Monday, October 26, 2020

Spooks in Wellsburg

by Erin Doane, Curator

The death of Miss Mabel Evans in Wellsburg was a great mystery. How did the beautiful young lady die, and why was she quietly buried at midnight? Thomas McGraw was sitting peacefully at home, thinking about Miss Evans when a strange impulse prompted him to rise and go to the door. Outside, he was astonished to see the graceful figure of a shrouded woman, floating through the darkness several feet above the ground. As he watched, she slowly drifted away and vanished into the night.

This was not Mr. McGraw’s first brush with the supernatural. His home just outside the southeast limits of Wellsburg next to the cemetery was a hotbed of paranormal activity in 1894. The two story house had a story-and-a half wing that had been closed up and unoccupied for years. Yet, two or three times a week for over four months, Mr. McGraw heard strange noises in the wing. Between 10pm and 2am, the sounds of distinct, measured knocking, muffled footsteps, and strange whisperings could be heard. Occasionally, there was a cacophony of sound that resembled the falling down stairs of a tray full of beer glasses accompanied by a bass drum and a barrel full of cymbals. Every time Mr. McGraw went to investigate the sounds, he found absolutely nothing amiss; not even the spider webs on the windows had been disturbed. 

Word of the strange occurrences got around the small village, but no one was particularly surprised. Many residents had their own tales of deeds done by those who has long ago shuffled off this mortal coil. The stories managed to reach the ears of a reporter for the Elmira Telegram, and he was determined to investigate. While the reporter was never named in the subsequent article that described his experience, he did make it clear that he was a pronounced skeptic in matters pertaining to the spirit world when he put together the amateur crew of ghost hunters that would spend the night in Mr. McGaw’s haunted house. 

The newspaper man began his report of that night with the following: “Your emissary the other night had an attack of the horrors, felt his flesh creep and then stand in goose pimples, like the excrescences on the countenance of the tranquil cucumber, and all on account of an assignment to look up the story of an alleged haunted house in Wellsburg.” How did the avowed skeptic come to declare that “indisputable proofs of mysterious happenings in the realm of spooks have been furnished” after just one night?

Elmira Telegram, November 18, 1894

The reporter and his committee of four other investigators – Herman Murphy, the druggist and a man of undoubted integrity; Thomas F. Pickley, the station operator; and William J. Dalton and Harold Loomis, both respected young men of the village – arrived at Mr. McGraw’s home late in the evening. The reporter wrote that it was “a gruesome looking place, indeed as viewed…in the grey misty atmosphere.” The night was bitter cold and “the glistening white of the tombstones lent additional chill to the occasion.” Mr. McGraw greeted the men at the door and they joined the goodly company that had already gathered, which included Mr. and Mrs. Broderick Davidson and Frank Robinson. Mr. McGraw, “a most conservative and truthful man,” told his haunting stories to the rapt audience and then they waited. They strained their ears and watched the door leading into the unused wing until 11 o’clock at night, but nothing happened.

Disappointed, but still hopeful, the ghost hunters decided that perhaps they were too early and that it would be best to go downtown for some time (to a pub or tavern, if I had to guess) and return later when the spirits were more likely to be abroad. While the crew and their hosts were at the undisclosed location downtown, those present shared blood-curdling stories about numerous murders, mysterious disappearances, and suicides that had taken place near the old church yard next to Mr. McGraw’s residence.

The investigators returned to the graveyard at midnight and “sat like five ghoulish figures” on headstones near the center of the burial ground. They “huddled shiveringly together, tried to smoke away the feeling of oppression, but in vain.” Suddenly, Mr. Pickley went pale. He slowly lifted his arm and pointed his finger to a spot not more than thirty feet away. The other men’s eyes followed his movement and they all plainly saw “a stately white robed figure…moving majestically along just above the toppling headstones.”

The five men rose from their hard, cold perches as one and gaped at the astonishing apparition. Without thinking, the reporter rushed toward the “beautiful gaseous figure.” Just before reaching it, the female figure turned its face toward him, rooting the hapless man to the spot. An indescribable feeling of oppression inspired by the awful spectral presence came over him and he fell face-first into the dead grass. The spirit turned away and dissolved into the darkness.

That vapory, filmy, relicts [sic] of those who once lived here on earth, do hover about us, and keep tabs on what we do or what we leave undone, is now [my] firm conviction. 

– unnamed Elmira Telegram reporter, November 18, 1894


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Spirits of the season...

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director.

For those of you able to make this year’s historic Ghost Walk, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. This was the 14th year in a row the Chemung County Historical Society, the Friends of Woodlawn, Inc., and Elmira Little Theatre have offered a historic Ghost Walk at Woodlawn Cemetery. We worked with the Health Department to offer a safe experience for all and we know we had to turn away disappointed people when we sold all our tickets in record time. We were thrilled to be approved to offer this popular event despite things being so different right now. 
Alice Shaw, Lucius Robinson, Isaac R. Taylor

This year's version was different. For the first time, visitors began and ended their evenings entirely at the cemetery. 

Socially distant gathering
Masked guides from Friends of Woodlawn

We're encouraging everyone who attended and those that wanted to attend to visit the museum. Ask our receptionist about the scavenger hunt based on this year’s ghosts and enter into a raffle for an October surprise. (Hint to all: you can review the ghosts by reading the 2020 scripts now posted on our website.) Search above for 2020 Ghosts for some additional information on the ghosts including a link to a rare recording of Alice Shaw's whistling.

At the museum, you can also pick up a map of this year’s Ghost Walk route which you can use to walk the route again during the daytime, share it with others, or enjoy it yourself if you weren’t able to join us this year. At the bottom of the website's Ghost Walk page, you’ll find a family scavenger hunt for Woodlawn Cemetery. When everything shifted to online learning last spring, we developed this for elementary school students and their families. It connected with their learning about immigration and important people in Elmira’s past. If you are interested, download the map and plan on taking about 20-40 minutes to complete the walk. 

Last year we offered Ghostly Readings at the museum. This was an event where staff and Elmira’s Fire Marshall -  our celebrity guest -  read ghost walk scripts for those who were not able to navigate the nighttime walk. We don’t pretend to be actors, but were able to include some extras like images and fun facts about the ghosts. We look forward to offering this again in future years, while this year we have a special treat coming from Elmira College Theater students under the directorship of their Professor, Hannah Hammond. Watch for their short videos popping up on our Facebook page near the end of the month and into November.

Woodlawn Cemetery is a peaceful place to walk during the day, the winding paths through the trees pass a variety of grave sites and monuments. The cemetery was designed and influenced by the Rural Cemetery movement that was happening throughout the United States in the 19th century.

The first cemetery designed in this style was Mount Auburn located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Opened in 1831, it offered a sharp contrast to the existing overcrowded cemeteries in Boston. It was located on the outskirts of town and in addition to being a place to bury their dead, these cemeteries offered urban dwellers a respite from city living. The Rural Cemetery movement intended these places to be as much for the living as for those who had passed on. People were encouraged to visit, picnic and stroll among the grave sites. Designers used an English landscaping approach to highlight the outdoors, and give the impression that the cemetery was a part of wild nature when it was in fact really carefully planned. By providing this natural setting for people, it offered city dwellers the chance to stroll among trees to contemplate life, a very different experience than their daily lives existing in a quickly mechanized society.

A search for how many cemeteries are named Woodlawn brings up 336 throughout the USA and Canada. There are 17 alone in New York state. Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira was designed by architect Howard Daniels and chartered in 1858. It is spread over 184 scenic acres and over the years 80,000 people have been interred there. Today the cemetery is visited walkers, joggers, dogs on leash, and by those with loved ones buried on site. Everyone is welcome to visit as long as they show proper respect and follow the posted guidelines.

Look here to find more blog posts about Woodlawn Cemetery.


Friday, October 9, 2020

Absence Makes the Vote Go Yonder

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

President Trump has claimed that universal mail-in ballots will mean that no Republican will ever be elected again, but the original absentee ballots were introduced by Republicans in order to ensure their victory in the 1864 election. Between 1862 and 1864, every state in the Union except Illinois and Indiana passed a bill allowing active duty soldiers to cast ballots in their home election districts. Democrats pushed back, citing the potential for fraud and abuse. Nine state supreme courts heard cases regarding the constitutionality of the laws and they were ultimately struck down in four states. All told, approximately 150,000 out of 1 million Union soldiers voted in the election of 1864 under the new absentee voting laws. Lincoln carried a whopping 78% of the soldier vote, although, in the end, he probably would have won without them anyway.

New York passed its absentee voting law in April 1864. The rules were byzantine to say the least. In order to vote, a soldier had to authorize someone in their home district to cast their ballot on their behalf. In addition to their completed ballot, each soldier needed to sign a document granting power of attorney to a registered voter back home. The document needed to be signed by them, the surrogate voter, a witness, and their commanding officer. New York State dispatched representatives to military encampments to oversee the process and ensure the ballots made it back to their home districts.

New York State soldiers have voted in every war since. In the 1898 election during the Spanish American War, it wasn’t until December that the soldiers’ votes were counted, mostly because it took so long to ship them from Hawaii and the Philippines. By then the process had changed somewhat. Instead of having surrogate voters, soldiers would fill out and seal their ballots in a special envelope. All the ballots for the regiment would then be collected by the commanding officer, sealed inside a special pouch which was then sent to the secretary of state. The secretary was then responsible for sending off the competed ballots to each voters’ home election district to be included in the count.


Official war ballot, 1898

In the election of 1917, the soldier vote played a decisive role in two contests in the county. When the polls closed on election day, George A. Douglas, candidate for alderman in Elmira’s 10th ward, and his opponent were neck and neck with 401 votes for Douglas and 402 for his opponent. Then they counted the soldiers’ absentee ballots. Eight of the fourteen ballots were for Douglas, pushing him over the top. In Big Flats, Democrat Dan Lloyd and Republican John Markle had tied in the race for Assessor. The town’s two soldier voters won Lloyd the election. Chemung County’s soldier voters also voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment for women’s suffrage with 76 ballots in favor and 16 opposed. The ballot initiative still failed in Chemung County by 798 votes, but points for effort or at least feminism.


Alderman George A. Douglas, Elmira's 10th Ward

In 1919, a ballot initiative for civilian absentee voting was passed. Starting in 1920, voters who knew they would be out of town on election day owing to duty, business, or occupation could cast their vote by mail. Those permitted to vote absentee were subsequently expanded to include voters out of town for any reason as was as those too ill or infirm to make it to the polls; those caring for someone who is sick or physically disabled; residents or patients of a Veterans Health Administration Hospitals; people in jail awaiting trial; and people in jail for convictions other than felonies. Today, every state in the country has absentee ballots and several western states vote entirely by mail.

Although some have argued that absentee voting grants Democrats an advantage, a recent study by Stanford University showed that the party affiliations of absentee voters do not differ significantly from other voters in their states. Despite certain claims about fraud and abuse, voting by mail is actually quite safe. A study by the Washington Post found that, in 20 years and 250 million mail-in votes, there have been only 143 criminal convictions related to fraudulent absentee ballots.

If you are a resident of New York State and need to apply for an absentee ballot, you have until October 27 to request one from your local board of elections. Once you’ve filled your ballot out, you have until November 3rd to either mail it or drop it off at the board of elections or any polling site. Remember to vote in this and every election.


Monday, October 5, 2020

The Other Tunnel Escape

by Erin Doane, Curator

On October 7, 1864, 10 Confederate soldiers tunneled their way out of Elmira’s prisoner-of-war camp. You can read all about that famous Civil War-era tunnel escape in Rachel Dworkin’s blog post, The Great Escape. Another, much less famous, tunnel escape took place in Elmira just four months later, on January 27, 1865. This time it was from the county jail.

Courthouse and Clerks Office, Elmira
“About 8 o’clock yesterday morning as the Jailor of our county jail, Edward Thomas, called the prisoners to breakfast, upon looking over the number of his charges, found several missing,” read the story in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser the next day. The missing prisoner who caused the greatest concern was Lorenzo C. Stewart (aka Leroy Channing Shear, aka Charles R. Clark, aka Frank Mallory), a murderer who was supposed to be transferred to Albany.

Stewart’s troubles with the law began in 1863. On September 4 that year, he enlisted in the Union Army at Utica. He took the enlistment bounty, disserted, then reenlisted in Ogdensburg a month later, where he collected another bounty. On October 9, however, he was arrested for bounty jumping and brought to Elmira. He tried to escape by poisoning two soldiers who were guarding him. Both men died. Stewart was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to be hanged, but he had powerful friends. President Lincoln himself commuted Stewart’s sentence to ten years in the Albany penitentiary. (Later he married a woman who used her family’s influence to get President Hayes to pardon him for the murders.)

Before that transfer to Albany could happen in 1865, however, Stewart and six of his fellow prisoners, tunneled their way out of the county jail. When Jailor Thomas went to investigate their absence on the morning of January 27, he found a hole in their cell cut through 6-inch-thick solid timbers, just large enough for a medium sized man to crawl through. Beyond the opening was a 20-foot-long tunnel that sloped just deeply enough to pass under the jail’s east wall. The men had likely been digging the tunnel since November.

Seven men slipped out through the tunnel. Besides Stewart, who seems to be considered the ring-leader, there were Charles F. Varian, who was awaiting trial for forgery, and Warren King, William Manning, Anthony Laponte, George Lee, and Wilson Jackson who had broken into L. Strauss and Co.’s dry goods store and were being held on charges of grand larceny. Stewart and Varian both left letters behind. Varian wrote to his wife while Stewart wrote to his sister and his father, and to Sheriff Edwin W. Howell.

Transcription of the letter from Charles Varian to his wife that was found after
the escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

Transcription of the letter from Lorenzo C. Stewart that was found after the
escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

A reward of $200 was offered for the apprehension of Stewart, and $100 for each of the others, but I only found a report of one, Charles Varian, being recaptured soon after the breakout. On the occasion of his death in the Auburn prison hospital in 1897, the Star-Gazette had an article enumerating Varian’s many encounters with the law. “Probably there is no one criminal every before the Chemung County bar, outside of murderers, who had more notoriety than Charles F. Varian of Horseheads and Elmira,” the reporter declared.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 9, 1897
Varian’s first appearance in the local criminal record was when he was arrested for forging his father’s name on drafts amounting to several thousand dollars in December 1864; the crime that led to him being held in the county jail in Elmira. After his recapture in February 1865, he jumped bail. He was on the run until 1868 when he was caught and sentenced to two years in Auburn prison for forgery. He was arrest for forgery again in 1892 and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Auburn prison, where he ultimately died.

I wasn’t able to track down the five men who were being held in 1865 for grand larceny, but I did find Lorenzo Stewart in a March 1902 article in the Star-Gazette. That year, the police in Boston contacted the Elmira Police Department asking for any information they could provide about Leroy Channing Shear, aka Lorenzo Stewart. He was wanted in that city on charges of passing worthless checks. The article detailed some of Stewart’s other criminal activities, including his arrest in Burlington, Vermont in 1884 for check fraud and his arrest in Albany in 1891 for grand larceny. He had served time for both crimes and by 1902 was at it again. He was arrest in May of that year. The last mention I could find of Stewart, under the name Shear, was on June 13, 1914. He was again wanted for passing forged checks, this time in Syracuse. According to the police records, he was nearly 80 years old at the time, so his life of crime was likely near its end.