Monthly Archives: March 2016

Sister Act: The Story of Clarissa Terwilliger

Clara Terry

Photos of Clara Terry’s grave by Melissa Cole. Used with permission.

by Laura Suchan

I am most definitely a cemetery tourist. No matter where I travel — neighbourhood, city, or country — I want to visit a cemetery. However, of all the cemeteries I’ve visited around the world, one of my favourites is located in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario. Although there is not much known about the history of Union Cemetery, archival research indicates that the original 19 acres served as the Presbyterian burying ground and was purchased in 1848 from Robert and Euphemia Spears by the Secession Church.

The earliest recorded burial in the cemetery is that of Alexander Armstrong, a farmer and local magistrate, interred in 1837. The southwest corner of the property was the location of a brick Presbyterian Church (built in 1837), the original Presbyterian cemetery, a manse, and a school. The church is thought to be the first non-wooden public building in Ontario County. The large building sat 500 people and was used for church and educational meetings. The Church was destroyed by fire sometime after 1863. In 1875, the cemetery came under the ownership of a holding company, which hired noted landscape architect Heinrich (Henry) Adolph Engelhardt (1830-1897) to redesign the land. One of Engelhardt’s most famous design projects was Toronto’s spectacular Mount Pleasant Cemetery in 1874, now listed as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Engelhardt believed that every town and village should have one cemetery where people of all denominations could be buried. He felt it was important for burial grounds to be removed from churches. The location for a cemetery should, according to Engelhardt, “be carefully chosen, at some distance from the turmoil and bustle of active life, yet should be always easy of access. If the site chosen possesses natural advantages, such as hills and dales, groves and creeks, so much the better, but the improvements should agree and conform to the natural features of the place.”

Union Cemetery was designed with these principles in mind. Winding laneways and large trees make for a peaceful park-like setting, bringing to mind William Blake’s line “travelers repose and dream among my leaves.” I have often done that, enjoying contemplative walks throughout the grounds. Today the large cemetery encompasses more than 30 acres, 25,000 burials, and at least as many stories.

For me personally, one of the most interesting stories is about the unconventional Terwilliger sisters, particularly eldest sister Clarissa. Every town has them: the eccentric characters that add colour and flavour to any neighbourhood. In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters certainly fell into that category.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of Abraham Terwilliger. They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town. Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, having arrived from New York State in about the year 1816. The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in and around town for hosting free séances at their father’s home. Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Peddlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”

In the early 1840s, the Terwilliger sisters followed the teachings of the Second Adventists, who believed that Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom. William Miller, an American evangelist, preached that the world would end in 1842 or 1843. Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on the date of the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch, hoping to fly to heaven. She fell 15 feet, resulting in a broken leg. The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.

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An artist’s rendition of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch.  It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the Terwilliger sisters. While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Union Cemetery. I was determined to find out more about her, in order to shed some light on her story. I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history. After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the south Presbyterian section, just to the right of one of the old access roads. The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by a graceful scrolling to the shoulders. A floral wreath with clasping hands inside adorns the upper part of the memorial. A few flowers grace the side of the stone. The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.” All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.” This had me thinking: why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone? Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery. It was back to the archives.

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Erected by Clara Terry. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer, of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old. Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet. They have a six-month-old boy named Frederick. Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents Abraham and Alma Terwilliger. Could a marriage break-up be the reason Clarissa was adamant that her stone show that she was the one who erected it? Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know. We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative. The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.

Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is in Union Cemetery, records show Clarissa is not buried there. No birth or death dates are listed on the stone. It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location. She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.

Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story. It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the sisters Terwilliger are still associated with this eccentric act. I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of the town’s eccentrics. Her gravestone is a reminder that she did not conform to society’s expectations and did things her own way. Her story is also a reminder to me that, although I may travel the globe, some of the most remarkable treasures are in my own backyard. As the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”: a suggestion from Proust that there are many discoveries waiting in my own neighbourhood.

Sources

Heinrich Engelhardt, The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art, (Montreal: Lovell, 1872)

Oshawa Museum, Union Cemetery and Terwilliger family documents

Samuel Pedlar papers, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum

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Laura photoLaura Suchan is the author of Memento Mori: Classifying Nineteenth-Century Ontario Gravestones. She enjoys sunny afternoons spent in old graveyards. In her professional life, she is the Executive Director of the Oshawa  Museum, where she has been balancing budgets and writing business plans for over 25 years.

She is a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, the Abandoned Cemetery Committee for Clarington, Ontario, and is President of the Trent University Alumni Association for Oshawa/Durham.  Laura enjoys writing, yoga, traveling, and spending time with her two sons. Connect with her at www.laurasuchan.com or on Facebook at Early Gravemarkers https://www.facebook.com/EarlyGravemarkers/.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: Katie Likes Flowers

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Photos of Cherry Ridge Cemetery by Joanne M. Austin.

by Joanne M. Austin

Many abandoned bits of civilization are found in the woods in the part of New Jersey where I live: towns that simply disappeared off the map, for one reason or another. Their remnants include foundations of buildings, mine shafts, and cemeteries. The closest I’ve ever come to a haunting was in one of these forgotten cemeteries.

Cherry Ridge Cemetery is located somewhere off the New York–Tennessee gas pipeline that runs through the area. It served families living in the area, until they were bought out by the state so that a reservoir could be built to supply the city of Newark with clean drinking water. According to local lore, the cemetery is haunted. You can hear strange noises, moaning, and even music and laughter there.

One day I was hiking along the gas pipeline with friends. The pipeline is buried, so there’s a large clearing along it that makes for a wide trail that’s unobstructed, except for the occasional bog or boulder. We had come to a spot high up on a hill, where we could look ahead at the other hills along the pipeline—a vista that brought to mind a roller coaster. We stopped for a little while to rest.

As a hiker who subscribes to the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” philosophy, I don’t normally pick wildflowers on a trail. Today was different. These pretty little purple flowers grew just off the pipeline. Something made me pick a few. I thought I could either put them in water or press them in a book when I got home—again, not things I normally do. My friends kidded me about my breach of hiking protocol.

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We decided to head back the way we had come. We had planned to visit Cherry Ridge Cemetery, which we knew was somewhere off the pipeline, on our way back. We weren’t sure exactly where.

When I came to a certain spot along the pipeline, I had a hunch that the cemetery lay off to our right. Even though nothing indicated the cemetery was nearby—no trail, no markings—I slipped into the forest. The rest of the group followed. We scuttled around for a short time in the dry leaves and undergrowth. Then I saw the graves, most of them sunken, with headstones broken or long gone.

I was drawn to the cemetery’s back corner. There I found the gravestone of Katie Rome, one of the youngest marked occupants of the cemetery, who died in 1880 when she was only three. Buried next to her was her mother Lucretia, who died only a few years after Katie.

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As I stood there, I suddenly knew why I had picked the flowers. I crouched and put most of the flowers on Katie’s grave, then left the rest with her mom.

Michelle, one of the friends I was hiking with, said, “Oh, that’s so sweet of you!”

Maybe so, but I can’t help wondering how much of my kindly gesture was really under my control that day. Perhaps I had some help from a small, long-deceased child, who in life had a penchant for pretty little purple flowers.

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Photo of Joanne taken by Mark Moran.

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Joanne M. Austin is senior editor at Weird NJ magazine, where she has compiled anthologies of ghost stories and sometimes writes on a wide range of topics including automata, dangerous amusement parks, and scary roads. She lives a semi-bucolic and rather un-edgy life in northwestern New Jersey. You can see more of her work at joannemaustin.com.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Marking Fred Gwynne’s Unmarked Grave with Flowers

Sandymount

All photos of Sandy Mount United Methodist Church provided by Sharon Pajka.

by Sharon Pajka

Fred Gwynne was an American actor who passed just shy of his 67th birthday in 1993. If I played a clip, I’m pretty sure that you would recognize his distinctive bass-baritone voice. Most of us know him as lovable Herman Munster or even his later role as the endearing and knowledgeable neighbor in Pet Sematary. When I announced where I was going, my brother immediately dropped lines from My Cousin Vinny.

It’s probably important to note right here that I don’t get googlie-eyed over celebrity. In fact, when I hear the term “Hollywood Actor,” I usually tune out. I’m not necessarily making it a goal to visit actors’ resting places, but there are a few actors who mean something to me. Mr. Gwynne is certainly one of them. When I learned that Gwynne was buried in an unmarked grave in Finksburg, Maryland, I figured I would take a journey to his graveside alone.

Sandy MountGwynne is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church cemetery, which lies behind the church. Sandy Mount Church has a long history (historic listing). A deed from September 28, 1827 shows that the land was conveyed from Allen Baker to five trustees, under the condition that they erect a house of worship. In 1855, there was a controversy about whether to allow enslaved Africans to worship with their “masters.” The church divided and part of the congregation moved to another location and began Pleasant Grove Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1943, they were reunited.

In 1867, three stonemasons by the names of Ward, Bush, and Shipley built Sandy Grove’s stone sanctuary. A legend says that because the three men had gone out drinking, the front walls appear slightly irregular. It would be fascinating to find more information about the cemetery itself, but what I have discovered has been quite limited. While the cemetery is not very large, there are some old gravestones.

Why Gwynne’s remains rest in an unmarked grave is not clear. As far as I can tell, at the end of his life, Gwynne wanted to be Fred Gwynne the man and not Fred Gwynne the actor. In an article in Harvard’s The Crimson (2001), his daughter Madyn Gwynne said, “He was a far more complex character than the one he played on The Munsters.” Of course he was! Gwynne studied portrait-painting before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He served as a radio operator in a submarine-chasing vessel. Afterward, he attended the New York Phoenix School of Design and Harvard University. I was excited to learn that he was also a children’s author. His books include It’s Easy to See Why, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, Best In Show, Pondlarker, The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, and A Little Pigeon Toad.

While he may have tried to distance himself from roles that rhymed with his Herman Munster character, Gwynne noted in a 1982 interview that “I might as well tell you the truth, I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.”

Soon before Gwynne passed, he and his wife bought land in Taneytown, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore. During that time, he worked as a voice-over artist in commercials. Within a year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away, his funeral was private.

Thanks to Findagrave.com, which pointed me in the direction of Tod Benoit’s Where Are they Buried?, I found a picture of Gwynne’s grave with the description “approximate yet accurate location of Fred Gwynne’s final resting place at Sandymount [sic] Methodist.”

“Walk into the cemetery behind the church and near the back is a distinctive Shannon stone. About twenty feet in front and to the left of the Shannon stone, Fred is buried in a grave that, but for the grass covering it, has no marking of any kind.” (Where Are they Buried? Tod Benoit, p. 179)

UnmarkedGraveWhen I researched the journey, I did not expect many people would want to visit a grave that did not even have a marker. Of course, my friends are not most people. On a somewhat chilly March afternoon, a fellow blogger and I took a road trip from Washington, D.C. to Finksburg. We’d only met in person a month prior. Although her home was more than 4,000 miles away, in Finland, my new friend just happened to be in the States for an internship. Because she had only seen a small part of the U.S., I suggested taking the journey together, so that she could also see a bit of the countryside.

We headed out on Thursday, which was a pretty beautiful day to be in a cemetery. Since we could not find a local florist, we picked up flowers at a grocery. GPS made it fairly simple to find the cemetery, which included obelisks and other traditional turn-of-the-century markers. On the side of the church stood numerous old graves that could use a bit of restoration. The Rush family gravestone stood near the parking lot. I thought it was a stunning example of craftsmanship.

Gwynne’s plot is located in the back of the cemetery, in a section that appears much more modern. Most of the cemeteries that I have visited are quite wooded. At Sandy Mount, one can stand near Gwynne’s resting place and see for what seems like miles. In the distance, there is even a windmill. Not a bad place to spend forever, if you ask me.

Of course, neither of us ever knew Fred-Gwynne-the-man, so we could only discuss the characters he played. Naturally, the character of Herman Munster stuck with us.

FredGwynneGraveI think it’s easy to start comparing The Addams Family and The Munsters. Both series aired from 1964-1966. When Jade and I were standing graveside, she stated that the family of The Munsters was a bit dysfunctional. I wasn’t quite sure why I felt the urge to defend these characters.

I’m slowly processing; trying to grasp each reflection has been like grabbing a cloud. I’ve always been much more connected to the Munsters than to the Addams Family. This could be because The Munsters aired as reruns right after school, so I grew up watching the old episodes. Also, I think what connected me to the Munster family was their working-class roots. The Addams Family appeared to be independently wealthy, while Herman Munster had to go off to work at the funeral home with his enormous lunchbox. He even started out as the “nail boy,” working his way up through the business.

In many ways, the Munster characters come across as a typical American family. Mr. Munster is (at least stereotypically) the all-American Dad, who is a bit childlike but who always means well. Viewers learn that he used to be in the army and fought in WWII.

So many of the episodes followed the formula of fitting in: immigrants coming to America to live the American dream in an old house that they thought was just right (albeit dusty and dilapidated, just like our own homes). I guess I connect because, in many ways, the Munsters’ story is my story. My family immigrated and always thought they blended in, even when their Polish roots stuck out. Just like the Munster family, they didn’t mind. They loved being themselves. They loved being here.

While I must respect Mr. Gwynne and his family’s wish to keep his resting place quiet, visiting a grave is a way to pay our respect, a way to say “Thank You!” The trip was a way to connect with someone who grew up on the other side of the world, over one actor who made a difference in both of our lives.

Mr. Gwynne, as the character of Mr. Munster, taught me that “It doesn’t matter what you look like. What matters is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.” (The Munsters, “Eddie’s Nickname,” Season 1, episode 19, aired January 28, 1965.)

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FredGwynneFlowers1Sharon Pajka is a professor of English. For fun, she studied to become a Master Tour Guide and gives tours in American Sign Language at her favorite garden cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her blog Goth Gardening uses gardening as a metaphor for living as she shares how some plants & flowers, creepy things, and the dead brought her back to life.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.