Bordentown’s historical past is well-documented — residents like Thomas Paine and Joseph Bonaparte and its part in the American Revolution.
But Kristi Kantorski and the Bordentown Historical Society took an interest in another side of that story: the city’s seedy underbelly.
Starting Saturday, September 19, the historical society will present Harrowing History, a storytelling program that focuses on true tales from the darker side of the area’s past.
“Harrowing History is about Bordentown’s creepy, scary, and often hushed history as pulled from century-old local and national records,” Kantorski said. “These are the true stories of murder, mayhem and tragedy.”
Old newspaper articles sparked the idea for the program in January, 2019. Bordentown Historical Society co-president Doug Kiovsky found a file of old Register News articles from the 1870s, many of which were “dark and somewhat sinister,” Kantorski, the society’s artistic director, said.
“Seeing the articles, I began to wonder what else might have occurred here,” she said. “My curiosity was piqued, and I began researching. I’ve spent over 18 months researching these stories and continue to do so even now — I’ve gathered info that paints the picture for a few dozen events and stories. I liken the research path for this program to detective work. The more I find, the more inspired I am to find more.”
Costumed storytellers — including Kantorski and society co-president Timothy Rollender — will share six tales in all. The details of the stories are secret, but they include murder and unrequited love, a man shot dead in front of City Hall, and a fire that raged through town. Kantorski’s favorite, though, is the closer: the Bordentown Spectre.
Finding those stories was the result of painstaking research on Kantorski’s part. She pulled at least 150 newspaper articles from microfilm and other sources and transcribed each one. She also accessed census records, trial records, institutional reports, printed diaries, and Sanborn maps.
“I spent many months in libraries sifting through records and history tomes,” she said. “I wanted to not only give all the elements of the story or event that occurred, but I also wanted to tie it into a bigger picture. This is what makes history fascinating to me. It’s really only when all these different parts come together that we have a comprehensive historical view, and a really juicy narrative comes together.”
Harrowing History is a new event on “many levels” for the society, Kantorski said. Its standard programming includes lecture series, exhibits at the Friends Meeting House, garden tours, and the annual Peach Social.
“We saw Harrowing History as an opportunity to teach local history that is relatively unknown in a fun and creative way,” she said.
The program was set to debut at the Friends Meeting House in May, but COVID-19 forced the organization to adapt. Considerations like sound quality, lighting, and stage components that were months in the making had to be scrapped.
Coronavirus also forced the society to cancel its three main fundraising events this year, which make up 70 percent of the organization’s annual operating budget. They hope tickets sales, on top of a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, will help make up for some of that loss.
“Harrowing History can really help fill a gap this year and become another one of our main events for the future,” Kantorski said.
Just as things started to feel dire, outdoor areas and activities gradually opened up. And then Divine Word Ministries offered to host the program for the society.
“So the wheels began spinning as to how we transition an indoor theatrical-type performance to an outdoor tent setting,” Kantorski said. “Needless to say — not easy, but certainly not impossible. Holding this event outside, restricting ticket numbers, and requiring all patrons wear a face covering/mask enables us to conform to social distancing regulations. Health and safety first so we can create a positive atmosphere for our guests, then really chill them with the stories.”
The new timing also adds a little seasonal — and timely — flair.
“The historical society can continue to fulfill its mission to preserve, teach, and inspire folks about this history and to offer people entertainment at a time when people need it most — a break or an escape from the often monotony of every day,” Kantorski said.
And that’s what’s most important to Kantorski and the historical society as a whole.
“The first goal is to simply entertain and enlighten people,” she said. “I want people to have fun, perhaps take home a little historical fact about Bordentown or the local area or some aspect of history that they otherwise would not have known, all while enjoying themselves. I would love it if someone went home and said to a friend or a family member, ‘I have to tell you a story … and it’s entirely true that happened not far from here!’ That, to me, would be success. If people love it that much they’ll be inspired to know more and share more about this history. If they just love a good story — well, there’s plenty more where that came from and we’re happy that they’re happy.”
Harrowing History, Bordentown Historical Society, Divine Word Ministries, 101 Park Street, Bordentown. Saturdays, September 19 through October 17, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, October 24 through November 7, 6 p.m. The program is intended for viewers 13 and up. Masks are encouraged for all attendees. $20. www.bordentownhistory.org.