The Halloween season is here, and for most of a month the imagery of things and beings supernatural and paranormal will besiege us in every medium. It shows us that the dark side of the psyche needs a vent – and that the imagery related is simply tantalizing.
The universal supernatural being of legend is the ghost. So common is this figure, usually that of a late human, that we sense its appearance in story may be something innate to humanity. The Golden Age Greeks had ghost stories. The Romans had ghost stories. The ancient Chinese had ghost stories. Rain forest cultures untouched by the outside world are found at first contact to have ghost stories. Cave paintings that could be up to 40,000 years old (Lascaux, Altamira, El Castillo, Chauvet) are interpreted to represent the sense of a detachable soul that flees the body at the moment of death and could quite well be visible at some point after – in short, the ghost. If nothing is going on with ghosts, it’s not been going on for a mighty long time. And the ghost story is not going away any time soon. People say they see them to this day.
The ghosts eyewitnesses tend to report are overwhelmingly just apparitions, fleeting and inscrutable. Western New York seems as rich as anywhere for ghosts of this type. I honestly think we are exceptional for the garden-variety haunted house or site. The Niagara Frontier is soaked with them!
The ghosts of entertainment – folklore, story, and film – tend to be the ones that are personified; those are the ones given name, character, speech, and steady purpose. Areas denser in historic occupation and an involvement in world affairs tend to have more of this second kind, the folkloric ghost, but we are not at all deprived on the Niagara, the proverbial “Western Door” to the Iroquois Confederacy’s upstate New York territory. This is an article about the colorful cast that has made its way into Niagara Frontier legend. These are my thirteen Western Door all-stars.
The War of 1812 was our trademark historic trauma on the Niagara, which is why it’s the more tragic that it’s so forgotten. It is, however, abundantly commemorated in our folklore. Many of the famous ghosts on my all-pro team have an active connection to the war.
A lot’s been written about the great Seneca statesman Red Jacket (1750-1830), the inimitable Sagoyewata (“He Keeps Them Awake”). Not all of it’s complimentary. If we sort through the clutter we get the picture of a warrior, a patriot to the Native American cause, and probably a certifiable genius had there been an IQ test around that could have been administered in Seneca. Red Jacket set such a stamp on the region that his spectral form is reported in a number of places.
Most ghostly forms ascribed to Red Jacket – Buffalo, Batavia, Canandaigua, Lewiston, Orchard Park – tend to be by the sites of public places he could have frequented, typically courthouses and taverns. Red Jacket was both litigator and partier. At a time when Native Americans were banned from most public houses serving fire-water, George Washington’s silver medal on his chest got Red Jacket into any bar. It did no favors to the cause of temperance.
A troubled grave is the engine of unrest behind many of our folkloric ghosts, and Red Jacket would have plenty of reason to object to his own. Having died “exulting that the Great Spirit had made him an Indian [sic],” Red Jacket despised the idea of lying in a white cemetery. His Christian widow did the deciding, though, and his bones’ first rest was the Buffum Street Cemetery, today a small park, in South Buffalo. During a late-19th-century interim when many cemeteries were being emptied into Forest Lawn, Red Jacket’s remains did a stay in a cherrywood box kept with his daughter on the Cattaraugus Reservation. When the newly-proud-of-him city fathers went scouting for something to tuck under the Forest Lawn coverlet in the shadow of Red Jacket’s mighty monument, it’s almost certain that the bones handed back were not his. (“We gave them dog bones,” said one of my Seneca friends.) Maybe it’s the monument old Keeps-’Em-Up doesn’t like.
William Morgan (1774-1826) “The Murdered Mason,” is another of Western New York’s itinerant ghosts with 1812-era roots. By 1826, the Virginia-born veteran, bricklayer, and part-time brewer was living in Batavia and finding that supporting his small family without working was compromising his insobriety. He hit upon a quick fix: a book, an expose of the Freemasons, which Batavia printer David C. Miller agreed to publish. Bad idea. A cycle of events beginning on September 11, 1826, led Morgan on a midnight carriage trip from Canandaigua to Lewiston and then to Fort Niagara where he was likely killed. The scenario made for a scandal comparable to a mix of the Jimmy Hoffa/JFK flaps and set itself so deeply into the national psyche that it’s no wonder Morgan’s ghost would be associated with a handful of the rumored stops on the course of the mad ride. As with Red Jacket, courthouses (Batavia and Canandaigua) and pubs (Pittsford, Rochester, Gaines, Lewiston, Wright’s Corners, Cambria, and Lewiston) figure in Morgan’s apparition-sightings, as well as presumed last stop Fort Niagara. Even that damned carriage – or another presumed to be it – has been spotted at points along the Ridge Road.
Another bluecoat with a local connection is General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), a hero of the local war and one of the most prominent American military men of the first half of the 19th century. In the interests of full disclosure, the Virginia-born General Winfield is likely to have been a relative of mine, and it’s nothing to brag about on the reservation. (He led the forced relocation of the Cherokee still remembered as the Trail of Tears.) It’s no wonder that his apparition would figure in our folklore.
I’ve heard of Scott reported as a northeasterly-bound horse-and-rider ghost on Barton Hill in Lewiston where he may have commanded a cannon battery in the early days of the war. I’ve heard of him at points along the Ridge Road and by some of the creek crossings. I’ve also heard his name given to the bluecoat ghost of the Eagle House restaurant-pub in Williamsville. While that venerable structure was not around in 1814 when General Winfield did his rehab from war-wounds at a hospital within walking distance, he could well have been on the spot – and something, at least a house, must have been there. The point at which “the Iron Trail” (Route 5) meets the Ellicott Creek would have been highly desirable real estate as the village was first formed. Some items of Scott’s, mostly furniture, are still in the possession of the Eagle House, and the pop imagination has always considered it logical that artifacts might carry attachments. Just think of the curses associated with the Hope Diamond, Marie Antoinette’s necklace, Montezuma’s mirror, and the artifacts from King Tut’s tomb.
The folklorists tell us that “the White Lady” is one of the most common ghostly forms in the western world. One of the Niagara’s most fabulous White Ladies is thought once to have been Queenston resident Laura Secord (1775-1868), a heroine of the War of 1812. Secord’s ten-mile hike through the Ontario woods was credited with alerting British guerilla fighter James Fitzgibbon to an American raid on his quarters at Thorold and thus leading to the Empire’s upset victory at Beaver Dams. I’m not sure the Crown’s Mohawk allies needed a fair white housewife to alert them to the presence of a cannon detachment clattering through their woods, but so goes the legend of Canada’s “Lady Paul Revere.” So powerful a figure in the regional memory has Secord become that any womanish wight spotted between Queenston village and Thorold is usually thought to be her recreating her moonlight sojourn.
Quite a few redcoat ghosts populate the towns, trails, and forts on the Canadian side of the Niagara. If we had to point to a single prominent one, it’s a tossup.
While “the hero of Upper Canada” Isaac Brock (1769-1812) is by far the most famous redcoat of the Niagara war, Captain Colin Swayze (1788?-1813) of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Angel Inn is famous for no reason at all but coming back as a ghost. Our deference here goes to him. We Yanks like underdogs, don’t we?
As man or ghost, Swayze’s existence is debated. I’ve never been convinced of the presence of anyone of that name in the local war. The ghostly one is surely with us in folklore, and Swayze is one of the few Niagara spooks to have had both name and legend by the middle 20th century, decades before the recent explosion of the internet and its easy access to information. (The internet has made legends out of a lot of people, living or dead.)
Monumental ghosts like most of the ones we’ve seen so far are commonly linked to multiple sites and open spaces. The signature spook of the 1815 Angel Inn is like the majority of mundane ghosts, as in, virtually agoraphobic – urban and indoors. Folks at the Angel actually celebrate Swayze, and who would blame them? He seems to be a loyal spook, staying merry as long as the Union Jack flies over the esteemed Inn.
I’ve written and said so much about the controversial, outrageous, mercurial founder of East Aurora’s Roycroft, Elbert Green Hubbard (1856-1915?), that I hardly know where to begin with him. Just let it be said that the former Larkin Soap Company executive and “Father of Modern Advertising” pulled a career flip, founded his Arts & Crafts Movement community as more or less a business, and set his mark on the world as a writer, publisher, speaker, philosopher, and whatever else I’ve forgotten to mention. Hubbard’s gift in life seemed to be in making himself famous, and his ghost does not disappoint us by shyness. His dark-clad, longhaired form is the towering apparition in the town of Aurora. Strange for a ghost, sometimes he returns as a spirit-guide and confessor, at least in the accounts of some late 20th century East Aurorans. I put that question mark on his dates out of respect for the fact that there are many legends about his mysterious, even contrived survival of the attack on the Lusitania.
One of the grand damsels of Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue, Katherine Pratt Horton (1848-1931) led Buffalo society for most of the first quarter of the 20th century. Surely a descendant of Buffalo’s hardy War of 1812 hero Captain Samuel Pratt, Jr. (1787-1822), Mrs. Horton was proverbial for self-belief. (It was said in other terms that no matron of Buffalo’s gilded age was quite so impressed with her own lineage.)
One of the heavy hitters of the local Daughters of the Revolution, Mrs. Horton may have been so let down with her children that she gave her fine brownstone in the “midway” block of Delaware to the DAR – on the condition that they change nothing. Talk about Great Expectations! Her clothes, her furniture, her paintings… It’s all still there, a museum to just the way it was when she left the mortal coil behind. This is a very private site, and a modest body of folklore has not built around Ms. Pratt-Horton the way it may have with other “Millionaire’s Row” lady ghosts Carolyn Tripp Clement (the Clement House/Red Cross Building) and Charlotte Watson (The Buffalo Club). Nonetheless, based on my interviews with former caretakers and almost anyone who’s had sustained contact with 477 Delaware, I have to pronounce its mistress a worthy member of our list. The other two gals flicker about their former abodes. Mrs. Horton runs that roost!
A whiff of occultism about a person or a site is usually all that’s needed to bring out ghost stories. The next three of our favorites were rumored to have been witches.
North Tonawanda’s standout ghost is the remarkable Hannah Johnson (1803?-1883). Called “Black Hannah” by everyone – she was the only African American in NT in the day – she kept her cabin by a spring on the Chadwick farm east of Elmwood and north of Sweeney Street. She made her way in life as a folk-healer, fortune-teller, and baby sitter known for the marvelous maple cupcakes she dispensed to the children. She was said to have been attractive in her youth and no stranger to the admiration of the opposite sex. She was also respected, it seems, if not somewhat dreaded, and it was as a power-person that she may have left her mark on future generations. Her apparition was spotted at least into the 1950s, and her curiously cracked stone stands still in the Sweeney Cemetery.
Our Seneca friends give us a couple of great witchy ghosts, both of them alleged to be murderesses and both the subjects of scandalous public trials. I could pick the by-now-much-mentioned Kau Qua Tau (1880?-1821), a Buffalo Creek Reservation healer under whose ministrations a Seneca chief died untimely. Some thought the circumstances of his passing were so mysterious that his healer was presumed to be his killer. Executed on the banks of the Buffalo Creek, Kau Qua Tau comes back as a folkloric ghost to West Seneca’s Old Main Cemetery where she is rumored to be buried. This connection is not proved, though, and right now I’m going to pick a witchy specter from the 20th century – Lila Jimerson (1893-1972) of the Cattaraugus Reservation, sometimes remembered as “The Red Lilac of the Cayugas.” There’s more certainty about her as an occultist, and she makes a ghost more clearly linked to the site of her spottings.
Lila Jimerson was an attractive Cattaraugus Reservation teacher who got involved with Henri Marchand (1887–1960), the admittedly lascivious French artist and sculptor for the Buffalo Science Museum. Starting in the fall of 1929, Jimerson and her Cayuga friend Nancy Bowen commenced a series of psychic communications that left them convinced that Bowen’s late husband, the Cayuga medicine man “Sassafras” Charley Bowen (1855?-1929) had been killed by enchantment – and that Marchand’s wife Clothilde was the “white witch” behind it.
One March morning in 1930 Nancy Bowen visited Mrs. Marchand in her Buffalo home and killed her with a hammer and rags soaked with chloroform. The murder was discovered by the couple’s young son after school, and the women from Cattaraugus were quickly fingered. Partly based on their absolute convictions in the power of malicious magic – and partly on the contempt the all-white-male juries seem to have developed for the philandering Marchand – the pair were acquitted at the end of two long, sensational trials. Catt Rez folk still talk about the ghost that turns up every once in a while near Lila Jimerson’s former home at the dead end of Burning Springs Road in Perrysburg. No one doubts that it is Lila, out catching the air.
Another dubious spook whose wonted walks border a spring – the one that fills the reservoir of Spring Lake Winery – Lockport’s Cold Springs Witch is surely Niagara County’s most famous 20th century ghost. Her legend may be traceable in print no farther back than the 1960s. Her form and function are murky.
To some she is an “ordinary” ghost, and an outdoor one; they see her briefly and then she’s gone. To some she may be a young woman, even a girl. To others she is a stark crone who halts traffic like a roadside prophetess who could have stepped from the pages of Graves’ The White Goddess. She may even be the Vanishing Hitchhiker of urban legend who flags rides, steps into cars, and even converses – before dematerializing.
Some locals think of her as a schoolgirl killed by a boy on this well-known lover’s lane. Others think of her as a member of the prominent Harrison family, the founders of the radiator company. It’s possible that her roots could be older. The site of most of her sightings – Cold Springs Road – is a section of what used to be the Old Niagara Road, a onetime Native trail that was important in the early history and prehistory of our region. Leading to Fort Niagara as it did, it seemed also ominous to some of the old-timers. Campaigns and raids were launched from that source along this trail, and files of mourning prisoners led back.
“The Pigman” of Angola’s Holland Road is the top supernatural actor in the Erie Lakeshore region. The Pigman seems to present us with one of those cases in which a number of elements have morphed into an urban legend that includes the after-life apparition. The uniqueness of this one lies in the fact that the suspected factors – a deformed road resident, a murdered butcher, and a Buffalo criminal with porcine features – are traceable with fair certainty.
The face of Holland Road resident William Derricks (1903-1973) was so pathetically deformed that he had no chance at a normal life. His photographs are hard to purge from the memory. Seeing him live would have made both spot and moment unexpungeable. A lakeshore butcher fond of decking his property with pigs’ heads and a swinishly ugly crook called “the Pigman” have become included in the various versions of this story. Throw into the mix the sense of a cursed region due to the nearby “Angola Horror” – a ghastly 1867 accident involving a train that would have passed over Holland Road en route to its perdition – and you have all the elements of the Pigman cycle. People still use the road as a legend-site, fully expecting to meet the apparition now and again on sublime and winding Holland Road.
You see that my preference is for historic ghosts. A ghost needs at least a few decades to season in the folk imagination. But for a lark, let’s tip the hat to a Buffalonian who’s become quickly prominent. I speak of the twelfth of our spooks, “Edgar of Iron Island.”
Edgar Zernicke (1905-1992) was an American war veteran of German ancestry. He was an ornery sort, they say, a womanizer and wino whose connection with one of Buffalo’s newly famous haunted sites, the Iron Island Museum in Lovejoy, may be only circumstantial. Zernicke did spend decades in Buffalo. He may have played pinochle at a pub that used to be across the street. His cremated remains (with those of thirty-three others) were found unexpectedly in the onetime funeral home. If you wonder why they settled on Edgar as the haunter, ask the psychics who declared it. A body of very recent folklore and report has built up around him, though, including the tendency to personify every manifestation as a sign of Edgar. They look at him here as more of a genius loci (Latin), a semi-conscious “spirit of place,” or even a whimsical poltergeist using low-grade physical pranks to make his whims and presence known.
A bit of me rebels at putting a young spook on here when I could have included another that’s made its stamp on legend, one whose story helps us teach history as well as culture in broad senses. But our article is about prominent ghosts, and there is no ignoring the wake of fame that – due to its featuring on programs like Ghost Hunters (2008) and Ghost Lab (2010) – buoys Iron Island and thus its Edgar, whether or not it’s really him. But who would I be to tell them yea or nay on their spook? The last time I tried talking to spirits I didn’t hear any talking back.
The last of our sprites is supposed to be another Western New Yorker whom many of the living remember. One of Lewiston’s 20th century eccentrics, Nina Starkweather may be the most dramatic White Lady ghost on the Western Door, at least of the ones given a name.
Nina Starkweather (1885-1966) was an heiress of the Scovell family raised in the massive Greek Revival mansion Oak Hill (1834) atop the knoll just east of the 4th Street entrance of Artpark. Nina had been in love, it’s said, with a young man from the wrong side of Lewiston’s tracks, if it has ever had any. Michael Mellany was energetic and ambitious, but no one in Lewiston could forget the image of him as the desperate little Irish orphan he had once been. Thinking Mellany might be beneath the family’s rank, Nina’s aunt and mother derailed the marriage. Mellany ended up marrying happily and rising high in both state and status. Nina Starkweather turned into a raging recluse whose only goal seemed to be to diss the dowagers she held responsible for ruining her happiness. She never let it go. When she visited town even as an old lady she made herself memorable by walking a white dog and wearing a white dress that could have been her tattered wedding-gown.
The last mistress of Oak Hill, no wonder her name comes up for the apparition that stalks the woody hill that holds the citadel-like ruins. And make no mistake, Nina is an electrifying ghost. Witnesses who report seeing an apparition they presume to be her are marked. They remember her striking appearance, even the gem on her necklace. They remember what she was wearing – they remember what they were wearing! – as though the seconds of seeing her froze every bit of the rest of the moment upon them. To this decade, former villagers living in far parts still contact me and tell their tales. After all the years, they are still looking for answers.
So are we all, I suppose, in areas like these. I am glad to say that my concentration is on questions and not answers. Indeed, I find comfort in the fact that these story-cycles have their own fairly objective patterns. I find beauty in the way the ghostly champions of our region may start as individual reports and become grander in the folk memory, thus preserving aspects of our regional character by calling it all to mind as we think of them. Hail to them, I say. What would our world be without the ghost? Without the story?