Topeka's Rochester Cemetery: More Than the Ghost of Albino Woman
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...Click thumbnail to view full-size
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).
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???