The Lady in Granite
This fall a whole new generation of Penn Yan, New York, school children will be introduced to the story of a mysterious face of a woman on a tombstone in Lakeview Cemetery. For about fifty years the anecdote has been passed by word of mouth from one generation of youngsters to another. Nearly every child knows the location of the stone and can repeat the story. As with most such tales passed in the oral tradition, the details may vary with the teller but the common elements are the same.
The narrative begins with the statement that a wife and her husband did not get along; the details very with the version of the story. On her death bed, the woman vowed that her death would not bring her husband freedom; that she would be sure he did not forget her. Her threat was recalled when a woman's face appeared on the monument that was placed over her grave. The stone was replaced, two or more times in some accounts, but each time the image reappeared. According to some narrators the face glows in the dark.
Other details appear to have been added to protect the stone. Young children are told that they will die if they throw a stone at the monument or have a year's bad luck it they should spit on it. The monument's location in the cemetery is well known and attracts visitors on an almost daily basis in good weather.
Not much has appeared in print about the legend. Most local people have heard about it from parents or from peers in school. The local newspaper has printed the story at least twice and it has been the subject of an article in the county historical society newsletter. It is said to have been published in Ripley's Believe It or Not although no copies of that column are available and this may be just another imaginative detail of the folk tale. The story has traveled far beyond the local area, however, according to the cemetery superintendent who says he gets letters from all over the country asking about it.
My own introduction to the story was in the early 1950s when I was investigating local folklore as a history professor at Keuka College. I did not actually visit the cemetery to see the stone, however, until 1992. That visit led me to try to learn more about the tale. An examination of the monument dispelled the part of the story about the stone being replaced. It is not a simple marker but a massive cube of highly polished, dark gray granite that must weight about three and a half tons. It is three and one half feet square and a little over four feet high on a two-tiered base of the same material, rising to a height of nearly seven feet.
The image itself is a milky white blob about fourteen iches long and from four to six inches wide under the highly polished surface in the dark granite itself, on the south side of the monument. True believers can point out such features as the hair, forehead, eyes, nose, and chin of the profile head of a woman lying in her coffin. Even after careful, extended study I decided that I lack the imagination to recognize these details.
Much has been made in the printed accounts that the claim that the face glows in the dark can not be either proven or discredited because it is against the law to visit the cemetery at night. It is hard to believe that no one in fifty years had the curiosity or courage of a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to check that detail of the legend. It may be said with some certainty that the face does not glow in the dark, although the polished surface of the granite reflects any available light including moonlight.
Other aspects of the tale conflict with the facts of the situation. An examination of the individual grave markers in the plot shows that the husband who was supposed to be reminded by his wife's image, actually died and was buried seven years before she was. Frank Gillette, a member of an old Penn Yan family, was known throughout the county as a fiddler and dancing teacher. He and his wife were married for 45 years and both were members of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. They had one daughter.
It was his wife, Matilda Bishop Gillette, together with her father, who bought the twelve-grave cemetery plot in 1890. The west half of the plot, marked by corner stones with the letter B was the Bishop side. The east side had similar corner stones with the initial G. The six graves on the Bishop side were filled by 1916. Frank Gillette, who died in December, 1929, but was not interned until April, 1930, was the first burial on the Gillette side. The large monument was probably erected at that time. Its simple lines and rounded top edges have an Art Deco look. Matching head stones for the individual graves carry out the design of the larger monument. His widow was buried beside him in 1935 and their daughter in 1965. Three graves on the Gillette side are still empty and could be claimed by any descendants, none of whom live in the Penn Yan area.
All of the actual history of the cemetery plot and the monument really has no influence on the legend of the face—a folk tale that has its own life apart from the prosaic facts of the situation. The fun of folklore is that a story does not have to be true, but interesting enough to tell and be retold. Those who retell it may forget some details and add others, so the folk tale is changed as it is passed on by word of mouth.
The idea of a face on a tombstone is a recorded folklore motif. Professor Jan. H. Brunvand, author and teacher of folkore, sent me a copy of an article from a 1968 issue of Indiana Folklore that contained stories collected in Indiana in 1967 and 1968, about faces and other markings on tombstones. Some of these had details that were simlar to the Penn Yan story.
In the case of the Lady in Granite it is possible to determine the approximate age of the story. Most people native to Penn Yan and the surrounding area who have lived there for the last fifty years are familiar with the story and remember hearing it as children. Older people do not remember hearing the story when they were growing up before World War II. Two graduates of the Penn Yan Academy Class of 1949 recall they first heard about the face when they were in junior high. It does not seem to go back much earlier than the end of World War II in 1945.
It seems to have originated when the late John McMinn was superintendent of Lakeview Cemetery in the period between 1937 and 1965. No positive evidence can be discovered to support persistent rumor that he was involved in its origin, but it is certain that he did nothing to discourage the story. The late Frank Swann, when he was Yates County Historian, declared the so-called "face" was simply a blemish in the granite. The proprietor of a local monument company also gave an opinion that the image is caused by a flaw in the granite that became more apparent after years of weathering.
A similar flaw on a tombstone may be seen about 90 feet up the hill from the Gillette monument and about 70 feet on the right. On the north side of a polished pink granite stone is an image of a realistic beaver or woodchuck. It has never been suggested that the people for whom the stone is a memorial were active hunters or trappers and the image of the animal cannot be ascribed to supernatural causes. No story has been suggested about the Return of the Beaver so that it is unlikely that this image will be the basis of another folk tale involving Lakeview Cemetery.
The story of the Lady in Granite, however, is likely to continue to attract new generations of school children as long as their imagination can see the face of a woman in the white marking in the dark, polished stone. Interested people can judge for themselves. The monument is not hard to locate. As one enters the cemetery by the Lake Street entrance, the monument is located a short distance up the hill on the left side of the second road to the right.
© 1994, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.