Cemeteries and unusual deaths

Green Hill Cemetery

By Vesper J. Snow, columnist

When the leaves change colors and the frost is on the pumpkin, many take to marshmallow roasting and sharing ghost stories. Somewhere between the layers of s’mores and blankets by the campfire, the living recall the dead.  They recall teenage experiences at the old Urban Westenberger place, formerly known as Green Castle, home of John and Rachel (Keyser) Bell in the Lorelei Estates area on the Shenandoah River. Sometimes, those sitting round the fire talk about unusual stories at the mausoleum and the cemetery at the property. This column is not the focus of a story that literally has been “done to death” (pun intended). Instead, let’s take a wider focus. 

Page County has numerous cemeteries, ranging from family burial plots to church graveyards, and historical resting places. Hundreds of ornate gothic gravestones can be found in Green Hill Cemetery on Luray’s Main Street, where some of the town’s prominent figures from the early days rest. Graves date from the early part of the 19th century to late into the 20th century. In the U.S. there are 289,000,000 suggestions for Green Hill Cemetery when an internet search is performed.

The website People Legacy provides an alphabetical listing of known cemeteries, GPS coordinates if known, and a record of the deceased. To see an actual gravestone of a loved one, Find A Grave is a site that provides a record of actual tombstones. Of course, the Page Public Library has a genealogical room that should not be overlooked when root seeking, ghost finding, etc. And the Page County Courthouse is a good archival tool. Cemeteries are sometimes hand-drawn with red or black pencil in old county records. 

Old newspaper articles are one of the best resources. On a website called Genealogy Trails, The Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in a September 1910 article stated the following and referenced a cemetery in Rileyville.

“Luray, Va., Sept. 2 — In a small graveyard located about two miles east of Rileyville was interred Wednesday, the body of John Jewell, who was found dead on Monday near Front Royal. No one knows the cause of Jewell’s death, though it is supposed he fell from a freight train while on his way home to Rileyville. He had for some time been working at Martinsburg, W.Va. The little country burial ground, overgrown with weeds appears to have been made for those who had met violent deaths. In recent years have been buried in it, Sam Nicolson, killed on the Norfolk and Western railroad; ‘Sunny’ Jewel, found dead on the Norfolk and Western railroad near Compton; John W. Jewell, killed by a falling from a train at Front Royal; James Stoneberger, killed by the explosion of a sawmill engine near Rileyville, and ‘Bud’ Nicholson, stabbed to death near where his body is buried”.

Another source of information is the Library of Virginia. An online document available to the public dated 2012, is labeled: “The Page County (VA) Coroners’ Inquisitions, 1831-1946.” These items came to the Library of Virginia in shipments of court records from Page County. This document is the result of coroner/jury “investigations into the deaths of individuals who died by a sudden, violent, unnatural or suspicious manner, or died without medical attendance. Causes of death found in coroners’ inquisitions include murder, infanticide, suicide, domestic violence, exposure to elements, drownings, train accidents, automobile accidents, and natural causes, or as commonly referred to in the 19th century, visitation by God.”  Just a few of the deaths are listed below.

The first one recorded in this document refers to John Bell who was mentioned in the first paragraph of this column. Bell was murdered by Martin and Captain (slaves of John Bell) “They hit him with a heavy object behind the right ear producing extensive fracture of the bones in the area and violent contusion of the soft parts. Then they threw him in the Shenandoah River a short distance from where he was found. Martin and Captain were indicted for murder.” They were later hanged.

Another death involved a child who died from an improperly tied umbilical cord as well as bleeding from an amputation of extra appendages. Another child, under the age of seven, killed a neighbor who came to his house during the Depression in 1934. Food scarcity and insecurity was a problem during this era and the child did not want to share food.

The last death mentioned in this document was that of Roy Joseph Sturgeon in June 1946, who died in a plane crash due to fog in an area known as “The Devil’s Tan Yard or Raccoon’s Head.” The flight originated in Norfolk and Sturgeon was traveling to Reedsburg, Wisconsin. This online resource can be read online at https://ead.lib.virginia.edu

Vesper J. Snow has called Page County home for more than 30 years. A former reporter, Vesper works locally and has degrees in both communications and English. Vesper loves dogs, coffee and folklore.



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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for a very interesting article. Being an amateur genealogist, I’m always interested in information on that topic !!!

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