[Author’s Note: The small country burying-ground in the Town of Wales, Erie County, NY, known as Goodleberg is one of New York State’s most mythologized “haunted” cemeteries. It is also one of the most devastated. Toppled stones, plundered graves, and late-night rootin’ tootin’ are only some of the outrages that offend both living and dead. This article is the second of the pair that detail the way the scandal involved me personally. These last two begin with events in the spring of 2005. Readers are encouraged to scan the one preceding this so it won’t seem so in medias res (Latin, “in the middle of things”).]
It’s been so long that I have to trust my recall here. I hope I have the sequence of events in exact order.
In the spring of 2005 I agreed to lead a handful of haunted vehicle tours in partnership with a good cause, East Aurora Town Recreation. I composed the script for a rolling wagon train of the Town of Aurora called “The Haunted Hills.” I had, I admit, been the one with the bright idea to put “the dreaded Goodleberg” onto our posters. To me it looked like fun. I do not present any haunted site as “dreaded” except perhaps for comic effect. And the Goodleberg-byline was totally superfluous. We sold out over a month before the launch date and could probably have doubled our total without any frisky lingo. We added tours at the last minute as it was to handle the spillover.
New elements entered the picture in the summer of 2005, well after we had designed and started promoting our plan. No one could have anticipated them.
By June, controversy was brewing at Goodleberg. Teams of ghost hunters had been driving the locals crazy with their late-night antics since the warm weather had arrived. The matter had not yet erupted into scandal, though. I don’t think a single individual who didn’t live on the road knew the extent of the tension that was rising among its residents. I sure didn’t.
In July, a ghost hunter from the Genesee Valley – one of the lead wing-nuts in the hijinks at Goodleberg – took out an ad in at least two local community weeklies asking to hear from people who had witnessed psychic phenomena at that troubled burying-ground. He did so without giving a name for the person or group behind it, which seemed to tip things over the edge. (To scurrility was added cowardice.) People didn’t know who to blame, so they blamed the only ghost-guy most of them had ever heard of – me. (There was, alas, that bus tour people already knew I was leading…) As if I needed more ghost stories from Goodleberg or thought that an ad would be the way to get them! People should have known it wasn’t me because it was amateurish.
A front-page article in my hometown paper, the East Aurora Advertiser, fingered me for the escalating problems at Goodleberg. The article’s writer was both badly mistaken about my tours and highly critical of them. He had made no effort to straighten out his story by talking to me before going to print. It was as if he preferred to hold a negative impression. It was as if he wanted to damage my enterprises. I never responded to this in print, since we are always counseled not to address our critics. Besides, while the issue was still timely I could never cool down enough to be sure that what I wrote would not be ad hominem – “against the person.”
Then another shoe dropped. On a late July afternoon I was in my cottage readying for a partly-professional trip to Vermont when I got a call on the land line from Rickey Venditti, Supervisor of the Town of Wales. The subject was the Goodleberg Cemetery. Supervisor Venditti knew of my published work and had been on some of my tours. He knew I wasn’t leading juju-hunts among the remains of our ancestors; he wanted to know if I could give him the names of any of the parties who were. I had a few ideas, I said, and I was sure I could find out at least some of the parties involved. But I was not planning to turn anyone in without absolute proof, and without also giving them a shot at making things right. (Stand up, admit what you did, and quit doing it. And try to undo any of the damage you did, too.)
The Supervisor also informed me that my name was beginning to be taken in vain in the Town of Wales and that a vent-fest was brewing for the Town Hall meeting on the following night. He thought I might like the chance to clear up some of the rumors in person and invited me to the meeting. I’ve never objected to suggesting to a crowd that it reconsider some of its perspectives – one of my best and worst traits – but I had a professional gig to get to in Vermont and couldn’t change my plans to leave the next morning.
The Wales Town Supervisor also wanted to know if I had any ideas who had taken out the troublesome, perfect-storm of an ad. At that hour, I did not, but I told him that I would send my feelers out into the paranormal community.
Within an hour of that call about Goodleberg the phone rang again. This time the caller was the Genesee Valley ghost hunter (GVGH) whose ad – on top of everything else – seemed to have been the final straw. He was the number one suspect in my mind for most of the ruckus, including that ad, and there he was saving me the trouble of locating him. He had tracked me down the old fashioned way, through information, which you could still do in 2005. He had caught a whiff of the trouble brewing at Goodleberg. So far none of it had touched him, but he must have sensed that payback might be coming. He sounded scared and trying to hide it.
Though I had never met him, the guy was not exactly a stranger. I had heard a lot about him by then and just about none of it was good. He was far from the only ghost hunter whose antics were making trouble at Goodleberg, but he may have been the holder of the worst judgement. He went up there all the time on weekends and he never sensed how sensitive things were getting. He was the one, I was told, who had posted the sounds of the married couple in their bedroom recorded through their massively sensitive sound equipment.
Yes. While attempting to siphon the ever-fading voices of the human dead out of the night’s natural noises, he had caught the voices of a couple in their home having connubial relations and captured a “hot lips” moment right out of M. A. S. H. He thought it might be funny to put it on his organization’s website. (Right. And we will be the only ones who know.) He had also been caught. The couple in question had been told about it and tracked him down rather easily. He was threatened with legal action unless he removed the post, which of course he did.
I always try to fight against the social static and give everyone an even break. I am about finding solutions, not hammering someone about problems. I tried to settle the guy down as I addressed each of the issues.
I told him that if he just cut the shenanigans at Goodleberg, I expected things to settle down, at least as they concerned him. I asked him to get word out into the ghost-hunting community that the wild west show was over at Goodleberg. I said I could keep his name out of things if he followed through. I also told him that I would tell the suits in Wales that I had spoken to the number one offender and that he had agreed to cool it, even to work for peace, at Goodleberg. I kept my end of the bargain the very next day.
As we talked, I did mention in an understated way that his actions – timed with the ad – had started the latest round of frenzy and caused quite a bit of trouble for me. I am not sure that it registered.
I also told him as I would have told anyone else that an ad is not the way to collect folklore. It puts all the onus of communication upon the witnesses. It can actually make people clam up. Of course, this individual had burned a lot of social bridges by that point, particularly at Goodleberg, hence the ad must have been a last recourse.
I left the next morning as I had planned for Vermont. As I drove, of course, I reflected on the very recent cycle of events. As I had talked with the Genesee Valley ghost hunter in question, I found myself not really liking him. He had displayed no concern at all about the inconvenience his actions had caused others, including me. He hadn’t displayed any resolution to change his modus operandi. His only worry seemed to be about how to duck what might be coming after him. It turns out that this particular GVGH had the long reputation of a guy who starts trouble – for others – and ducks out, escaping most of the fallout. (He does nothing quietly, said someone in the paranormal business of the same gent. And everybody else has to clean up the mess, said another.)
The Wales Town meeting took place, and I was happy to hear that I had a few defenders. Nevertheless, I have to look at the whole cycle as a personal lapse. I had completely failed to detect the temperature of the social climate at and about Goodleberg at the critical moments. I had involved my partners – Town Recreation – in a bit of a tizzy, deserved or not. The goal of life is to avoid kindling these situations, not to succeed in putting them out. But hold on. That was not the last shoe to drop with Goodleberg.
In a week I was back from the Green Mountains. I came home to a new round of curiosity.
Maybe our conversation did make the GVGH reconsider some things. Maybe that was what motivated him to write again to the East Aurora Advertiser after the anti-me article came out, this time in the form of a letter to the editor. He came stoutly and strangely to my apparent defense, lashing back against the plague of small perspectives and scattershot judgements. His bizarre note even listed me among the pioneers such as himself, placing the two of us in the same imaginary psychic aristocracy.
I would never at all use his sort of terminology to describe my fellow citizens who don’t happen to share my specialization in folklore or literature, or for people who simply disagree with me. He didn’t take credit, either, for that ad or for much of the “paranormal investigation” at Goodleberg attributed to his group. He did not say that I was innocent of involvement in the mess because he knew who was. If this was his gesture of appeasement – if he was trying to make an ally out of me – it failed. That was his chance to man up.
In August we ran our series of bus tours with Town Recreation. Yes, we did stop on the road near the Goodleberg cemetery, barely in sight of it. Not only had we mentioned that we were including the stop on our tour, but it would have seemed shameful and even silly to take people on a tour of the region’s famous haunts and leave out the region’s most famous haunt. People had heard so much about Goodleberg. It was an opportunity to teach people about it responsibly. None of us set a toe outside the trolley.
I never found out why the GVGH was so obsessed with Goodleberg as a haunted site. Of course it could have had something to do with the same subliminal factors that have made Goodleberg a force on so many other imaginations. Maybe it had worked its mojo on him, too. It could also have been one of fifty sites that he was planning to write about or commercialize in some form, and this was the only one I heard about.
I still think this guy must have had some kind of master plan for Goodleberg. It occurs to me now that he could have been aiming to develop it into a commercial enterprise. That’s a loony idea to me, but Goodleberg does look up for grabs. For all its mighty reputation, it is out in the open on a country side-road. Maybe the GVGH was planning to take crews of people up there at all hours for tours and ghost hunts the way it’s done at some of Buffalo’s famous haunts – the Central Terminal, Statler City, Iron Island Museum – along with Genesee County’s Rolling Hills County Home, and, more recently, “the Hinsdale House” in Cattaraugus County. (Hell, I can get into the fun, too. I’ve given talks and done parties at all of those sites. I just stick to the history – the research.)
I also think the reason the GVGH was seeking more insight on Goodleberg was that he may have been planning to launch his big dream of a TV program. Maybe he was at work on a pilot and using Goodleberg as the model site.
That was all 2005. This is being written in July of 2017, and things seem to have settled down at Goodleberg. The State Troopers patrol regularly, and the ghost hunters have stopped causing problems. My own enterprises go on in their own way. No one suspects me of exploiting sites or creating disturbances, at least not that I hear of. That was a one-off.
If you are wondering what became of the GVGH, the Genesee Valley Ghost Hunter… His checkered paranormal career continued after many a blunder that would have kept me sleepless yet didn’t seem to worry him. He wrote a couple of books – you may judge their originality and quality – he feuded with other ghost hunters, he thought of himself as a star… When he landed the lead in a pilot for one of the documentary-style “reality” paranormal programs on one of the national cable networks it must have appeared to him that he stood on the edge of a dream. However the pilot may have been the only one of its kind. No series seems to have followed, and there has been no perceptible paranormal peep out of him since 2009. He may be out of the business. Maybe it was the curse of Goodleberg again, merely taking a bit longer to come around but landing a lot harder for him than it did for me.
I feel bad about the condition of Goodleberg. Maybe it was those two pages in my first book in 1997 that started it all off, but I don’t feel to blame for Goodleberg’s current state. With the explosion of technology – in both e-communication and surveillance gadgets – and the current interest in all things ghostly, it was only a matter of time before people were onto Goodleberg.
I am also not sure that Goodleberg’s notoriety is responsible for its pillaging, at least not all of it. Much of what’s happened at Goodleberg has been natural. A geologist who accompanied me on one daytime visit noted the curious soil and exposed position of the graveyard, and also the fragility of the stones. He felt that much of the loss was due to seismic and climatic factors. We see what the freeze-and-thaw cycle does to Western New York roads. Now see what happens when you stand up a bunch of thin stones and leave them on an open hill for a century or two.
By now, a night-time visit to Goodleberg can be dangerous, and from several perspectives. It has always been illegal to be in any burying-ground after sunset, but now the State Troopers are enforcing. (I happen to know one of them who lives within sight of Goodleberg Cemetery, and he misses nothing that goes on there.) If you’re caught up there in the dark you’ll end up in jail, no matter how respectful you are to the spirits, and, man, are those locals going to crow. They are on the lookout. They’ll be jeering you up the road in the back of the squad car.
The place could be dangerous on its own. A ghost hunter from Erie County was struck and killed by a car on the night of a solstice in 2003. On a May Eve in 2000 someone dug a six-foot cone into the grave of a child, looking for… something. So many other folks report psychic effects plaguing them on trips to and from Goodleberg. (This curious phenomenon is also often reported by UFO experiencers.)
If people had been reverent, discreet, and respectful, Goodleberg could have been a pilgrimage-site. It could have been a place of mysticism and vision, a place of communing with the reclining elders. It could have been a shrine to the beauties and the intrigue of the collective imagination. Now it’s over, at least for the near future.
For myself, I don’t really regret the inability to visit Goodleberg after dark. I honestly don’t think you can prove anything by continually going to allegedly haunted sites and waiting for something to appear, especially not under the aura of commerce.
I don’t envision haunted sites as theaters in which ghosts will show up on cue like actors in a play. (All we need to do to see them is get our tickets and join the show.) I have never held this expectation and I am frankly surprised that it ever came over the general public the way it seems to have. (Thank TV, I guess.) I am not at all let down that things seem to be this way.
I don’t expect it to be easy to understand or document ghosts. I don’t think you can play with them, talk to them, provoke them, or tease them to come forth as best they can for portraits. The classic investigators of the Victorian period when all of this began understood that, too. Great haunted sites ought to be mysteries, not amusement parks.