Walworth County Sunday | Janesville Messenger | Stateline News



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Thursday, 10 October 2013 15:42

Black Point program reveals death and dying in Victorian times

Written by  Lynn Greene
Steven Person, a docent at Black Point Estate, plays the part of an1880s funeral director for the special program “Death and Dying in the Victorian Era.” Person also is a present-day funeral director at Toynton Funeral Home in Walworth. Steven Person, a docent at Black Point Estate, plays the part of an1880s funeral director for the special program “Death and Dying in the Victorian Era.” Person also is a present-day funeral director at Toynton Funeral Home in Walworth. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — This time of year, people can’t seem to get enough of goblins, ghosts and zombies. The staff at Black Point Estate, Lake Geneva’s historical site and unlikely candidate for such things, is hoping to tap into the lure of Halloween tales of the dead and undead with a special Oct. 18 program, “Death and Dying in the Victorian Era.”Read the current edition here:

Estate Director David Desimone explained, “One of the greatest challenges for historic house museums is creating new and different programs for repeat visitors. While this program is building upon the rise in popularity surrounding Halloween, we will remain true to our mission of sharing historically accurate stories.”

That means there will be no zombies lurking on Black Point’s wrap-around front porch, no ghosts drifting up the stairs, no goblins looking for treats in the parlor and no headless horseman galloping up the hundred steps from the lake. Before you get too comfy, though, you should know there will be plenty of tales of woe and misery, laced with a good amount of funeral history and lore.

Guests on the tour will begin their experience by boarding a boat at the Riviera boat dock — just as guests of the 1888 Queen Anne Victorian cottage did about a hundred years ago when they spent their summer days at the beer baron’s estate on Geneva Lake.

Jim Beloian, a local historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of the lake and a staff member of Black Point Estate, will engage visitors with tales of boat disasters, sinkings, drownings, murder mysteries and cemeteries.

“On the way out, we’ll cover the usual highlights of a tour of the lake, talk about the mansions and point out the various spots of interest,” Beloian said.

He has the exact background needed for dispensing such information. He worked as a boat tour guide for Gage Marine, gave lake walk tours and has worked at Black Point since it opened to the public as a museum in 2007. This program involves all of his storytelling skills.

“We want programming that is attractive to locals,” said Desimone. “Jim has spent a lot of time researching the history of the lake and this program expands on our regular tours. He provides information that you won’t hear otherwise.”

Visitors will hear about the “Lucius Newberry,” built in 1875 as the largest cruise ship ever to ply the waters of Geneva Lake.

“It carried 700 passengers and was quite elegant, taking three tours daily, until it caught fire in December 1890 and sank,” Beloian said.

Compared to that disaster, the next one was small — The “Dispatch” was a 45-foot yacht that caught fire in the middle of the lake. It went down in 1895 with seven people on board. All lost their lives.

Then, there’s the tale of the predecessor of the “Lady of the Lake,” a boat that was purposely scuttled, but refused to stay down, eerily rising above the water, a ghostly danger to other boaters on the lake.

Once visitors land at the pier in front of Black Point, other staff take over and lead guests around the first floor of the estate.

“If this is a first visit, people will get a good taste of the regular estate tour, but then Steven Person, a docent here and a funeral director by day, will take over,” Desimonesaid.

Person hopes to provide visitors with a similar experience to the one he experienced when he took the Black Point tour for the first time.

“It’s such a fascinating story and I thought I want to look out and see their eyes open wide like that when they hear something interesting that they didn’t know,” Person said.

He began volunteering and was happy to oblige the director when Desimone and his Black Point staff began discussing a new program for October. Person had the background and the sensitivity to speak on a subject many people find uncomfortable and fascinating at the same time. Person, who works as a funeral director at Toynton Funeral Home in Walworth, has taken his 45 years of vocation experience and put it to work in his avocation as a Black Point docent.

The hardest part of the program, Person said, “is staying in the 1880s as a funeral director and reflecting into the future.”  He has to remember that during the tour, he is in the past, not the present, so he’ll explain an 1880s custom, then say something like, “in the 21st century this will happen …”

The goal of the tour is to place the visitor in the past as well. Person accomplishes this by wearing authentic garb of the era, including gloves and a top hat. He will describe the funeral rites and rituals of the Victorian era, when the process of burying a loved one became increasingly sophisticated and public.

A mannequin lies in a coffin in the parlor at Black Point as Person explains parlor funerals, postmortem photographs, Victorian hair wreaths and public mourning.

The Victorian period saw the development of the modern cemetery, complete with mortician, a public funeral with flowers and a hearse to transport the deceased from the home to the cemetery. Seances became acceptable practices.

In a home like Black Point, curtains would be drawn shut and clocks stopped at the hour of death as the household mourned.

“The mirrors will be covered and some of the elaborate rituals of that time will be explained,” Desimone said.

For instance, the mirrors in a home were covered to prevent the spirit of the deceased from getting caught in the mirror. Clothing for those in mourning was becoming more elaborate.

“There were so many changes at this time,” Person said. “There was still a lot of superstition, too. Black was worn because it was thought to be invisible to death — it was camouflage for the mourners. A lot of people know the custom, but not the reason behind it.”

Person said he will cover  interesting points in history, but that he will stay true to life.

“We’re taking the Halloween theme, but you won’t hear any ghost stories,” Desimone said. “We will be presenting historically accurate information.”

Some of that accurate information might make people squirm a bit. During the first run-through of the program, Person talked about the transition from ice to the use of embalming fluid to preserve the body.

“I got some eyes popping open and some interesting smiles on their faces, but that’s when I know I’ve caught their attention,” he said. 

Beloian said he’s looking forward to that ride back to the docks after the Black Point tour.

“We’ll be leaving right at dusk, moving into full darkness,” Beloian said. “With the low sun, smoky sky, a little technicolor on the trees, it should all work together for a memorable evening.”

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