LEYDEN, Mass. — As the sun set behind South Cemetery, Elizabeth Black Strange told the story of how she met her husband, Robert: on an 80-day boat ride from Ireland to New York in the mid-1800s.
To the delight of the men, women and children gathered around Black Strange’s tombstone, she recounted how Robert left Ireland wearing his brother’s suit, which was anything but a perfect fit. Falling in love on the boat ride, the two married and eventually settled on over 480 acres in Leyden, living out a “real immigrant rags-to-riches story,” by Black Strange’s account.
Though she died in 1921, current Leyden residents were able to meet her and nine other predecessors in spirit through the second annual “Ghosts and Gravestones” cemetery tours organized by the Leyden Historical Commission.
The event served as a fundraiser for the Historical Commission and the Leyden United Methodist Church through ticket sales, a raffle and T-shirt sales. Before or after being transported to South Cemetery by hay wagon, tour guests could enjoy refreshments and children’s crafts in Town Hall.
Some guests happened to be descendants of the tour’s characters. As descendants of Black Strange, Leyden resident Kathleen Fritz, 68, her daughter Denise Goodman, 48, and her granddaughter Laura Goodman, 22, had all heard the quirky suit story before. But having so many relatives in South Cemetery and a love for history, the three attended to learn even more.
The group learned about William Dorrell from his son Stephen, played by Jordan Halzer. Halzer told of how Dorrell moved to Leyden in 1784 and founded “The Dorrellites,” who “had some new ideas.”
“They weren’t allowed to harm another living being, so they became the first vegetarians and vegans,” Halzer’s character said. “They also believed every day was sacred, not just Sunday.”
Dorrell was treated as a messiah by his followers, until the group eventually disbanded and was never revived.
Weaving through the tombstones and stopping sporadically to squint at an inscription, the tour groups heard about Matthew Severance, a Vermont native who escaped from capture by Native Americans in 1758 by hiding in a log for two days and three nights, later settling in Leyden with his son.
“The country was wild and uncultivated,” Rene Bernard, who played Matthew Severance, said of Leyden in the late 1700s. “The traveler was guided by marked trees.”
Nearby was Harriet Ann Severance, played by Susan Howarth, who spent most of her life in Leyden in the 1800s, leaving only to take care of an ill relative in Charlemont and to work in a hoop skirt factory in Northampton for four years.
“That was four years of hoping and praying I could come back to Leyden, quickly,” Howarth’s character said. “I loved it here.”
Attending the cemetery tours for the second year, Jill Cote, 52, and her husband Alan, 53, of Leyden, enjoyed seeing both new and old characters who chose to make Leyden their home.
“I love Leyden, so it’s awesome to hear about people way back when loving Leyden,” Jill Cote said.
Allison Henry, 38, of Greenfield attended the cemetery tours with her husband Jon and their three daughters. Henry said her family has a love of history and storytelling, especially 8-year-old Vivienne, and was intrigued to hear about how fulfilling their predecessors’ lives could be from a place that’s truly full of history.
“You drive by cemeteries and it’s full of people, but it’s full of their stories too,” she said.
Information from: The (Greenfield, Mass.) Recorder, http://www.recorder.com