The Friendly Ghosts of Woodlawn Cemetery
For over ten years now, walkers in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery have been reporting incidents of apparitions appearing before them. This seems to happen around mid-October. The men, women, and children who visit the passersby are always anxious to tell their stories. These ghost-like folks are, in fact, actors portraying historical figures who are now residents of the cemetery. It is what you will encounter if you participate in the annual Woodlawn Cemetery Ghost Walk organized by the Chemung Valley History Museum in collaboration with Friends of the Woodlawn Cemetery and Elmira Little Theater.
A sprawling 184 acres, Woodlawn Cemetery was chartered in 1858. It is beautifully landscaped, with winding paths lined with mature trees and dotted with family plots, mausoleums, decorative statues, and intricate ironwork. Mark Twain is likely its best-known resident; other locally famous figures include Elmira College founder Simeon Benjamin, and freed slave John W. Jones. A long list of Underground Railroad participants is mapped on a black granite monument; visitors to friendsofwoodlawnelmira.org can view an interactive map.
Though most people buried here are not well known, they do have interesting stories about their lives as, say, inventors, business owners, and philanthropists. Erin Doane, Chemung Valley Museum curator, explains the Ghost Walk was created “to bring Elmira’s rich history to the community in a new [and creative] way.” Each year members of the Chemung Historical Society choose four historic Woodlawn Cemetery residents to depict, and write the scripts for the actors. Erin stresses that the people portrayed are not necessarily famous, but their stories provide a rich patchwork of relationships and events that solidify Elmira’s place in history.
Erin is often asked if the tour is scary, and she’s quick to point out that this is not intended to be spooky, but a serious recollection. While standing near the subjects’ graves, visitors “get to hear the personal stories of those who passed away many years ago. Add the wonderful performances by the actors of the Elmira Little Theatre, done by lantern light, and it can bring chills. Sometimes the stories are tragic, but there is often humor in them. Many people have told us how much they enjoy the event and keep signing up year after year.”
The Friends of the Woodlawn Cemetery provide volunteers to lead the tours through the dimly-lit paths, visiting the ghosts along the way. At times, wandering ghosts walk along with tour groups, interacting and adding comic relief. The show will go on, even if the forecast is rain. Ruth Bruning, from Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery, says the mood takes on a more authentic feel in a rainy atmosphere, especially when accompanied by a hooting owl.
A member of the Elmira Little Theater, Gail Lewis has played a number of historical figures, and coordinates the actors each year. She describes her most memorable character, Esther Baker Steele, as “a feminist before it was cool to be a feminist.” Mrs. Steele and her husband, Joel Dorman Steele, founded the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira. Gail praises her fellow actors, many of them doing additional research and some bringing photos and newspaper clippings to share on Ghost Walk night.
Haunting seems to run in the family. Gail’s daughter, Casey Winston, began as a script writer through her job, at the time, as curator of the Chemung Valley Museum. After switching jobs, she continued on as a ghost via her involvement with Elmira Little Theater. She and her real-life husband, Steven, portrayed a world-famous married circus couple, Valora and DeHollis. The two donned nineteenth century circus costumes and juggled while humorously recounting stories of travel and intrigue. Steven recalls playing a German-American piano manufacturer, Jacob Greener, but was most affected by hearing the story of Roy Rutan, a fourteen-year-old boy killed in a factory explosion in 1903. Equally moving was the portrayal of men and women buried in the Free Ground or Potter’s Field. Casey explains that is “where they buried people who didn’t have enough money for their own funeral, women of ill repute, or those who had no past. There are no gravestones to mark they are there, but it’s full of Elmira’s history.” She and Stephen were amongst eight actors who walked out of the darkness into the light during one Ghost Walk, each reciting a brief account of an individual buried there and emphasizing that these former Elmirans are lost but not forgotten.
A fellow Elmira eater Company actor, Ivy Robinson, portrayed Leah Sittenfield, helping shed light on another lesser known section of Woodlawn, the Sons of Abraham, where members of the Jewish community are laid to rest. Sittenfield was one of the county’s 12,000 individuals to join the Red Cross during WWI, helping care for and feed the over 126,000 troops passing through on their way to war. Ivy also recalls depicting Mabel Flood, one of only four women in her class at medical school. After war broke out in Europe, she, and her cousin, Dr. Regina Flood Keyes, founded their own hospital in the Balkans, earning medals from the U.S., France, and Serbia.
“It’s the collaboration between these organizations that brings this to life every year,” says Casey Winston, “and we are all very proud of it.”
The twelfth annual Woodlawn Cemetery Ghost Walk is on October 19 and 20. Museum doors open at 6:00 p.m., then participants board a mini-bus that takes them to the cemetery. Each of the evenings’ eight tours lasts about half an hour, the first starting at 6:40 p.m. For a chance to walk amongst Elmira’s most fascinating historical residents, contact the museum at (607) 734-4167. Tickets are twelve dollars per person, and advance registration is required. See chemungvalleymuseum.org for more details.