Rochester Cemetery has been a favorite of ghost hunters and Halloween thrill seekers since at least 1967. They come here hoping to see the infamous Albino Woman who roams the cemetery as well as the surrounding neighborhood, supposedly searching for her lost child. But Rochester Cemetery is much more than the home of a famous ghost.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Kaw River Valley near Topeka, Kansas, Rochester is possibly the capital city's oldest cemetery. A sign at the side of Menninger Road proclaims it's been there "since 1850". But most any American history buff knows Kansas Territory wasn't open to white settlement until 1854. Therefore, any burials before that date would have been pioneers from "the States" (as everything east of the Missouri border was then known), bound for New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. Covered wagons making this arduous journey had been passing nearby since 1821.
Early March, when trees are bare.
The most charming aspect of Rochester is the abundance of trees, many uncommonly tall for the area. During spring and summer, it's not hard to imagine that you're in an ancient burial ground somewhere in the British Isles. Because the trees provide a nearly solid canopy of shade, better take a jacket on a summer day because the temperature can be twenty or more degrees cooler. AC comliments of Mother Nature.
With so much of the sun blocked out, it's also quite spooky, which only adds to its reputation for being haunted. But only when the trees are in full leaf does it look like a place where one could meet a roaming spirit at any moment, even during a daytime visit. When the trees are bare, as in the photo above, Rochester doesn't seem spooky at all. Then it's "just" a cemetery.
I recently seized an opportunity to visit, looking forward not only to a respite from the the day's unseasonable heat, but also the chance to connect with my British roots.
Turning lemons into lemonade...
Why I thought the trees in Rochester would have leaves when every other tree for miles around didn't is beyond me. Wishful thinking probably. But there I was.
Determined the trip wouldn't be a total waste, I followed the road round to the oldest section. Usually this is the least visited part of a cemetery because family members and friends who used to bring flowers on special days have died or moved away. Following the 19th century tradition that graves face the morning sun, Rochester's is on a downhill slope on the east side.
Here lies Peter OWENS...
Since I didn't get my Brit Fix, as well as being just plain ol' curious about who these people were, I decided to turn this into a test of my skills as a researcher.
None of the stones here mark graves of any of my ancestors or relatives. The few interred in Topeka are on the other side of the river. Meaning I had no prior knowledge of Rochester's Forgotten for a jumpstart.
There's a tradition, btw, that only those who lived north of the river were buried at Rochester. This is a myth that won't die (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun). Personal preference was the determining factor, not the side of the river one lived on.
The first stone that came into view was that of a Peter Owens.
Wish I could tell you more about him, but he appears to be one of those who fell through the cracks of time. Any hints or details of his life "in the dash" aren't available online, nor could I find him in any Kansas census from that period. But then I didn't look for his obituary on my last visit to the Kansas Historical Society Library. Considering his tombstone is rather "substantial" for the 1890s, I'll be surprised if there isn't an obituary, however brief.
Lest you think poor Peter is lonely being the only Dearly Departed for several dozen yards in any direction, those "piles" of leaves aren't piles at all. They're leaves that collected in the depressions caused by the disintegration of wood caskets and the sinking of the dirt above them. Wood grave markers (usually crosses) also disintegrate eventually, giving the impression the poor soul under a stone has always been out there all by himself (or herself).
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Note: watch out for the branches in those depressions! Without realizing it, I once stepped on the "big" end of one next to a great-grannie's grave, causing the other end (that looks like a hand) to flip up and lock around my ankle. I froze on the spot, absolutely certain Granny had reached out and grabbed me, and that I was about to be yanked downward for an unplanned chit-chat. Did I feel s-t-u-p-i-d when the cousin with me said "It's only a branch, silly"!
So unless you routinely carry extra underwear, avoid those branches!
Next up, Fortis C. McDowell...
Note the group of stones above Fortis McDowell's stone, in front of the two trees. Those are members of the family of John Wesley READY. More about them later. The speck of white to their right marks the final resting spot of Lydia REYNOLDS. Emily MATHENY's is the stone in the upper left hand corner. More about her later, too.
Another side of Fortis McDowell...
From the Topeka Daily Capital, Sunday, May 7, 1893:
"F.C. McDowell, aged 34, died at Christ's hospital Friday night at 11 o'clock of blood poisoning. The funeral will not be announced until relatives living in Oklahoma are heard from, but it will probably be held tomorrow morning at Knight's chapel."
The tombstone clearly shows Fortis wasn't 34, but 36 years, 9 months and 22 days old. According to the date calculator in Legacy, the genealogy program I use, he was born July 15, 1856, in Pennsylvania if I have the correct Fortis McDowell in the 1880 census.
The Christ's Hospital Mystery
Although I consider myself fairly familiar with the history of Topeka, I'd never heard of any hospital named Christ's. Currently, there are only two: Stormont-Vail, across from the public library, and St. Francis, across from Willow Park. In the early 1900s, Security Benefit Association (SBA) had its own hospital on the grounds later occupied by world-famous Menninger's, the psychiatric hospital, which ceased operations in that location a few years ago. The only other I'd ever heard of was the Jane C. Stormont Women's Hospital in the historic Potwin neighborhood. That should've been the big clue...
According to an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal dated 4 Nov 2001, Christ's Hospital was the name of Kansas's first non-miltary Protestant hospital.
Ellen Vail, wife of the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in Kansas, was critically ill in 1878 when she dreamed of a modern hospital. Her husband met with other influential Topeka men, and a board was created who chose Christ's as the name of the new hospital which opened May 14, 1884 at the corner of SW 10th St. and Washburn. On August 20, 1927, a larger, more modern Christ's opened.
"This original building still exists as part of the Stormont-Vail complex," said Cindy Yelkin, communications manager. "It is the older structure sandwiched between the south and the north buildings....identified by its red tile roof and houses the chapel."
The Jane C. Stormont Women's Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which opened in October 1895, was named after the widow of Dr. D.W. Stormont. By 1949, it had an endowment fund of $500,000 but being in a residential neighborhood, no room to expand. Christ's had the opposite problem, plenty of land for expansion but no cash. In April 1949, the two hospitals were combined as Stormont-Vail.
Mystery Solved: Christ's Hospital
Remember Emily Matheny whose stone sits way off by itself in the one photo?
According to the Topeka Daily Capital of Wednesday, 8 July 1896, "Mrs. Emily MATHENY, aged 60, died yesterday afternoon from consumption at her home on North Lincoln street. The funeral will be held tomorrow. She has sons in St. Joseph."
Consumption is an old name for tuberculosis, because victims were literally consumed by it. We now know TB to be a highly contagious bacterial infection which can be cured by antibiotics if taken continuously for 6-8 months. It was thought TB would be eradicated by 2010, but many patients do not complete the drug regimen, which allows the bacteria to mutate and become drug-resistant. Poverty and AIDS have also caused a resurgence.
The odd thing on top of the stone looks to be a bird whose head and head are missing, either from weather or vandalism.
READY? No really, that's their name...
John Wesley READY and Sarah STAPLETON were married in 1855 in Macon Co, IL. One daughter Sarah K. was born before John went off to the Civil War in Co. G, 41st Illinois. After the war, they relocated to Kansas, where he was a carpenter. His father Gideon Ready, also moved to Kansas. Viola Grace and Irena Agnes were two of John and Sarah Sr's daughters who died in childhood.
Alice, who died at the age of 21 as Mrs. John Roberts, was a daughter of Sarah K. With one exception, censuses show Sarah as a Ready even after she was married and a mother. The exception was a census that listed her as "Kate Stapleton", therefore Alice's maiden name may have been Stapleton.
Alice died on June 30, 1906 "of neuralgia of the heart after a short illness". We now call it angina pectoris, which is treatable with a regimen of painkillers and other drugs.
Former president Rutherford B. Hayes died of neuralgia of the heart on January 17, 1893, and like Alice, after an illness of several days duration. However, President Hayes's illness was a series of less severe attacks of the condition that finally felled him, whereas Alice's most likely was influenza, which is now known to sometimes leave bacteria in the heart muscle which acts like a poison that causes a fatal heart attack.
So there you have it, the things one can learn by switching gears on a sunny afternoon in a normally spooky cemetery when the trees are bare of leaves. Isn't this a bit more interesting than sitting there with your blood racing while reading about the ghost of a woman who wanders around looking for a child many people say never existed???
Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on April 01, 2013:
I find old cemetaries fascinating. the tombstones incite the imagination. Terrific site.
Joanna McKenna (author) from Central Oklahoma on June 13, 2012:
Yes, KSHS is the place with the big fountain with an Indian on horseback in the center:
So Minnie was born in Kentucky! Great! That'll narrow down the search! But I wonder how the cem office knew THAT but nothing else. Interesting...... ;D
tooshort0430 on June 12, 2012:
Well just found out the Minnie Cooper was born in Kentucky and thats all they know about her at the cemetary..I called them...
tooshort0430 on June 12, 2012:
Thank you for the infor..The history place where the big fountain is that it?
Joanna McKenna (author) from Central Oklahoma on June 12, 2012:
ts0430, it only makes sense if Minnie were from out of town, she probably didn't buy the plot herself. If the cemetery office can't provide any additional information then (IF you have time and it's a weekday) the KS Hist Society out past the roundabout at 6th & Wanamaker should be your next stop. The staff there are EXTREMELY helpful, especially since you have Minnie's date of death.
I'll keep looking, but please keep me posted! ;D
tooshort0430 on June 11, 2012:
WOW you are good..next time I go there will have to stop in that office or call them with my story and see what info they give me...she indeed is very interesting to me...T
Joanna McKenna (author) from Central Oklahoma on June 11, 2012:
ts0430, Minnie Cooper has fast become my new brick wall to topple. Yesterday afternoon I tracked several women named "Minnie Cooper" the same age as the one in Rochester Cem. Some had already died before 1919 and two were still very much alive in 1920 and 1930. I also looked at Topeka City Directories on Ancestry from 1900 to 1916 (at which point they jump to 1921 or '22). The Genealogy room at the Topeka public library has computerized all the published obits back to 1900. Apparently no obit was ever published for "our" Minnie.
The only sources I can't access online from 300 miles away in OK are
1) the microfilms of old Topeka newspapers at the KS Historical Research Library on West 6th (which MIGHT mention her death even if there was no obit, and
2) Minnie's death certificate at Vital Statistics in downtown Topeka (privacy laws prevent a non-relative from obtaining (or even looking at) a copy, but a kindly staff member will sometimes reveal important clues like the informant on the d.c. or the address where the death occurred).
Sometimes a cemetery's records will contain the name of the person who purchased the plot OR the tombstone, another important clue. Have you ever stopped in at Rochester's office to ask about Minnie?
Find A Grave shows her name as "Minnie S. Cooper". The middle initial was oftentimes the first letter of the maiden name. The FindAgrave memorial also shows her buried in Sec 12, Lot 982, but that designation is not specific to Minnie's grave. I found several others who are also buried in that Section and Lot number, so a sub-category would show the actual plot number. Would be interesting to know who's buried on either side of Minnie (or close by), something Rochester's records SHOULD show.
My personal theory is that Minnie was not a resident of the Topeka area at all, only visiting from somewhere far enough away that the cost to send her "home" for burial was prohibitive. 1919 was also a time when the Spanish flu was still raging, and if that's what she died of, quarantine laws may have prevented her body being shipped elsewhere.
Also, she was 52 at the time of her death, which leads me to believe she was either a spinster with no family, or a widow whose children (if any) had predeceased her. In either case, she could've been visiting a sibling or a niece or nephew in the Topeka area whose surname wasn't Cooper.
I used to live a mile from the KS Historical Society, and had I not moved 300 miles away, I would've been there the minute they opened today! There are records of Minnie's identity somewhere in Topeka, so I'm not about to give her up as a lost cause yet!
Oh, and I too can't help chuckling at the similarity between her name and that of the car, which showed up frequently when I googled her! ;D
tooshort0430 on June 10, 2012:
Thank you so much for writing me back.I have been doing it for many years now.Just some thing about that name stuck to me..Guess since my fav car is the Minnie Cooper..LOL..Her grave marker is very small just has Minnie Cooper and the dates 1867 1919.And nothing else.I have offen wonderd why no one put any thing on her.Maybe no family to remember her.I know a little about my family history just by listing to my grandmother and her sisters talk.And now I ask questions my self because I want to know about my history...Maybe I should take a class on geneology..i like facts and history and the knowledge of people...
Joanna McKenna (author) from Central Oklahoma on June 10, 2012:
tooshort0430, I'm thrilled, even though she's no relation to you, that you put flowers on Minnie Cooper's grave each time you visit the graves of your great-grands. These are the stories I love to research, so I'll be happy to poke around and see what I can find about her. I'm guessing Cooper was her married name, but if she was in the Topeka area in 1915, she should be in the 1915 state census with a husband and children. Stay tuned, and thanks for stopping by. ;D
tooshort0430 on June 10, 2012:
Thanks for the story about Rochester Cemetary my great grandparents are buried there along with lots of other family I dont know about.But across from my great grands stands out a lonley grave marker the name is Minnie Cooper she was born in 1867 and died in 1919 i put flowers on that grave every time i go see my greatgrands..I have looked up that name to no avail to find out infor on her..Can you help..I like to find out a little about her..to have a since of knowing who she was..if she has family left...i like to read old headstones to....
Joanna McKenna (author) from Central Oklahoma on May 26, 2012:
Nancy Eddy, thank you for YOUR stories! No, I never went to Rochester at sundown. It was spooky enough one sunny day I was there late in the afternoon and didn't notice the groundsmen and the lady in the office had gone home for the day until I looked around and realized I was ALL ALONE! Yikes!
No, I personally have never done rubbings, but they do make interesting pictures when framed.
Considering Rochester used to be out in the country (and more or less, still is), I wouldn't be surprised if the poor who lived along NW 45th were buried there in graves marked only with wooden crosses that have long since disappeared. Nowadays, though, most cemeteries of any size periodically use a device similar to an X-ray machine to scan empty spaces on the grounds to detect remains that may not be in their records. No idea what they do if they find any.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting! ;D
Nancy Eddy on May 25, 2012:
Thanks for the wonderful stories. I too am long time fan of old cemeteries. I've been home bound for a number of years and had to give up the hobby. However, here are some stories I think you might enjoy. I was told the albino lady stories by mother, who as she stated all are people are buried at Rochester. Not true but she heard heard the story from her mom . Grandma Catron moved to Topeka sometime in early 1902. GrandmaC heard the story from her mom. Now Anna Plumley was born in Levenworth in 1863, and so on.:) I think you get my drift. Now the area you spoke of with the small mounds of leaves, I was told was used to bury the folks from the poor on NW45th. I've never taken the time to check it out. Now if you have ever gone to Rochester at sundown sometimes the headlights will reflect off the stones, beware of the eyes that guard the cemetery. I.ve got more if you care to know them. One more if you do tombstone rubbings they make interesting pics when framed. Thanks again for your great stories.