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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Deceiving the Devil.

John Renie.

The man who tried to trick the Devil.

On the 8th October 2005 a tombstone in the churchyard at St. Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth was listed as a Grade II structure, indicating that it’s a building of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve it. The headstone, which stands close to the church, was carved to mark the graves of John Renie, his wife and two sons.

Renie was born in Monmouth and worked as a painter and decorator in the town until he died aged 33, in 1832. According to some accounts, Renie, a noted eccentric, wanted to confound the devil so that, when he passed away, his journey to heaven would be straight forward. In order to do so Renie decided, rather oddly, to carve his own tombstone. What he created was an intricate ‘acrostic puzzle’ containing 285 letters arranged to read, ‘Here lies John Renie.’

To understand the inscription, readers have to start from an ‘H’ in the centre of the puzzle and follow the letters in any direction. According to Mathematicians who have studies the puzzle, there are 32,032 different ways to read ‘Here lies John Renie’ on the headstone. It must have been a laborious job carving such an intricate pattern. No records exist to say how many times Renie accidentally chipped off a letter and had to start again with a new blank headstone.

Although the tombstone says ‘Here lies John Renie,’ Renie and his family are buried elsewhere in the churchyard. In 1851, residents of nearby Whitecross Street began to die at an alarming rate and there were complaints of an unpleasant stench in the area. The stink was found to be coming from the churchyard where human remains had begun to emerge from the ground. Weathering and erosion, caused by the raised position of the graveyard, had worn away the topsoil exposing bodies of the deceased. The graveyard was closed to new burials and the remains reinterred. It was either then, or possibly later, that John Renie’s headstone was moved to its current prominent position, next to the church, so that passing pedestrians might enjoy his puzzle.

We have no way of knowing where John Renie’s soul ended up but if honest work is truly rewarded in the afterlife, his labours carving a headstone to deceive the devil should have guaranteed St. Peter would allow him through the pearly gates.

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