‘Spirits of the Past’ features ‘Women in Rahway History’

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RAHWAY, NJ — Rahway’s past has a rich history of admirable women. Eleven of them were featured in the 29th annual “Spirits of the Past” tour of the Rahway Cemetery on Sunday, Oct. 1.

With the theme “Women in Rahway History,” women who played a part in the city’s history were reenacted as ghosts, telling their stories at their gravesites. The event was presented by the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum Association, which works out of that historic tavern in Rahway.

During this unique educational experience, small groups were guided to gravesites, where period-costumed reenactors portrayed each woman and told their stories. According to Rick A. Zdan, president of the board of trustees of the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum Association, all of the reenactors were volunteers.

The tour began with the story of Ambo, an enslaved woman who worked for the family of Abraham Terrill for three generations and never saw freedom. Ambo lived to be 100 years old. After sharing her story, the reenactor sang a spiritual about freedom.

The next ghost was Agnes Johnson, who told a tragic story. Her son, John, was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. The letters written to and from her son and military officials presented a poignant picture of the tragedy of war and its effects on loved ones. She had 10 children and lost four — two daughters and two sons who didn’t make it to age 12. “It wasn’t an easy life back then,” said the reenactor who played Agnes Johnson. John was her seventh child and was 19 and living at home when his father died. He joined the army and sent home pay to support the family. John was not buried in Rahway Cemetery, as they could not find the pieces of his body after he died in the war.

Sarah Clark was the wife of Abraham Clark, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and mother of two soldier sons who were captured and imprisoned during the Revolutionary War. The reenactor who played the ghost of Sarah Clark said her husband was known as the “poor man’s lawyer.” He was popular and traveled to help people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. “Everyone loved him,” she said. “Abraham Clark was the protector of the common man.”

The next ghost being portrayed was Carolyn Wells who was born and raised in Rahway. The reenactor playing her said Wells was an author who wrote and edited 180 books and became a best-selling writer of mysteries in the years between 1909 and 1942. She was also the editor of The NY Times crossword puzzles and wrote her autobiography in 1937.

The “Spirits of the Past” tour continued with the ghost of Catherine Squire who was one of Rahway’s most prominent citizens. She was the founder of the Rahway Public Library in 1858.
Next was Anne Shotwell, who was employed by the Rahway Board of Education for 23 years, where she served as the attendance officer.

The following ghost presented was of Gladys Whitehead, who was a lifelong Rahway resident and wrote four volumes of memoirs titled “Reflections,” which contain a treasure trove of historical information about life in Rahway. As a 17 year old during World War I, the reenactor who portrayed her talked about doing volunteer work for the Red Cross and aiding the war cause by sewing, knitting and making bandages. In 1919, she received a letter from a World War I private, complimenting her on the socks she made. He noticed her address when he turned the socks inside out.

Another reenactor played the ghost of Elizabeth Logan Davis who was an accomplished painter, author and community activist while living in Rahway from 1922 to 1958. She was the wife of the Rev. Chester M. Davis of the First Presbyterian Church. She helped found the Rahway Arts Center, which later became the Union County Performing Arts Center. She also helped found the Rahway Council of Church Women and was an inaugural member of the Rahway Housing Authority and was instrumental in setting up the John F. Kennedy Community Center. Her ghost talked about how she wrote two books, “Mothers of America” and “Fathers of America.” She also wrote plays and articles for magazines. She lived in Rahway for 36 years before moving to Basking Ridge where she lived until the end of her life.

The ghost of Ann Vonah spoke of her husband, John, who enlisted in the Union army to fight during the Civil War. She subsequently joined the cause as a volunteer nurse. Stationed in Fort Monroe, Va., she experienced the horrors of war as she tended to the needs of wounded and dying soldiers. The reenactor who played Ann Vonah said, “Women were paid 40 cents per day, working 12-hour shifts scrubbing floors, administering medicine and helping soldiers write letters.” Vonah died at the age of 83 and her gravesite is unmarked.

One of the most intriguing stories was that of The Unknown Woman. A young lady probably in her mid-20s, was brutally murdered by an unknown killer on March 24, 1887. Her body was found on the ground. No one knew who she was. Some say the killer was Jack the Ripper but there is no evidence to verify the belief.

To learn more about the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum, visit www.merchantsanddrovers.org.

Photos by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta