Monday, November 15, 2010

Death by the Acre...

Two weeks ago I wrote about Sydney's first cemetery beneath present-day Sydney Town Hall. At that time I mentioned that a number of bodies exhumed were re-interred at Rookwood Necropolis. The interesting thing about this cemetery is it's the largest multicultural burial ground not only in Australia but in all the Southern Hemisphere. In the three square kilometers (over one square mile) of grounds approximately one million souls have met their final rest. Though some may not be so peaceful. Rookwood is also said to be the most haunted cemetery in the world.

An ideal spot for a new cemetery at Haslem's Creek (now Lidcombe) was chosen in 1862. The 200 acres were far enough away from Sydney as not to worry about encroachment (or so they believed). By 1879 the government needed to purchase an additional 577 acres to make more room. Originally a railway led to the cemetery for funerals but that ceased in 1948 after automobile funerals won out in popularity. Four of the five stations were demolished, with the last one being sold to Reverend Buckle in 1951 who dismantled it and reconstructed the depot as All Saints Church of England in Canberra's suburb of Ainslie. Yet many buildings remain, including a dozen chapels, three florist shops, and two cafes. It's practically an entire city for the dead.

Some of the oldest sections of the cemetery are overgrown with abundant indigenous plants as well as many various horticultural specimens. The Friends of Rookwood Inc. offers a variety of historical tours covering some famous and fascinating people buried throughout the cemetery. And undoubtedly one of the most interesting people you will find among the headstones is William Davenport.

The Davenport brothers, Ira and William, were highly acclaimed in their time as Spiritualist mediums. Born in Buffalo, New York the duo toured the United States for 10 years and met a great deal of skepticism from Houdini and others intent on exposing their magician's tricks as fraud. At the age of 36, William passed away from Tuberculosis on July 1, 1877 at the Oxford Hotel in Sydney. Ira returned to the US until his death in 1911 at which time he was buried in Mayville, New York.

As far as wandering souls are concerned, there is some debate about how haunted the cemetery really is. And we don't just mean last year's horny Satanist. If you ask tour guide Robyn Hawes she'll tell you there are no ghosts at Rookwood. Yet for decades haunting rumors have persisted. Allegedly both visitors and employees have experienced paranormal phenomena in Rookwood. Perhaps it's caused by a lonely convict of Davenport himself making one last appearance to better his reputation? Or is it just that pesky belief that all cemeteries must be haunted? Either way it's worth a visit just for the old Victorian headstones.

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