Moffat Meets the Macabre
By Eugenia Moskowitz
The Hudson Valley is steeped in early American history and lore. And, luckily, also in historians who study municipal tax records, cultural artifacts, historical sketches and diaries, and other legal and personal documents to extrapolate and interpret what life was really like in the colonial, post-Revolutionary War, and post-Civil War eras. So when the Halloween season kicks in, the macabre visits Washingtonville, with historical fact to back it up.
Last weekend, historian and Moffat librarian Matt Thorenz, along with village of Washingtonville historian Linda Standish and First Presbyterian Church elder Nancy Popoloski, joined forces to organize their annual (and slightly grim) lecture and presentation focused on local personages buried at the Washingtonville All-Faiths Cemetery on North Street in the village. The so-called Cemetery Lantern Tour, initiated in 2014, last year took place at the cemetery where three men’s lives and deaths were presented as reconstructed from historical documents. This year, the lecture focused on on mourning and burial rituals in 18th, 19th, and early 20th century America and took place inside the Moffat Library’s community room.
Chad and Stacey, in period dress from the New Windsor Cantonment and Knox’s Headquarters, discussed how familiar with death people would have been in the 18th century, from the common killers smallpox, dysentery, scarlet and yellow fevers, infant mortality from a host of diseases, and tuberculosis (then called “consumption” before microscopes made it possible to discover the tubercle bacteria and, later, find the antibiotics to cure the disease). From 1775-1782, 130,000 people died of smallpox. Add to that the 25,000 dead on Revolutionary battlefields, and people at the time could be said to be very familiar with death, especially as it took place inside the home rather than, as today, in hospitals.
Audience members saw a woman’s mourning costume and heard about the level of elaborateness of dress worn by men, women, and of which social class. Wakes were discussed, based on documents showing funeral costs and payment to people based on crepe fabric used to cover doorways, portraits, and mirrors, funeral processions before the time of automobiles, and the attendant alcohol consumption of everyone involved.
Coffin shape and types were delved into, as well as the customary “winding sheets” and later “shrouds,” the reason why ghosts — in everything from historical etchings to Charlie Brown — are often depicted draped in a white sheet. The casket, or burial case, brought in for the lecture, held a mannequin dressed in an historical white burial shroud, cap, and black straps. Wakes, which lasted many days, saw scores of family coming in from far away by horse and carriage, while funerals, with macabre and ornate invitations, were extended only to select family and friends. Coffin carriers, always young men, carried the casket, while pall-bearers, usually older, carried a black crepe canopy over the procession.
The lecture then turned to the 1900s, when Washingtonville was discussed by Thorenz in terms of its family lines, population, economics, and growth. At the end of the seminar, the audience came away with a broad knowledge of American burial history and a much richer understanding of common Halloween lore. The history room at the Moffat Library contains many of the historical documents used in developing this lecture, and the room is open to the public with assistance from library staff.
The First Presbyterian Church owns the Washingtonville Historical Cemetery property, which, along with St. Mary’s Cemetery, are the only two active cemeteries in Washingtonville. Historical grave markers of names common to the local community go back as far as the 1700s. To get involved in the upkeep and maintenance of the cemetery, which is facing financial hardship, please call the First Presbyterian Church.
CAPTION: New Windsor Cantonment historians Chad Johnson and Staci Kerdesky. (at left, in period dress) joined with Moffat librarian and historian Matt Thorenz (at right) to present a lecture on death and burial rituals throughout the centuries in early America. Pictured on the screen is the 1754 Knox’s Headquarters in New Windsor. In front of the screen sits the type of coffin — with a mannequin inside dressed in burial shroud and with other burial accoutrements — that would have been used in the late 1800s. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)