But if thou, jealous, dost return to pry…
By heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint
And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs.
Romeo, Act V, Romeo and Juliet
Yes, it’s that time of year again. The summer months are on us and it’s sure to get hot at the peak of that ridge holding the Niagara Frontier’s most prominent outdoor haunt and one of the most notorious, devastated, scandalous burying-grounds in New York State. Hold onto your hats, it’s Goodleberg. AIEEEEEEEEE!!!!!
This article, the fourth in our series, is the first of two about my unfortunate and comical – does this stuff only happen to me? – brush with its apparent curse. There must be something special about this place they call Goodleberg. The wildest supernatural reputation has drawn to it. And it stings everybody who touches it.
High school kids have been partying at Goodleberg since at least the 1970s. Its local reputation as a haunt is probably older. By 1980 the place had become an urban legend in the towns south of Buffalo, and its wake spread across the Niagara Frontier. With the advent of the internet, Goodleberg became a national legend, if not a global one.
I wrote about Goodleberg in my first book Shadows of the Western Door in 1997. In 2004 I mentioned it again in half a paragraph of another very successful book, Haunted Places of Western New York. (I could never have known the firestorm that would develop at Goodleberg.) I’ve written a few e-articles about Goodleberg and mentioned it briefly a time or two in other publications.
I’ve also discussed it on radio, TV, and film. I always did so with a sense of reluctance. Most of the time the producers and media personalities – sometimes regional and even national – came to me already knowing about Goodleberg and wanting to find somebody to talk about it.
My inclination to shelter Goodleberg has two motives. The most obvious is the fact that it is a vulnerable, offended site – vandalized, despoiled, and close enough to a number of homes for the human hijinks (AKA, ghost hunters and partiers) to have violated the peace of the living as well. I don’t want to add to the problem. My other is simple boredom. Not that one again. Declaring Goodleberg to be a haunt is observing that Beyonce is a popular singer. At least with me talking about it, the presentation could be somewhat controlled. It could be accurate and respectful.
Goodleberg is far from the only haunt I’ve profiled. In fact, one way or another – through books, lectures, tours, media appearances, or magazine articles – I’ve profiled at least two hundred supposedly haunted sites on the Niagara Frontier and across upstate New York. It could well be more. I’ve never counted. At none of them has there been any significant controversy. And only this one, this Goodleberg Cemetery, has ever involved me in a flap, at least in a negative way.
I myself almost never visit Goodleberg. It’s my philosophy that good people need to model the behavior we want to encourage out of others. If we tell people they shouldn’t do something, we shouldn’t.
I do have a walking-tour- and occasional vehicle-tour company called Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc. I have never led people on a tour of Goodleberg. I have never done “a paranormal investigation” (commercially or otherwise) of Goodleberg, though I have been on hand twice as others attempted to. I have been to Goodleberg after dark only a handful of times, and not one of the visits came after I got the picture that the ghost hunting rowdies had become a problem.
I do, however, have a script for an occasional bus tour called “The Haunted Hills” routed along the country roads of the Towns of Elma, Aurora, and Wales. It features moody, beautiful, and intriguing landscapes and delves into some of the region’s remarkable hidden stories: The Grave of the Gypsy Queen, The Ancient Fort, The Circle of Skeletons, The Witch’s Mill. Goodleberg is indeed one of the sixteen stops, though we do not set foot there. (You can’t do a tour called “The Haunted Hills” and leave out the hills’ most famous haunt.)
I led such a daytime ride once for an educational bus touring company in the late 1990s. But the short, intricate, and painful cycle that involved me belongs to a fortnight in the summer of 2005.
It started in the late spring. I was contacted by East Aurora Town Recreation about doing a few of these vehicle tours as a summer activity. My friends at Town Rec are always looking for family-friendly cultural activities that will get people out enjoying our region and learning something about it. It seemed innocent enough, and for a good cause.
As part of our campaign to whip up interest in the spooky theme, we mentioned on our poster for the bus tour that we would visit “the dreaded Goodleberg.” (My idea. My bad.) The trolleys sold out weeks before our August 19 debut, and all seemed cheery with haunted tourism in the South Towns. Things were brewing that we knew nothing about.
June and July 2005 were steamy, and tension was rising on Goodleberg Road. I told you about the high school partiers, who had been a problem for decades. Squads of adult ones – ghost hunters – had started barraging the ‘blasted heath’ that is Goodleberg. They were more determined and more enduring.
Wagon trains of them used to arrive and stay till the wee hours on weekend nights. Some used Goodleberg as a camping site. Through their open windows, residents of the road could see the cars if not see and hear the ghost hunters. The ghost hunters could hear them back, and through their own walls. That high-tech sound-gear meant to detect the ever-fading voices of the dead is a sonic drift net, hauling in all kinds of other tones.
One Genesee Valley ghost hunter caught a married couple having an intimate encounter and was actually stupid enough to post the recording on his website. It was a scene right out of M.A.S.H. the movie. (“Kiss my hot lips…!”) The victims heard that such a recording had been made, traced it to its source, and recognized their voices uttering some of their own passionate lines.
If I’d spent more time out in the ghost hunting community or at Goodleberg itself I might have known all this. As it was, I never knew how sensitive things were getting up there until late July. By then the marketing for our tour had gone out. We had, by design, become as visible as we possibly could. Then…
Between the time of the announcements of our August bus-tour event and its debut, an ad appeared in the community listings of at least two Erie County papers. It was asking for witnesses to psychic reports and experiences at Goodleberg.
The ad never mentioned who was behind it. (It was in fact the leader of a certain group of ghost hunters from the Genesee Valley, the same who had made and posted the recording.) Nevertheless, to the locals it seemed to be a sign of something new, possibly a budding campaign to create a commercial enterprise bent on plundering the bones of war veterans at Goodleberg. (What next? A roadside stand selling monogrammed shovels?) That ad really seemed to be the catalyst. The you-know-what hit the fan.
To residents already pissed at the partiers and ghost-hunters, the ad could only have come from me. I was the only upstate ghost-person most of them had ever heard of. Finally there was someone to blame for the escalating goofery at Goodleberg. The ad, the bus tour, Goodleberg, and me seemed to be all anyone in the Towns of Aurora and Wales was talking about in late July 2005.
There was another development. A politician and occasional columnist for the East Aurora Advertiser ran a very critical front page article basically blaming me for the train-wreck at Goodleberg. (He arrived at this by presuming that Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., and its walking tours of ten different upstate villages was nothing but an industry of root-magic in the Town of Wales.) This misperception, willful or not, the writer presented to some of the Wales residents he interviewed, which in turn allowed them to vent about my events. (One righteous dowager-without-sin called them “disgusting” in print.) You would have thought I was tunneling through graveyards and vending the bony totems that came up.
I don’t blame people for venting if they really think I take people on midnight juju-hunts to where “the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.” I do blame a reporter for interviewing seniors before their meds kick in. Either way, let’s get our facts straight.
The Advertiser reporter/politician (RP from now on) even noted that my tours “have come to the attention of the authorities,” as if high levels of law enforcement had become independently suspicious of me or other HHGW tour guides, as if we’d been spotted casing nuclear power plants, soliciting minors in playgrounds, or testing the bounds of the Patriot Act. Coming to the attention of the authorities? That’s a funny way to write, “People talked about Goodleberg at a monthly meeting at the Town of Wales, and, oh, by the way, a State Trooper is always on duty at those meetings.” It almost looked like the reporter had been sharpening a knife that he had been waiting for an opportunity to pull. I mean, all he had to do was ask me what was going on before he went to print.
The article held other mistakes. For instance, the RP wrote that Goodleberg housed Revolutionary War burials, which would be the late 1770s. That’s interesting. The cemetery wasn’t active till 1811. This part of the Niagara Frontier was not even open to white settlement till after the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794), sometimes also called “The Pickering Pact” or “The Calico Compact” for reasons I may present to you someday. No whites settled this part of Erie County before 1800, hence the reporter had claimed evidence of a mystery-colony of Euroamericans. That would really be revolutionary. Why did the RP make his first move with the hometown news? He should have been calling National Geographic.
Artists, authors, actors… We are all counseled never to reply to critics. (“If you start, when do you stop?”) I was mightily tempted, but not a single writer-friend I spoke to advised responding. I held my verbal fire. Years later I ran into the then-editor of the paper at a party and speculated about all this and more. “I wish you had written something,” he said. “It would have been good to know your side of things.”
I also wondered why the RP would have had a blade out for me. We had never clashed about anything directly. “Well… He’s pro-Walmart,” the editor said, precisely as if I should have understood that. I was indeed among East Aurora’s vocal coalition who felt that the megastore’s proposed expansion to within a mile of the village would be a death-knell to much of its enterprise and architecture. Lines were drawn around that, and there are still a handful of scabs left on prominent members of the opposing camps. Things really can work that way in small towns.
There were more shoes to drop in this mini-scandal. Stay tuned for the last of our summer series on Goodleberg.