Long Beach Historical Society Cemetery Tours Bring the Dead to Life

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Photos by Stephanie Rivera.

The city’s very own dead were brought back to life at the Sunnyside and Municipal cemeteries over the weekend through dramatic retellings of their sometimes heartbreaking—or heartwarming—lives, courtesy of the Historical Society of Long Beach.

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HSLB’s 21st annual Historical Cemetery Tour featured eight performances about some of the city’s early residents by actors clad in period clothing, whisking guests away to another time: to an era of pioneers, showmen and brave souls.

For example, there was the grim tale of Thomas and Matilda Borden, early Long Beach pioneers who plowed the local fields, built their home at the edge of the city (near where St. Mary Medical Hospital is today) and together had six children. In 1892, Thomas became the oldest officer on the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) mounted police force at age 52. Sadly, he was also the first officer to be killed in the line of duty on March 17, 1912.

On that fateful night, the couple were walking home from evening services at their church, according to local actors (and real life couple) Miguel Solorio and Brianna Hill, when Matilda stopped to chat with a neighbor and Thomas continued home.

Thomas noticed his front door wide open.

“Nobody locked their doors then, it was a small town, everybody knew everybody,” the couple said. “It was just that kind of place.”

Thomas had apparently ran into a burglar—or burglars—who shot him twice with his own pistol he left atop his dresser, the actors said.

“The whole town heard the gunshots and Matilda’s loud piercing screams,” the couple said. “All of our neighbors rushed out of their houses to see what was going on.”

Witnesses said they saw an older man run off, others said they noticed a young lad who had escaped. In a nearby field, police found his gun, handcuffs and a ring of pass-keys. Eventually, a $1,000 reward was offered for information on the suspect(s) but no one was ever caught. The death of Thomas led police to modernize its investigations, specifically using fingerprinting as a new tool. Thomas is now buried at Sunnyside Cemetery.

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Other stories included that of Carolyn Jackson Miller, an “effervescent spirit” who was raised by a pharmacist and a feminist. Miller is buried at Long Beach Municipal Cemetery alongside her husband, who she married at age 52, and her lover, who she met at the age of 90 as widowers, who is buried also alongside his wife. Miller was portrayed by Lucy Daggett, who said she was able to meet the late Miller herself before she died in 1999.

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Then there was Captain Billy Graves, portrayed by Jeff Cheezum, whose larger-than-life stories were found in a box at the HSLB.

One of those stories was of a finback whale that washed ashore in 1897. The 63-foot-long mammal was more than twice the size of a similar whale, only 25 feet long, that was on display in Chicago at the time. The whale, named mini by a local journalist, was an instant attraction but soon began to deteriorate on the beach and discouraged those who came to see her, due to its smell. A local taxidermist was able to remove its flesh and blubber and the whale’s bones were eventually displayed all over the city, including piers, the basement of a library, Colorado Lagoon and Fire Station 1. It eventually found a permanent home at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Graves is now buried next to his mother-in-law at the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery.

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The annual event also included a Dia de los Muertos altar, talks by local authors and historians and even a presentation by Councilman Daryl Supernaw about his family who is buried in Sunnyside.

The HSLB houses one of the broadest collections documenting the city’s history, including newspapers, city directories, thousands of documents and 50,000 photographic images, according to an HSLB release. Its gallery space is open to the public at 4260 Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls.

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