History Haunts the Cemetery Tour
–story by Ana Balka, photos Ellis Anderson and courtesy Hancock County Historical Society archives
“It all began with someone vandalizing the cemetery with spray paint, and I decided to sit in the cemetery and stand guard,” says Charles Gray.
Charles is the Lifetime Executive Director of the Hancock County Historical Society (HCHS). He says that a few other HCHS members joined him as sentinels that first night, and they sat around playing cards. “It wound up ‘Well, we’re going to be there; let’s do something,’” Gray says. The next year, the tour was born.
“Someone suggested that we to pretend to be the ghosts of the people,” Gray says, “and it started out as a ghost thing. But of course when we actually got around to doing it, it’s not a Halloween ghoul thing; it’s a formal presentation of history and genealogy.”
The tour now functions primarily (according to literature provided by Eddie Coleman, society newsletter historian and editor) to preserve and pass on knowledge of the area, to provide an annual community function that promotes the society, and to accept donations for its upkeep.
HCHS needs volunteers, including 10–12 actors to play historical characters, 10–12 cemetery guides, and also volunteer hosts for the night’s gathering at society headquarters, the Kate Lobrano House at 108 Cue Street. Visitors may meet there for hotdogs, homemade snacks, and punch after they’ve completed the tour. Volunteers are also needed to set up candles and mark the path through the cemetery.
Volunteer actors are required to be HCHS members, but guides and hosts may be people who are interested but have not yet joined. “This is a way members can support the society through the year,” says Coleman. “We [also] accept donations of cookies and cupcakes and things like that to serve when people finish the tour.”
Kate Lobrano, 1871–1921, whose former home is the society’s headquarters, is the only historical figure who has a permanent place in the tour’s cast of characters. Jackie Allain, Second Vice President on HCHS’s Board of Directors, who along with Eddie Coleman organizes the tour, does annual research to determine each year’s characters.
“I think the most interesting one that I came up with was the Yellow Fever Victim,” she says. “We do know there was an epidemic in town and many people died, but we don’t know where they’re buried.” (The HCHS website shows that the first cases of yellow fever in Bay St. Louis were confirmed on October 17, 1897, and the fever claimed at least a half dozen lives in the area that fall.)
A broken-down rocking chair once sat undisturbed outside the Society’s front door in honor of past member Dorothea Martin, whose character in the first few years of the tour was the “Nearly Departed,” and who was positioned in that chair at the cemetery gates with the donations basket. Katrina destroyed Dorothea’s home and she went to live with relatives in California, but she remained a member and stayed interested in the Hancock County Historical Society until her death in 2007.
“It was just fun to stand up there and tell people about it. I enjoyed sharing what I learned about them.”
A relative, possibly a niece, Karen recalls, of Louise Crawford even approached and said she appreciated Karen’s portrayal.
Organizers Jackie and Eddie say that at least two more actors (male or female) are needed for this year’s character portrayals, as well as several cemetery guides and Lobrano House hosts. Those who portray historic figures will get plenty of information and a script to go on. Interested volunteers can call the Lobrano House at 228-467-4090 or stop by from 10–12 and 1–4 any weekday.
The HCHS has a good reputation nationwide for the scope of its records, for its broad membership, and for its ongoing digitization project, which seeks to make files available to all via its website. The cemetery tour plays a major role each year in keeping this and all HCHS resources available to the citizens of Hancock County.
Coleman anticipates a busy night this Halloween. “This is something that you can do on Halloween that’s not just trick-or-treating, and it’s not a scary thing — the kids can come and learn about the history of the area.”