Guided Spirit Walks 2019 Behind-the-Scenes: RESEARCH

This summer I have had the amazing opportunity to work at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre as the Programming Assistant. I have lived in St. Catharines my whole life and grew up visiting to the Museum with my parents and grandmother. My grandfather was an engineer on the Algoma ships, so my family ensured that I understood the importance and beauty of the canal from a young age. It is safe to say working at the museum is a full circle moment for me! I have worked in public history before, but this is my first time in a programming position. I help the public programming team run activities and tours, aid in developing future programs, and help in any way I can with day-to-day office functions.

Part of my work plan includes assisting in the development of the 2019 Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

Welcome to a behind-the-scenes look at our research and writing process, rehearsals, costumes, and much more for this year’s Guided Spirit Walks, with some sneak peeks of what is coming in September!

Our annual Guided Spirit Walks is in its eighth year. Participants are guided through the cemetery, stopping at headstones to hear about the stories, as told by volunteer actors, of those who are buried there. The script is based on primary source material, including oral history interviews, newspaper articles, obituaries, letters, diaries, and others from the collection at the Museum. As historians, it is important for us to stay close to our primary sources in developing the script in order to ensure historical accuracy.

This year’s Guided Spirit Walks production is entitled “Glimpses of St. Catharines: Stories of the Famous and Infamous”. Typically, the walk focuses on a specific year and a specific theme in St. Catharines history, but for the first time, we are changing things up. You’ll hear stories from the Rebellion of 1837 to prohibition in the 1920s.

Research for the production began in April, and when I began in mid-May we worked together to find stories that could be shared. We had to find stories and historical figures that a) fit the theme and had an interesting story of fame, infamy, and/or scandal and b) are buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery – this proved quite difficult in the beginning.

Des has been a volunteer for the Guided Spirit Walks since its inception in 2012. It’s amazing to have all of our volunteers enthusiastic and involved in the Guided Spirit Walks throughout the process. I told him I was on the hunt for scandals that have happened in St. Catharines and he told me about the Samuel Stinson murder.

In the Museum Galleries, there is a short blurb about the Russell House Hotel being owned in 1843, by a Samuel Stinson and only three years later, in 1846, was poisoned by his wife and William Holmes. Safe to say I was intrigued, so I began the archive hunt for more information.

At first, I found nothing… I was quite frustrated because I couldn’t understand how something as scandalous as a murder of a hotel owner was nowhere to be found. I used microfilm reader available in our reference library to read St. Catharines Journal newspapers from 1846. I did not have a date for the murder so I patiently scoured the microfilms from 1846 hoping to find anything about this murder. There had to be a trial coverage, or an obituary, or something! Sure enough I saw a blink-and-you-miss-it short blurb noting that full coverage of the Samuel Stinson murder trial was available in the British Colonist newspaper. Bingo! I did some online research and found that the Toronto Public Library has digitized the British Colonist which covered “one of the most painfully interesting trials that was ever our lot to witness” in two of their May 1846 editions.

Sara snapped this picture of my first microfilm adventure!

After all of this success in research, I was disappointed when I thought we hit a dead end. Victoria Lawn Cemetery was established ten years after the murder, so there was no way that Samuel Stinson was buried in the cemetery. The tours work best when we include folks who are actually buried there. However, Samuel and Ann had seven children, three of which testified in the trial. We went to work searching for their burial locations. Sure enough, Eliza McLean (née Stinson) is buried in the Old Cemetery of Victoria Lawn.

Eliza was 13 years old when she testified in the trial. She testified alongside her eldest sister Ellen who was “attired in deep mourning, and while no one could fail compassionating the cruel situation in which she was place, all admired the self-possession she evinced and the artless ingenousness with which her evidence was given.” and her younger brother Thomas Jr., who was 10 years old at the time of his father’s death.  

This year’s Guided Spirit Walks will feature Eliza and Thomas Jr. taking the stand in the murder trial of their father, Samuel Stinson. We will use the printed transcripts of the court proceedings from the British Colonist newspaper. The scandalous details and the shocking outcome of the Stinson murder trial will be revealed to participants of the Guided Spirit Walks.

Sorry, I told you these behind-the-scene posts are just sneak peeks!

Leading up to the Guided Spirit Walks, keep an eye out for more behind-the-scene blog posts about the research and writing process, rehearsals, and more!

Special thanks to Toronto Public Library for open access to their online digital archive!

From the May 1st, 1846 edition of the British Colonist newspaper depicting the accused: Henry Byron and Ann Stinson.

Guided Spirt Walks run September 6th, 7th, 13th, and 14th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets go on sale August 1st at $12.00/person. For more information, visit our website.

Amanda Balyk is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is completing her M.A. in History at Brock University.


  1. I believe the guided spirit walks are an important contribution to the Niagara Community, in such an iconic local landscape for the St. Catharines folks, with a remarkable cemetery, magnificent tombstones, and beautiful landscape around us. Thanks to all those that support and contribute to it.

    I look forward to this years Spirit Walks with relish. I shall also forward this to those that do not see the Museum blog.

    Gail Benjafield

    • Thank you very much for your kind message, Gail! We are grateful for the positive support this program receives and we look forward to another fantastic season!

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