Thursday, October 24, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Thomas Ridley and the Cape's Loneliest Grave

     October is perfect for hiking through the woods gazing upon the colorful leaves as they change with the temperatures. It is a time for football, friends, family, and fun. On the other side of the coin it is the Halloween season which is perfect for fear and the unknown. Cape Cod is home to its share of scary stories, hauntings, murder, and other oddities. One such intriguing story is that of Cape Cod’s loneliest grave. This grave does not lie in any cemetery on a map, nor are there any markings or signs to allow you to easily find it. No, this grave and the person who lies beneath it were buried far from society specifically to not be found.

     The man Thomas Ridley is far more ordinary than the adventure of the search for his hidden grave. A fisherman and seaman Ridley was born in Truro on December 13, 1715, the eldest son of Thomas Ridley Sr and Mary Smalley. Thomas Sr. had been born on the Atlantic Ocean in 1685 as his parents traveled from Great Britain to New England.

     Thomas Ridley Jr. married Elizabeth Cook in 1738 and together they had ten children, four sons and six daughters. All things being equal Ridley’s life was ordinary until it neared its end. It was in the 1770’s when Thomas contracted smallpox. Sadly at this time on average 20-60% of adults who contracted smallpox, and more than 80% of children infected died, with the survivors usually living with severe scarring. Unfortunately for Thomas the process of vaccination did not even begin until 1796 under the watch of British doctor Edward Jenner and would take several years to perfect. The ordinary smallpox strain, which accounted for ninety percent of all cases throughout history, took twelve to fourteen days on average to begin showing symptoms after a person was infected. Those who died usually passing after ten to sixteen days of the onset of the symptoms of severe rash and fever.

A wide view of Thomas Ridley's grave, showing how it blends in.
     Sometime in 1776 Thomas Ridley caught and died from smallpox. The fear of the spread of the disease caused the residents of Truro to bury Ridley’s body far from the rest of the village. He was buried deep in the thick forest of North Truro. When his wife Elizabeth died in 1792 she was buried in Provincetown at the present-day Winthrop Street Cemetery more than five miles west of her husband’s resting place.

     As for Thomas Ridley in the 240-plus years since he was laid to rest underneath a simple gray slate stone, with his name misspelled as ‘Rideey,’ Cape Cod has evolved. Route 6 passes a half-mile south of his stone with Montano’s Italian Restaurant being the closest civilization to the former fisherman’s remains.
Thomas Ridley's grave with his name misspelled.
     For those wishing to lay eyes on Cape Cod’s loneliest grave it is an adventure all on its own finding it. The area of woods in which Ridley’s grave exists, between Pilgrim Heights Road to the north, Head of the Meadow Road to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east is approximately 736 acres in size. Contrast that to the fact that the gravestone itself is little more than a foot tall and the gray color allows it to easily blend in to its surroundings. From the parking lot of Montano’s approximately 1,300-feet east is a 14,000-square-foot sand pit which marks roughly the halfway point to Ridley’s grave. After scaling the sand pit it is roughly 1,200 more feet, northwest from the sand, through the thick Truro woods which leads one face to face with history and reality.

     Thomas Ridley was a real person with a real life and family who caught the deadliest disease of his time and was buried miles from anything as a way to protect those still living. His name and story seem like legend or folklore, however making the trek through the woods that have likely remained the same since he was first buried there, gives one a sense of sadness and loss realizing that a real person rests underfoot in an area so withdrawn from civilization. It truly is Cape Cod’s loneliest grave.

     For more about the history of smallpox visit: History of Smallpox -

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Panama Club, Hyannis

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Bassett's Wild Animal Farm

Cape Cod Sunsets 2020 Calendar available at Zazzle here: Cape Cod Sunsets 2020

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher
My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

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