Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fred Gwynne- Sandy Mount United Methodist Churchyard

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

When I learned that Gwynne was buried in an unmarked grave in Finksburg, Maryland, I figured that I would be taking a journey to his graveside this summer alone. 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. So, I’m not necessarily making it a goal to visit actors’ resting places. But there are a few actors who mean something to me; and, Mr. Gwynne is certainly one of them.

Gwynne is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church cemetery which is behind the church. Sandy Mount church has a long history and I was fortunate enough to find the paperwork for the historic listing and even the nomination for location to be added to the National Historic Places listing. There is a deed from September 28, 1827 that shows that the land was conveyed from Allen Baker to five trustees under the condition that they must erect a house of worship. In 1855 there was a controversy about whether or not to allow enslaved Africans to worship with their “masters”. The church remained divided and part of the congregation moved to another location and began Pleasant Grove Methodist Episcopal Church… that is, until 1943 when they were again reunited. In 1867, three stone masons by the names of Ward, Bush and Shipley who had built the Pleasant Grove church, built Sandy Grove’s stone sanctuary which currently isn’t being used by the church except for special occasions. There is even a legend 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. Although it isn’t very big, there are some old gravestones.

When I was doing research for the journey, I didn’t expect that most people would want to visit a grave without even a marker. Of course, my friends are not *most people* so it turns out that once Jade and I went, a few friends were very excited about the adventure (and perhaps a bit disappointed they didn’t get to come along).  

Why Gwynne’s remains rest in an unmarked grave isn’t quite 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), it reports that his daughter Madyn Gwynne reveals, "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. After serving, he attended the New York Phoenix School of Design, and Harvard University. I was excited to learn that Gwynne was also a children’s author including 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 his Herman Munster character, during a 1982 interview, a reporter asked about his favourite roles. Gwynne noted plays and then he paused... "and I might as well tell you the truth, I love old Herman Munster.  Much as I try not to, I can't stop liking that fellow."  

Soon before Gwynne passed, he and his wife bought land in Taneytown, Maryland which is Northeast of Baltimore. During that time, he only worked as a voice-over artist in commercials. Within a year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away from complications associated with pancreatic cancer, he was buried in Sandy Mount Cemetery in Finksburg, MD.  His funeral was private and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Thanks to which pointed me in the direction of Tod Benoit’s book, I was able to find the location and a picture of Gwynne’s grave that is mapped out with the description, “Approximate yet accurate location of Fred Gwynne's final resting place at Sandymount 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)

In 2015, when Jade from Daughter of the Jaded Era and I were planning our Blogger Meet Up Adventures Part 2, I knew that I didn’t want her to have to run through a snowy DC again. She also had only seen a small part of the U.S. so I suggested taking the journey together. We headed out on Thursday which was a pretty beautiful day to be in a cemetery. GPS made it fairly simple to find the cemetery. We picked up flowers at a grocery since we couldn’t find a local florist and located Gwynne's location. There were numerous old graves that could use a bit of restoration in the cemetery on the side of the church. The cemetery includes obelisks and other traditional turn-of-the-century markers. The Rush stone was 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 visit 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 can only discuss the characters he played… and naturally, the character of Herman Munster sticks with us. I 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 even mentioned this. At the time she stated and then later noted in her post that the family of The Munsters was a bit dysfunctional. At the time I wasn’t quite sure why I felt the urge to defend these characters. This week has been filled with so much activity that I’m finding myself slowly processing; trying to grasp each reflection has been like grabbing a cloud. I’ve always been much more connected to The Munsters than The Addams Family. This could be because The Munsters were aired as reruns right after school so I grew up watching these old episodes. I think what connected me to the Munster family was their working-class roots. The Addams always appeared to be independently wealthy while Herman Munster with his enormous lunch box had to go off to work at the funeral home. He even started out as the “nail boy” working his way up through the business. And, viewers learn that he used to be in the army and fought in WWII. In many ways, the characters come across as a typical American family and Mr. Munster is (at least stereotypically) the all-American Dad who is a bit childlike but who always means well. So many of the episodes followed the formula of *fitting in* and blending…immigrants coming to America and living 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 The Munsters story is my story in many ways. My family immigrated and they always thought they blended in even when their Polish roots stuck out… but just like the Munster family, they didn’t mind. They loved being themselves and they loved being here.  

So while Mr. Gwynne and his family wish to keep his resting place quiet, visiting a grave is a way to pay our respects, to say “Thank You!”, and to connect to someone who made a difference in our lives.  
This was only the first stop in our adventures of the day and I will write more about our other adventures that afternoon and the next day in later posts. Jade has already mentioned the "spirited" self-guided Ghost Tour  that we took so you'll want to visit her post to read about that. I really wish we had videotaped ourselves giving the tour... but I'll write more about that later.
After two days of gothy fun with Jade, I turned around and headed to Hollywood Cemetery's Rose Pruning Work Day
to volunteer and reconnect with Connie. Today I'm still scratched, achy, and bruised... but let me just say that being in a group with THE Woman In Charge was super awesome! And, dare I write that we worked on some of the best roses in Hollywood?!? One was the famous Crenshaw Rosa Moschata (Musk Rose) which is a historically significant rose that I wrote about in my guest blog post for The Cemetery Researcher More tales soon!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Greenbrier Ghost in Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery

“Most mothers are
instinctive philosophers.”
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 2016, I was planning a trip to Eureka Springs with my mother and wanted us to have a ghostly excursion on the first day of driving. Zona and her mother’s story seemed like the exact type of journey a mother and daughter should take on a ghostly vacation. Plus, the cemetery is a little over three hours from my home and right off Interstate 64 in Greenbrier, West Virginia. It seemed like the perfect place to stop, give a wink to our vacation, and pay our respects to the Heaster family.

Mom and I visited both the cemetery and the historical marker.We left flowers for Zona and it appears that others do as well since there were already flowers placed on her grave. I actually forgot to snap a picture of our flowers and took pictures before placing them. I'm noting this because I'm a bit of an artificial-flowers-on-graves snob. :-/ Sorry!

Zona Heaster met a man named Edward Stribbling Trout Shue who had moved to Greenbrier County, West Virginia to work as a blacksmith. The two fell in love and married, even though Zona’s mother Mary Jane Heaster objected.

On January 23, 1897, Zona's body was found lying at the foot of the stairs, stretched out with her feet together and one hand on her stomach. The local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp was summoned and arrived within an hour. Yet, by that time, Shue had already carried his Zona’s body upstairs to the bedroom. He had washed and dressed her for burial, something unusual for the time since it was customary for the women of the community to do this, not the husband. Zona was wearing a high-necked dress with a stiff collar. Shue had placed a veil over her face and remained by her side while Knapp examined the body. Each time that Knapp moved closer to Zona’s body, Shue would begin cradling his wife's head and sobbing. Knapp was only able to give a brief examination and noted that there were some bruising on the neck.

Zona's cause of death was listed as "everlasting faint” which was later changed to "childbirth". Knapp had been treating Zona for "female trouble" shortly before her death, but there was no documented pregnancy before her death.

Shue kept a vigil at the head of the open coffin which had been laid out in the Heaster’s house. His behavior was suspicious since he would grieve and them show great liveliness. Shue wouldn’t allow anyone close to the coffin. He rolled a sheet up and tucked it by Zona’s head explaining that this would help her rest. He also tied a large scarf around her neck noting that it had been Zona’s favorite.

As Zona’s body was being taken to the cemetery, some noticed that was an odd looseness to her head.

Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, was convinced that her son-in-law had murdered his wife. Sshe removed the sheet from inside the coffin and when she noticed a stain and washed it, the water ran red. Mrs. Heaster began to pray.

Zona was buried in the local cemetery now known as the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery. This wasn’t the easiest place to find. The Find a Grave website did not have the typical gps locations, nor did it have the address listed. Mostly when I searched about the story, I was directed to the historical marker but I’ll get to that in a minute. When I finally found the directions, this became our excursion on the way to the 1886 Crescent Hotel.  We made our way to the cemetery by following several narrow, winding roads. One road was one lane and since we were going straight up a hill, I had to honk to make sure that we didn’t collide with another vehicle. Interestingly enough, we did not see any other vehicles on any of the roads heading to the cemetery. It’s that out of the way.

After her death, Zona appeared to her mother in a dream and stated that Shue was a cruel man who abused her. He had attacked her and broke her neck. Some legends note that to prove this the ghost turned its head around until it was facing backwards.

Mrs. Heaster went to the prosecutor, John Alfred Preston, and convinced him to reopen the case of her daughter's death. Preston sent deputies to interview Dr. Knapp who explained that he had been unable to complete a thorough examination of the body. The statement was sufficient justification for an autopsy, and Zona’s body was exhumed and examined on February 22, 1897 in the local one-room schoolhouse. 

The autopsy showed that Zona's neck had indeed been broken. The report was published on March 9, 1897 and read, "The discovery was made that the neck was broken and the windpipe mashed. On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choked. The neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck." Shue was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.

The trial began in June and Zona’s mother was their main witness. Preston tried to avoid the ghostly sightings but Shue's lawyer focused on this during cross-examination. The judge found it difficult to instruct the jury to disregard the story of the ghost, and many people in the community seemed to believe it. Consequently, Shue was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The state of West Virginia has erected a state historical marker on Route 60, a few miles away from the cemetery.

The cemetery is out in the middle of some serious rural country! The graveyard is old and quite uneven. I worried about my mother walking but she seemed more annoyed by the hot sun beating down on us and having left her hat in the car. 

The grass was maintained but many of the stones were in need of repair, including Zona’s mother’s gravestone which was broken and propped up. Zona’s grave is near the middle of the graveyard toward the back. It appears to be a large, newer marker. 

The story of the Greenbrier Ghost has been adapted to the stage. Jan Buttram's play Zona (1998) and Cathey Sawyer and Joe Buttram’s The Greenbrier Ghost (2003).