Bones Abroad: Rochester, New York

I am originally from Rochester, NY, and I head back here for the holiday season to spend time with family and friends. It was within this city that I became inspired to pursue archaeology and cemetery studies, so I thought it was about time I share some of the wonderfully morbid and archaeology related sites that you can visit if you happen to pass through Rochester.

Rochester, NY was first settled in the 18th century and blossomed following the construction of the Erie Canal. With the city flourishing, new manufacturing companies expanded and the city became a central hub in the region, attracting large numbers of Germans, Irish and other immigrants. It was also dominated during the 19th century by Yankees who made the city a center for reform movements, including the abolition of slavery and the women’s rights movement. The city is probably best known for being the headquarters of the American photography industry, with George Eastman living in the city and starting the Kodak company here. Over the last decade, the city has flourished once again, with new businesses, breweries, art galleries and restaurants filling the city with new life.

If you decide to visit Rochester, NY, here are some of the top morbid (and just plain awesome) things to do!

Mount Hope Cemetery

My top macabre sight is the Mt. Hope Cemetery located in southern Rochester. The cemetery’s landscape is made up of rolling hills, winding trails among grand trees, and provides a peaceful feeling to the visitors regardless of the season. Across its 196 acres, there are 80 mausoleums, a Florentine cast fountain, two stone Gothic Revival chapels, and over 350,000 graves decorated in varying styles from Egyptian obelisks to winged angels. The cemetery was started in 1838, and fits with the Victorian ideal of a cemetery with its park-like landscape and ornately decorated grave markers.  Famous residents of the cemetery include:

  • Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): who sought equal rights for women in the late 19th century
  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century
  • Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881): one of the father’s of modern anthropology
  • Henry Augustus Ward (1834-1906): naturalist and geologist who founded Ward’s Natural Science, a company that sells scientific equipment as well as skeletal material for study
The Mausoleum of Lewis Henry Morgan, via Wikimedia

The Mausoleum of Lewis Henry Morgan, via Wikimedia

You can visit the cemetery whenever you like if you want to wander on your own, or you can take a guided tour by the Friends of Mount Hope (FOMH) for only $5. For information on visiting, check out the FOMH website.

Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

The Holy Sepulchre Cemetery began in 1832 as the first Catholic parish in the city and was consecrated in 1871. Since then, it has expanded across 332 acres, with 300,000 buried already and almost 1,800 new burials occurring each year. It doesn’t have quite the same rolling landscape of the Mount Hope Cemetery, but it is worth the trip to visit the grave of a Jack the Ripper suspect!

Francis Tumblety (1833-1903) was a known criminal who made a small fortune posing as an “Indian Herb” doctor, selling patent medicines and cure-alls. He was quite eccentric and over his life was connected to the death of one of his patients, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and had a collection of uteruses preserved in jars, which he displayed for all-male dinner parties. He did not have respect for women in general, but had a special hatred for prostitutes. Tumblety traveled to Europe and Great Britain a number of times, and during the late 19th century, he was residing in the Whitechapel district of London where the Jack the Ripper murders were occurring. He was arrested on an unrelated charge, but when he found out he was being investigated for the murders, he fled to France under a false name and then returned to the US. There was little evidence for his connection to the murders, and due to this, New York police refused to return him to Britain to undergo a trial, though they did monitor his movements for a time. He was suspected for the murders based on his hatred of women, previous criminal offenses and his residence in the area during that period. When he died he was buried in the Holy Selpulchre Cemetery in Rochester where the rest of his family was buried, and the debate continues whether he was indeed Jack the Ripper.

Admission to the cemetery is free, and the grave is located by a red stone chapel.

Rochester Historical Society’s ‘Table That Talks’

The Fox Sisters, via Wikimedia

The Fox Sisters, via Wikimedia

During the mid-19th century, spiritualism was a hot trend among the elite, and Rochester, NY had some of the most famous spiritualists in residence. The Fox Sisters were raised in Hydesville, New York, and claimed that their childhood home was haunted by a spirit. In 1848, the three sisters communicated with this ghost through knockings, asking questions to the entity that would be answered with rapping noises. They argued that the spirit belonged to a peddler named Charles Rossum who was murdered in the house and buried in the basement- when relatives and neighbors checked the cellar, they found human bones in the walls. Based on this fame, they moved to Rochester and began their careers as mediums, throwing lavish seances that were attended by celebrities by P.T. Barnum and poet William Cullen Bryant.

The sisters used a table as a method for communicating with the dead, and the construction of the table reveals their secret. The table was specifically designed to produce rapping noises that the sisters would argue was the response of ‘ghosts’ to their questions. Within the table was a spring connected to a metal rod which would create knocking noises. They were also known to crack their feet and knuckles to produce ‘evidence’ of ghosts. Their entire act was a hoax that was eventually revealed by skeptics in the 1850s, although they didn’t admit to their fraud until 1881 when they publicly revealed their methods of creating the ghostly noises as a way to get money. All three sisters died in poverty, and were buried in pauper’s graves in Brooklyn, NY.

The "table that could talk" at the Rochester Historical Society, showing the interior springs and rod that produced the rapping, via Atlas Obscura

The “table that could talk” at the Rochester Historical Society, showing the interior springs and rod that produced the rapping, via Atlas Obscura

Learn more about the story of the Fox Sisters from Atlas Obscura, visit their talking table at the Rochester Historical Society, or see the obelisk dedicated to them on Troup Street in downtown Rochester.

2 responses to “Bones Abroad: Rochester, New York

  1. in bone-related news, Robert E. Lee’s horse made it from Lexington, Virginia, to the Rochester Museum of Science and was on display for decades before it was returned and ceremonially buried by the United Daughters of the Confederacy just outside of the Lee Family vault.

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