True Ghost Stories from America’s Most Haunted Old Cemeteries?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article – just in time for Halloween – Gena searches old newspapers to uncover eerie stories of ghostly sightings and hauntings at some of America’s oldest cemeteries.

In my work as a genealogist, I’ve been to cemeteries all over America. I’ve even written a book (Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra) about cemeteries in the Eastern Sierra mountain range of California. And because I’ve been to so many cemeteries I’ve also had diverse experiences on these visits – from a tender scene of a deer family grazing on the morning grass, to an opened grave and its skeleton inhabitant. But I have, luckily, never seen a ghost during my various cemetery trips.

illustration of a ghost in a cemetery

Source: Ghost Horror Collections

However, there have been plenty of ghost sightings by others who visit America’s cemeteries, and some of these cemeteries are rather notorious for their paranormal activity. Have you had a supernatural experience of your own at any of these famous haunted cemeteries?

New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau

One of the more infamous New Orleans citizens was Marie Laveau. While today her name is synonymous with voodoo, it’s obvious from her obituary that she was a well-regarded citizen of her community – although there were those at the time who feared her strange priestess powers.

Her obituary reports:

On Wednesday the invalid sank into the sleep which knows no waking. Those whom she had befriended crowded into the little room where she was exposed, in order to obtain a last look at the features, smiling even in death, of her who had been so kind to them.

Known as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” Laveau willingly administered to the sick.

According to her obituary:

Besides being very beautiful Marie was also very wise. She was skillful in the practice of medicine and was acquainted with the valuable healing qualities of indigenous herbs. She was very successful as a nurse, wonderful stories being told of her exploits at the sick bed. In yellow fever and cholera epidemics she was always called upon to nurse the sick, and always responded promptly.

obituary for Marie Laveau, Times-Picayune newspaper article 17 June 1881

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 17 June 1881, page 8

Marie’s obituary concludes:

All in all Marie Laveau was a most wonderful woman. Doing good for the sake of doing good alone, she obtained no reward, oft times meeting with prejudice and loathing, she was nevertheless contented and did not flag in her work…Marie Laveau’s name will not be forgotten in New Orleans.

Not only has her name not been forgotten, some people insist her healing powers remain active. Generations of visitors to her tomb in Saint Louis Cemetery have marked an “X” on its walls and made a wish for her to grant, returning with an offering after the wish was supposedly granted. Yes, some have reported feeling a presence at her tomb or a hand on their shoulder – this “ghost story” is about what Marie does for others from the beyond.

article about Marie Laveau's tomb in New Orleans, Advocate newspaper article10 August 1976

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 August 1976, page 28

However, unlike most ghost tales involving America’s old cemeteries, this one has had an unfortunate consequence. Years of those “X” marks have led to damage to her family tomb and the resulting closure of the cemetery to the public (to visit the cemetery now you must have family buried there or be part of a guided tour).

It’s now134 years later, and the last sentence of Marie’s obituary continues to ring true: “Marie Laveau’s name will not be forgotten in New Orleans.”

Celebrity Ghost Sightings

Even celebrities have been known to haunt America’s old cemeteries. Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Southern California is known for its celebrity burials. Some of the famous who reside there include Douglas Fairbanks, Jayne Mansfield, and Rudolph Valentino. As with any old cemetery it also has its share of ghost stories, including one non-resident ghost that comes to visit.

Marion Davies, film actress and longtime mistress of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, died in September 1961 after succumbing to cancer. She was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in a family mausoleum that would later include her “niece” Patricia Lake.

obituary for Marion Davies, Springfield Union newspaper article 23 September 1961

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 23 September 1961, page 1

Hearst died almost 10 year prior to Davies and was buried in Northern California at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma. Still married when he died, Hearst had openly lived with Davies and is rumored to have fathered a child with her – Patricia Lake – who was raised by Davies’ sister. Davies played hostess and helped Hearst with financial matters, even providing him a million dollar check when his business was in trouble. All this happened while he was married to his wife Millicent, who escaped the day-to-day reality of the scandal by moving to New York to conduct her philanthropic work – out of sight of her husband’s affair.

obituary for William Randolph Hearst, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 15 August 1951

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 15 August 1951, page 1

With Hearst and Davies long gone, you’d think their story had come to an end — but not so. Some startled visitors to Hollywood Forever Cemetery have reported seeing the ghost of William Randolph Hearst haunting the gravesites of the mistress he loved and the daughter he could never publicly acknowledge.

Nevermore, Nevermore

It probably comes as no surprise that the final resting place for writer Edgar Allen Poe is haunted.

obituary for Edgar Allen Poe, Enquirer newspaper article 16 October 1849

Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 October 1849, page 4

Most people are familiar with the story of the mysterious visitor, the “Poe Toaster,” who for 75 years – starting in 1934 – visited Poe’s grave in the middle of the night on January 19 (the author’s birthday), drank a toast to him, and left three roses and the rest of the bottle of cognac.

article about the mysterious "Poe Toaster" who secretly visited Edgar Allan Poe's tomb for 75 years, Register Star newspaper article 23 January 2004

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 23 January 2004, page 25

Poe’s mysterious visitor made his last appearance in 2009, the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth. He – or it – was never identified, and perhaps never will be.

And while some have claimed that Poe’s ghost walks the cemetery catacombs, there are other ghostly residents that make Westminster Hall and Burying Ground (established in 1787) repeatedly named as one of the most haunted cemeteries.

The “Screaming Skull of Cambridge,” a head belonging to a murdered minister, is just one of the ghostly residents of this old Baltimore, Maryland, cemetery reported by visitors. The ghost story goes that his corpse would scream day and night, so his mouth was gagged in an effort to muffle the ongoing screams. When that didn’t work his body was decapitated and his skull was buried in a block of cement. Other reported ghosts roaming the old cemetery grounds include a teenage girl that can be seen praying by her grave, and a woman who spent time in an asylum who follows visitors around the cemetery. She is quite recognizable since she was buried in a strait jacket.

Ghosts in the Cemetery

Do you live by a haunted cemetery? Have you ever seen a ghost? If you want to research the cemetery you’ve visited, or learn more about the rumors you heard about a ghost sighting there, search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

There’s no doubt that genealogists spend a lot of time walking through old cemeteries and are the most likely folks to see the supernatural. Whether you enjoy seeking out haunted experiences or would rather stay safely away from such places, have a Happy Halloween!

Related Cemetery Articles:

Where Are My Ancestors Buried? Researching Cemeteries in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the challenge of locating your ancestor’s burial place—and explains how to find out if a cemetery has been moved.

Most genealogy articles written about cemeteries focus on how to find your ancestor’s final resting place. These articles describe resources available (both online and off) for finding cemetery transcriptions and obituaries. Having written a book about cemeteries in a region of California, I am always amazed when we are able to find an ancestor’s burial place. Sometimes our ancestors are not buried where we think they should be.

photo of a cemetery in California

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega © 2009

What can you do when there seems to be no mention of an ancestor’s burial place in any resource? Not all cemeteries are places of eternal slumber. For a variety of reasons cemeteries may be repurposed, burials may be disinterred, and grave markers may be stolen or succumb to the elements over time. In my own years of genealogy research I have seen cemeteries reclaimed by nearby lakes and rivers, plowed over for golf courses, grave markers destroyed by vandals, and cemeteries repurposed for city projects. If you are able to visit the grave of an ancestor, consider yourself lucky.

We often think of newspapers as a place to read articles specific to an ancestor’s burial such as obituaries and funeral notices—but what if you need to know more about a cemetery? Old newspapers are a great place to learn about the history of a specific cemetery, or information about cemeteries in a city. Need historical background to help you ascertain whether an ancestor could be buried in a particular cemetery? Curious what happened to a cemetery? Looking for a cemetery history? Newspapers can provide this type of historical information.

Where did the cemetery go? A San Francisco newspaper example.

While the examples of what can happen to a cemetery are endless, let’s look at one well-known example of how a whole city decided that they would move their dead.

Have a 19th century ancestor that lived in San Francisco? It makes sense that they would be buried there—and they may have been, but only temporarily. In the early 20th century, San Francisco decided that its real estate was too valuable to be “wasted” on the dead.

Four Frisco Cemeteries Will Be Put on Market, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 21 August 1912

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 21 August 1912, page 3

San Francisco outlawed cemeteries, and later cremation, within its city limits. To accommodate their dead, San Francisco residents reinterred family members’ bodies in the nearby city of Colma. It’s interesting to note that Colma’s motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma” and that’s true since it has 1,400 living residents and 1.5 million buried.*

What happens when a city decides to evict its dead? Family members of the deceased were contacted and legal notices were included in newspapers. Effort was made to contact family members of the deceased so that alternative arrangements could be made. In a case of one of my cousins, her family saw to it that their great-grandmother was reinterred in Sacramento along with a new marker. What happened to those deceased who were not claimed by kin? Their gravestones were used in building projects such as the construction of seawalls. Unidentified remains were placed in mass graves.

legal notice about the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco being closed, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 25 March 1937

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 25 March 1937, page 33

Not every cemetery in the city was repurposed; there are two cemeteries still in existence in San Francisco: San Francisco National Cemetery and the graveyard at Mission Dolores. There is also the Columbarium, which was once a part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery. (A columbarium is a room with niches that hold funeral urns.)

San Francisco isn’t the only example of a city moving the dearly departed to make room for other projects. In Whittier, California, the Mount Olive/Broadway Cemetery was turned into a public park called “Founder’s Park.”

As you search for the burial place of your ancestor, consider what time may have done to the cemetery. Acts of nature, the deterioration of time, city council decisions, or criminal acts may have destroyed the cemetery or gravestone, or at least made it impossible to identify where your ancestor is buried. Before you decide that it is hopeless to find your ancestor’s burial place, take time to research the history of the area—which in turn can help you better understand the cemeteries in that area.

To read more about San Francisco’s cemeteries and Colma see the book Colma (Images of America series) by Michael Smookler.

* From Town of Colma: Welcome to the Town of Colma. Accessed 17 March 2013.