Category Archives: Death

Big Knockers, Fringe Festival, and Local Characters

When my friends Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young first told me about their show “Big Knockers: Debunking The Fox Sisters”, which would be performed at the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival, I did a little dance of joy.

The show is a spoof on the Fox Sisters, often credited with founding the American Spiritualist movement thanks to their claims that they could communicate with the spirit world via a system of rappings or knockings.

If you read my blog or follow me on social media, you know that for the last couple of years I’ve been researching and writing a book about…well, it started as a book about Mt. Hope Cemetery, but it’s now rabbit trailed all over the place as I’ve encountered fascinating stories about Rochester’s history and the unknown residents who lay buried, often in unmarked graves, not only in Mt. Hope but other local cemeteries.

I’ve got piles of research notes, chapter drafts, and half-written blog posts on everyone from Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody to American aviatrix Blanche Stuart Scott, from clairvoyant physician Mrs. Dr. Jennie C Dutton to murder victim Emma Moore.

So when I offered to provide Kerry and Abby with some research that might help them put the Fox sisters in context with local history, they told me to send along anything I wanted. I went through my files and then inundated them with stories about local inventors, mediums, and clairvoyant physicians. I sent newspaper clippings and wrote rambling paragraphs outlining crazy stories that have fascinated me for years. I spouted facts and dates. I sent links to stories I’d already written.

And then I apologized a hundred times for overloading them with information.

And then they thanked me, and told me that they used what I’d sent them to help form the characters and stories in the show.

By that time, I’d already auditioned for and gotten a part in “Big Knockers”, so I was over the moon that these people who have lived for years in my head and in file folders would have their stories heard. But even better? I got to bring one of my favorite women to life: I play a notorious local madam named Matilda Dean.

While the “Big Knockers” writers obviously had to take liberties with dates and story lines in order to make it all work for the show (and add the humor), the characters actually are based on real people, and much of details they share about themselves are true. [update: here’s the review in City Newspaper] So for those of you want to know more, here is the “Big Knockers” backstory. Keep in mind that these are just small snippets of information; much more lies in folders piled up on my desk, waiting to find a home in blog posts and book chapters. Or who knows? Maybe on another stage?

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Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves

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My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today. Continue reading

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

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National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

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Musings on life, death, and wildlife (and Prince)

Exploring a ravine at Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Exploring a ravine at Mt. Hope Cemetery.

When I heard the news that Prince had died, I was in the cemetery. I’d been there for hours with my sister Jackie and my friend Linsay, exploring the hills and dales, and mostly tracking critters . We spotted groundhogs, remarked on the number of chipmunks, stumbled (literally) upon a Prehistoric looking amphibian, and investigated critter dens.

A most unusual amphibian.

A most unusual amphibian.

Can you find the critter in this photo?

Can you find the critter in this photo?

We made some unusual discoveries. I learned, for example, that in Scotland, where Linsay is from, there are no critters like groundhogs or chipmunks; in fact, other than Pepe LePew, she’s never seen a skunk. Or smelled one. That led to a discussion about removing skunk smell with tomato juice, which sounds really weird to someone who’s never smelled a skunk.

We also found parts of old caskets that critters had dragged to the surface, handles of varying shapes and sizes scattered here and there in the cemetery, and we imagined what life underground must be like for a groundhog.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

Casket hardware outside another groundhog hole, in a different section of the cemetery.

I’d met a groundhog a few days earlier, sitting for 45 minutes next to his den to see if he’d emerge. He did, slowly. When he was fully exposed, we considered each other. Then he retreated down the hole and I went home. I’ve been thinking ever since about what it must be like underground, among the caskets and remains, what the groundhogs and chipmunks disturb, and if anyone minds. Continue reading

A history of the Charlotte lighthouse

The historical marker at the Charlotte cemetery, citing its notable residents, including the first lighthouse keeper.

The historical marker at the Charlotte cemetery, citing its notable residents, including the first lighthouse keeper.

If there’s a cemetery tour happening in Rochester, you can be sure I’m there. For anyone interested in local history, there’s no better place to find unusual stories and bits of trivia, and I’m fascinated by the history buried all around us. (Plus, I’m writing a book about people buried in Rochester who changed, intrigued or just amused the world, so I’m always on the lookout for more stories.)

A few weeks ago, the City of Rochester hosted the annual Genesee River Romance weekend  celebrating the Genesee River and its surrounding trail and gorge system. In 2014, I took full advantage of the weekend of events that include tours of the old subway and aqueducts, the Rundel Library, the Falls, and cemeteries. Somehow, I missed the adverts for this year’s event, so I only had time to catch one thing: the tour of Charlotte Cemetery…

You can read the rest of the story at RochesterSubway.com.

Memorial Day at Lake Ontario

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On this Memorial Day weekend, I took an impromptu trip to Charlotte, on Lake Ontario, to walk on the pier.

Actually, I had just picked up my new car the night before and wanted to take it for a nice long ride, since I’m getting 35 mpg instead of 13 mpg. But I digress. Continue reading

Caledonia Jane Doe identified, and the next chapter of her story begins

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In November 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a field in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot and dragged into the field, and then shot again. For more than 30 years, she remained unidentified and her case unsolved.

Until today. Her case is still unsolved, but we now know that the girl is Tammy Jo Alexander, a teenager from Brooksville, Florida who was last seen in 1977.

For three decades, the Livingston County Sheriff Department has followed thousands and thousands and thousands of leads, never giving up in their attempt to identify the young woman and track down her killer.

According to news reports, a girl who went to high school with Tammy Jo contacted Florida authorities to ask if anyone had ever reported her missing. Apparently, no one had. Ever. With that new missing person report, police in New York were able to heat up their investigation and, using DNA from Tammy Jo’s sister, identify their Jane Doe.

With a name, I can search for information. Here’s Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

I mused about the case of Caledonia Jane Doe back in 2010 on my blog, when I was reflecting on my own life, my own wasted opportunities, my own sense of going through the motions of life rather than living them. Her story haunted me; Who was she? Where did she come from? Were her parents looking for her? And what would she be doing right now if she hadn’t met with such a tragic end?

My goal, at the time, was to research and then write about her story. I didn’t have any hope of solving a case or even shedding light on it. I just felt like there was  story to tell and I should tell it. Over the almost two decades I’ve spent writing, I’ve done countless feature stories for magazines and newspapers. I’ve interviewed celebrities and regular folks. I tell stories, often stories people can’t tell themselves.

But when I started researching Jane Doe, I quickly realized that I was out of my element. No person to interview. No name to Google. Almost no place to begin and, if I’m being totally honest, no idea where to start. I’d never researched a police case before, and I wasn’t familiar with places to even begin, or what to do with the information once I found it.

So rather than charging full steam ahead – which is what I felt like I should do – I put the folder on the desk and moved on to other things. But I never forgot about her.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more savvy about researching local history and genealogy, developed better techniques for managing mountains of information, newspaper clippings and notes (I love paper, so my filing system involves lots of folders and boxes). I dove headfirst into stories about women in the Rochester area in the 19th century (Emma Moore and Sarah Bardwell being chief), and while I never forgot about her, Caledonia Jane Doe stayed on the desk.

But I confess that as I watched the press conference today in which the Livingston County Sheriff announced that they had identified Caledonia Jane Joe as Tammy Jo Alexander, I felt a twinge of regret that five years ago I didn’t stick with my own research.

The important thing is that the unidentified body found in the cornfield thirty five years ago now has a name. Her headstone will have a name and my folder labeled “Caledonia Jane Doe” will be replaced with a new one labeled “Tammy Jo Alexander”. My curiosity is piqued again. Why did her family not report her disappearance? Where was she in the two years from when she was last seen in Florida to the time she was found in Caledonia? Her story is still waiting to be told.