by Chris Clemens
While in Cattaraugus County with a few friends, we were told of a haunted grave and the story of the Ashford Hollow Witch. My friends didn’t have to try very hard for me to agree to go find it. After we visited, I was intrigued enough to spend a few weeks researching the story a bit more. Here’s what I found…
A Nearby Haunted Grave
The initial story that piqued our interest certainly was intriguing. We were told, “One evening when a bunch of us were hanging around, one of our friends said he was gonna head up to see the Disch grave. We all warned him and told him bad stuff happened there, but he said he still wanted to see it since he never had. Well, an hour later he returned to us and something seemed off about him. Someone asked if he was alright and he showed us his finger tip that had turned black. He had touched the letter ‘C’ on the headstone, which is the only letter that doesn’t grow moss, with that same finger. There were no other signs or symptoms other than his finger tip having turned black and him appearing to be a bit shaken up about what had happened.”
If you’re thinking that is a tall-tale, so was I. But, the guy who told us the tale had already earned my respect, and at the very least, I enjoy folklore. So, we set off on our witch hunt.
Rohr Hill Cemetery
The Rohr Hill Cemetery is located just about 20 feet off a dirt road just a half mile or so outside of the well-known Griffis Sculpture Park, which opened in 1966–57 years after the most recent interment at the gravesite. The term “cemetery” is somewhat of a hyperbole, because these three burials under a solitary headstone are the only known burials on the plot. It’s on private property, but the site is maintained by the local municipal highway department. An imaginary border just beyond the headstone is realized by a much higher than average number of ‘POSTED’ signs. Clearly, the site receives plenty of curious visitors in need of a reminder that a deeper exploration of the woods is not allowed.
The Ashford Hollow Witch
Sophia Disch was born in 1833 near the town of Ashford Hollow. Born to Lewis and Salome Disch, they worked together on the family farm, most likely producing dairy products. According to the headstone, Lewis was born in 1794 and lived until 1882 (88 years) while his wife Salome had been born in 1798 and lived only 64 years when she died in 1862. Their only daughter, Sophia, made Salome a mother at age of 35, late in life for the time period.
Sophia would’ve been 29 at the time of her mother’s passing, and was still living on her parent’s farm. She was most likely taking care of her father in her mother’s absence when she wasn’t doing chores on the farm. Sophia never married nor did she have children.
Which of that Makes Her a Witch?
To start, our experience at the grave turned up nothing out of the ordinary even with one of us touching the letter ‘C’. Furthermore, there wasn’t any moss on the grave at all, and it looked pretty well maintained. In fact, all four of us agreed that it felt quite peaceful there. I left a lone rock atop the headstone after we each spent some time at the site and we pushed on to our next adventure.
I contacted a number of historians in the region, but none were familiar with the lore surrounding the Disch story. However, before finding the grave ourselves, I stopped at a house with two guys working the front yard to ask for directions. They were a tad standoffish until I mentioned I was seeking the nearby ‘grave of a witch’. They immediately lightened up and knew what I was talking about and gave me precise directions. So–the story is certainly known by locals!
Ashford Hollow town historian William King knew perfectly of the grave and much of the recent history. He told me that the town actually installed the roadside ditch not for the purposes of water management, but in hopes that the late night intoxicated party goers would be deterred from congregating around the grave. Even though Sophia passed away 19 years after the fire that destroyed town records, there still was little documentation about the family in existence.
One of the tales about the Disch family is that they were buried here far away from others because of a disease they carried. Unfortunately for this story, the year of 1890 brought a fire to Ashford Hollow that destroyed every morsel of collected history that was kept in a wooden shed. While I concede that there is no evidence to indicate that the Disch’s didn’t carry a repulsive disease into the afterlife, there is just simply no evidence that backs the story up–including the time of death for each family member. The grave at Rohr Hill is not far from the Disch’s original farm, and in the 19th century, it was perfectly common for a rural family to bury their beloved in ‘unofficial’ plots on land near their homesteads.
I’ve attempted to get in touch with paranormal groups in Western New York, County of Cattaraugus Facebook groups, people I found on Instagram that live in the area–anyone who may have known anything at all or had an experience. The more I sought, the less I found. Until I went a bit north in to Erie County.
Mason Winfield of East Aurora is a paranormal researcher and author. In his book published in 2001 titled Spirits of the Great Hill: More Haunted Sites and Ancient Mysteries of Upstate New York, on page 80 he writes of the Ashford Hollow Witch. The book is now out of print, but it’s literally the only place I could find any information.
Winfield discovered an Ashford Hollow local named Gary Phillips who claims to have talked to an unnamed woman who was alive at the same time Sophia Disch was. This story describes Disch as having lived her years alone, a lifestyle most certainly thought to be odd for the time and setting. According to the book, Disch was found after meeting her demise while chopping wood, and wearing thirteen petticoats to keep warm. The source also claims that Disch was not treated well by the locals.
That’s It Then?
Folklore is fun to pass around and it’s neat to wonder about a person’s history. But, with all the information I’ve been able to find, the story of Disch being surrounded by ill-intentioned afterlife appears only to have been born of the mystery surrounding her last number of years lived in reclusion. The lifestyle of a woman choosing not to marry nor have children in the 19th century is one that wasn’t popular. No doubt, rumors swirled in neighboring towns and local gossip hounds spewed vitriol for the woman on the hill who choose a life of solitude.
Or, maybe she didn’t even choose it. Maybe Sophia’s dedication to caring for her father after her mother’s passing ensured that no suitor would take up with a woman believed to be past an age suitable for starting a family–a curse put on her by the bastion of 19th century societal mores. If that were the case, Sophia could have plenty of opportunity to feel resentment, but it would be her who experienced the curse.
There appear to be enough people in existence who know of the “Witch’s Grave” near Griffis Sculpture Park, but I had a hard time finding them. Those stories passed along through generations no doubt have attempted to legitimately piece together the life and afterlife of a small family, but in doing so may have introduced a bit of creative license to spice up a story void of detail.
Is there a witch buried at Rohr Hill Cemetery? I wasn’t able to find one. Then again, maybe she didn’t want to be found.
Sources and Additional Reading
Interview: William King, Town Historian (Ashford)
Interview: Len Nagel (West Valley)
Rohr Hill Cemetery on Historic Path of Cattaraugus County website
Interview: Michelle Gogel, Town Historian (East Otto)
Interview: Mary Elizabeth Dunbar, Town Historian (Ellicottville)
Book: Spirits of the Great Hill: More Haunted Sites and Ancient Mysteries of Upstate New York by Mason Winfield
Griffis Sculpture Park on ParanormalGhostSociety.org
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens