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Whistle Past the Graveyard
40 of the Region’s Most Macabre and Otherworldly Places
Western New York is rich with haunts old and new, some of whose stories are familiar to everyone who grew up here and some that are just barely perceptible as a cold patch of air or an indistinct presence—the shine of events long forgotten but never fully put to rest. Some are unverifiable; some are cold, hard fact. The Halloween season—and autumn in general, as a season of transition from the living to the dead—is the right time to reflect on these stories and the region’s deep, weird history. Here we offer a brief selection of tales—just 40 of the thousands of eerie and discomfiting tales the region offers—and the places haunted by them.
1 Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane 400 Forest Ave.
The long-admired architectural treasure goes by a much softer name today—the H. H. Richardson Complex, named for its designer. However when built in 1870 and until its closing in 1974, the state insane asylum was home to many of the horrors of the early mental health profession. Due to the overcrowding, patients were often forced to sleep on the floors. Unorthodox and now shocking medical practices were frequently administered by the doctors on their wards. Schizophrenic patients were injected with insulin to induce comas while others were injected with Metrazol to induce seizures. Doctors went so far as to use systematic sterilization to prevent their patients from reproducing. In addition, electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, and lobotomies were all common procedures.
2 Holiday Inn Grand Island 100 Whitehaven Road, Grand Island
Atypical of the gloomy, historic locations commonly associated with hauntings, this unassuming, suburban-looking hotel has nonetheless played host to one of Western New York’s most persistent hauntings. Since its opening in 1973, both guests and employees have reported seeing a young girl in a white nightgown skipping down halls, jumping on beds, and disappearing behind corners. The apparitions are allegedly a young girl named Tanya, who according to legend died in a fire on the hotel grounds in the 1800s. While no historical evidence supports such a story, the myth lives on. Guests have also reported hearing the sound of little feet running across the ceiling and mysterious children’s laughter. The fourth floor and Room 422 in particular are said to be the most paranormally active.
3 Let there be light Fordham Drive
It was on the grounds of the Pan American Exposition in Delaware Park, on September 6, 1901, that President William McKinley would met what would be an ironic end. After being shot while visiting the expo, doctors moved McKinley to the Milburn House at 1168 Delaware Avenue to recover. However, the darkened house forced doctors to resort to mirrors to reflect light during surgery and they were unable to remove the offending bullet. McKinley died six days later. The irony: McKinley had just been moved from quite possibly the most well-lit place in the world. Showcasing the new grandeur of hydropower, the Expo was lavishly bathed in electric light. Today a memorial can be found near 30 Fordham Drive marking the spot where the president was first shot.
4 Flagpole sitter Buffalo City Hall
This killer had only one victim: himself. He falls on this map because of the extraordinary method he chose to commit suicide, and where he landed. On a clear winter’s day in 1976, Robert Leroy Wayne Jackson rode the elevator up to the 28th floor, the observation deck, of Buffalo City Hall. He wandered around up there for a short time before scaling the eight-foot-high glass security wall and leaping off the 250-foot building. Jackson flew through the air, landing on a large flagpole, which impaled him through the chest. An unforgettable image of Jackson, skewered on the flag pole with half of the American flag still waving in the breeze, the other half stuffed into his body, was printed in Jet magazine that month.
5 Central Terminal 495 Paderewski Drive
Is the Central Termianl haunted? Built in the early 1920s, the station was used most heavily during World War II and was often a place where people would say goodbye to loved ones who were being shipped off to the war. Quite often they would return in coffins. Some say the have seen floating orbs, children playing games, and groups of vanishing spirits roaming around the halls of the railroad station. From 2008 to 2010, the Art Deco building on Buffalo’s East Side was featured on the Syfy channel television series Ghost Hunters, most recently as the subject of a seven-hour ghost hunt, which aired last Halloween.
6 The Ouija board made me do it 576 Riley Street
See story on page 8.
It’s not only the ghosts of development projects gone bust that are said to haunt the Buffalo waterfront these days. The USS The Sullivans, docked at the Erie County Naval and Military Park since 1977, is said to house the spirits of sailors past. The ship was named in honor of the five brothers (George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert) who served together in World War II under the motto “We stick together” and were all sent to a watery grave at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. During the battle, four of the brothers went down with the ship but the eldest, George, managed to survive on board a life raft for several more days. He would eventually succumb to the elements, or sharks, or a fate which nobody knows, and it is said that he haunts the ship that bears his name to this day, searching in vain for his lost brothers. Employees of the Naval Park have reported seeing objects hurled across the room, doors shutting tight without explanation, and ghostly images of burned bodies appearing out of nowhere.
Town Ballroom has been home to numerous theaters and supper clubs in the many years it has been open. During the Prohibition era, the Town Ballroom was a speakeasy frequented by Al Capone, most likely to check on alcohol smuggling operations over the border. In the basement are rooms that were used for secret meetings and gambling. Employees have reported sounds of parties coming from these rooms, security alarms going off unexpectedly, odd chills in the basement tunnels, and many sightings of ghosts in period dress. While it’s unclear what sorts of nefarious activities Al Capone and his cohorts stirred up in the basement of the Town Ballroom, the effects remain.
9 Bigfoot 6879 Salt Road, Clarence
Okay, it should be plainly obvious to anyone who sees the photograph that the reputed “Bigfoot” is actually a man in an ape suit. But five years ago, when Clarence farmer and former candidate for mayor of Buffalo Hans Mobius claimed to have spotted the mythical man-beast, he sparked a firestorm among the Bigfoot community. Additional sightings have been reported for years in the Southern Tier, where denser woods and less human contact make a much more plausible home for a seven-foot-tall ape.
10 Straight outta Scorsese 490 Rhode Island Street
Remember the scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy, is murdered just when he thinks he’s about to become a “made man”? Well, that scene might as well have been plucked straight from mob headman John Cammillieri’s life. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Cammillieri was a lieutenant for crime boss Stefano Magaddino, leader of the Arm, te region’s largest crime family at the time. Unfortunately for Cammillieri, he was getting a little too powerful for his own good. On May 8, 1974, Cammillieri pulled into the parking lot of Roseland Restaurant, at the corner of Rhode Island and Chenango. When he stepped out of his car in the crowded parking lot, Cammillieri heard someone shout his name. Just as he was turning to respond, two shots rang out. One bullet hit the mob strongman in the back of his head; the other passed through his lower back and lodged in the outside brick wall of Roseland.
11 Iron Island Museum 998 Lovejoy Street
Located in Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood (nicknamed Iron Island due its being surrounding by railroad tracks), the museum is located inside a former church that was built in 1895 and converted into a funeral home in the late 1950s. When the museum first moved into this location in 2000, the cremated remains of 24 forgotten and unclaimed people were discovered sitting in a basement closet, labeled only by name and date of death. Since then volunteers have reported hearing strange voices, seeing shadowy figures and glowing orbs and chairs moving on their own. It was not until 2010 that seven of the forgotten souls were finally laid to rest in a veterans cemetery in Hornell, New York.
12 The babysitter did it Hoyt Lake
Sounds like a cliché, but when Andrew Ashley, age three, was found drowned in Hoyt Lake in the summer of 1961, that’s what the police thought. The child’s body was found with arms and legs bound by nylon stockings. Police interviewed Ashley’s 15-year-old babysitter twice, but released her both times. They arrested her a third time after the teenager confessed to abducting Ashley, but the confession was not enough to file murder charges. The case remains unsolved.
13 Shea’s Performing Arts Center 646 Main Street
Shea’s Peforming Arts Center is called Shea’s for a reason. The Main Street landmark was founded and built by Michael Shea in 1925. Shea, who died in 1934, is said to be the ghost who haunts the theater. He has appeared to cleaning people and volunteers, usually at night, and usually when they are alone or isolated. “Isn’t this place magnificent?” the seemingly real ghost once asked a restoration volunteer before vanishing into thin air.
14 Goodleburg Cemetery Goodleburg Road, Wales
Tucked away on a dark and windy road in Wales, this cemetery dates back to 1811 and is one of the most infamous haunts in Western New York. Many of the original settlers of Wales are buried there, but it is most notorious for the legend of an abortion doctor who allegedly practiced in the area in the late 1800s. As the legend goes, Dr. Albert Speaker performed illegal abortions near the cemetery and would bury the unborn fetuses and deceased mothers in a nearby pond. When his crimes were discovered, the doctor hung himself from a pine tree in the surrounding forest; other sources say he died of a heart attack in his home. In addition, spooky stories include tales of large black dogs that prowl the area, child-like ghosts that leave footprints and hand prints on nearby car windows, and two ghostly women, one in white and one in black, who roam the roads. Tales of the location’s use for satanic rituals are also common. Due to its notoriety and popularity with thrill-seekers, the cemetery has frequently been a target for vandals. It opens daily at 8am and closes at dusk. Visitors outside of these hours risk prosecution.
The Old Fort Niagara Castle, also known as the French Castle, was built in 1726 as a “House of Peace” to serve as a trading post. One of the most haunted places in Western New York, there are often incidences of eerie sounds, unexplained lights, and even a headless ghost. According to popular legend, the headless ghost was a French officer who lost his head in a duel. His body was thrown into a deep well on the first floor of the castle. This most frequently reported apparition appears to be wandering the castle in search of his lost head. One of Artvoice’s editors spent the night in the castle and heard footsteps on the first floor late at night, which sounded suspiciously like an officer’s boots.
16 Delaware Road Delaware Road, Clarence
Unlit, uninhabited, and extremely narrow, surrounded by dense, dark forest on both sides, driving Delaware Road is a right of passage for many growing up in Amherst and Clarence. No matter what the time of year or weather conditions, the road perpetually appears shrouded by fog late at night. During the day, strange paths carved through the knotted woods can be seen off the road, and often dessicated animal remains are found along the paths. All degrees of evil have been associated with the road through urban legend, from satanic worship to KKK lynchings to latern carrying ghosts. A legendary—and unadvisable—test of courage is to walk, alone, from one end of the road to the other at night without a light.
17 Bessie Lake Erie
It is the early 1800s, and you’re part of a fishing crew making the trip across Lake Erie from Buffalo to Toledo, Ohio. Everything is going smoothly until the head of an unidetifiable animal pops out of the water. His tale pops out 40 feet behind him. This ain’t no smallmouth bass; it’s Bessie, the 200-year-old monster of Lake Erie. The tale of Bessie, a 30- to 40-foot long, gray, snakelike creature, is an old one, with dozens of sightings reported since around the turn of the 19th century. Bessie is so popular in Cleveland that they named their AHL hockey team the Lake Erie Monsters, and the popular Great Lakes Brewery honors Bessie with their seasonal Lake Erie Monster beer.
18 The second most beautiful suicide 530 Main Street
In May 1942, Mary Miller, 35, checked herself into the Genesee Hotel at 530 Main Street. She locked herself in the women’s restroom and climbed onto the window ledge. Reports say Miller calmly waved to the crowd before jumping into the void. A photographer at the Buffalo Courier-Express, who happened to be on the scene, quickly captured the now famous photo of Miller’s last moments. The photo shows Miller, her fate now sealed, in free fall, arms flailing and parallel, just moments before fatally hitting ground.
19 Snakeland Ontario Street and Military Road, Tonawanda
Snakeland is long gone, demolished almost 12 years ago, but the former Agway grain elevators continue to haunt those who grew up in Kenmore and Tonawanda in the 1970s and 1980s. The dark, looming, dangerously decrepit structures where favorite hangouts for kids drinking and drugging and just exploring—as well as, reportedly, a satanic cult. Stories of suicide and murder and animal (human?) sacrifice surrounded the place, inspiring teenage legends and death metal bands alike.
20 From a hatchet to an electric chair 526 South Division Street
After a night of binge drinking, William Kemmler was easily pissed off. In a paranoid frenzy he accused his common law wife, Tillie Ziegler of everything from cheating on him to stealing from him. In his rage he headed to the barn, grabbed a hatchet, and planted it in Ziegler’s forehead. Kemmler knew he had done wrong and admitted that he deserved to die for what he had done. He got his wish: Three months after his conviction, he found himself sitting in the electric chair, destined to be the first man in the United States to be executed by electrocution. The process was very controversial at the time. Some said it was inhumane, while others argued that if done correctly his death would be painless. In the end it took approximately eight minutes and three 2,000-volt jolts to killer Kemmler.
21 Seneca Mission Indian Church Grounds Indian Church Road between Galloway Street and Junior Street
Always bad news to disturb the dead. Founded by the New York Missionary Society near the turn of the 19th century, the Seneca Mission catered to Senecas on the new Buffalo Creek Reservation who converted to Christianity. By the end of the century, the mission had been abandoned, and in the 1890s the city built a road and houses, as well as water and sewer lines, through the site, desecrating the graveyard. Just two years ago, contractors for the Buffalo Sewer Authority began cutting into Indian Church Road to do repairs, heedlessly disturbing bodies and slicing through the bones of those still buried there.
22 Beth Jacob Cemetary End of Lansdale Street
Here’s a place that underlines the passing nature of all living things: On the East Side of Buffalo, just beyond dead-end Lansdale Street, is a graveyard containing some headstones so weather-worn it’s nearly impossible to read the names of the deceased. Many have been toppled or broken by vandals. This was the cemetery for members of Temple Beth David, also known as the Clinton Street Shul, active from the 1880s until about 1980.
23 Straight outta Scorsese, Part 2 1699 Hertel Avenue
Here is another mob hit that could have come straight from a Hollywood screenplay, maybe something like Ocean’s 11. Though in this case, it would have to end with Brad Pit murdering George Clooney. In 1974 a jewel heist was organized by the mafia in Buffalo. One man, Frank D’Angelo, was left with the jewels and failed to split up the loot properly. Big mistake. In October of that year, D’Angelo was gunned down outside of one of the most popular night clubs of the time, Mulligan’s Night Club on Hertel Avenue. The case was never solved, partly due to the disappearance of the murder weapon and other evidence from the police station.
24 Koessler Administration Building 320 Porter Avenue
When the D’Youville administration building was first constructed in 1874, nuns and students lived on the upper floors. According to lore, the building caught fire in the late 1870s, and one of the nuns refused to leave the building, assured Saint Marie-Marguerite d’Youville would protect her. Her spirit is said to haunt the building to this day. People have reported seeing ghostly images of nuns on the third and fourth floors. Other signs of the paranormal include weird lights, doors opening on their own, and mysterious footsteps in the hallway.
25 St. Mary’s School for the Deaf 2253 Main Street
Established in 1853 as Le Couteulx St. Mary’s Benevolent Society for the Deaf And Dumb, students and staff have reported seeing apparitions of nuns roaming the third floor of the old dormitories. Even though it no longer functions and the students can’t hear it, the school bell has been seen to move on its own.
26 School dazed 308 Mang Avenue, Kenmore
Most high school students feel pressure to go to college one day. For John Justice, a Kenmore West High School honor student, the pressure became unbearable in the fall of 1985. After his parents refused to pay for his college tuition, Justice lost his mind. The 17-year-old picked up a five-inch hunting blade and waited in the shadows of his 13-year-old brother’s bedroom in their house on Mang Avenue in Kenmore. When the middle school student entered the house, Justice stabbed him half a dozen times in the back. Justice then waited in the family’s living room for his mother to return home from her job at the DuPont plant. When she walked through a side door of the house, Justice attacked her, stabbing her 14 times. He wasn’t done. After changing his blood-soaked clothes, the teenager drove his mother’s car to pick up his father at work. When they arrived home, Justice followed his father into the killing ground that was their living room. He stabbed him in the back four times.
27 Ghost Ship Caroline Niagara River
O, Canada. In 1837 a Toronto newspaper publisher, William Mackenzie, boarded the steamer ship Caroline with the intention of storming the city of Toronto in rebellion against the British Empire. It didn’t go so well for Mackenzie. In December of that year the ship, docked near the Power Authority in Niagara Falls, was attacked by dozens of Canadians and set ablaze and adrift on the Niagara River. The crew screamed from below decks, but their fate was sealed. Some accounts say the ship went hurtling over the falls; others say that it broke up in the rapids of the Niagara River. Regardless, the combination of rebellion, fire, and death seems like the perfect circumstances for the birth of a ghost ship.
28 Peter Piccolo’s School of Hair Design 124 Elmwood Avenue
He’s not the demon barber of Fleet Street or Edward Scissorhands. He’s just Peter Piccolo, hair designer and mob murder victim. Piccolo owned a hair salon on Elmwood Avenue in Allentown in the 1970s. He was fatally shot there in April 1979. Though the murder was never solved, it is thought to be drug-related. The Elmwood Village Charter School now occupies the space where his salon used to be and is thought to be haunted by the ghost of Piccolo.
29 Whiskey-fueled mayhem The “Patch”
In what a New York Times report referred to as “one of the most terrible and bloody murders we were ever called upon to record,” Catherine Johnson brutally hacked Bridget McDermont to death with an axe during a whiskey-fueled quarrel in July of 1868. According to the report, Johnson had been kicked out of McDermont’s shanty in a rough and tumble neighborhood known as the “Patch,” a narrow strip between the Erie Canal and the Niagara Falls railroad track. Johnson returned minutes later and proceeded to hack McDermott to bloody bits. The report referred to both women as being “disreputable characters.”
30 Hang ’em high Niagara Square
In 19th-century Buffalo, a different sort of crowd liked to occupy Niagara Square: It was the place to be if you were into public executions. In December 1824 the Thayer Brothers, Nelson, Israel, and Issac, murdered a local farmer, John Love, over an unpaid debt. The murder was intended to be a clean shot to the head with a rifle, but the bullet didn’t quite kill Love, so one of the brothers took a meat axe to his head for a finishing blow. The brothers were found guilty of murder in April 1825 and hanged, together, in front of a crowd of 20,000-30,000 people on June 17, 1825. It was the first and last public execution in Erie County history.
31 Big Kettle Run Off Hemstreet Road, East Aurora
Shades of The Amityville Horror: They say that in the hills that rise above the Hatch House, built in 1825, is a sacred Indian burial ground wherein rest the remains of Chief Big Kettle, a successor to the famed Red Jacket. But Big Kettle is hardly the only Seneca laid to rest around there, according to my grandfather, who owned the house and the surrounding farm until his death in 1985. Just down the road is a housing development called Kettle Run, built after my grandfather’s death when the property was split up and sold. He insisted that site was an Indian burial ground, too, and hoped that it would never be disturbed.
32 Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Towns of Lewiston and Porter
This federal military reservation once spanned 7,500 acres. Ostensibly the land was acquired at the outset of World War II for a TNT production plant, but that plant ceased operations in 1943, after which the site became a center to top-secret research, as well as for disposal of highly radioactive waste generated in pursuit of the first atomic bomb. What went on there? Some say research in chemical, biological, and psychological warfare, radiation experiments, experiments with new jet fuels. Stories abound of two-headed deer, strange lights in the sky, Nazi scientists, and an entire city built underground. Today its footprint is home to a repository of radioactive waste owned by the US Department of Energy, as well as two privately owned waste dumps and a school. Though the vast lattice of infrastructure—buildings, roads, rail lines, drainage ditches—has been erased over times, much remains.
33 McHose House Niagara St. and Prospect Ave.
In 1832 a cholera epidemic hit Buffalo. This would be the first of three major outbreaks over the next 30 years. Shortly after his election as Buffalo’s first mayor, Ebenezer Johnson had a major public health crisis on his hands. That summer, cities along the St. Lawrence River were being hit with a cholera epidemic, too, unlike anything that had been seen before. The doctors of Buffalo had no idea how to handle this health problem, so Johnson created the city’s first board of health, which immediately opened a makeshift hospital in an abandoned pub on the corner of Niagara Street and Prospect Avenue called the McHose House. Citizens were urged to purify their drinking water with brandy, but the liquor wasn’t strong enough. One hundred eighty-four cases were reported and 80 died in the McHose House at the height of the infection.
Allegedly the resting place of two spirits, the debonair gentleman William and the beautiful Priscilla, who were actors and lovers at the Opera House. As the story goes William was quite the womanizer. One night Priscilla stood outside a theater in another city, waiting for William to arrive. He would never show up. Priscilla was attacked at brutally murdered that same night. Since then the two have returned to the place where they performed together. Many performers have reported seeing Priscilla, known as the “Lady in Lavendar” for her period dress, appear on the right side of the balcony, during performances featuring women around the age she died. William is said to be prank actors by closing doors, moving items and playing with the elevator.
35 Michael Dillon 250 South Huxley Drive, Cheektowaga
Honestly, is there anything more frightening than anti-government nut-jobs? (Tea Party, we’re looking in your direction.) On September 23, 1983, IRS agent Michael Dillon was dispatched to the Cheektowaga home of a former employee to collect $500, what remained of a $2,500 tax liability. He was shot three times at point-blank range. To this day, Dillon remains the only IRS officer to be killed in the line of duty.
36 Cold Spring Burial Ground Delaware Avenue and West Ferry Street
As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaches, let us all remember Job Hoisington, who, on December 30, 1813, with a few hundred men, gamely stood off thousands of invading British and Indians on Porter Avenue like the Spartans at Thermopylae. Before retreating, Job paused to fire one more round and was taken. His body—shot, tomahawked, and scalped—was not recovered until the spring. He was interred at the Cold Spring Burial Ground, then moved in 1850 to Forest Lawn, though reportedly someone stole his skull in transit as a souvenir. In 1876 when city workers began to widen and re-grade Ferry Street, they plowed up human bones.
37 Clawfoot people Zoar Valley, Gowanda
You’ve probably driven through Zoar Valley on your way to Jamestown or Fredonia. Legend has it that this area near Gowanda was home to an extinct civilization of clawfooted people who predated the first known settlers in the area. (The civilization was called the Clawfoot People, for obvious reasons.) That theory was proven false, but the existence of the Clawfoot People was not. As the real story goes, the Clawfoot People were descendents of an English prostitute, ridden with syphilis, who settled in the area at the turn of the 19th century. As a result of her untreated disease, her feet deformed into arch-shaped claws, and unfortunately for her 200 descendents, the condition was hereditary. Ashamed of their freak-like apperance and the shunning they received from society, the Clawfoots pledged not to have any children and in short time faded into history.
38 Pigman Road Holland Road, Angola
It was dubbed the “Angola Horror,” a tragic 1867 accident in which 50 people burned to death when the last car of a Buffalo-bound New York Express train derailed near an overpass at Holland Road. The horror didn’t end there. In fact the dark, narrow, unpaved, mile-long road that cuts through thick forest off Route 5 is more well known today for another legend that looms malevolently over the area: It is the alleged home to the “Pigman,” a butcher and serial killer who, depending on whom you ask, was either deformed to the point of resembling a pig or wore a mask made of pig parts while carving up the local populace. He was said to have put the heads of pigs and victims on stakes and leave them on the road. Late-night visitors have reported hearing the squealing of pigs and ghost trains as well as seeing shadowy figures and the Pigman himself.
39 Medina Crop Circle Salt Works Road and Maple Ridge Road, Medina
Long thought to be the work of UFOs and extraterrestrials, crop circles have popped up mysteriously all over the world. Western New York has been no exception. On July 5, 1991, Todd Roberts, while working on his farm in Medina, discovered an unexplainable, 20-foot-wide crop circle in his wheat field. The discolored grains had been completely flattened and finely woven into each other, curiously without breaking the stalks. Soil samples taken from the circle proved the grains to be sterile. A few months later, scientists was able to replicate the wheat’s bizzare behavior by heating the seeds rapidly with a microwave.
40 Amherst Synagogue 504 Frankhauser
Although it’s unclear what causes the distinct atmosphere at this abandoned synagogue, there have been enough claims of supernatural activity to consider it a hot spot of otherworldly nature. The widespread story is that a serial killer would lure children to the area where the synagogue was later built, which was densely wooded at the time. There he killed them and buried the bodies. There have been numerous sightings of ghost children on and around the property. Even before the building was abandoned, many visitors experienced drastic temperature changes. One visitor reported a violent rainstorm as he approached the area that quickly cleared up when he drove away. Others have seen a man holding a hatchet yelling and wandering the area.
Artvoice editors Zachary Burns, Amanda Ferreira, Jill Greenberg, Geoff Kelly and Cory Perla contributed to this report.
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