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Poorhouse Cemetery harbors much mystery

Pushing aside thigh-high weeds, evading berry brambles and dodging humps of honeysuckle, along a trail behind an abandoned silo, the intrepid explorer will eventually come to a field with a low rock wall. Contained within its confines is a solitary, crumbling stone, the only real evidence of human presence.

Welcome to the Niagara County Poorhouse Cemetery.

In 1824, an Almshouse Law was established by New York, requiring each county to build an almshouse, or poorhouse, to care for the needy.

Niagara County's Poorhouse was established in Lockport in 1829 on Niagara Street Extension, across from today's Niagara County Jail. Included on the property was the home, a working farm, stone quarry and a cemetery on a 120-acre plot. (The Poorhouse remained at this location until the buildings were condemned and the facility moved to new property on Davison Road in 1915.)

In the cemetery of the Niagara County Poorhouse is a single standing stone showing the names of the Merritt family on one side, while the opposite is in remembrance of Louie Spencer, 115 years. How does a man such as Spencer rate having his name carved into stone in a cemetery devoid of stones and meant for those people who were indigent, sick or mentally ill?

According to his obituary, Louis -- or Lewis -- Spencer died July 22, 1884, at the Niagara County Poor Farm, where he had lived for several years. He had been a slave when he was young and used to tell tales of his life in the South. Although he was never sure of the year of his birth, people who knew him were confident that his age of 115 was accurate, possibly making him Niagara County's longest-living resident. But was he?

Records are muddy and conflicting. According to Spencer's admission records to the Niagara County Poorhouse, dated Oct. 15, 1874, he was 76 years old, a widower, and born in Hardy County, Town of Mobile. No state was indicated, but a Hardy County exists in West Virginia, and a Hardee County is located in Florida. To further muddy the picture, Mobile is in Alabama.

Going strictly by the Poorhouse admission, Louis Spencer would have been 86 when he died 10 years after admission, 30 years shy of his claim of 115.

In the 1850 Federal Census, Spencer shows up as 52 -- matching the age in the Poorhouse record -- and working as a servant for Lyman Phillips, who was a Lockport innkeeper. Between that time and 1855, Spencer commenced work for William Tenbrook, a Wilson innkeeper.

Unfortunately, the 1855 New York State Census for Wilson is missing and one cannot verify an age from that source, but in the 1860 Federal Census, Spencer was still employed by Tenbrook, at age 61. Again, this age matches information on the Poorhouse admission. Within the next five years, Louis had moved back to Lockport and was working at the Judson House. Amazingly, in the five years between the next census, Spencer has aged 20 years.

The collected data does not support his claim of 115 years before he died, as he would have needed to be born in 1769. The recurring, common age seems to place his birth around 1800. At any rate, Louis Spencer was an old man when he died.

A further question that stumps history detectives is why the name of Louis Spencer appears carved on a stone in a cemetery where there are no other stones. This was a pauper's cemetery hidden in the rear of the Poorhouse Farm. The county couldn't spare the expense of placing gravestones for its indigent people.

Likewise, who were the Merritts and why did they have a gravestone at the Poorhouse? In addition to that stone, there is an identical stone at the family plot at the Sawyer Homestead in Newfane. At which place are they buried?

Records show that Shubel and Sophia Merritt died from tuberculosis and were probably buried at the Poorhouse Cemetery to keep the rest of the family safe from the illness. The stone in the Newfane family plot is a memorial stone, placed to acknowledge their ties to the rest of the family.

Our research has shown that Sophia Merritt's middle name was Spencer, perhaps indicating that surname in her lineage. Was Louis a slave of the Spencer family and had taken the surname, following a member of that family north after he was freed? The problem with this hypothesis is that her family, the Wilsons, came from New England. Louis could have been owned by a family member and eventually freed, or he came as a free man from the South and initially found work with the Merritts. This might explain the "Hardy County, Town of Mobile" reference. Certainly, for whatever reason, Louis Spencer had close ties with the Merritt family, close enough to be honored for eternity with them on their gravestone.

According to an understanding of Poorhouse records, three tiers of burials exist: one person at a low level, one farther up, and one at a higher level. Again, this strengthens the close ties between Shubel and Sophia Merritt and Louis Spencer.

Louis Spencer remains a man of some mystery. He might not be Niagara County's longest-living resident, but his story makes one wonder about long-ago days when the area was still freshly carved from the old-growth forest and former slaves regaled Northerners with stories of the Old South.

Thankfully, the nearly forgotten Poorhouse Cemetery will soon be clean this summer. People Inc. will spearhead an effort to clear the burying ground of brush and trees with a group of volunteers. The cleanup will also include the placement of a marker in memory of all those who are buried there in the nearly 1,000 unmarked graves.

Craig E. Bacon is the deputy Niagara County historian.