Monday, October 31, 2011

Haunted Halloween

As I wrote in last year's Halloween blog post - A Handful of Hauntings - I've always been frustrated by the lack of good local ghost stories. Surely Albany - with over four centuries of recorded history - should have better tales than oft-repeated urban legends like the Graceland Cemetery hitch-hiker.

And the ghost stories I do encounter are vague at best. Some downtown buildings like 100 State Street and the former DeWitt-Clinton Hotel are reportedly haunted, but details are maddeningly scarce.

Still, there are a few worth sharing this Halloween.

Saint Mary's Church, Albany's oldest Catholic Church, is a familiar site downtown...thanks especially to its wonderful angel weather-vane. Founded in 1797, the church is said to be haunted by a headless ghost with rattling chains. Tradition says the church was built on the site of a Dutch barn where Saint Isaac Jogues, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary, escaped from his Mohawk captors. Because Jogues was later killed and beheaded by the Mohawks, some believe this decapitated spirit is Father Jogues. I don't doubt there is a ghost, but I do have doubts about its identity.

The Red Lantern Ghost is said to haunt the intersection of New Scotland Avenue and McCormack Road. The story goes that people living in this area in an era before cars and traffic lights would see a mysterious red light moving along the road on certain nights. It was supposedly the phantom lantern of a man who would frequently travel this route at night until drowning in the Normanskill just a few blocks south. Who this man was and why he made nocturnal trips isn't explained.

The spirit of John Whipple, murdered at Cherry Hill and still haunting the historic house, is one of the better known local ghost stories. Less well known is the story of his murderer's ghost. Jesse Strang was hanged for the 1827 killing and his execution drew thousands of spectators to Gallows Hill. The site of this last public hanging was near Hudson Avenue and Eagle Street, an area now covered by the Empire State Plaza. It's said that for decades after his death, Jesse Strang's ghost haunted Gallows Hill. Workers building the Plaza were supposedly the last to see Jesse Strang. Clad in a shroud, he stared in confusion at the sprawling marble and glass complex being built over Gallows Hill.

Another execution site reportedly haunted by a hanged man is Lafayette Park at Hawk and Elk Streets. Years ago, Saint Agnes School stood near here and its halls were haunted by a man who swore he was innocent and vowed to haunt the site of his death until his name was cleared. Who he was and what he was condemned for is unknown, but this area is said to have been the site of a gallows. Saint Agnes School is long gone, but the ghost supposedly remains.

Just south of Albany, along River Road, is the estate of a family named Prentiss (or, as I've also seen it listed, Prentice). The family had its own private vault on the grounds (the existence of this vault is confirmed in a memoir of late 19th-century life in Albany) and there are stories of ghostly figures in burial clothes seen moving about at night and even conversing with each other.

The Albany Rural Cemetery is also haunted. I've yet to see the ghostly couple that supposedly drifts along its roads, clad in old-fashioned nightclothes. And the only dogs I've encountered are real canines being walked by their owners...never the mysterious black dog mentioned on various ghost sites. Still, I've had my share of paranormal encounters there...but that's a tale for another time!

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The State Street Burying Grounds

Above - An engraving from Joel Munsell's "Annals of Albany" showing monuments in the State Street Burying Grounds.

Before the Albany Rural Cemetery was established, the City's primary burial ground was located at the present site of Washington Park.

The State Street Burying Ground, founded in 1800 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards and private family graveyards, was located at the present park's northeast corner. Enclosed by a ten-foot high wooden fence, the grounds were divided into four large section for various churches, as well as an area set aside for strangers, African-Americans, and deceased persons not associated with any religious congregations. Graves from a number of smaller burial grounds were relocated here as progress encroached on downtown churchyards, raising the real estate value of land previously dedicated to the dead.

Within a few decades, however, the State Street Burying Ground was already in serious decline. The high mortality rate of the early 19th-century, combined with epidemics such as an 1832 cholera outbreak, had resulted in a badly overcrowded graveyard. The fence had suffered from neglect and vandalism, livestock wandered freely among graves, headstones were stolen or damaged, and immigrant gangs used the forlorn spot for violent brawls.

After the opening of the Rural Cemetery in 1844, the State Street Burying Grounds' condition became so pitiful that it was deemed "in the highest decree discreditable to the city authorities and the churches interested." A future Superintendent of Albany's parks later recalled that there was "a mouldy and neglected air about the place."

In 1866, Albany's Common Council addressed the matter of the Burying Grounds and passed a resolution to close it. All graves in it would be removed to the Rural Cemetery and reburied in a special lot set aside for that purpose. Before removal, "competent persons" would be engaged to copy all inscriptions from the monuments. A complete list of these inscriptions - which range from merely initials or first names to short epitaphs - would later be published along with a complete copy of the Common Council's resolution.

Permission was sought from and granted by the various congregations with sections in the State Street Burying Grounds for the transfer of the graves at the City's expense. The total cost to copy the inscriptions, exhume the remains, provide new coffins, remove all headstones, and transport the coffins and monuments out to the Rural Cemetery was about $45,000.

Above: A rows of headstones in the Church Grounds section of the Albany Rural Cemetery

The graves were moved to a section of the Rural Cemetery now known as the Church Grounds. Because it was difficult to match each headstone with its original coffin (and because some graves lacked headstones entirely), the markers were laid out in flat rows over the field. These monuments range from simple slabs bearing only names and dates to more elaborately carved stones featuring willow trees, angels bearing trumpets, to winged cherubs heads or skulls.

Above: An old headstone with a folksy carved angel in the Church Grounds at the Rural Cemetery.

In 1868, the land formerly occupied by the State Street Burying Ground became part of the newly created Washington Park, which remains one of Albany's most popular outdoor spaces.

The Church Grounds remain one of the most fascinating sections of the Rural Cemetery. Notable burials there include several of Albany's earliest mayors, an Oneida sachem, and an African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War.

Located deep within the Cemetery just beyond the western end of the Middle Ridge, The Church Grounds can be easily missed since, from a distance, it looks like an empty field. But it is well worth a visit and appears on Cemetery maps as Section 49.

Above: Modern Washington Park near the old location of the State Street Burying Grounds.