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Haunted Cemetery Tour: Students liven up Halloween with ghosts of Milledgeville’s past

 

During the History Club’s “Haunted Cemetery Tours” in Memorial Hill Cemetery, Haley Johnson plays suspected witch Dixie Haywood.

Not only was Milledgeville the state capitol during Civil War days—over the centuries, it’s been home to some pretty interesting townsfolk: brothel owners, suspected witches, train robbers, murderers.

Some stories are completely true. And others? Well, what harm can it do to tell a few tall tales? Especially around Halloween. 

“There’s always a kernel of truth in these stories,” said University Historian Dr. Bob Wilson. “Some, like the last of the Western Bandits—we told it accurately from the get-go. But these others? They’ve become a part of Milledgeville folklore.”

The Georgia College History Club is helping the community get spooked by giving “Haunted Cemetery Tours” through Memory Hill Cemetery on Franklin Street—a tree-line graveyard dating back to the early 1800s.

Emily Bordas plays a woman
who kept a diary during the
Civil War.

The original tour started about 20 years ago, when Wilson dug up the original facts and myths on local townspeople buried here.

 

“The haunted cemetery tour’s definitely our biggest and most popular event, and one members have the most fun with,” said senior history major and museum studies minor Alena Rensch of Augusta, club president.

Over the years, students conducted their own research on the dead, in order to enhance their performances. Much like a living-history museum, costumed characters from the past come alive and interact with the public.

It’s a “small organizational feat, getting the tours together each year, Rensch said. It isn’t always easy working with student actors, costumes, varying tour-group sizes and keeping everyone safe in the dark. But putting a “historical spin” on Halloween is a lot of fun—something students and residents look forward to every year.

“It’s enjoyable,” Rensch said. “It gets people interested in local history, and it’s a fun, festive event for people who might not normally be interested with anything to do with history.”

Johnson (right) with Nikki Ackerman, who plays brothel owner Mary Ann Nelson.

Rensch likes playing one of the many spouses of Col. Thomas Dawson Johnson. For years, local rumors spread about a man with five or six wives. Johnson supposedly buried his wives in a circle around a plot in the middle, which he saved for himself.

In recent years, Wilson said a ground-penetrating radar was used to find graves without markers at Memorial Hill Cemetery. Turns out, there is one burial site with graves circling around it. During tours, though, the wives get a little creepy. They rush at crowds from the darkness—cloaked in black, some wearing old graduation gowns.

“People always get really excited about that,” Rensch said.

Alyssa Ivon rehearses her lines recently to play the tour guide.

Senior psychology major Alyssa Ivon of Lawrenceville has participated since freshman year. She enjoys playing Mary Ann Nelson, the Madame of a “house of ill repute” in Milledgeville. She was known to hobnob with prominent male citizens.

Ivon has also acted as tour guide, a job that requires memorizing a lengthy script. Satisfying the public’s curiosity is a challenge, because they often ask for more information.

“As the tour guide,” Ivon said, “it’s interesting to me to notice differences in what I’m saying to the audience and what I actually know to be true about people I’m speaking about. All of the people on the tour did exist and, to some extent, the stories are usually somewhat true.”

A crowd favorite is Bill Miner, who started his criminal career holding up stagecoaches. Miner later came to be known as “last of the Western Bandits” by robbing trains in Georgia and Canada. He’s the only person in Memory Hill Cemetery with two gravestones.

Miner often bursts out of bushes from nowhere, waving his toy pistol and telling people to “get their hands up!” These days, he particularly likes robbing students of their Bobcat dining cards.

Twenty students from all majors are performing this year, bringing ghostly residents back to life.

  • Dixie Haygood, the “Witch of Milledgeville,” is played by Haley Johnson. Haygood became an illusionist to support her family and was known for her amazing feats of strength.
  • Patrick Kane was a plantation overseer, who was said to be drunk when General William Sherman’s troops came through town. Kane irritated some union soldiers, who shot and killed him. He is played by Danielle Stewart.
  • Daniel Lyman, a young merchant, was so distraught his love married someone else, he hung himself. (In reality, Wilson said Lyman died of a disease that hit the city in the early 1820s.) He is played by Avery Aultman and Ben Smith.
  • James D. Allaman or “Stump” lost his arm while standing too close to cannons at the memorial for President Andrew Jackson. He later died of gangrene. Stump can be a little grim, waving his detached arm at crowds. Rensch is portraying his character.
  • Anna Maria Green Cook kept a diary during the Union occupation of Milledgeville. She’s a kindly ghost, who sits demurely on a gravestone reading to crowds from her diary by candlelight. Cook is played by Emily Bordas.
  • Marion Stembridge murdered a lawyer in offices above what’s now the Campus Black Box Theatre. Then he went next door to the Old Sanford building, where the courthouse is today, and killed another. That’s true. Stembridge is played by Juniper Guthrie.
  • T.J. Fish, as the story’s told, constructed a mausoleum for his family when he returned from war to find them dead of Typhoid fever. People say he sealed himself inside with a rocking chair and killed himself with a shotgun. (Actually, Fish never made it home from the war. He’s buried in a confederate cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. His father built the mausoleum.) Rensch is also playing Fish.

Ivon outside the mausoleum, where the ghost of T. J. Fish allegedly responds if people knock.

History facts and folklore are all part of the fun. A little Halloween embellishment gets people interested in what happen in Milledgeville, Wilson said.

“The stories may be exaggerated, but it does ultimately connect with the history of Milledgeville,” he said. “It’s one way of approaching history. And it engages people. So, I see it as having real value.”

Tours are conducted by lantern at 8 and 10 p.m., continuing tonight and Saturday, Oct. 19-20. Tours last 30 to 45 minutes and begin at the cemetery’s front gate gazebo. Tickets are $7.

 

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