The ghosts of Somerville tell all
By Andrea Gregory
The wind will whistle as it blows a chilling breeze. The ground will crackle beneath the footsteps of visitors. Flashlights will illuminate aging gravestones. And a handful of ghosts will tell their stories above the very ground which they were laid to rest.
Milk Row Cemetery, 439 Somerville Ave., will be haunted this Halloween season. But it is a group of local historians rising to the occasion, not the actual spirits of Somerville’s past.
The 19th century burial ground is a suitable stage to bring up the past in the first Halloween eve production of The Ghosts of Somerville, said Barbara Mangum, who has been involved in history and art preservation for 25 years. She said it is a history lesson with a unique twist.
“The ambiance is real,” said Mangum. “The idea is to bring people into the cemetery.”
Historic Somerville in association with the Somerville Museum and the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission have crafted The Ghosts of Somerville – a play of sorts. A series of short monologs will introduce the lives of those buried in Milk Row Cemetery. Collectively, it is a story of Somerville’s past. The production is intended to be a festive celebration of local history and raise money to help restore the site.
“The only way in which it is scary is we are dealing with a real graveyard. Real people died,” said Mangum. “So, you have to be respectful.”
The cemetery is not a very large area, but almost 1,800 people are believed to have been buried there. There are only about 60 graves marked in the cemetery, and many of the headstones are leaning chipped or cracked.
“It was a wonderful cemetery, but it is in terrible condition,” Mangum said.
According to Mangum, the goal is to raise $1,500 to repair several of the gravestones. Acid rain and more than a century of New England weather have taken its toll on the markers.
In September 2002 a master plan to restore the cemetery was created. The city plans to match a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council that will address other problems due to the cemetery’s age in the spring. And a $500 donation from The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will help restore the large Civil War monument – one of the oldest in the country – situated in the center of the cemetery.
Milk Row Cemetery was officially labeled and deeded as a cemetery in 1804. The land was farmland at the time, under the care and ownership of Samuel Tufts. The first to be buried were immediate family. Later, it went on to include friends. By the 1830s it was possible for anyone to be buried as long as a $1-fee was paid.
The city took over ownership and care of the graveyard in 1892. For the past several years, Milk Row Cemetery has been closed to the public.
Brandon Wilson, executive director for the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, said Somerville Avenue used to be known as Milk Row, hence how the cemetery got its name.
Wilson said the poor condition of the site does not take away from the value it adds to the community.
“I think it is an asset right now,” said Wilson. “It is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area.”
Ideally, Wilson said she would like to see the cemetery open to the public on a regular basis.
The Ghosts of Somerville performance debuted in May for historic preservation month. Halloween seemed like the perfect opportunity for an on core, said Mangum, who has been rehearsing her role as Miss Clairiana Bailey. Bailey – who documented many of the original inscriptions on the gravestones - was buried in the cemetery more than 100 years ago. But on Oct. 30, she will lead visitors through the grounds, introducing them to the old souls of Somerville.
“We have quite a number of those types of ghosts,” said Mangum, adding, “The costumes are very authentic.”
Just over a decade ago, Kristi Chase moved to Somerville. Right away, she took up an interest in local history. The house she moved into, it is even one of Somerville’s historic homes.
Chase is taking on the ghostly role of Anna Rand, a widow who helped warned Somerville British regulars were on the prowl. The famous midnight ride of Paul Revere occurred on the same night as the warning the warning from widow Rand.
“This is not your run-of-the-mill reenactment,” said Chase. “It’s a different way of spotlighting our heritage, and it’s a fun way of bringing this out. If you are observant, you can see the ghosts of the past everywhere.”
The Ghosts of Somerville will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 per person or $10 per family and can be purchased at the event. Everyone in encouraged to dress up and bring a flashlight. The subject matter may not be appropriate for children under 8 years old. For more information call (617) 625-5809.