Guides tell stories from beneath the ground on cemetery tour

Anne Niles of Johnstown reenacts the life of Rose Knox, businesswoman and philanthropist, at the Knox family plot in Johnstown Cemetery Saturday during the annual historical tour by the Johnstown Historical Society. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

JOHNSTOWN — Some 70 to 75 people toured the Johnstown Cemetery Saturday to learn not only whose graves are there but what stories lie beneath the ground.

The stories are both old but also sometimes oddly contemporary, both famous or infamous.

Tour guides highlighted the lives of people buried there while in some cases costumed reenactors played the part of the deceased person.

Anne Niles of Johnstown, for example, gave a semi-theatrical summation of the life of Rose Knox, known for her business acumen and philanthropy and the junior high school named after her.

Women, who lived from 1857 to 1950, generally weren’t business owners when Knox took over Knox Gelatin upon her husband Charles’ death, said Niles. In fact, her business manager resigned rather than work for a woman.

Knox treated her employees as equals, immediately telling them to no longer enter and exit by the back door. On her 80th birthday, they gave her a silver vase with 80 yellow roses. Niles said the tradition of giving each junior high graduate a rose goes back to her.

Not all stories were happy ones.

Margaret Luck of Johnstown spoke at the grave of J.P. Argersinger who ran glove-making factories that produced 45,000 to 50,000 pairs of gloves annually.

One of his employees, Trezia Komeray, who lived in a Slavic boarding house, met an untimely death. She was apparently courted by a Josef Ziamel whom she agreed to marry but was unwilling to set a date. Ziamel slit her throat but decided not to cut his own throat “because it hurt.” He was convicted of her murder and electrocuted.

At the Jeffers family plot, the unfortunate Cora Jeffers met an untimely death at the age of 24 after being shot three times by an angry suitor, Israel Wolenski, who wounded himself, according to reenactor Jessica Henry McClements of Johnstown.

Jeffers died two years after the shooting, but Wolenski was acquitted because of insanity related to his rage and alcohol. Jeffers had been unwilling to marry Wolenski because her father did not want her to marry beneath her station and refused his permission, threatening to disinherit her.

Barney Vosburgh, a Johnstown undertaker, is buried in the cemetery. Reenactor Brian Barnett, a funeral director himself with Ehle and Barnett of Johnstown, told the touring people that medical science of the late 19th century couldn’t always determine if someone was in a coma or not dead. That’s why bells were sometimes attached to corpses in case they awoke—the origin of the saying “saved by the bell,” he said.

Joseph Balch (1760-1855) was a drummer during the Revolutionary War, and drumming was used to signal troops to turn left or right or fire their muskets. He was the owner of DeFonclair Inn, now Union Hall, in Johnstown and died at 95 in church holding his Bible.

Brig. Gen. Edgar Dudley (1845-1911) is buried in the cemetery and is famous for taking the official transfer of Cuba to the United States after the Spanish-American War by order of President William McKinley.

The tour is an annual fundraiser sponsored by the Johnstown Historical Society.

By Josh Bovee

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