Tour the tales the gravestones tell

The Tisbury Village Cemetery: the final resting place of Katharine Cornell, Leroy Yale, and a legendary Liberty Pole Girl. — Photo courtesy of MV Museum

There’s a lot to be learned by snooping through a graveyard, and amateur historian Liz Villard has made a part time career out of researching the stories behind the stones.

On Saturday, October 29, Ms. Villard will lead the curious through the Tisbury Village Cemetery in search of the history of the town and the people who shaped it. The graveyard walk is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and follows a recent talk at the museum on graveyard symbolism, by Richard Waterhouse, director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art.

In her tour, Ms. Villard details how the story behind the oldest gravestone (1770s) in the Tisbury Village Cemetery helps, in part, to explain the founding of the town. Abigail West Daggett caused problems for herself, because of what was regarded as an unacceptable marriage, and the problems followed her to her death, when the dilemma was where to bury her bones.

Also buried in the 250-year-old cemetery is Katharine Cornell, known as the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century. Ms. Cornell, for whom the theater above the Tisbury Town Hall is named, was also a theater producer who, along with her husband, helped introduce classical theater to this country and jumpstart the careers of several legendary actors.

Leroy Yale and his wife Maria Allen Luce are also permanent residents of the Tisbury cemetery. Dr. Yale was brought to the Vineyard in 1829 to serve as physician for the growing community. He was a descendant of Elihu Yale, the founder of Yale University. One of the legendary Liberty Pole Girls is also buried in the cemetery. The three young women earned their nickname by blowing up a flagpole that a British captain had requisitioned to repair his ship during the Revolutionary War.

Stories of the average citizens of Tisbury provide interesting material for the tour as well. Although there are not ghosts in Ms. Villard’s Ghosts, Gossip and Downright Scandal tour, there is the Brown family whose history, says Ms. Villard, is “far more terrifying than any ghost story.” In the 19th century, the Brown children died off one by one over several years, followed by the mother of the clan.

These stories and many others help to bring the town history alive through the dead. Ms. Villard also comments on headstone graphics. She notes that the difference in styles over the years reflect the predominant mood of the day.

In his talk on October 13, Mr. Waterhouse, who recently published a book on Atlanta’s graveyards, focused on the images found on stones in the Victorian era. The period from mid- to late-19th century is exemplified in grave markers by images such as angels, acorns, acanthus leaves, and other symbols of resurrection. However, the early puritans were considerably harsher in their view of death. Eighteenth and early 19th century iconography featured winged skulls and other reminders of the fate of the living.

“Vineyard Haven,” Ms. Villard says, “is very much in that moment of changing from devout Puritans to the gentle Methodists with their urns, weeping willows, and bibles.”

Epitaphs, too, reflect the times and the differences between the towns. Ms. Villard is especially interested in these life summations.

“People have this need to put this definitive statement on their gravestone,” she says. “Whatever you say is what’s going to stand. It’s your last crack.”

She has noticed a difference in attitude toward women between West Tisbury, where one unfortunate woman is described as a “relic” of her husband, and Vineyard Haven, where several wives are buried under their maiden names.

“That’s an interesting comment on the town,” she says. “Vineyard Haven was a port. It was more sophisticated from more contact with the outside world. A harbor port as opposed to a rural farm community.”

Ms. Villard conducts extensive research on each stone. Her studies take her back and forth from archives in the M.V. Museum and the town halls. She also owns a copy of the out-of-print genealogy, “History of Martha’s Vineyard” by Charles Edward Banks, which she considers an invaluable resource.

Ms. Villard, a former theater professor at Vassar, began her walking tours when she moved to the Vineyard. The tours focused on the history of the Vineyard, but Ms. Villard discovered that there was limited interest until someone said to her, “You’ll never make any money doing history tours. People want ghosts, gossip, and downright scandal.” So her new venture was born and named.

“I’m trying to make history more interesting,” Ms. Villard says. “You’re more interested to get into the history of Vineyard Haven if you’re tying it to a beautiful gravestone.”

Ms. Villard offers tours of the Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Tisbury cemeteries throughout the summer and fall months. In addition to the Tisbury tour, Ms. Villard will conduct a tour of the West Tisbury graveyard on October 22 and Edgartown on October 23.

Ghosts, Gossip, and Downright Scandal in Tisbury Village Cemetery between William and Franklin streets in Vineyard Haven. Saturday, Oct. 29 at 3 pm. $12; $8 for museum members; $6 for children. Cider and refreshments to follow. Reservations required. Call 508-627-4441 ext. 110.