Haunted History | Old County Hall is at the center of Buffalo’s most dramatic moments


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Buffalo Rising’s Haunted History Series with Mason Winfield, offers readers a virtual mini-tour of several famous Buffalo landmarks, guided by beloved local historian, author, and paranormal scholar, Mason Winfield. The Haunted History series was created to celebrate the Halloween season in this unprecedented time. This content was made possible thanks to the generosity of our sponsor, Ellicott Hotels.


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Old County Hall is associated with a number of important events in the history of Buffalo, including the McKinley Assasination in 1901, the trial of his assassin Leon Czolgosz, The War Of 1812, and the Burning of Buffalo in 1813, as well as being built on the site of the Franklin Square Cemetery from 1804 to 1836.  “Old County Hall is not widely known as a haunted site, but it’s like a trainwreck of history,” said Mason Winfield, noted author, historian, and founder and operator of Haunted History Ghost Walks

For more than two decades, Mason has heard and researched countless stories of incidents of psychic phenomena, shadows darting at the eye-corner, phantom audiences, and voices heard in the dark night. On the topic of the paranormal he adds, “there is truth and there is paranormal truth. Truth, however we assure ourselves of it, is supposed to be real and objective. Paranormal truth needs only to be authentic. Paranormal truth is the record of what people say and think about paranormal subjects. It is folkloric, not scientific. The two kinds of truth do occasionally come together, however, the line between them is never certain. Welcome to the paranormal – and life.”

OLD COUNTY HALL

The architect for Old County Hall was Andrew Jackson Warner, who is known as Rochester’s finest architect.

The building was consecrated on July 4, 1876. Which also happened to be the 100th Anniversary of our Independence Day Celebration. “On what otherwise would have been a joyous ceremony, news came through of the biggest military disaster the U.S. Army ever had fighting Native Peoples – the Battle of Little BigHorn,” Mason adds, “The battle happened a few days prior, June 25-26, 1876, but news came into Buffalo during the ceremony. “I know that the news had a major solemnizing effect, but it’s important to remember that during this time a lot of the nation did not consider Native Americans to be our fellow citizens. They considered them to be barbaric strangers.” 

“All Andrew Jackon Warner’s buildings get ghost stories. We should comment that the style of Old County Hall is High Victorian Romanesque or Norman Romanesque.” 

According to Richard O. Reisem in Classic Buffalo, “Warner described the style as Norman, the term referring to Romanesque architecture in England. The building also hosts the female figures of Justice, Mechanical Arts, Agriculture, and Commerce.”

It’s not certain if Andrew Jackson Warner was a freemason, but the building’s design is heavily masonic or heavily drawn from the roots of freemasonry.

“Anytime you have a building with a steeple, tower or a cupola, it serves as a tuning fork or antenna for psychic phenomena. That building will get ghost stories and that part of the building will get ghost stories, which we certainly find with Old County Hall. The tower seems to be a focus for supernatural reports.”

Old County Hall stands on what was the site of the Franklin Square Cemetery which is where many of the soldiers were buried after the War of 1812. “Right on top of the old Franklin Square burial ground, which had a lot of the victims of the burning of Buffalo and war dead from the war of 1812. Many famous people were originally buried there, including a great Native American Seneca Warrior named Honayawas or Farmer’s Brother. He was later moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery. Although many were reallocated, there are surely bodies still buried under the earth there today.”

There was also a gallows on the North Side of the Building.

“As you stand on the East side of the building, the statute of George Washington in his Masonic Regalia is to your right. To my knowledge, there’s only one other statue of George Washington in his masonic regalia. Here we see him dressed as a freemason with the gavel of justice.”

“Old County Hall has a tunnel called the tunnel of tears. It’s a creepy underground passage built in the late 1800s that connects Buffalo City Jail with Old County Hall. It was put there to be able to transport prisoners from one building to another.”

ASSASINATION OF WILLIAM MCKINLEY

President McKinley’s body was laid in state in Old County Hall after his assassination by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The 25th President of the United States was one of the more popular presidents in our history. 

“There’s a lot of supernatural folklore that follows McKinely’s last few days in Buffalo. There’s an Amherst Street pub where his assassin stole the bar rag and wrapped the gun in it. The Hall of Music where the president was shot. The D.A.R. Mansion on Delaware Avenue, where McKinley had dinner the night before. The Wilcox Mansion, where Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in. The Milburn Mansion on Delaware Ave where McKinley was hospitalized and where he eventually died.”

One of the most frequent apparitions in Old County Hall is of the body of McKinley lying in state

On September 6, 1901, William McKinley, was shot on the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York. He insisted on greeting and shaking hands with the public, when Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen. 

After a valiant attempt to save the President’s life, McKinley died on September 14 of gangrene.

He, the said William McKinley, from the said sixth day of September, in the year aforesaid, until the fourteenth day of September, in the same year aforesaid, in the city and county aforesaid, did languish and languishing did live; on which said last mentioned day he, the said William McKinley, of the said mortal wound did die.

From the indictment by the grand jury of the County Court of Erie County for first-degree murder in State of New York v. Leon Czolgosz, September 16, 1901.

Czolgosz went on trial for the murder of McKinley in state court in Buffalo on September 23, 1901, nine days after the president died. Defense attorney Loran L. Lewis called no witnesses, as Czolgosz refused to cooperate.

It was in my heart, there was no escape for me. I could not have conquered it had my life been at stake. There were thousands of people in town on Tuesday. I heard it was President’s Day. All those people seemed bowing to the great ruler. I made up my mind to kill that ruler.

It took 30 minutes for the jury to convict Czolgosz, who was subsequently sentenced to death and executed by electric chair on October 29, 1901. Shortly after, Congress passed legislation that charged the Secret Service with the responsibility of guarding the president.

It is said that acid was placed in the casket to dissolve Czolgosz body, before he was buried in the prison graveyard.

WAR OF 1812

It was on this site that on December 10, 1813, Colonel Cyrenius Chapin surrendered the village of Buffalo to the British Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond after Brigadier General George McClure abandoned the village saying, “they may all be destroyed, and I don’t care how soon.”

Drummond rejected Chapin’s authority to surrender and proceeded to burn the village in retaliation for the American’s having burned the British settlement of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), and previously having burned the provincial capital of York (Toronto). see The Burning of Buffalo, by R. Arthur Bowler.

Still today, much of the county’s civic business is done in Old County Hall, particularly the basement, “the Police and Guards that work down there have told me that every couple years there might be twenty people waiting down there waiting for an appointment and they will all come running up the stairs, they saw something or heard something that absolutely spooked them. It could be in broad daylight. The apparitions that they see are described as human bodies with missing parts, missing limbs, but it was a burying ground for the war dead after all”

The British soldiers set the village on fire. The flames made quick work of nearly all of Buffalo’s 150 buildings, as well as the neighboring community of Black Rock. The British returned to Canada with 130 prisoners. They lost 31 men and the Americans lost 50 in the Battle of Buffalo.

When the fires ceased, all that remained was “the stone jail, Reese’s blacksmith shop and the house of Margaret St. John. Within a week of the attack, the residents of Buffalo began to rebuild.”

Old County Hall is so invested in the dramatic history of Buffalo. It shouldn’t be any surprise if some of these events recreate themselves while you are there. So beware when you enter, doing business at Old County Hall might give you more than you bargained for. 


Haunted History Tours | The Original Western New York Ghost Walk Since 1996

As long as people have talked together, there have been wonder-tales, including stories of ghosts. For fifteen years the ghost walks of Mason Winfield (author of nine books) have set the standard in upstate New York. Incorporated since 2004 as Haunted History Ghost Walks, these walking tours of haunted village sites are historic, informative, engaging, and even spellbinding. Mixed with the observations of local history and ghost stories are many eyewitness encounters. Marked by their eclectic blend of good scholarship, Native American tradition, an original paranormal philosophy, and superb storytelling. Book a tour here.


About Mason Winfield

Mason is a historian and folklorist, fascinated by the academic study of subjects like parapsychology, occult conspiracy, ancient mysteries, geomancy, and First Nations/indigenous tradition. He is always looking for connections, “as an author, researcher, scholar, and storyteller. Mason Winfield is a paranormal profiler who tries to make sense out of the big picture. Raised in the suburbs near Buffalo, NY, he was the only child of a middle-class family. An active, energetic kid with a deep inquisitive streak, an early predilection for reading and drawing. He has lectured all over New York State about ghostly and folkloric tradition. Mason is the world authority on the mystical, occult, and supernatural connections of East Aurora’s Arts & Crafts Movement community Roycroft. He has appeared as a guest expert on numerous TV, radio, and internet programs. He designed and hosted The Phantom Tour (2003), a two-hour TV program/DVD on haunted history in upstate New York. He has appeared on NBC’s Today Show and stars in a 2006 episode of the Travel Channel program Legend Hunters and has addressed the “ancient mysteries” conference of the New England Antiquities Research Association.

Mason has spoken about Native American legends and tradition on all three upstate New York Seneca reservations, as well as led workshops at the Spiritualist community Lily Dale concerning aspects of parapsychology and world tradition. In 1996, Mason founded Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., an upstate New York “supernatural tourism” company that leads walking and vehicle tours, conferences, pub crawls and performances.

As an historian and author, Mason has written or edited twelve books, including Shadows of the Western Door (1997) was a Jim Brandon/Weird America-style paranormal survey of Western New York. Ghosts of 1812, a study of the Niagara war and its folklore (Western New York Wares, 2009), and (with Michael Bastine) Iroquois Supernatural, a study of the traditions of the Six Longhouse Nations (Inner Traditions International/Bear & Company, 2011).


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Built in 1914 by Esenwein & Johnson, famed architects of the Statler, the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Temple of Music for the 1901 Pan American Exposition, 500 Pearl was originally constructed for the Buffalo Fraternal Order of Eagles, and the group’s defining values can still be read on the north side of the building: “Liberty, Truth.” As the organization grew, the recreational hub became a beloved gathering place for members including president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The terracotta-trimmed building was inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture. The first floor featured a lounge, billiard room and library, and the second floor’s lodge room is still intact today. The club’s success led to the building’s expansion in 1924. The addition included an ornate ballroom and auditorium for cultural and social gatherings. It also expanded the FOE’s recreational program by including a pool, bowling alley, new billiards room and gymnasium. Years later, mini golf would also find its way into the building.

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// Read more from Mason on Buffalorising.com


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