EL PASO — As you walk past gravestones so old that parts of the names are chipped off, you can’t help but wonder what the bodies look like after all these years. Your steps become slow and you apply as little pressure as possible, trying not to disturb the dead. What if you had a chance to see someone that was resting below? Would you take it? Many El Pasoans and tourists to the city have gathered at the Concordia Cemetery to participate in ghost tours, in hopes of seeing a spirit from beyond.
The ghost tours of the cemetery are conducted by the Paso Del Norte Paranormal Society (PDNPS) with the support of the Concordia Heritage Association (CHA). The CHA was started in 1990 in response to the lack of attention that the cemetery received. A lot of El Paso’s history is present among the gravestones at the cemetery, and yet, it was slowly deteriorating. The CHA has done a lot of restoration and publicity for the cemetery to try and remedy this. One change that the CHA is thrilled about its Concordia’s classification as a Texas State Historical Cemetery.
According to the CHA’s website, Concordia Cemetery started out as a ranch owned by Hugh Stephenson. Stephenson’s wife, Juana Maria Ascarate, was the first person to be buried there in 1856. The land became a popular burial site in the 1880s. Not long after, by the 1890s, various groups bought sections of the land such as: Catholic, Masonic, Jewish, Black, Chinese, Military, Jesuit, city, and county. Today these sections are still visible, with 65,000 individual graves according to El Paso County’s website.
The cemetery is the final resting place to many former El Pasoans, including the famous and notorious. Among them are: Dr. Schuster, founder of Providence Memorial Hospital, James H. Biggs, WWI aviator for whom Biggs Field is named, and arguably the most popular, John Wesley Hardin, an outlaw and gunfighter in the American Old West who gained his reputation by supposedly killing more people than Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
The proceeds from all tours go to the restoration and preservation of the dilapidated grounds, that can be seen from Interstate 10. Melissa Sargent, the Concordia Cemetery Public Relations Representative, said, “From the freeway, it looks kinda deserted and that not a lot is going on.” The cemetery doesn’t look like most you would see on TV. There aren’t nice, parallel rows of perfectly crafted marble headstones coming up from freshly mowed grass. Instead you will see dirt, wooden crosses, concrete headstones, dirt, a bustling I-10 to the south, dirt, the Franklin Mountains looming overhead to the north, and some more dirt.
With its reputation, and it being a cemetery, vandalism and trespassing during closed hours were high. On Saturday, March 7, 2009, eleven concrete benches were destroyed. Henry Flores, Vice President of CHA and co-founder of PDNPS said, “They were lifted, destroyed, taken apart. Eleven of them. And they cost about $150 each one.” Sargent said, “Hey, this is a historic site. It’s not someplace to go around and knock over gravestones and graffiti the place. It’s actually an important place, and we wanna remember all that were buried there.”
These two reasons: vandalism and the conditions of the cemetery are what brought the ghost tours to life. “There’s been a lot of vandalism in the cemetery and people breaking in… So we decided to put both of these organizations together and do a ghost tour. We talk about the history of El Paso through the eyes of Concordia, and also we talk about the paranormal activity that happens there,” Flores said.
The ghost tours are also a fun, legal way for people to see the cemetery after hours. According to Flores, “Some people still go jump the fence, and wanna get spooked, if the security department finds them, they get arrested. The ghost tours are a perfect way to go into the cemetery, get spooked, learn something, and help out the cemetery for something good.”
The tours, which are given the first Saturday of every month, began a year ago, and have been growing in size. Especially during the summer months when a tour group will usually consist of 100 paranormal seekers. For skeptics of ghosts and spirits, Flores said that while every tour is different, “Everybody always leaves with something. Either a photographic souvenir, or maybe more education on the history of El Paso.”
Flores starts each tour with a how to on paranormal investigating. “I teach people how to become paranormal investigators, how to use common sense and basic sciences, how to take pictures, and what is an orb.” Seasoned pros often return for more tours after experiencing an orb, a shadow, or an apparition on their last tour.
On previous ghost tours, participants have seen many spirits. People have claimed to have seen two ladies in white. One appears close to the cemetery’s time capsule, while she screeches to the back wall. The screech sounds almost like a car hum, and investigators feel a particularly cold wind when this occurs.
The other lady in white has a name: Lady Flo. She is an African American woman wearing a beautiful white dress and goes from one side of the cemetery to the other. It is believed that she is a woman named Florida Wolfe, who often wore similar dresses.
Another experience that past tours have encountered is the presence of someone sitting on a bench hanging from trees. But when they approach it, no one is there. When passing a section of the cemetery where children are buried, some women feel someone tug on their back pockets or tap the middle of their backs. Flores believes that the children will do this when they feel more comfortable with a particular woman.
The notion of dead children is something truly tragic, even in a cemetery full of bodies. People often don’t imagine children in a cemetery. They picture the aged and the sick, not babies. Just imagining the pain of the parents as they bury their infants and toddlers is heartbreaking. Flores doesn’t think most of these children suffer. However, there are some that truly affect him. “[The] only thing that scares me is little kids that need my help. There are kids throughout the cemetery. They’re playing, and they’re giggling or laughing. They’re being little punks.” One of the tours main stops is at a white metal crib, belonging to an infant named Cynthia.
When occurrences like this are the norm, abnormal activity must be truly phenomenal. Flores recollects his weirdest paranormal activity on a tour. “We saw what looked like a headless apparition. There was what looked like a torso, like a t-shirt floating in the wind. This conversion didn’t have a head or arms. People weren’t scared. They just ran to it and started taking pictures.”
In moments like these, most people not on tour would also run… in the other direction. Flores, not surprisingly, isn’t one of them. He said, “To be honest I really don’t get scared. The first time I saw a full bodied apparition was when I was a little kid. That scared me to the point where nothing else combined comes close to it. I’ve been inside churches that have demons. I saw a lady one time that didn’t have any eyes.” Flores is still searching for that defining moment that will revival his first experience when he pissed his pants and ran inside.
Some of the horrifying sights on tours don’t come from the spiritual realm. They are the results of humans. The tour groups have stumbled upon, “Some mutilated animal body parts. I’m not sure if it’s satanic or curandera, but we have seen a lot of dead cats, dead dogs, we have seen the head of a cow. Really disgusting stuff.”
These are the reasons the tours exist in the first place. To keep the cemetery a safe place that honors those buried. Sargent is a big supporter of the tours since they bring in visitors to Concordia that would ordinarily never go. In March’s tour group, a group of Gothic people showed up. “Its kinda weird because they’re all in black and look kinda like vampires. And then we had a Christian community that came on the same tour,” Flores said. This odd mixture of people is what makes the ghost tours vital to Concordia Cemetery.
Sargent sings its praises not for its spook factor, but for what they do for history. “It’s been a really good way of getting information about Concordia out there. It is a state historical cemetery. How important it really is, because cemeteries really are like history books. Each person that was buried there has a chapter in that history book.”
That book is one that will be hard to find anywhere else. “There are unique stories there. It’s not just a plain cemetery. You’ve got dead fighters, a Chinese cemetery. It’s got a really exciting story,” Sargent said. If anything, it’s different than many attractions in El Paso. Flores boasts that it’s something unique for when, “People get tired of walking in Wal-Mart.”
The CHA also hosts other events at Concordia to help raise money. The John Wesley Hardin Secret Society and the Walk Through History are annual events that both feature grown adults playing dress up in period costumes pretending to be some of the cemetery’s most famous inhabitants.
Both organizations have hopes of expanding. The CHA will continue to raise money for restoration and self guided signs throughout the cemetery. Their ultimate dream is to open a visitor’s center at Concordia. The PDNPS is looking to have a TV show called “Fantasmas” based on their investigations within the year. Flores describes it as similar to shows already on TV like “Ghost Hunters.” Only the show will be bilingual, feature El Paso, and will differ from its competitors in one other major area. “You know how on those shows when they say, ‘Oh my God! Did you see that?’ But they don’t show you, and the music gets louder? We’re gonna show you what we’re looking at.”
The cemetery can be a dangerous, luring place and Sargent hopes that one day, it will only be the latter. The last time somebody actually died on the premises was in 1989. While hanging out after hours, a trespasser’s head was smashed with a rock while under the influence of drugs.
Concordia Cemetery contains important parts of El Paso’s history. The cemetery doesn’t look like the sacred burial ground of famous El Pasoans. With the efforts of the CHA and the PDNPS, maybe citizens will be more conscious of their footing.