By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
— Ask anyone in Western New York — or anywhere at all, really — about ghost stories, and I’ll bet they have one for you.
My little Cattaraugus County hometown wasn’t an exception. When I was growing up, we had both the cemetery (conveniently on a hill overlooking my childhood home) and old “Miner’s Cabin” (which wasn’t, by any stretch, a cabin). More recently, an old home partially destroyed by fire picked up the haunted reputation. We whispered about it and rushed by when walking at night, holding hands and glorying in the sheer spookiness of it.
St. Bonaventure University (which was teeming with legends about multiple sites, including my dorm), Batavaia and LeRoy in Genesee County, Lewiston, NT, the Town of Tonawanda ... I’ve never lived a place without a ghost or legend attached to it.
We may be a mere corner of a particularly young country, but we like our stories. And why not? Everyone wants to believe the place where they live is special — even if it’s in a spooky sort of way.
Supernatural historian Mason Winfield has been tracking these stories in Western New York for years. He’s written a number of books about them, from “Shadows of the Western Door: Haunted Sites and Ancient Mysteries of Upstate New York” to “Village Ghosts of Western New York,” and presents ghost walks in locations from Williamsville to Lewiston and (recently) North Tonawanda.
His latest book, “The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York: A Book of Ghostly Lists,” takes a step back from the occasionally dense history and legend of the prior works, and instead presents local tales of the haunted and supernatural as just want the title says: Lists. These are nothing David Letterman ever thought of, but range from topics like “10 Crazy Skeleton Sites” to “10 Fabled Phantoms of Fort Niagara.”
The tales range throughout Western New York, from Olean to Lewiston to LeRoy, and sometimes beyond. The Tonawandas are well-represented with notes on Tonawanda Island (see “10 Crazy Skeleton Sites”), “The 1920 Incident” and “The Petit Creek Flume Monster” (both in “Ten Gremlins”), the Riviera Theatre, the North Tonawanda History Museum, Elmlawn Cemetery and more.
“The Paranormal Almanac” is, in a way, shallower than Winfield’s other books ... and I don’t mean that necessarily as a bad thing. It makes for a quicker read, even an introduction of sorts to Western New York lore.
I’ve read most of those other books, and they can be time-consuming. This was a far more casual dip into the tales. It’s not ghost-busting, it’s not ghost-hunting, it’s an overview of tales people tell about the place where they live. In the introduction, Winfield calls them “appetizers, not main course.”
One thing I enjoyed about it is that Winfield has a sense of humor about his calling.
Little Ghost Girls, so common a phenomenon that they get three lists of their own, also get their own acronym: “LGGs.” An entry on ghosts similar to “Women in White” except that they don’t, well, wear white, gets the titles “She Comes in Colors.”
(Ghostlight Theatre in NT has a woman in burgandy.) An entry on the number of child ghosts said to be associated with pool drownings notes, “Does ‘rumor’ have any idea how hard it is to fact-check things like this?”
A list of “Ten Power Times” from a chart cast by a Buffalo astrologer using the city’s incorporation date (April 20, 1832) notes just how bad a day Jan. 27, 1991, was for Buffalo ... and, based on the astrological lineup (not something I claim to understand), it appears that everything really wasn’t Scott Norwood’s fault.
It’s all very entertaining, but it’s not perfect. The lack of sources for many stories made me twitch at times, but the afterword notes that “where sources are not mentioned, it has to be presumed that that material came from the sources of his other books.” Fair enough. However, while I can go look up a number of those other volumes on my bookshelf, not everyone can do this easily.
Definitely a valid way to more book sales, I suppose!
I also noted a misstep or two, including calling The Ronald McDonald House of Buffalo on West Ferry a home “for terminal cancer patients” (it’s not — there are many reasons families stay at the house, and every cancer patient there isn’t terminal). The entry on “Ghost Children” runs twice. (A feeling of deja vu while reading a book on spooky experiences is ... odd.) An index would have been nice, although understandably complicated in a location-dense book this this. Several times I wanted to cross-check things and wound up simply using a system of Post-It notes in the pages.
Still, it’s an entertaining, quicker read and a nice introduction to the sheer volume of information on the paranormal in Western New York. If you’re looking for an overview of spooky sites and creepy tales — and possibly a jump-off point to more reading — “The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York” could be for you.
Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.