A Common Thing

The creepiest moment I ever spent in a graveyard happened at the Maplehurst Cemetery in Hinsdale NY. This story comes with a content warning. Sensitive readers, once you know, you can’t ever unknow.

Sent to Eternity

My great-great-great grandmother had a brother named George Isaman, described as “a large, muscular, good-looking young man, with a broad, intelligent forehead.” On September 4, 1885, when he was twenty-three years old, lightning struck him and his sixteen year old cousin Melvin Youngs in a barn in Hinsdale, New York.

The September 10, 1885 edition of The Olean Democrat (Ancestry.com subscription access required) gives the story of “Two Young Men Killed” under a prettily phrased sub-headline, notable for its breathtaking disregard for the bereaved families: “Sent to Eternity in the Twinkling of an Eye.”

The article explains that George and Melvin, along with another fellow named John Flynn, were working at the farm of George Besucker, preparing the threshing machine for its first use of the season. By noon, the men were finishing up their task. They drove the separator into the barn and stabled and fed the horses. Just about then a severe thunderstorm blew in and it began to rain. The young men leaned about the barn resting while Mr. Besucker went to check on lunch.

The Fatal Bolt

The article reports:

At about fifteen minutes past twelve there was a vivid flash of lightning, followed by a deafening crash of thunder. This was the fatal bolt that so suddenly sent to eternity [without] pain and without warning, two of this group of three young men, just in the exuberance of life.

The lightning struck the west gable end of the barn at the roof, and apparently followed the rafters of the roof in both directions. The bolt then followed a post down the side. Against this post stood [Isaman], who sank down on the floor, dead. The bolt also passed down the corner post, against which Youngs was leaning, and he fell back upon the stable floor, also dead. Then it passed into the ground through a piece of steel shafting which was leaning against the outside of the barn. The ground was torn up to a depth of ten inches at the foot of this steel bar. Flynn was knocked over upon the stable floor, dazed and partially senseless. He came to very quickly.

Yet Alive?

Mr. Besucker sent for Coroner Bascom and undertakers Sigel and Sturm of Olean. Bascom determined that an inquest would not be necessary. Sigel removed the bodies to the home of my great-great-great-great grandfather, George Isaman Sr., who lived toward Hinsdale in a spot called Woodchuck Hollow, where they held the funeral two days later.

On the same page of the newspaper in a follow-up article printed just below this report, a tragic story turns macabre. The secondary headline reads: “Afraid of Burying Him Alive.”

Friends of George Isaman requested that Undertaker Sigel hold up the burial for a doctor to examine his body. The article states:

“It appears that somebody had imagined, while the corpse was on view at the church, that they had seen the lips move. This coupled with the fact that beads of perspiration stood upon the forehead of the remains led some to believe that the body was yet alive.”

A Common Thing

Mr. Sigel agreed and allowed the coffin to be opened even as it rested on the cross pieces over the grave, and they left it so for almost an hour. However, no doctor came, and no one observed further movements, and since the undertaker explained:

“… that perspiration upon the face of a corpse was a common thing, and that even there might have been a slight twitching of the lips without indicating life, the remains were lowered into the grave, and the coffin covered with earth.”

My first reaction, upon discovering this disturbing pair of news items, was to Google the question, “Can corpses sweat?” I thought I might learn of some medical phenomenon to set my mind at ease, but if there is any such oddity, I didn’t find it. I only hope that George Isaman never woke up.

taken at the Maplehurst Cemetery in Hinsdale NY

I knew about this story when I visited the Hinsdale Cemetery (also known as the Maplehurst Cemetery) in 2009. I have quite a few ancestors buried there, so I worked my way through, finding the Isaman plot with relative ease. I saw the graves of George Isaman Sr. and his wife Sarah. Beside them, I found a stone lying face down in the dewy grass.

George Isaman's headstone, Maplehurst Cemetery in Hinsdale NYI hesitated, tested its weight, then hefted and placed upright the almost illegible headstone of George Isaman. In spite of the bright summer sun, that unsteady grave gave me a cold chill.

Since I’d seen what I came to see, I started toward the gate. Many broken and toppled graves littered the way through the older section of the cemetery. I realized one undertaker might served a whole generation in a small town like Hinsdale and tried not to notice that at Maplehurst, gravestones lying face down on the ground are a common thing.

Looking for a Transcription of the Maplehurst Cemetery?

You’ll find the Painted Hills transcription right here, or search this cemetery on Find-A-Grave here.

10 Replies to “A Common Thing”

  1. Brandy! Love this, may I put it on Maybe Someone Should Write that Down …as a reblog? Let me know ( also, fyi, the lighthouse story kicks #$% )
    <3 Mom

  2. Reblogged this on Maybe someone should write that down… and commented:
    This is a post from Brandy Heineman. Her “bookishness” blog contains a lot of great reading. As I sit here knee deep in snowy Indiana, a few weird funeral stories came to mind. As I have written previously, my Grandma Farmer was buried on the day a huge ice-storm slammed the Hoosier State. Sure, it was a pain in the hiney to get out to the country-side for her funeral after a night of sleet and ice. But the awful part was that she couldn’t be laid to rest in her “pre-determined” spot until several weeks later. For the initial graveside service, Grandma was interred next to an in-law on the South side of the small Highway in the Catholic Cemetery. There was too much ice on top of too much mud on the protestant North side of the road. They had to wait for the spring thaw and the warming winds to dry the soil and make it “diggable” to move Margaret next to George the Methodist, her loving husband.
    Another of my Grandmas (farther back and opposite side of the family) died on Christmas day during a huge Blizzard. I mentioned her in November. She was the one who gave birth alone in the wagon, kept the baby alive by bundling her next to her skin, and was dead before the horse came up the drive. This poor Grandma was kept in the ice house out behind the barn (literally put on ice) until digging was possible in the spring. She waited in the ice-house until March.
    Now, I am 99.9% sure these women were …in the words of the Mayor of Munchkin City…really most sincerely dead when shoveled under. But, read on and learn what happened in Brandy’s family~
    Oh, and thanks dear for letting me share this…Mom isn’t responsible for nightmares and scary shadows tonight…

  3. Thanks Brandy for the story and congratulations on the NANOWRIMO, I know from personal experience how hard those Novembers can be.

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