Indiana Woman Uncovers Lost Graves

Shirley Wolf has always had a keen interest in geology. So when she took up grave dowsing, one might not question her actions. Her work has resulted in the discovery of many unidentified black cemeteries around Southern Indiana.

As the former president of the Geological Society of Southern Indiana, Wolf spent a lot of her time sitting in on lectures for her own research and for the education of her students at Ivy Tech at IU Southeast.

During one conference, Wolf became interested in cemetery research. She began to ask her neighbors if she could do some research for their families as practice. As she found information, she saw references to a cemetery that did not match the two known African-American cemeteries in Floyd County, Ind., where she lives.

As clues started to match up, she said she soon discovered an unidentified cemetery on a local man’s property. With his permission, she began to learn new things about African-American heritage that no one else ever knew just by using the “dowsing technique.”

According to a study done by William E. Whittaker at the University of Iowa, “dowsing” is a method used to find geological items underground. Using two metal rods, people walk over fields in straight or curved lines until, by some supernatural power, their rods cross, which signifies a find.

By using this method, Wolf said she can identify where there is a grave and its depth, and from there, whether it is a male or female corpse, she said.

People like Whittaker speculate the scientific explanation of dowsing. She said she does not know why it works but just knows it does.

“I don’t know how electricity works, but I know if I turn on my light switch, the light will turn on,” Wolf said.

According to Wolf, no one was working on the African-American cemeteries in the area, so finding all these unmarked graves brought her great satisfaction, she said.

Families around the Floyd County area come to Wolf with speculations that their private properties might have a cemetery. Many of these landowners are direct descendants of the people buried, too, Wolf said.

“I am telling them things that they never knew about their families,” Wolf said.

Some of the graves, she said, date back to the 1850s.

Sandy Ross Sandford, an old neighbor of Wolf’s, said she has always had a strong desire to find out information about her descendants, so when Wolf came to her, she was elated.

“It’s made a big difference in my life,” Sandford said.

Not only did Wolf find more than 100 graves from Sandford’s family, she said, but also her great-great-great-grandfather’s will and the freedom papers of her great-great-grandfather.

Sandford and her two cousins, who share the same desire to know more about the family, are still searching, she said.

“It’s been a wonderful revolution for me,” Sandford said.

In Floyd County, there are 10 definite cemeteries, Wolf said, while several more are still under investigation.

When asked if she had thought about extending her search for the cemeteries, Wolf said she was not so sure.

“There is plenty of work in Floyd’s cemeteries,” she said.


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