On a humid autumn night in Ithaca, a group of about 25 walk down a dark alleyway, lit only by the soft amber glow of a street lamp in the distance. Huddled close together, they make their way down a path and toward a cemetery.
A twig snaps, a young girl shrieks. The group whirls around to see a woman, dressed in long white sheets, rise from behind a tombstone to tell her tale.
“Welcome to the Ithaca City Cemetery,” she says. “I stand here tonight in my winding sheets to greet you. … This place is host to too many of the children of the first 100 years of Ithaca. Like too many of my friends, I too succumbed to an untimely death.”
This story is one of about 15 told on the Haunted Tour of Downtown Ithaca, sponsored by the History Center. The tours, which were held Sept. 26 and 27 and will continue through Halloween, are part of a new program run by the center that offers the true stories behind the legends and mysteries of the town.
Wylie Schwartz, marketing and development manager for the History Center, helped organize the tour and said this is the first year the tours are being offered in Ithaca. Schwartz said she was inspired to coordinate the tours after going on a ghost walk in England.
“It’s a good way to learn about the place you live in a fun and interesting way,” she said. “Everybody loves ghost stories, so this just plays on that and kind of exploits it to educate people.”
On the tour, Ithaca resident Kelli Monce portrays Marjorie Sharpe, a women who was murdered in 1945 by her husband’s friend with his own revolver. She said because the town has so many college students and so few permanent residents, not many people take the time to learn the town’s intricate history.
“Ithaca has a lot of transplants, like people from out of town. … Until I did this tour I didn’t know a lot about local history,” she said. “It’s just a really fun way for people to get to know history here, especially for people who didn’t grow up in Ithaca.”
Schwartz said telling these stories is important and having actors perform them is much more effective than reading about them in a book.
“I really feel moved by all of the performances,” she said. “I really feel like it gives such weight and depth to some of these stories that are sort of forgotten from our past. I think that’s one of the key aspects to this project — just paying homage and respect to some of the people that lived here in our town [who] are just forgotten.”
Schwartz said one story on the tour many residents may have already heard about is that of Harriet and Edward Rulloff, a young married couple who lived in Ithaca in the 1800s. Edward, an author of well-known grammar books, was imprisoned on suspicion of murder after his wife’s mysterious disappearance in 1863.
Testimony during the murder trial revealed that Rulloff asked a neighbor to help him load a heavy crate onto a cart the morning after the disappearance and that later the same evening he was seen pushing an empty cart back from the lake.
Even though Harriet’s body was never found, Edward was hanged for the crime. According to Ithaca legend, his ghost can still be heard rolling a cart through the streets of Ithaca to this day.
Schwartz said attendance has been higher than expected and extra tour times had to be arranged to match demand. She said she hopes to do the tours again next year.
Ithaca residents Lisa Wesche and her daughter Erika Wesche went on the tour two weeks ago. Erika said the tour was eerie at times but that she enjoyed herself.
“It was really fun,” she said. “It was a little scary, but mostly cool. I learned a lot.”
Lisa said she heard about the tour through a Boynton Middle School e-newsletter and thought it would be an exciting learning experience for her daughter.
“I thought it would be a fun thing to do on a Saturday, but it was great that we learned things too,” Lisa said. “I had heard some of the stories from my grandfather, but there is just so much more to it that we heard [on the tour].”
Ruth Mitchell, an Ithaca resident and volunteer tour guide, said this is the first time she has done something like this but had a lot of fun and is eager to learn more about Ithaca now.
“The way this is done is so tasteful,” she said. “It’s something that’s fun for people to do — go on a little walking tour and hear about ghostly stuff, but it’s all history, it’s fact. Nothing is made up. Every story that’s told truly did happen.”
Tours will run Oct. 23, 24, 25, 30 and 31 at 7, 7:15 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door and can be purchased by contacting Wylie Schwartz at 273-8284 ext. 6.