Tag Archives: Mt. Hope

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery


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!



Groundhogs, coffin parts, and other cemetery surprises

One of the handles I found while walking in the cemetery. Nearby, I also found part of a human skull.

One of the coffin handles I found while walking in the cemetery. It had been hauled to the surface by a burrowing groundhog.

I was out recently with my Border collie Bandit when he came upon a groundhog hole. That’s not unusual; the cemetery where I often walk is a certified habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, and is crawling with squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer, birds, and foxes. It’s not the first time I’ve had a close encounter with critters while meandering among the dead.

What was unusual this time? Around the entrance to the hole were items the groundhog had hauled to the surface while tunneling. Items like casket handles and knobs, and pieces of rotted coffin wood, and a bone.

You heard me. A bone.

At first, I thought that maybe it was just a wooden ornament from the corner of a casket or maybe part of a statue from a headstone. But it didn’t feel like marble or wood. So I took photos and when I got home shared them with friends, including more than one person in the medical profession, and the consensus was unanimous: it was a human bone. A vertebra, to be precise.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra.

Piled up around one groundhog hole were several coffin handles as well as a human vertebra. (It’s just under the metal handle in the middle of the photo.)

Let me be clear that I didn’t bring the bone home or even disturb the site too much. In fact, after taking photos (because I knew this was going to make a great story and I wanted photos to go with it), I carefully left everything where I found it and went right to the cemetery office to report it.

Turns out that not only are critters a common sight in the cemetery, so are bones. And springtime brings more frequent surprises above ground as the snow melts, the soil softens, and wildlife starts burrowing and nesting and tunneling.

In fact, a few days after this little adventure, I was back at the cemetery with my sister and a friend. I’d enlisted their help looking for a grave as part of research I’m doing for my next book. We stumbled onto another groundhog hole. In his debris pile? Another casket handle and part of a skull.

Another trip to the cemetery office to file another report.

I wanted to know how the cemetery deals respectfully with the remains that critters haul to the surface. Because of the extensive network of groundhog tunnels, there’s no way to know which casket parts, or body parts, come from which plot. And even if you were sure, you can’t just open up Aunt Susan’s grave to return her femur. (When I asked, one worker told me the largest bone someone ever found in the cemetery was a leg bone. A femur is the largest leg bone I can name, but it could just as easily have been a tibia.)

So what happens to the bones?

Cemetery workers fill the groundhog hole with whatever the critter has dug up – casket parts or bones or whatever else they’ve uncovered – and then they fill the hole with dirt. The theory, I assume, is that the groundhog will find another place to live and the spirits of the dead will understand the living have done the best they can under the circumstances.

One staff member explained that it’s a delicate balance between managing wildlife and caring for the remains of others’ loved ones. The cemetery is gorgeous – woods, grassy areas, hills and vales. It’s truly a beautiful place to be buried, and offers almost 200 acres of nature in the middle of the city, a place where you find bikers and joggers and people walking dogs. The living enjoy it as much as the dead, and clearly the animals are thrilled to be there, too.

But when they get to be a problem, when they’re wreaking havoc on graves, for example, traps are set and the critters are humanely relocated to wooded areas outside of the city. But even that’s not always easy to accomplish; walkers in the cemetery often open the traps to let the groundhogs loose. Not only does it thwart the cemetery’s efforts, it puts the human who opened the trap in danger.

Newsflash: Groundhogs bite.

When I walked by the first hole a few days later, it was clear the groundhog had not gotten the memo that this hole was closed for business. He’d burrowed back in and thrown out the casket handles and knobs, settling back into his old digs. The bone wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I assume he decided to get with the program and show some respect for his underground neighbors.

I’m still curious: what does it looks like down that groundhog hole? Has he scavenged any other interesting things, like jewelry? Teeth? Articles of clothing? When he burrows through a coffin, does he set up camp inside or just burrow out the other side and move on with his business? Do the dead mind the disturbance or are they grateful for the company?

And what about those bones, permanently dislocated from their owners? When I was a child, a pastor told our congregation that when our bodies are resurrected they will come together to be made whole before we ascend to the heavens. That made organ donation a dangerous prospect. As a child, I had nightmares about being being called up from the grave in the Rapture, only to have living humans explode as my donated organs were called back to their original home.

The experience with the groundhog and his underground activities only reinforced something I’ve believed for a very long time, that we are not bodies with souls but instead souls with bodies, and that when we shed our mortal homes our spirits journey on while our earthly shells return to the ground, to the elements, to dust. We are one with the earth, and with its creatures, both above and below ground.

Emma Moore, Sarah Bardwell and me

It took months, but a reward was finally offered for information leading to the disappearance of Emma Moore. While the citizens took up the search immediately, the mayor and police insisted Emma left town of her own accord. When her body turned up in the river, they were proven wrong.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately doing research on a woman named Emma Moore, who I learned about when I went on the “Mischief, Murder and Mayhem” tour at Mt. Hope. (For the record, I am there so much I joined the Friends of Mt. Hope and volunteered to be a tour guide in the spring.)

Anyway, in Rochester, NY in 1854, Emma Moore went missing. Left home one night and simply disappeared. She was a single, 37 year old seamstress who had a loving family, a good job, some money of her own, and no reason to leave town without letting her family know where she went.

Her disappearance stunned the community, and for months afterwards thousands of citizens met nightly to coordinate a search for her – since the Mayor and police refused to believe she’d come to harm or investigate her disappearance.

The citizens scoured the areas surrounding the city, the lake, the river. They followed every lead and interviewed hundreds of people. They raised money and donated time and diligently searched for the woman they hailed as a modest woman of impeccable character.

Then in March of 1855, the body of Emma Moore was found, frozen in the river. When the coroner examined her body, he found she was six months pregnant.

Her 26 year old fiance was the prime suspect, but while an inquest found that Emma had drowned, the jurors were unable to determine if she had been murdered or if she committed suicide. Emma Moore is buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s plot, the woman once known for her impeccable character hidden away forever due to the scandalous nature of her death.

I’m fascinated by Emma Moore, her life and her death. In an era where woman had few rights or money of their own, she had a little money – about $20 cash left in her room, $20 cash on her when she disappeared, a savings account with about $100, and notes that indicated she’s lent out small amounts of money to friends.

In an age when woman married young, she was single into her middle years. Unmarried and with a much younger fiance. Was that unusual? Despite the fact they were engaged about 3 years, why didn’t they marry? He apparently had lost fingers in an accident and was unable to work (he was a cutter in a tailor’s shop); how would Emma have felt about working to support a younger husband – because upon marriage, anything she had would have become his.

How unusual was it for a woman to be sexually involved with a man to whom she wasn’t married? We like to think of our ancestors as pure and innocent, but was that really how it was? An unmarried, pregnant woman today doesn’t raise an eyebrow. But in 1854? Another story.

And of course, there’s the big mystery: Why did she disappear? Who knew she was pregnant? Was she killed or did she commit suicide? There’s much to believe the truth lies with the former.

I’m also enamored with the story of another woman, Sarah Bardwell. Her interment records indicate that she died of “insanity”. How does one die specifically of “insanity”? I get that you can die of causes related to insanity – suicide, walking naked around town in December and freezing to death. But just … going insane until you die?

Sarah Bardwell died of “insanity” after spending the last 25 years of her life in an asylum.

So I did a little digging and found a newspaper notice of her death, which said:

“Under the effects of religious excitement, at a time well remembered by many of our old citizens, Miss B. suffered mental injury, from which she never recoverd, and the latter years of her life were spent in an excellent Asylumn at Brattleboro, where her friends had placed her with the hope of restoration at first but where she remained for comfort and safety.”

From all accounts, the Asylum in Brattleboro was fairly progressive; treatment included nature walks and painting and music and lots of rest. And the “time well remembered” is most likely the Finney revivals that swept Rochester in the 1830s, making the city a hot bed of evangelism for the entire nation.

“Insane” is a little subjective, in this case. So you know I’m doing research into the Finney revivals, what a “mental injury” from that experience might look like, and what it would be like for a woman to be committe to an insane asylum in the 1850s.

What ties these two women together? When Emma Moore disappeared, Sarah’s brother was the Police Justice.

One of the things I’ve determined this year is that maybe my purpose is to give voice to those who can’t tell their own stories. It’s a general idea that I’ve been able to apply specifically without committing myself to any one genre of writing. And that realization has been really helpful for me. I can share about animal issues, although I find that I’m less and less interested (and often completely turned off by the aggressive, angry, divisive animal scene; but that’s a story for another day).

More importantly, I can share Emma and Sarah’s stories, two women lost in history but whose stories are interesting and important.

And soon, I’ll be sharing about some children in Uganda. Stay tuned for more on that.

I’d blame Lottie, if she wasn’t dead

This is the family plot where Susan B. Anthony rests in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I’d blame Lottie for this obsession, if she wasn’t a total stranger. And dead.

You remember Lottie. She was the name on the headstone at Mt. Hope Cemetery, the lonely headstone in a field of weeds, no dates, no last name, just “My Lottie.”

Bandit and I had started walking at Mt. Hope, and I’d already been captivated by the stories on the graves, especially by the stones that listed several children who had died. I’d done a little digging at the library, but it wasn’t until I met Lottie that things took a serious turn.

“Met” being a relative term; like I said, she’s dead.

On the day I met Lottie, I’d been exploring among a section of the cemetery that plays host to some impressive obelisks and monuments, each appearing to outdo the other for prominence, much the way the souls who rested beneath may have done in life.

The monstrously huge monument of Michael Filon; see Bailey in the front to understand its enormity. Who is Michael Filon and why does he deserve such a huge monument?

In particular was one monument that stands almost as tall as a two story house with the name Filon boldly emblazoned on it. I had no clue who Michael Filon was, but apparently he was some hot stuff, at least in his time.

Around the corner from Mr. Filon is the family plot of Susan B. Anthony. Understated and reserved, it doesn’t begin to hint at the significance of the woman buried there. Other than the marker and two small American flags, you could walk right by the plot and not realize you’d just passed history. (*There’s more about Michael Filon this at the end of this blog post.)

And then there was Lottie.

There are a lot of famous people buried at Mt. Hope, people who made significant contributions to American culture, politics, society. There are also a lot of people who thought they made contributions and so honored themselves with grotesquely huge monuments.

But my heart is for the nobodies. And  with no name or dates or other identifying marks on her headstone, Lottie was as nobody as nobody could be.

As you might remember from an earlier blog post about some of the headstones I’d been investigating , I learned that Lottie is Charlotte Harcourt, who died at the age of 15 on  29 Sept 1861 of neuralgia of the stomach.

I know nothing else about her, but I know that at least she is not forgotten.

This obession might have ended there had a librarian at the local history section of the Rochester Public Library not said something that has changed my life: “Why aren’t you researching your own family tree?”

I’m pretty sure I told her that there wasn’t anyone famous in my family, that we hadn’t made any significant contributions to the world, that while I’d done some research a few years earlier I really didn’t think it would be that interesting since we were just nobody.

I know, did you see the light bulb go off over my head, too?

Here I was, spending time and effort to ensure that the name of this total stranger, My Lottie, wasn’t lost forever. If I liked to champion nobodies, well, my family tree is full of them.

And so it began. I pulled out the old folders. The library edition of Ancestry.com became my new best friend. I started taking notes, bugging the librarian, and before long I was knee deep in names, dates, questions and a whole lot of fascinating stuff about regular people. No inventors or politicians (at least not until the 21st century; on the Italian side, I found a cousin of my mother’s who recently ran for mayor in her town) or world changers. Just people who were born, lived, married, worked, played and died.

Just like millions of other Americans.

The truth is that the people who make headlines are few and far between. I think we forget about that in our media-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture. We revere singers and actors and politicians and people who manage the once-in-a-million achievement while the garbage men and factory workers and construction flag men and secretaries and Walmart greeters and other working class Joes do the bulk of the labor, and keep the country and economy moving.

A bunch of nobodies. Just like me!

Good grief, that makes me feel good.

See, I turned 48 a few weeks ago, and have been wallowing in my “I’ve done nothing with my life” self pity, lamenting my lack of contributions to the world while my clock is slowly ticking down. But I’m beginnig to realize that I’m not “nobody.” I’m actually everybody.

(As I typed that, the Beatle’s song “Nowhere Man” came onto the radio. I am not kidding. )

So for much of the last few months – and by “much” I mean almost every waking minute – I’ve been meeting my ancestors and even connecting with living relatives.

I thought that as I researched I’d share some of the stories I’m finding. Aren’t you excited? Continue reading