by M. Parfitt
“You have the same hair as May Woolsey.” That comment from the volunteer coordinator at the Discovery Museum was my introduction to the twelve‑year‑old girl who would virtually take over my life during the Fall of 1996.
I was an occasional volunteer for the museum. When I originally volunteered, I offered myself as an artist. Occasionally they gave me interesting sign-making projects, and once they let me set up a small display, but to my disappointment, they just loved my speed and accuracy at the cash register. They stuck me in the gift shop for hours and hours and hours.
Many times, I’d walked past May’s hundred‑year‑old trunk full of Victorian goodies. May herself never reached across the decades and spoke to me until that day, when I peered closely into the jumbled collection of relics and saw her thick, two‑foot‑long auburn braid. It was, indeed, just like mine.
The story of May’s life and death is mundane — an ordinary childhood cut short byencephalitis, a common 19th‑century disease. She was born in 1866 to Luther and Mary Woolsey of Sacramento, California, attended Primary School No. 3, belonged to the First Congregational Church, and died suddenly on September 21, 1879. Her brief existence would’ve faded from memory as her family grew old and died off, were it not for an act of her distraught parents: they packed all of May’s personal belongings into a trunk and, in keeping with the melodramatic customs of the time, sealed the trunk into a secret compartment below the stairway of the Woolsey home.
Toys, dolls, clothing, shoes. Schoolbooks, calling cards, newspaper clippings, party invitations. A sepia‑toned studio portrait of May herself, her long wavy hair gracefully arranged over her shoulder. All these ephemeral remains, the tangible evidence of an obscure, brief life, remained carefully hidden away until 1979, when the new owner of the Victorian house in the Alkali Flat neighborhood fortuitously happened upon the hatch cut into the second-floor landing.
I wasn’t living in Sacramento in 1979, so I missed the media attention May achieved that spring. Her time capsule, discovered exactly one hundred years after it had been so carefully concealed, was studied by local historians and put on display in the museum. May Woolsey had earned her fifteen minutes of fame.
Fast forward to 1996: My tenuous connection to May, via our matching hairstyles, was about to intensify. I was soon to become May Woolsey.
The volunteer coordinator brought it up casually. “The Old City Cemetery is planning a Halloween Moonlight Tour as a fundraiser,” he explained. “They need volunteers to portray interesting people who are buried in the cemetery. You know, with that hair, you could be May Woolsey.”
I cut him short with a reminder that it had been a long, long time since I’d been a twelve‑year‑old.
“It’ll be dark, you’ll be in a costume, and the audience will be pretty far away. C’mon, you like cemeteries. It’ll be fun.”
I couldn’t come up with an argument. The thought of hanging out in a cemetery at night — and not getting kicked out — was intriguing. He had me by my two‑foot‑long braid.
My transformation into May Woolsey required research. I stared at her belongings through the glass display case, taking in the details of her fancy Victorian gloves, beaded purse, and satin slippers. I imagined what it was like for her to play with the archaic games and toys found in the trunk, their rules and instructions guided by the straitlaced etiquette of her day. She had quaint things like small patchwork quilt fragments, dolls, bits of knitting, and some very serious-looking little textbooks.
My portrayal would involve reading excerpts from May Woolsey’s diary — and May, it seemed, was obsessed with fashion. Her diary entries described a “lovely fan,” pink silk “stockens,” and a new party dress of black silk trimmed with velvet. She also listed the colors and styles of the dresses worn by her friends. She was a hip twelve‑year‑old, by 1879 standards.
May’s tale featured a postscript straight from a Victorian ghost story. Mrs. Woolsey, disconsolate in her loss, had hired a spiritualist to communicate with May from beyond the grave. And sure enough, tucked in the trunk among May’s possessions was a letter seemingly written by the late, lamented daughter: “Dear Mama, I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now, Mama dear, do not weep for me….”
The letter offered hope of a reunion and, no doubt, gave Mrs. Woolsey a bit of solace. However, the lower edge of the letter had been torn off before it was placed in the trunk. The last words, and the signature, were missing. This enigma lay at the heart of May Woolsey’s story: Had she communicated from beyond the grave?
My job was to look and sound like May Woolsey: stand at her grave, read her words, recite that mysterious unsigned letter. I thought back to my own pre‑teen years: my passion for the New York Yankees, my appetite for Mad magazine, those knockdown-dragout battles with my brothers. I had nothing in common with this 19th‑century girl. How could I possibly pull this off?
I also had absolutely no acting experience. Four other volunteers, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey and two incidental characters, would round out the plot of our little drama, but May was the central character. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the idea of a captive audience. I wanted to be seen and heard — but being seen and heard as this Victorian maiden that didn’t thrill me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, May had her own plans. She, too, wanted to be seen and heard.
The final rehearsal went off without a hitch. The logistics of setting up a theatrical lighting system in a cemetery proved to be a nightmare, but we had an experienced technical staff and, after some fine‑tuning, it did work. Plenty of sound checks assured us that the wireless mikes were functional. We would give our performance for an early audience, relax for an hour, then do it again for a late audience.
The sun went down. The first audience filed in.
From our hiding places behind nearby headstones, we watched the other actors play out their scenarios of sad and mysterious deaths. There might’ve been forty or more volunteers for the Moonlight Tour. Our story was fourth on the route through the cemetery, so we had plenty of time to get ready. It should’ve gone off without a hitch, but May Woolsey had other plans.
The audience approached our site and settled into place on the benches and bleachers set up for the occasion. The lights went up and we started our performance. Suddenly, all the lights went off — all, that is, except the one that was aimed directly at little May Woolsey, the star of the show. The support staff scrambled to illuminate my cohorts with flashlights, but our seven‑minute skit was performed almost entirely in shadow.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. We bowed to their polite applause, stood at our positions until they trudged off to the next grave, then shook off our panic with a bout of frantic equipment checks. The next performance would be perfect.
A strange wave of mischievous energy washed over me. I felt like giggling, like dancing. My high‑collared lace blouse, recently picked up at a thrift store for 99 cents, suddenly looked pretty and feminine. (I forgot I was wearing an old sweatshirt underneath it for warmth.) My stockinged legs were warm. My tall lace‑up boots were sturdy. My petticoats and layered skirts rustled and spun around me. I wore a slip, a two-layer crinoline, and a calf-length skirt with three flounces. Not historically accurate, but it was the best I could do with very little money. In the dark, it looked fine. It gave the effect of Victorian opulence, and that was all that mattered.
The big satin bow in my flowing auburn curls fluttered in the wind. I wanted — needed — to be free and silly and ridiculous.
I ran to the chainlink fence that separated the cemetery from Riverside Boulevard. Finding a spot illuminated by the full moon and a conveniently placed streetlight, I jumped out of the shadows, into view of the passing cars. Horns honked, fingers pointed — the sight of a Victorian girl dancing in a cemetery on Halloween night nearly caused a five‑car pileup. A pirouette and a curtsy, and back I went into the shadows. I ran gleefully back to my grave. I mean, May’s grave.
The late audience arrived on schedule and we took our places in the dark. The lights went up. No problem. The first actor started speaking. Without warning, his microphone died. He was forced to shout his lines. The next actor took his cue and, within seconds, his microphone crackled and fell silent. On it went, each actor hollering lines meant to be spoken softly and reverently. My cue approached. I spoke. My mike worked. May’s mike worked.
The evening belonged to May Woolsey. Her lights, her microphone. No one could overshadow her this night. Afterward, the actor who played Mrs. Woolsey swore the spirit of May had been angry about the scene enacted on her gravesite. However, I knew better. I was May Woolsey for a few minutes. I knew she simply wanted to show off and dance and be a kid again, after all those silent years.
May didn’t mind the scene. She just wanted to steal it.
This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Check out M. Parfitt’s other essay about the Old City Cemetery here.
M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse. Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.
Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.