Finding a grave in your backyard might rattle anyone’s nerves. Compound that with having a ghost lurking around your property and you might just think of moving.
But not Ron and Noreen Niles of Woodhaven, who have decided to stay in their home of 30 years—at least for the time being—despite the graveyard they found in their backyard and the ghost who hangs around their neighbor’s garden. “It’s a very interesting home,” said Ron.
The ghost, an old woman who wears a gown, just might be the spirit of the person who is buried in the Niles’ backyard. If it is, she’s one of the founding members of Woodhaven, possibly unhappy that she has been lost to history. The whereabouts of her official gravesite and that of her husband have not been recorded by any of the local historians or in the historical tracts that record these things.
A story about ghosts should not come as a surprise to many people who live in Woodhaven because, according to the Niles’ neighbors, the area is crawling with ghosts, a virtual spectral city of earthbound spirits, some still walking around in the garb of the 1800s.
This story begins two years after the Niles bought their home on 86th Street. They found a tombstone in their backyard belonging to Mary Eldert, who died in 1891 at the remarkable old age of 91 and 14 days.
“The fact that I might be living on a cemetery didn’t bother me,” said Ron, 61, the owner of a contracting firm that builds dentist offices. “I don’t get spooked.”
Niles had come upon the tombstone while in the process of clearing a garage from his property to make way for a new driveway. The tombstone, nearly four inches thick and weighing about 150 pounds, was lying face down under the soil behind where the garage had stood. Uncannily, the inscription on it today can still easily be read some 101 years after it was made.
Niles also found a base that the tombstone had sat upon and it was near a rectangular depression in the soil. After unearthing the tombstone, Niles came to the only rational conclusion his observations could deduce: Mary Eldert, wife of Eldert Eldert, one of the founding members of Woodhaven, had been buried in his backyard.
“Oh, she’s there alright. I’d guarantee it,” said Niles. “If I was going to sell my house, I might dig her up. But my wife won’t let me.”
Noreen Niles, 59, said she has a healthy respect for the dead. “I don’t want to disturb anybody or anything,” said Noreen, a registered nurse “Let everybody rest in peace.”
Noreen said she knows that only bad things can happen when a gravesite is disturbed. She’s seen all the movies: “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” “The Sixth Sense” and other cinematic ghostly revenge tales. “I don’t like the unknown,” she added.
The Niles are the third owners of their house which was built in 1911. They lived happily there, raising their three children in a neighborhood they love. They purchased their home from the estate of an eccentric math professor named William Apune, who had died of natural causes.
When they moved in, they opened a closet door and came upon a ghoulish discovery. They found an urn with the cremated ashes of Apune in it. “His ashes were left there and his children didn’t want to pick them up,” Ron said. “It wasn’t until I threatened to throw them away that they did eventually come and get him.”
The Niles also found out another interesting detail about their home. The wife of the first owner committed suicide on the property by throwing herself off a balcony, landing on the pavement 18 feet below.
Many years later, Ron, who is handy around the house, almost met a similar demise. He was fixing up the outside of his home one day when he accidentally fell from the same balcony. A tree in the yard broke his fall, and he barely escaped death.
After moving into the house, the Niles’ said strange things seemed to be taking place. One of their sons and an early tenant swore that the house was haunted. They tell of one incident when an ornament attached to a bathroom window suddenly and without explanation blew off its hinge. The children had also heard strange sounds like footsteps when no one else was home.
Ron, a savvy businessman used to dealing with worldly things, dismisses the incidents out of hand. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” he says. His wife is another story. “I believe there are ghosts and spirits hovering about, but I’ve never seen one,” she said. “If I ever did see one, my bags would be packed and I’d be out of here.”
About 18 months ago, a young couple moved next door to the Niles and the neighbors became friendly. The couple, who do not want their names used, say they see the spectral image of an old woman walking through their garden on their side of the fence that divides their property and the Niles’.
The husband, an architect, said he and his wife see the woman just about every night at 5 p.m. The sight is unnerving, but the wife says the ghost does not want to hurt or frighten anyone.
Could this be the ghost of Mary Eldert or the dentist’s wife who committed suicide? The couple cannot be sure. Bob Cecilio, author and president of the Flushing-based Psychic Club of Queens, said many people could see these so-called earthbound spirits.
“It’s a common occurrence,” he said. “The spirits come to these people because they are looking for help to be released. They don’t belong here. They know these people have a higher sensitivity and allow themselves to be seen by them.”
Allan Smith, vice president of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society, who helped restore the Wyckoff-Snedicker Family Cemetery on 96th Street behind St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, is doubtful that Mary Eldert is buried in the Niles backyard. He does not want to speculate about any ghost there.
The tombstone is authentic, but Smith thinks the tombstone may have been moved to the Niles home during an act of vandalism. No official record of the gravesites of either Mary Eldert or Eldert Eldert has been kept, although there is a reference to Eldert Eldert’s grave being in the 96th Street cemetery. It has not been found.
Eldert Eldert, who was 53 when he died, a grandson of the original Eldert who settled here, passed away in 1847, 44 years before his wife. He and Mary, nee Ryder, had been married in 1817. The Elderts were Dutch farmers who settled in Brooklyn in 1660 and later moved to Woodhaven and Ozone Park. They owned a wide swathe of land from what is now Eldert’s Lane on the Brooklyn border to Aqueduct Racetrack.
Smith, who viewed the tombstone last week, said Niles’ property is not an official private cemetery. There are 23 such sites in Woodhaven. “Mine makes 24,” Ron said.