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Wayne Post
  • Cemetery Walk: Spirits share tales of their lives

  • A fog rolled in and settled around the tombstones of the Palmyra Village Cemetery. The spirits of Palmyra’s past were restless. With the crescent moon hanging above the treetops, it was a perfect night to walk with the dead.

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  • A fog rolled in and settled around the tombstones of the Palmyra Village Cemetery. The spirits of Palmyra’s past were restless. With the crescent moon hanging above the treetops, it was a perfect night to walk with the dead.
    A benign group of chatty ghouls, these ghosts were eager to tell their stories and a sizable group of curious onlookers braved the dark pathways to follow Sibyl Phelps, a.k.a. Bonnie Hays, into the depths of the cemetery.
     With lanterns bobbing along the pathway, Sibyl guided the group from animated spirit to animated spirit. The first was Lieutenant Winfield Scott Chase whose southern accent and matter-of-fact speech held guests captivated.
    “In November of 1861, I enlisted as a private in the 1st New York Light Artillery Regiment,” Chase said. “They called us the ‘Rochester Union Grays’ and we sure did get into the thick of it. We did some real fighting — battles in Charleston, Harper’s Ferry, Bull Run, Antietam — all the big ones. I managed to keep myself in one piece through it all.”
    Chase was wounded at Chancellorsville and became a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps.
    “I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Veterans Reserve Corps was kind of an army within the Union Army,” Chase said. “It was made up of disabled or retired veterans and depending on our abilities (or disabilities) we performed a lot of light duties for the able-bodied men for the front lines.”
    Then it was off to meet E.B. Grandin who shared the story of the biggest printing job ever — “not, just in Palmyra; but in the whole country.”  
    “I’ve been here a long time since I was 39. When I was just 24, in 1830 I did one of the biggest jobs ever in these parts,” he said. “We needed to make 5,000 copies of this book. It was a book transcribed by Joseph Smith Jr. from Golden Plates he received. Joseph was just one year older then I... The printing charge was $3,000.”
    Grandin speaks of the Book of Mormon, of course, and how with the printing of the book came a movement west into unchartered territory.
    “Some of the finest people I ever met were working on this book,” he said before bidding all a farewell. “I finally died in 1845. I guess once you do something so great you just can’t match it.”
    The tour continued with a bit of chat with Sir Winston Churchill bowing in greeting and offering some dry English humor to the parting guests. Four soldiers saluted guests before sharing their stories from the Civil War, World War I and II. A visit from Major Gilbert was followed by Hannah and Harriet Sexton who, after relating tales of the underground railroad, soon left to enjoy a spot of tea.
    Page 2 of 3 - Julius and Mayme Aldrich Phelps left their usual haunt at the Phelps General Store on Market Street to wish a warm welcome to their daughter, Sibyl, and her tour guests.
    “When I died in 1955, I know that I left you both,” Mayme said to husband Julius, who was standing at her side. “It was difficult for you. But, look at what has been done to our home now and how special a place it is. We can truly thank those that respect and love our home so much that it has become a museum. How proud I am of that.”
    Mayme is not at complete rest and admits she still calls the Phelps General Store her home even to this day, suggesting that while walking down Market Street, one should not be surprised to see her watching from an upstairs window.
    “Most nights I am at the old place cleaning and working around,” she said. “Occasionally, I am looking out the window and watching the neighborhood. One night I saw a funny little man sitting in one of those new things, cars, I think they call them. I stood there and watched him for the longest time, and he looked right back. He had the strangest look on his face — like he had seen a ghost. Can you imagine?”
    Before bidding goodbye, she made plans for Sunday dinner with Sibyl, Mayme eager to cook again for her family.
    Mrs. Jessup and Mrs. Barnhart were found sharing tea, and perhaps something else, at a small table not far from Potter’s Field. The pair shared tales like two old hens giggling as they sipped.
    Mrs. Barnhart was lucky enough to find her lost daughter, Emma, in Potter’s Field that very night and the two shared a warm embrace. Sibyl explained that many people without family to claim them were buried unidentified in Potter’s Field upon their deaths.
    The tour was stopped abruptly by the good Chief Henry Hilborn. This ambitious officer of the law was searching for Bonnie Hays on the charge of impersonating a dead person. Sibyl’s guests were charged with being accomplices for myriad of crimes from disturbing the peace to conspiracy. The brief interlude brought laughter and applause from guests much to the bewilderment of Hilborn.
    The former Palmyra police chief, Hillborn took his job quite seriously in short tenure.
    “I remember the time some men dressed a dummy to look like a woman in distress,” he recalled. “They called out trying to get cars to stop and people to get out so they could ambush them, stealing money and property. I chased these guys into the woods. Unfortunately they got away.”
    Hillborn fell quite suddenly ill and there was a great deal of speculation as to the cause.
    Page 3 of 3 - “Headlines in the paper noted ‘Booze Ring is suspected in Chief’s death’ or ‘Rum Ring Foe of Chief’. It’s true, I had some bitter enemies in the Bootlegging World,” he related. “Dr. Nesbitt declared me dead from probable poisoning. But that’s long gone now, and those that did me wrong have been punished.”
    Before urging guests to move along, Hillborn added, “Remember you still can’t speed or break the law in Palmyra. You will be caught!”
    The tour was brought to a close with recitations from Ann Perrine, Octaviette Ballard who was a slave in life and Major Wm. Howe Cuyler.
    Guests were welcomed by Mayor Vicky Daly and her husband, Bob, for some cider and donuts and some idle chatter with the evenings spirits.
    In its eighth year, the Historic Palmyra Cemetery Walk has been honored by AAA Horizons, the official monthly publication and website for AAA Southern New England members, ranking the walk No. 3 in its list of top 10 tours to find the “spirit” of the season in the nation.
    “How amazing to have this wonderful promotion in the AAA Horizons,” Hays said. “The Cemetery Walk is No. 3 of the top 10 in the nation. Exciting! We should all be so proud.”
    The cemetery walk was held last Friday and Saturday night, with a cast of characters that change from year to year. With scripts written in Hays quirky style of storytelling, the tour offers a review of some of Palmyra’s most famous individuals from days gone by.

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