men tried to enter the bank. One, described as having a long black moustache, tried to jimmy open the window. Tyler took his sawed-off shotgun and fired at the robber, blowing away part of his face. The other three fled, leaving their accomplice to die in Deep River.
No one in Deep River knew the man’s identity, and no one claimed his body.
The Legend of XYZ
So the town buried him in the Fountain Hill Cemetery near the railroad tracks. A legend grew up around the mysterious gravestone. According to one, Tyler received a letter in a woman’s handwriting shortly after the robber’s death. It asked him to put a stone inscribed with the letters XYZ on the unnamed robber’s grave. A small sandstone block carved with those letters now marks his final resting place.
The townspeople claimed a woman in black walked from the railroad station to the XYZ marker every December for forty years. She always left a small flower and she never said a word.
The story has a couple of problems. Two months after the robbery, the New Era published a story revealing his name: Frank Howard, a deep-dyed criminal.
The newspaper reported that detectives hired by the American Bankers Association had worked on the case, presumably how the bank got tipped off.
Detectives traced Howard, also known as P.E. King, to Mancelona, Mich., to Albany and to Springfield, Mass.
Howard had blown up a safe in a hardware store and shot a police officer with a revolver – in the back. Detectives also knew his accomplices, but couldn’t prosecute because of a lack of evidence.
A Good Legend
But a good legend will outlive the truth.
Decades later, an article published in the Deep River New Era reported “for several years following the daring bank attempt, a woman dressed in black would get off the train at the Deep River depot, walk down the tracks and up into the cemetery by the back way and visit the grave of XYZ, leaving a bouquet of flowers on it.
“The woman was never stopped, followed or otherwise investigated, and her relationship with the dead robber has never been learned.”
Today, young children leave coins on the gravestone so XYZ won’t put a curse on them. More people visit his grave than any other in the cemetery.
A different bank building now stands on the Deep River Savings Bank site. But you can still visit a display case with the gun, shell casing, and some photos.
Or put a coin on his grave.
This story was updated in 2020.