The Times West Virginian

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September 27, 2012

Historical society’s dinner theater Oct. 6

Gilchrist to portray Susan Holt Camden of post-Civil War era

FAIRMONT — While taking a class at Fairmont State University, Marion County Historical Society Museum administrator Jane Gilchrist was intrigued with the story of Susan Holt Camden.

For her first-person interpretation, she selected Camden as her character.

“She was fascinating,” Gilchrist said.

Studying and reading the journal left behind by her husband Dr. Thomas Bland Camden from the post-Civil War period showed an intriguing family history that she felt needed to be portrayed.

Now, once again, she will be molding herself back into this character role at the upcoming Marion County Historical Society Dinner Theater event on Saturday, Oct. 6.

Born and raised in Ohio, Gilchrist became a West Virginia Mountaineer in 2005, but her West Virginia ancestry traces back to John Hacker, who arrived in western Virginia in the mid-18th century in the company of the Pringle brothers.

Currently a student at Fairmont State University, she is enrolled in the bachelor of arts program with an emphasis on folklore and museum studies.

Music from that time period will be played, an an array of table decorations will beautify the room, Gilchrist said. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church. Tickets are $20 each and must be purchased by Oct. 1. Food will be catered by chef Linda Jack.

“Where else can you go on a Saturday night and spend $20 a person and get a turkey dinner with stuffing, have all the trimmings, have some fun, healthy entertainment and listen to some good music and you’ll be home by 9:30 p.m. at the latest?” said Gilchrist.

This 45-minute performance will be based off the family’s experiences from approximately 1875. Documents of their experiences during the war and post-war showcase a lot of valuable history about the growth of West Virginia.

In 1863, the family became prisoners of war. Although Thomas was a prisoner of war for six weeks in Camp Chase, Ohio, Susan and her two small children, including a babe in arms who was extremely ill, were sent and incarcerated for nearly eight weeks. Charged with treason, Camden’s husband was also arrested.

Eventually, the family was released from prison, and less than 10 years later in 1872, Thomas was appointed as superintendent of the Weston State Hospital, now known as the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. With five children at that time, he and Susan moved into the center section on the second floor where the steeple was located.

Anytime Gilchrist does a first-person interpretation, she utilizes her knowledge from her research on the character for the portrayal, whereas some performance may be based on circumstantial information. In this case, Gilchrist has one particular story that came straight from Thomas’s journal.

Their one son is still a lasting memory on the wall of the steeple. With a paint brush, he painted his name. To this day, it is still visible.

“I have seen it because I have been up top and seen the view of Weston,” Gilchrist said.

From there, Gilchrist carries herself into another part of the presentation, wondering how the war may have been different. In discussing Susan’s life story, she will also share information about her brother-in-law Johnson Newlon Camden, who was an industrialist known for naming the town of Monongah.

“It is an interesting family,” Gilchrist said. “They did a lot of fun things. It’s going to be done in first person as if she is telling you about her experiences.”

Following her performance will be a question-and-answer session, where guests can ask questions about the time period or the characters themselves.

“I can tell you some wonderful stories about what happened after they left the hospital, so there is an opportunity for discourse,” she said.

One question regarding the state hospital where Thomas worked tends to pop up often in her portrayals.  

“One of the questions she often gets asked is, ‘How many psychiatrists did she have?’” Gilchrist said. “Her answer is, ‘What is a psychiatrist?’ Because in 1875, the field of mental health was still so new.” 

At this time of the year so close to Halloween, Gilchrist anticipates many guests will be interested in discussing the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a conversation she would be thrilled to have. On the final TAPS episode of the Weston State Hospital, she was one of only four people selected for interviews because of the amount of time she has spent there.

“I have some great stories on that,” she said. “They’ll just have to wait and see. If I get the chance to tell you or tell a child or somebody else, and they get interested and they get excited, I get more excited because if we don’t learn and remember from what’s happened in the past, we’re not going to change the future. It’s all connected, and it’s fun.” 

Email Nicole Lemal at nlemal@timeswv.com.

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