For more than a century, residents of Verviers, Belgium, have circulated a macabre legend befitting an Edgar Allen Poe story: namely, that the preserved heart of the city’s first mayor is buried in a fountain in the city’s center.
Now, a construction crew has proven the terrifying tale true, reports Philippe Collette for Belgian news agency RTBF.
On August 20, workers conducting renovations discovered a rusted case stowed in the upper section of the stone fountain. Though city officials tell CNN’s Rob Picheta that the locked casket has not yet been opened, they believe it contains the long-rumored organ.
Per BBC News, an inscription on box notes that “[t]he heart of Pierre David was solemnly placed in the monument on 25 June 1883.”
As Gabriela Galindo reports for the Brussels Times, Pierre David (1771-1839) played a leading role in Verviers’ affairs. He served as a high-ranking official between 1800 and 1808, during the French occupation of Belgium, and was elected as the city’s first mayor in 1830, right around the time that Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands.
David is credited with stabilizing the city following a turbulent revolution, in addition to establishing Verviers’ first secondary school and firefighter corps—accomplishments commemorated in multiple busts and street names around the area.
In 1839, the 68-year-old died unexpectedly after falling from his hayloft. With his family’s consent and the municipal council’s support, historian Paul Bertholet tells RTBF, a team of three surgeons removed the popular local leader’s heart and embalmed it. The preserved organ was sealed in a jar of alcohol and placed in a small metal casket, which was, in turn, hidden in a hollowed-out stone, the statement notes.
Raising the funds needed to erect a fountain in David’s honor took more than four decades. Today, the monument known as Fontaine David towers over Verviers’ city center.
“[A]n urban legend has become reality: [T]he casket was in the upper part of the fountain, right near the bust of Pierre David, behind a stone which we had removed during the fountain's renovation,” Maxime Degey, a Verviers public official, tells RTBF, per a translation by BBC News.
He adds that the casket is in “impeccable condition.”
Nathalie Weerts, deputy curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, tells RTBF that the exhibition of David’s heart includes a death mask of the former mayor, photos of the fountain during its dedication ceremony and archival documents dated to his tenure.
“In the utmost respect and with a lot of professionalism, staff worked to preserve the richness of our patrimony,” local councilor Christine Magis wrote on Facebook, per a translation by the Brussels Times.