NEWBURYPORT — This is not your typical graveyard tour.
The popular television show “1,000 Ways to Die” has sparked a macabre interest in the many ways that human life can be extinguished, and this Halloween season the Historical Society of Old Newbury plans to give that theme some local context.
Dubbed “Halloween Hauntings,” on Oct. 26 the society will take visitors on a tour of the city’s most elegant cemetery, the Oak Hill Cemetery off State Street. Unlike the tours usually held in the cemetery, this one won’t focus on people’s lives. Instead, it will talk about the ways in which they died.
“I don’t think there’s been anything like this that has been done anywhere,” said Jay Williamson, curator for the Newburyport-based historical society. “We’re focusing on the different ways that people died in the 19th century, ways that people no longer die today.”
Oak Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of many of Newburyport’s most notable citizens. Established in 1842, it’s one of the first “rural garden” style cemeteries in the nation. Visitors pass through its massive granite gate that is inscribed with the phrase, “Until the day break and the shadows flee away,” and enter into a cemetery that has a distinct Victorian era feel.
Inside, Williamson noted, are stories both strange and tragic. Among them is the story of Francis Todd, whose body is pickled and preserved in a barrel of rum. He died in Havana of yellow fever, and his body was shipped home to Newburyport in the full rum barrel by his brother in law, William Nichols, in order to keep it preserved. He was buried in the barrel.
Tragically, Nichols died 10 days later in Havana, and there was no one to pay the same attention to his remains. He was buried in a mass grave in Havana.
There are many other stories to tell, of drownings, of diseases that have long since been eradicated from the United States, and of strange circumstances. There is also a story of a Newburyport mass murderer who once worked in the cemetery.
“We want to be respectful of those who died in the past,” Williamson said. “The people who lived 150 years ago when the cemetery was most active, those people had all the same emotions and reactions to death that we have today.”
The program will make good use of the cemetery’s most impressive structure, the Stone Memorial Chapel. Inside the chapel will be a multi-media program, as well as refreshments. A “1,000 Ways to Die” hayride narrated by WNBP radio host Peter Falconi will also be part of the event. And, of course, there will be appropriate organ music, performed by Jay Lane.
“This is a program that’s going to be fun and entertaining, but when you go out the door, you’ve learned a ton,” Williamson said.
The tour will be held Friday, Oct. 26 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Oak Hill Cemetery. Tickes are $20, and are available by calling the historical society (462-2681) or at the event. Participants are encouraged to come in costume if they would like.