Celebrating the 10th Annual Guided Spirit Walk this year, Visitor Services Coorindator Adrian Petry looks back over the many September weekends spent at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
Thank you to the 2021 cast of our Annual Guided Spirit Walks. Watch the ‘curtain call’ video below:
There’s nothing quite like a guided tour through a cemetery. There are a lot of versions of this type of event. A spooky walk in the dark, a theatrical ‘spirit walk’ featuring actors portraying folks buried in the cemetery, or even an afternoon historian-led walking tour. Everyone has their favourite experience but it’s the theatrical spirit walk that advances important and personal historical narratives with a high return on interpretive value. The spirit walks also have the unique ability to allow us to lift the primary sources found in the Museum’s collection off the pages of the archives and bring them to life. In most cases, there may not be another opportunity to present those archival sources to the public.
For more on the interpretive theory and history of spirit walks, watch Adrian’s lecture all about the spirit walk from the 2020 fall series of the Virtual Museum Lecture Series:
Working in Victoria Lawn Cemetery is quite special, regardless of the type of presentation one mounts. There is an atmosphere that isn’t reproduced in any other setting. Peace, calm, beauty abound, but sadness, tragedy, and death are unavoidable as the names and dates on the stones catch your eye and remind you constantly that our time here can be quite short. It’s the stillness, peace, and narrative that keeps me coming back, along with our volunteer performers and the hundreds of audience members who have joined us for the annual stroll.
Despite the inherent sadness, there are moments of levity and of ‘historical joy.’ That is really what the walks are all about: giving the audience a glimpse of history to bring meaning to our identity as members of the community.
Included below are a few of my favourite moments of ‘historical joy’ when the stars aligned and we were able to present the primary source, with an exceptional scene and performance, alongside the tombstone of the person being remembered, in an enjoyable and memorable way.
As the first wife of Captain James Norris, and sister to his business partner and fellow shipping magnate, Captain Sylvester Neelon, Saphronia’s story presented the perfect historiographical critique of traditionally male-dominated historical narratives. She asks the audience outright why her story is lost to the historical record, while her husband and brother’s achievements practically outshine her entire existence. Luckily for us, actor Tammi Freeman reprised her role from 2013 for the 2020 Virtual Guided Spirit Walks so you can watch her scene below:
Any and all audience participation!
There’s nothing worse (in my opinion) than audience participation in a traditional theatrical production. There’s no audience rapport and it is awful to get unexpectedly pulled up on stage in front of the bright lights. But, it’s a completely different situation at a spirit walk: there aren’t any bright lights and because you can chat with your fellow audience members during the walking interludes, it is much more fun to put the audience on the spot – and they seem to enjoy it too. No one feels embarrassed because the audience is ‘in it’ together. We’ve done this a few times all to the happily positive reaction of participants.
What’s a show without a little music?
In 2016 we ‘upped’ our game and added live, First World War era music to our production. It was an easy way to help the audience to feel what residents of St. Catharines were feeling in 1916 as the First World War dragged on. Familiar tunes like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ helped the audience immerse themselves in the stories quite quickly and the reaction – despite some shaky playing and singing by yours truly – was positive enough for many to request music become a regular part of the annual tours.
Private Ernest Jones
We know from the Welland Canal Force (in service in Niagara during the First World War) records and dreaded Defaulters Book that it was common for Force members to be late to muster, sleep through parade, or be tossed in the brig for drunkenness. On the 2014 tour, we found Private Jones (who appeared in the Defaulters Book himself) asleep only to be woken to a panic about being late and wringing his hands about his ensuing punishment – 168 Hours (7 days) in the cells on bread and water. His pal Private William Ecker, also a member of the Force, and buried nearby, shows up to collect him and a chaotic series of misunderstandings and comedic moments quickly gives the audience an idea of what life was really like as a member of the Welland Canal Force.
Comedy has a special power on a spirit walk, especially one set in a cemetery. It is usually unexpected and therefore the historical narrative and information presented has a good chance of sticking to our long term memories. We walk by Private Jones on most tours and I still give a little smile remembering Private Ecker (played by Brett Greening) shaking some sense into the panicked Private Jones. This scene, along with the rant of Saphronia Norris are two of my favourites scenes – though, there are many more favourites.
We can get loud!
Despite the calm and peace and quiet of the Cemetery itself, we can get quite loud if we need to. We’ve staged protests, political speeches, and even a troupe of newsboys shouting headlines for all to hear.
10 years? Here’s to 10 more!
I still can’t believe it’s our tenth year of spirit walks through Victoria Lawn Cemetery. I guess it’s true what they say about how time flies when you’re having fun because it definitely doesn’t feel like 10 years, and it’s definitely been a lot of fun. We have presented so many narratives through many themes including the construction of the Welland Ship Canal, the War of 1812, the First World War (3 times!), the story of Canada’s Confederation in St. Catharines, along with many stories of heartbreak, tragedy, loss, as well as community spirit, team work, and the daily life of residents in the 19th century. Each narrative has brought to life the history of not just a person buried at Victoria Lawn, but the history of our community. With each passing year, we add more narratives continuing the work of the previous tours in bringing our history to life.
Our tours would not be possible without the unapparelled commitment of our volunteer performers, including a few who have been with us since the beginning. Thank you also to our audiences, many of whom return year after year eager to witness another chapter of our rich history.
See you next September at Victoria Lawn!
Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.
Watch the 2020 Virtual Guided Spirit Walks