Milford expert locates, maps long-lost graves
Palance, the owner of Auto Mech Cemetery Mapping in Milford, maps cemeteries using simple tools such as tape measures and more advanced gadgets including ground scanners and GPS. The work involves determining who is buried where and creating databases.
Currently, Palance is busy mapping the Vale End Cemetery in Wilton, home of the “Blue Lady” ghost. Some people believe that Vale End is haunted by the spirit of a woman named Mary Ritter, whose husband, Isaac Spaulding, was so cheap he buried his second wife, also named Mary, in the same gravesite, Palance said. Angered by the dishonor showed by her husband, Mary Ritter purportedly storms around the graveyard, revealing herself only as a flash of blue light.
Palance, who has been spending a lot of time at Vale End lately, said he's trying to hurry up his work and get out of the cemetery before Halloween draws people in search of Mary's ghost. And Palance warns people who wander into the cemetery during the night to beware of what they might encounter.
“If you see flashing blue lights at the Vale End Cemetery after dark, it's not Mary Ritter. It's the Wilton police and they will arrest you for being there,” he said.
Palance said he's never seen the Blue Lady, or any ghost, but he has seen some unusual things while working in graveyards. In one old burial ground, he happened to look up to see a horse grazing nearby.
“At first I didn't think anything of it, but when I looked again, it was gone,” he said. “That was creepy.”
Palance has also shared some of his stories and the secrets he's learned about graveyards over the years. He gave a talk recently at the Milford Public Library about his discovery of the old County Farm Cemetery in Wilton, and the icy path that got him there.
The County Farm in Wilton was established in 1867, Palance said, and was the place that Hillsborough County sent people who were considered mentally retarded or insane. Other residents included petty criminals and those who owed debts they couldn't repay. Tales of horrific conditions at the poor farm have been passed down through generations, said Palance.
“I've read stories of people spending their lives in cages,” he said.
The people who died while living at the farm were all buried in a mass cemetery, marked with only a single stone. Palance made it his quest to locate the cemetery on behalf of the Wilton Historical Society. Though the society vaguely knew where the place was, getting there was difficult because it was surrounded by private property.
Using his GPS, Palance carved a path through the woods and discovered the cemetery, now completely wooded. In fact, people walking through the woods would have no idea the place was a cemetery, Palance said. He was able to map out the perimeter using clues he found in the ground — old hinges from a gate and other tell-tale signs.
During the Milford event, Palance talked about slipping through the ice on a swamp on one of his excursions to the cemetery, and his quest to make it out without becoming one of the dearly departed himself. And in honor of Halloween, Palance discussed his recent trip to the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.
On Nov. 11 at the Discover Portsmouth Center, Palance will give a talk called “Rest in Peace: The Moving Dead” during which he will explore the challenges of tracing where bodies were buried in the ever-changing New England landscape. Palance will also talk about how often in his research bodies show up in places where they simply shouldn't be, and he'll explain how and why.
For information on the Portsmouth event, visit www.portsmouthhistory.org.