Historical tours of Mattituck graveyard being offered next month

A unique way of getting into the Halloween spirit will double as a history lesson that offers a look into the lives of some of Mattituck’s most notable dead.

The Mattituck-Laurel Historical Society, Mattituck Presbyterian Church and North Fork Community Theatre have joined forces to offer historical tours of the graveyard that lies between the church and theater.

As a nearly full moon rises on Oct. 12, docents dressed as Victorian widows will guide attendees from the theatre through the cemetery, where costumed actors portraying historical figures will recount the lives of prominent Mattituck residents.

Twelve Revolutionary War veterans, four Civil War veterans and many of Southold’s founding families have found a final resting place at the graveyard, which dates back to 1723.

Mary Motto Kalich, president of the NFCT, will provide a history of the theater and tours will culminate at the church with a popup exhibit and talk given by MLHS curator Mark MacNish.

“It’s a fun way to draw people in to learn about the history,” Mr. MacNish said during a walkthrough of the graveyard Monday.

He said that while the event plays on a love for Halloween, it’s not meant to scare anyone but instead bring history alive. “It’s not a spooky tour, but there’s definitely a macabre feel to it.”

Mr. MacNish compiled research on each of the people featured in the tour, drawing from the historical society, library and town historian Amy Folk for accuracy.

He hopes to balance history and local lore.

Stops on the tour will include the grave of Andrew Gildersleeve, who built the Presbyterian Church and octagonal building at the intersection of Love Lane and Route 25, as well as the graves of James and Frances Wickham, who were brutally murdered in their Cutchogue farmhouse in 1854.

The approximately hourlong tour will feature local actors James Kelly, James Pritchard, Bill Kitzerow, Kelsey Cheslock, Rich Gardini, Robert Zemke, Kyle Breitenbach and Alyssa Kelly as historical figures. Mr. MacNish’s sister in law, Merri, handcrafted six Victorian mourning costumes for widow guides Lin Bogden, Caren Heacock, Prudence Heston, Cecilia Lutz, Patti Verity and herself.

The tour will culminate with refreshments at the church, where a popup exhibit of mourning artifacts will be set up.

Mr. MacNish has planned a lecture on often elaborate Victorian mourning traditions, which toe the line between creepy and cool.

He said that traditions required widows to wear all black to embody their grief and post-mortem photography became a morbid way to commemorate the dead.

“Photography was in its infancy and often, the pictures of the dead person were the only pictures they would have of them,” Mr. MacNish said.

He began envisioning the event after Howard Hanson and Nancy Reeve, members of the Mattituck Presbyterian Church’s graveyard restoration committee, gave a talk at the historical society earlier this summer.

As she scrubbed a headstone Monday morning, Ms. Reeve pointed out its intricacies. Many of the gravestones from the era feature interesting etchings — skulls with wings, sad-faced soul effigies, an hourglass depicting the inevitable passing of time.

“It’s peaceful,” she said. Ms. Reeve spends a few hours one day a week cleaning a section of graves.

Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit all three organizations equally.

“We’re three community-oriented groups coming together to share our strengths,” Ms. Kalich said. “It’s a nice utilization of everyone’s talents and it’s pretty exciting to get people motivated to hear our community’s history.”

Ms. Reeve said that tours of the graveyard were held once before, to coincide with the church’s 300th anniversary in 2015, but the costumes and timing with Halloween will be a nice twist.

“It should really be a beautiful night,” she said.

Tours will begin at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12. (Rain date: Oct. 19.) Groups of up to 20 will be scheduled in 10-minute intervals. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased online at or by calling 631-298-6328.

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Photo caption: Merri MacNish and her brother-in-law Mark MacNish will be dressed in period Victorian costumes during a graveyard tour in Mattituck next month. (Courtesy: Rory MacNish)