Our guide heaves her left leg onto a squatty headstone, her black orthopedic shoe cloaks the engraving “Margaret P. Slocum.” Our Oakwood Cemetery tour pamphlet entitled, “Live Oaks & Dead Folks,” features a black and white drawing of George W. Cole adjacent to a sepia depiction of Luther Harris Hiscock. An illustration of a pistol resides in the negative space between the two. While Cole served for the U.S. military in the 1860s, Hiscock made advances toward his wife Mary.
“Well things got rather familiar,” our guide, Sue Greenhagen, says as she tilts her head toward the earth while her brows remain in the same plane, “and they had a little rendezvous.” When Cole grew suspicious of Hiscock and confronted his wife, she came clean about the affair.
Greenhagen pauses to scan the group of sweating 20-somethings (the temperature a record-high 78 degrees in March), as well as a woman, easily pushing 60, who dons a handmade purple crochet beanie. The sunburn inducing weather certainly does not beckon head-warming gear. And no one knows where the lady came from. Greenhagen raises her right arm, index finger wavering. “George was incensed!” She shakes her head and continues as if tasked to rehash a mid-19th century episode of The Young and the Restless. She lifts her right arm yet again, this time imitating the shape of a firearm, “So Mr. Cole pulls out a derringer and shoots him dead!”
Remarkably quick on her feet, 80-something-year-old Greenhagen maneuvers her way up and over the next man-made grassy knoll and into the subsequent valley of Oakwood Cemetery, aptly named for the oaks that shade its 160 acres. She ushers us along the rural cemetery for our 90-minute tour, with just a handful of grunts despite the terrain, her thick khaki pants secured well above her bellybutton. A royal blue lanyard, with “Historians of New York State,” printed in white, wraps around her belt loop and crosses her midsection to deposit into her right pocket. Periodically, the retired Morrisville State College historian removes her beige Syracuse hat by the brim, to reveal a breadth of white-gray curls. She looks like a less cranky version of Hallmark’s Maxine with Julia Child’s height.
Greenhagen treks us past a lofty monument of a woman whose body faces us, though it originally faced the opposite direction toward I-81. After scouring old photos and newspaper clippings of the cemetery, dating back to Oakwood’s dedication in 1859, Greenhagen spotted the monument’s original positioning. Like the Nancy Drew of Oakwood (just a few decades wiser), Greenhagen says, “Glean what you can from any of those clues.” She slaps the nearest headstone, like her buddy underground can provide affirmation. “There’s a lot to look at,” she rests both fists on each respective hip-bone, “always.”
We reach the hilliest of the hills, and Greenhagen marches to the top to plop down at the foot of an open-air mausoleum. “Ah this is good,” she says, “if anyone wants to sit down and here and join me.” She yanks up her pants to reveal black, ribbed knee-high socks. After catching her breath she looks behind her to the structure commemorating former Mayor Elias Leavenworth, and Joshua Forman, his father-in-law and the founder of the Syracuse. “And therein lies and interesting story.”
We reach our last stop of the hour walking tour through the cemetery: The Wescotts. “Not everybody is famous, but everyone’s got a story,” Greenhagen says. It's the third time she recites the idiom. She tells us of Amos Wescott, a respected figure in Syracuse, and mayor of the city from 1860 to 1861. Wescott forked over a hefty sum to invest in the Cardiff Giant, an alleged 10-foot-tall man, exhumed and put on display for curious crowds. The petrified figure, carved from a 12-foot block of Gypsum, eventually made headlines as a fraud. Humiliated, Wescott slinked into a state of humiliation and depression. Three years later, he committed suicide. Greenhagen stands within the half moon of Wescott headstones. The tour group retreats outside of the crescent, circumventing the remains of a rusty colored fox, its tail still fluffy. Greenhagen informs us of a string of Wescott deaths that followed Amos’s. Suicides, tuberculosis, and a fluke fall from a tree. She turns her head toward 9 0’clock to meet my gaze as I stood within the confines of the deceased Wescotts.
“Now you’ve got the Wescott curse,” she warns.
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