Niagara Gazette

September 28, 2006

Brooklyn tour a graveyard smash

BY LARRY MCSHANE

Gather ’round, boys and girls, for a titillating Halloween tale: The Petrified Body of Lake Placid.

Mabel Douglass was the first dean of the New Jersey College for Women, which was renamed in her honor back in 1955. But in 1933, she was a retiree who went out in a canoe one day — and simply disappeared.

Thirty years later, on a shelf about 90 feet down in the lake, her perfectly preserved body was discovered by divers. Her petrified remains were finally interred in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery, where Mabel Douglass rests to this day.

Her grave, along with her story, are featured in the annual “Halloween at the Cemetery” tour, where Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman takes visitors on an eerie if entertaining trek through the graveyard where nearly 600,000 souls reside — nearly double the population of Pittsburgh.

“This tour is driven by stories — by murders, by spirits, by tragedies, all of that,” said Richman, who started the end-of-October tours a dozen years ago. “Unfortunately for Miss Douglass, her story kind of lends itself to Halloween.

“There’s just not that many petrified body stories out there.”

There are thousands of stories inside Green-Wood’s 478 acres, where the first permanent residents arrived in 1838. The vast manicured property is so steeped in lore that the cemetery has its own historian — tour host Richman, author of “Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure.”

It’s a cemetery with star power. Among those buried there are former Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, composer Leonard Bernstein, telegraph inventor Samuel Morse, political boss William Tweed and mobster Joey Gallo. There’s no yellow brick road, but you can follow the asphalt to the grave of “The Wizard of Oz” star Frank Morgan (he played the Wizard). There are dozens of victims from the Civil War, and dozens more from 9/11.

Richman’s task is winnowing through the vast options available for the best Halloween-themed tales, and turning them into a 21/2-hour tour of the cemetery. There are two tours this year, on Oct. 28-29; Richman switches stories from day to day, plugging in new tales the way Bruce Springsteen switches up his set list.

One of the stops will definitely be the grave of Dr. Stuart Berger, originator of “The Southampton Diet” — and a man who weighed 365 pounds when he died of weight-related issues.

And no Halloween excursion would be complete without a stop by the grave of Bill “The Butcher” Poole, the inspiration for Daniel Day Lewis’ brutal character in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” The cemetery put up a monument above the Poole family vault after the film reignited interest in “The Butcher.”

The tour was developed “through years of research, and some new stuff coming in,” Richman said. “People will write the cemetery with stories, so I can add new material. The thing about history is you can’t make this stuff up.”

Cemetery officials say this is one of the more popular tours, and advise attendees to arrive early. According to Richman, the tour can draw as many as 200 people. And it’s held rain or shine — after all, the attractions on this outing can’t complain about the weather.

Or anything else.



IF YOU GO

• GREENWOOD CEMETERY: 25th Street and Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn; http://www.green-wood.com/ or 718-768-7300. Take the R train to 25th Street stop, Brooklyn. Cemetery open daily, year-round. Parking inside the cemetery is free.

• HALLOWEEN TOURS: Oct. 28-29, $15. Meet at the main gates of the cemetery; tour departs at 1 p.m. Other guided tours offered year-round; check Web site for details. For self-guided tours, maps are available at the cemetery offices.