By JULIE CUSHINE-RIGG
In a couple of weeks many of us will honor those who have passed away with holidays and holy days like Halloween and All Souls Day. As part of honoring the dead, many a front yard and haunted hayride will be adorned with headstones (if only of foam or wood), which commemorate one’s life. But what of real headstones? Do we take them so for granted as being only in cemeteries, that when we see them anywhere else, we get creeped out and wonder about an underlying mystery?
“It’s not unusual for it to happen. I don’t know how common it is…they’ve kind of wound up all over the place,” said Christopher Phillipo, a Trustee with the Bethlehem Historical Association about headstones found outside of cemeteries.
Two such headstones were recently reunited, though simply by the nature of where they were found it would seem they wouldn’t have been connected in the first place.
“It was pretty cool…we were pretty sure there wasn’t like a body buried there. My family has had that house since 1892. …The barn wasn’t built on a cemetery or anything like that,” said Kim Loefke, about the headstone found on her family’s Guilderland property in 2003 after two Revolutionary War enthusiasts stopped by asking to use a metal detector to look for artifacts.
When he finished, he was talking with my dad and asked, ‘So what’s up with the headstone in the driveway?’” recalls Loefke.
After being caught quite by surprise, the stone was unearthed by the gentlemen and Loefke’s father, James Brust. Once the stone was stood up, it revealed a perfectly preserved inscription reading, “Robert Matthews, Died April 18, 1865 in the 36 year of his life.”
Since at least the 1930s, the gravestone at Brust’s property remained face-down with its back exposed and at grade with the rest of the driveway in front of a barn. There was never any reason to move it or suspect it was anything other than what it appeared to be, simply a rectangular stone.
With genealogy as a hobby, Loefke turned to look into the mystery of the Matthews gravestone. She looked up the names and researched the family via online message boards at the time (not what we know as the popular resource it is today). She then posted a message with a picture of the stone in an effort to get the stone back to where it came. There wasn’t much more to do than to hold onto it. In the meantime, many theories have crossed the minds of Loefke and her father about just how did a gravestone get to their home.
“He could have come over here to work at my great-grandfather’s farm then. …They had hired hands that would come here and help out,” said Brust. He added that his grandfather, Peter James Howenstein was on the Prospect Hill Cemetery Committee and theorized that the stone could have been brought to the home by him, as it was common practice to discard damaged or broken headstones – and it then became a stepping stone of sorts at the entry to the barn, as it was also common practice to have slabs/stones at the entries to buildings.
“As kids, we used to slide on it every winter because it would ice over,” recalled Loefke. She added that a couple of other stones were found along a walkway to the front porch shortly after the headstone was dug up, though they were only fragments of larger stones and the inscriptions were mostly worn away rendering them illegible.
It would take another 15 years after Robert Matthews’s headstone was resurrected to solve at least part of its mystery.
In 2018 Loefke contacted Christopher Phillipo, a Trustee of the Bethlehem Historical Association after a family friend stopped by to ask her dad about buying a tractor. While there, the friend asked Brust to see the headstone, which was then stored in the garage. Brust and the friend retrieved the stone, stood it up and read it again.
“You know what today is? …Today is April 18th,” said Brust to his friend.
“What are the chances of that? He just wanted to know if he could see the gravestone and that was the same exact day that Robert Matthews died on. We thought that was really strange,” Brust said, recalling the second reading of the stone with the family friend.
Brust then asked his daughter if she had found out anything more about the Matthews family. From her previous research, she did an updated search an ancestry.com hoping that any new records posted would give some more information. What she found was a message posted by Phillipo inquiring about a headstone found in Glenmont and being sold online via social media. After looking into it, Loefke wondered if it had a connection to the headstone found in her dad’s driveway.
“That’s what was weird about it, because his stone said James Matthews son of Robert and Ruth. And we had Robert’s stone, so I did more research and contacted Chris,” said Loefke. At that time Phillipo had the other Matthews stone he referenced in the ancestry.com message.
Following the exchange between Phillipo and Loefke, Phillipo then went to Brust’s home and explained how he restored the other Matthews stone and could help with the stone Brust found by cleaning it and getting it reunited with other stone. Phillipo had also contacted Paula Lemire, who has an active interest in local cemeteries and helped in the effort that eventually got both stones to the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland where the Matthews plot currently is.
“We did find out that Robert and his little son James were reinterred from the Presbyterian Church in New Scotland into Prospect Hill with the rest of his family. We don’t know if those were the stones that had come from New Scotland,” Loefke said.
Harold Smith, Superintendent of the Prospect Hill Cemetery confirmed that Matthews graves were moved from New Scotland Cemetery, though there was no date available to indicate when the Matthews’ family plot was purchased.
While there may not be many more answers to the Matthews mystery, Smith did say, “Once the stones are all put in, it seems like it’s much happier there. It’s the happiness that you feel when you’re there.”
No other gravestones were found on Brust’s property, though they did find a few pieces of other headstones lying face-down along a walkway in front of the house. The inscriptions were worn away, it was evident that they too were parts and pieces to larger gravestones. Brust also said that he found some artifacts on the property when he was a kid: a small iron cannon ball in the base of a willow tree, and a Revolutionary War bayonet. Both items were given to town historical associations.
Phillipo said that it’s difficult to know or even guesstimate how many such stones are unaccounted for or misplaced, because a lot of cemetery records have been lost over the years due to fires and records having been transferred multiple times, among other reasons. He added that sometimes stones get discarded or brought to a quarry or landscaping company if an imperfection or crack occurred while being made.
Should you happen to find a gravestone, Phillipo suggests contacting your town’s historical association or another town entity that can help you. He also said, “Enjoy it, there’s an opportunity to find out more about your local community.”
Decorative or real, headstones also serve as a reminder not to take anything for granted.
“Tomorrow is not promised to anybody. Look at Robert Matthews…died in his 36th year,” said Brust about the stone found in his driveway and recalling how his own grandfather died in 1947 not far from the family property. According to Brust, Peter James Howenstein was on his way home from a doctor’s appointment in which he was given a clean bill of health, only to die of a heart attack at the wheel.
With a life-long interest in local history, Philippo didn’t have far to go to get even further interested in cemeteries and headstones. When he was a kid, his adoptive parents took him and his brother to museums and historic sites, something he says he always enjoyed. Oftentimes, the visits that sparked his interest in history were made while on a bigger trip to Disneyworld.
It wasn’t until he was living in Lansingburgh that Philippo learned that his biological mother’s family was from there. He found that information via cemetery documentation and also discovered that some of his maternal ancestors were in the Lansingburgh Village Burial Grounds, dating back to the 1770s.
“It’s a way to have a little bit of a connection,” said Philippo about his research into his biological family and discoveries over the years, which were aided in part to findagrave.com where he posted pictures from the burial grounds in hopes of finding more connections. He had found initial family members via a DNA ancestry business.
“I enjoy that puzzle aspect of it,” said Philippo about his research.
That interest for history and puzzles also helped him connect with relatives when he solved a mystery surrounding a headstone found in his mother’s family’s burial plot at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy. He’d discovered how a headstone with portions of its information chiseled away wound up there. Though the family wondered about the misplaced headstone for years, they never knew how it got there until Philippo solved the mystery. Sadly, one of his cousin’s aunts died before the three of them could meet in person, as she had been very interested in Philippo’s discovery. However, at the invitation of his cousin, Philippo did attend services for his distant aunt at the chapel in Oakwood Cemetery. That was the first time he met any of his biological relatives in person, some of whom he continues to keep in touch with.
In addition to researching his biological family, Phillipo has been involved with New York State legislation that seeks to get a bill passed allowing sealed adoption records to be opened. He is also heavily involved with Bastard Nation, the Adoptee Rights Organization.
“We’re hoping that maybe this will be the year that the law changes and passes the Assembly and passes the Senate. The first bill introduced on the subject of letting adoptees having greater access to their own records in New York State was 1975…there was a hearing in 1976 there has been a bill on the topic in almost every session since,” Phillipo said.
“Right now, things look pretty good but the bill has not been delivered to the governor by the legislature,” added Phillipo. The governor will either sign the current proposed bill or decline it (hopefully the former) before the end of this session. If declined, the process will start again at the beginning of the next legislative session.
A previous bill on the same subject was vetoed by the governor. Phillipo explained that it had many flaws and the governor eventually called for a Department of Health committee to have a meeting with stakeholders (adoptees) to look at a better bill on the subject.
“This is a bill that came out that committee so it bodes well for being accepted. The delay may have something to do with waiting for a day with some kind of public event,” Phillipo said.
The effort to get this bill passed has been a very long time coming. Phillipo said that there are activists who have been at a 1976 hearing about the bill, who were also at the 2014 hearing in the legislature who are still active today.
“There are also legislators who were adopted and are open about the fact and have talked with their colleagues about their experience has helped to advocate for the bill’s passing,” said Phillipo.
Many advances have been made regarding ancestry/genealogical DNA, and to that end Phillipo is optimistic that adoptees are making some discoveries on their own, like he did.
“There’s a potential that they can learn something now about their biological ancestry that would not have been possible before,” he said. “Information is easy to obtain, though it’s not for everybody…why shouldn’t the records be open now? People keep registering. Even if a biological parent isn’t listed, one can do some research and solve some part of their own puzzle,” said Phillipo.
Presently, adoptees can petition the court to get their records open, but many of those petitions have been denied. Yet, Phillipo adds there are many more that get approved. Whether or not people understand or agree with Phillipo’s efforts, and those of many others to have adoption records opened, the reality is that these efforts will not change the facts of any one person’s biological history.
“The people in their lives are going to be more understanding than they think. Adoptees are also not really looking to publicize the information about who their biological parents are. They want some more information, they might want some communication but if that doesn’t work out, than that doesn’t work out,” said Phillipo.