Interview with Rebecca Rosen

“If you look at them [mourning customs, epitaphs, and motifs] with 20th century eyes you will miss [the meaning]. You’ve got to understand what the world was actually like, what it was like living in this area, at that time.” Rebecca Jo Rosen, September 2011

In late September 2011 I was able to sit down with Rebecca Jo Rosen, author of the book Reflections: 19th century gravestones and selected sculptures of Chautauqua County, New York and have a discussion about why she started the project and how it has impacted Chautauqua County. Through this discussion I realized how her passion for 19th century mortuary art and my pursuit of local ghost stories and legends compliment each other.

The idea of Chautauqua Ghosts started in 1996-1997 when I had gone to Guernsey Hollow Cemetery in Cattaraugus County and had a few experiences late one night with a group of friends. What led us there was the lure of spirits that would reveal themselves once we kissed the cross at the back of the cemetery. Daunting as it was I clamoured up the hill past all of the gravestones to the large stone cross that stood sentinel at the back, watching over those that were laid to rest below. I did kiss the cross that night and what followed was an experience that I will remember all my life. That experience led me to pursue the local ghost stories, legends, and experiences of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties. Sure I wanted to experience more hauntings, learn what I could about the paranormal and tell those stories that could put a chill down your spine. However, with that also came the realization that, as personal as the ghost stories and legends were, they were the stories of those that came before us.

About ten years before that, in 1987, work started on a project to preserve and document over 5,000 19th Century gravestones to reveal the rich epitaphs and motifs that were scattered across Chautauqua County cemeteries. The project that began for Rebecca Rosen that day became a passion to preserve the integrity of mortuary art and remembrance of those people that settled and worked this land that we live and walk on everyday. They forged from wild and timbered land the rich communities of Chautauqua County. It is only right that we should continue to remember them through their history and sacrifice through the hard times of creating a life for themselves and families and the long line of descendants to follow.

The stories that I have come across since I started are sometimes steeped in the paranormal but others are just a bit strange or interesting, experiences of the past that have now become the very threads of our community’s tapestry. The true story of our ancestors lives can be told orally, written in a book, and on a gravestone. That is the true gift of what Reflections brings to our 21st century lives, it is a bridge to the past. The book allows us to begin to tether ourselves to an earlier time and an earlier way of life, “I feel 19th century gravestones and motifs reflect, represent the social, political, and religious aspects of that time period. Hence the name Reflections, it is a direct reflection of what the world was like” (Rosen, 2011).

We currently have shifted away from the idea that a gravestone is a marker for the deceased and his/her place in the world. A modern gravestone merely marks a spot in the earth, a 19th century gravestone marks a spot in history by telling a story of the deceased. Rebecca told me how she used to walk through the cemetery with her family when she was a child and her father would talk about what ancestors were buried there and he would tell stories about them, from time to time even producing a photo so he could put a face with the name and the story. That was the function of 19th century gravestones, “a cemetery to the early settlers was their book of history, it was a teaching tool. So after church they would walk through the cemetery to learn” (Rosen, 2011). She goes on to state that “now it has been made generic, they [gravestones] have lost the meaning and [people] do not have the need to share what their life was like.

The problem now is that we look at the stones with 21st century eyes and interpret them with 21st century ideals. We do not understand what the stones are trying to communicate to us because there is no frame of reference. Just like a dying language people start to lose the ability to read the stone’s imagery and words. Reflections details what gravestones are trying to tell us. What does the shape of the stone imply? Pointing hands, winged cherubs, flowers, portraits and faces are all there but what does any of it mean? For us to understand we need to accept that we have lost the ability to interpret these symbols. The ability that children in the 19th century were fully capable and expected to be able to do. We need to slow down and take the time to walk through the rows of gravestones and look hard at what we see. Start to appreciate that they are not just stones marking a spot in the earth but monuments to the lives of the people that lived here before us.

Rebecca and my discussion continued on but the one most important question was how Reflections, since published, has impacted Chautauqua County as a whole. Rebecca’s passion for the project has created a larger recognition that “a gravestone is the last living memorial that a family gives to their loved one. It is meant to mark that person’s grave, it is meant to weather away; it is not a so called artifact; it has a stronger meaning” (Rosen, 2011). In 1992 with the help of some other passionate historians and politicians she was able to get the law changed for the removal of grave markers from cemeteries. Punishment for the removal of a grave marker went from a misdemeanor to a felony curbing the removal of these markers from where they were meant to be. This alone has allowed the gravestones and markers to survive for generations to come making an indelible mark on our local tapestry.

Over the years that I have investigated the paranormal stories and the legends of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties I have walked through many cemeteries. The peaceful feeling of wandering through the stones, listening to birds in the trees, and the quiet solitude that surrounds you, you can know that the dead do speak. Not always as a whispering in the wind that gently caresses your ear but through the stones that mark their final resting place. Take the time to learn what the dearly departed are trying to say over the vast expanse of years and preserve the memories of those that came before us. Reflections is a guide book to understanding the world as it was and understanding the lives of our ancestors through the monuments they left behind. The next time you drive by a cemetery slow down and pull to the side of the road, get out, and take a walk through the rows to appreciate what is around you; simply put “[cemeteries] are and outdoor museum, and outdoor library” (Rosen, 2011).

Hollenbeck Cemetery

hollenbeck cemetery

Just outside of the city of Jamestown is a small cemetery in which rests about twenty-five graves. There is nothing great or even remarkable about this final resting place last used about 1890. It has sat for over a hundred years watching time pass and along the way certain stories have cropped about around this little plot of land called Hollenbeck Cemetery. The states that sightings of a headless horseman, of animal bones, calls for help, babies crying, and even of a strange knocking like someone trying to escape their ghastly tomb have all taken place over the years. What they do not mention is the sightings of strange hovering balls of light within the cemetery and the odd disappearance of most of the tombstones in July 1995. Placed in the middle of the cemetery is a memorial dedicated to those laid to rest beneath the earth.

It states:
The odds are vandals desecrated the tombstones but what of the other occurrences? What of the sighting of a ghostly woman in white around and in the cemetery itself. When you read the message at the bottom of the memorial it makes you wonder are we alone in this world and if not what awaits us on the other side?

As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you will be
Prepare to die and follow me.

Guernsey Hollow

Tucked away within a copse of trees off a dusty road in the town of Southvalley is a small cemetery known all around as a place where spirits reside. It is said that the Old Catholic cemetery is populated with the spirits that are buried there. What walks there is anyone’s guess but it is said that if you are lucky enough and brave enough that you would see something appear before your eyes. Like many cemeteries Guernsey Hollow, as it is most commonly known, is mildly spooky during the day but at night it takes on a whole new feeling. A feeling almost of being watched, a feeling like whatever resides there does not want you to enter the wrought iron gate and step into the hallowed ground. It was not until my first year of college that I even heard of this out of the way cemetery that was supposedly haunted. I was introduced to it on one fine dim evening during the summer of 1994. A few of my friends had decided that it would be an interesting time if we visited the cemetery so that we could possibly get spooked.

As we drove down the rural roads past dilapidated farmhouses and dense forest I wondered just what it would be like there. I was scared but I also thought that nothing could possibly happen. However, I was mistaken something did happen and it would change my outlook forever. On this particular evening I was with a few friends like I said, who are not the type to create things to spook others since they were spooked themselves. I, the unbeliever, arrived at the gates of Guernsey expecting nothing since I knew nothing was there. We parked the car at the base of the hill and shone the lights through the gate basking the cross at the very top. The supposed cross that according to legend one must kiss so that they can see the spirits that walk the hallowed grounds. Immediately upon crossing the threshold of the cemetery I noticed a chill in the air, but since it was a very cold night to begin with there was nothing strange about it. I walked to the top of the cemetery and kissed the cross at the behest of my friends. They could not believe I did it but again I thought the whole trip was a lot of hype. It was at this time that I took it upon myself to walk around the graveyard on my own. I left my friends at the top near the cross while they prodded one another to kiss it. As far as I know even with all the chiding no one ever did kiss it save for me.

So there I was twenty to thirty feet farther down the hill on the right side of the cemetery at a tombstone right near the outside fence. Between the car and I was nothing other than the wrought iron gate and a few tombstones. It was then that I heard a soft giggle. A giggle almost like that of a small girl but that could not be possible it was three in the morning and as far as I knew there was no small girl within a few miles of us. And yet I still heard the giggle again much louder this time. It was right about now I started to think something was up but I still thought there must be an explanation, an explanation that did not have to do with the paranormal. I walked a little further down the hill past the tombstone on the right and something caught my eye. It was then that my world changed and my outlook on the paranormal started to take hold of me. On the face of the tombstone, which recently has been broken in tow, was the shadow of a small girl. It was fleeting but I saw it reflected in the light from the car. I looked there was nothing between the car and I but the gate and a few tombstones, none of which were reflected on the face of the stone anyway.
Once I started upon the quest to document paranormal phenomenon in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties I decided to start with Guernsey Hollow Cemetery for various reasons. It was a good place to start since I knew there was something there that I had even seen. The other reason was because of the remoteness of the location I was sure I would not be disturbed in an investigation and would most definitely have no interference with my instruments while I tried to take Electromagnetic Field readings among other things. The location was virtually cut off. In my research I came across many stories that were told about Guernsey about how the place was haunted by a little girl that was stoned to death in the 1800’s, about Black Masses performed at the base of the cross, or about the strange deaths of animals especially the impaling of deer on the wrought iron fence and even a pile of deer carcasses found within the confines of the cemetery. It is apparent that something does walk in those hallowed grounds in the calm of the night but is it paranormal or of the flesh? There is something I do know for sure these stories will persist about a little cemetery tucked in a copse of tress off the beaten path. As long as they do the legend of Guernsey Hollow will never die.

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Guernsey Hollow Cemetery Report

Bruce Gleason, Jim Neal, Todd Pitts, Trevor Pitts, Stacey Crosscut

Arrival: Checked equipment
Assigned equipment:

  • Bruce Gleason- Movie camera and flashlight
  • Jim Neal- ELF and Disposable camera (No Flash)
  • Todd Pitts- Tape Recorder w/ external microphone
  • Trevor Pitts- Clipboard, Map, Research plan (Data recorder) and flashlight
  • Stacey Crosscut- Disposable camera (Flash) and flashlight

Path to Cemetery: Group walked fairly close together, nothing odd noted, No orbs streaks, sounds smells, nothing on ELF

Entrance of Cemetery: Upon entering cemetery, group moved toward the right front corner, group member noted that first stone looked to be of “Celtic Design” (Tr. Pitts). Began to walk along right hand side of cemetery toward Sarah’s Grave. Entire group heard loud crashing sound. Appeared to be limb falling rapidly but appeared to last for a longer than usual time before ceasing. Group continued on past Sarah’s grave noting other Stones and taking pictures. Walked from Sarah’s Grave towards stone cross in center rear corner of cemetery. Two of the group members heard what appeared to be footsteps outside of the cemetery fence. (Neal, To. Pitts). At same time, group member To Pitts stated to Group member Neal that he saw Green and Yellow streaks throughout the cemetery. Described them as being long lines that appeared to hook on the end. Group continued on toward the cross. Two of the members kissed the cross. (To. Pitts, Tr. Pitts) The other three did not. (Gleason, Neal, Crosscut) Moved toward the left rear corner of cemetery. Group Member Tr. Pitts walked into left rear corner and claimed to have an “eerie” feeling. Group moved toward that corner. All in group noted that temperature in that corner to be cooler than rest of cemetery. Group member Neal noted that ELF was blinking did not change colors only blinked yellow. Blinking was confirmed by all in group. Group member To. Pitts continued to see streaks. Group walked back down the right side of cemetery and continued past Stanley’s Grave. Moved toward front gate exited cemetery continued back to cars and nothing else noted by group at this time.

Back at Car after first pass: Group gathered back at cars, four members smoked cigarettes. Group discussed what they experienced in first pass and equipment was re-distributed.

Re-distributed equipment:

  • Bruce Gleason- Digital Camera, infrared motion detector
  • Todd Pitts- Cassette Recorder w/external microphone
  • Trevor Pitts- Map, Clipboard, Research plan (data recorder) and Flashlight
  • Stacey Crosscut- Disposable Camera (Flash) and 35mm W/ B&W Film

Group still remained close, traveled down path all noted temperature decrease.
Re-entrance of Cemetery: Upon re-entering cemetery, plan was discussed. Tr. Pitts would ask questions of the “spirits”, To. Pitts would record, and remaining in group would be silent and observe. In Lower right corner, Tr. Pitts began to ask various questions near Rose’s Grave. Nothing was noted. Group began to walk along right side toward Sarah’s Grave. Neal noted ELF blinking yellow as walking from Rose to Sarah. Arrived at Sarah’s Grave and Tr. Pitts began to ask various questions. Upon saying, “Show us a sign” group noted began to downpour. Very evident by rain hitting leaves in the forest surrounding entire cemetery. Tr. Pitts started to walk towards center of cemetery and stated that it was not raining within cemetery. Rest of group moved from Sarah’s Grave to center of cemetery, all noted lack of Precipitation but presence of “Raining sound outside of Cemetery. Group Moved toward Stanley’s Grave. (The Hunter) Tr. Pitts began series of questions again. During the questioning, Gleason Stated to Neal that he thought that he heard a rhythmic taping that appeared to be coming from the direction of Sarah’s grave. After the questioning Neal stated that he saw a green orb that looked like the “color of a lighting bug but was much larger in the right rear corner of the cemetery. To. Pitts stated that he too saw the green sphere. Only moments later all in the group heard a gunshot. Group noted the time of the gunshot as 12:00am. Gleason placed infrared motion sensor on top of Stanley’s grave facing the front of cemetery towards the gate. (Detector has range of thirty feet) Group began to move toward the rear of the cemetery in opposite direction of the detector. Group walked 20 to 30 paces and detector went off. All with flashlights illuminated area in which detector was facing. Nobody in group noted anything visible that could have set detector off. Group continued toward right rear corner. All noted temperature in that particular spot in cemetery lower than temperature in rest of cemetery. Crosscut stated she began to see streaks. Tr. and To. Pitts stated they thought the tree next to Stanley’s grave appeared to be glowing. Neal reported Elf Blinking again. Neal and Gleason moved away from corner others remained in corner to observe. Before leaving corner Neal Passed ELF to Tr. Pitts. Neal and Gleason stood 30ft away from group taking pictures and discussing experiment. The other three remained in the corner in a crouching position to see below a low tree branch. Shortly after Neal and Gleason left the group To. Pitts left the other two and approached Neal and Gleason stating that he had a “strange feeling of somebody leaning over him as he crouched down.” He stated that he “could feel the persons clothing brushing against his back.” Soon after the other two members left the corner and all five walked toward the cross. As he was walking in front of the cross toward the right hand side, Tr. Pitts (who now held the ELF) stated that it blinked from safe to caution. Group walked back toward Stanley’s grave to retrieve motion detector. All in group noted nothing within the range of detector had fallen from the tree that could have set it off previously. Group moved toward front gate and exited cemetery.

Walk From Cemetery back to cars: Original plan was to, half way through second pass of cemetery, group would exit rear of cemetery in search of an old foundation and burial ground that is rumored to sit behind cemetery. Group decided not to exit into the woods due to the earlier rain making for a slippery walk. Shortly after exiting cemetery Neal, To. Pitts and Tr, Pitts confided in each other that they believed that they were too disturbed by earlier occurrences to leave the cemetery and venture into the woods and the three were glad group decided not to.

Ride home: The group left the sight in two different vehicles. Neal and To. Pitts in the first and Gleason, Tr. Pitts and Crosscut in the second. Shortly after leaving Guernsey Hollow Rd. To. Pitts and Neal Reported seeing a Deer standing on the side of the road as if to be bidding the group goodbye.

Report Prepared by:
James Neal