Ridgefield storyteller figuratively brings Connecticut’s ghosts back from the dead

RIDGEFIELD — Darla Shaw is bringing people back from the dead. Well, figuratively speaking.

The former Western Connecticut State University professor will be a featured storyteller along the “Ghosts of Ridgefield” tour at Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center during Halloween weekend.

Shaw, 84, was a full-time educator for 63 years. As a Ridgefield Public Schools teacher, she found that her students were more attentive to history lessons when ghosts were thrown in the mix. She would embody historical figures — costume and all — and share their stories before the class.

By getting into the soul — pun intended — of a certain character, “They really get a sense of this person, who they are and what they’re all about,” she said.

Shaw continued this act while at WCSU and began telling historical ghost stories in Danbury’s elementary schools. One of Shaw’s graduate students helped her produce a ghost story walking tour in downtown Danbury, which they did for three years.

The tours continued when this student moved to Norwalk, where Shaw assumed the histories of residents buried at Mill Hill Cemetery. This year, in New Milford, Shaw stood at the gravesite of Addie Strong and gave a presentation as part of the town’s ghost tours.

“Most of these places have a writer that does the research and writes a script, (but) I love to do my own research,” she said. “I can’t memorize anymore but I know the story, and I tell it passionately, but I never tell it the same way twice.”

In 2020 Shaw was asked to participate in Keeler’s inaugural “Ghosts of Ridgefield” event, where she portrayed Mary Mallon, who history remembers as Typhoid Mary. Mallon spent six weeks in Ridgefield sometime in the early 1900s working as a cook for a local family.

“Within a very short period of time six people got infected,” Shaw said.

This year Shaw will portray the Peanut Lady of Branchville Road, Carmela Sabilia, a poor immigrant who lived in town during the early 1900s. For 30 years, every Sunday, Sabilia would walk up and down Branchville Road selling peanuts in order to send her son to college, Shaw said.

“I’m an oddball myself so I love eccentric people,” Shaw said. But more, “All of these women were strong, they were survivors. A lot of them were going through trauma when there wasn’t medication or counseling, (but) all of them left their mark.”

Being born as a woman in the 1930s, Shaw said she was denied many things. This empowered her to pursue women’s studies and become a missionary for young women to ensure the work of the women before them isn’t taken for granted.

Although Shaw admits she’s not an actress, she is still amazed at how audiences have fixated on her storytelling over the years.

While giving her ghost stories, “I hope that I transmit the passion they had for life in their particular direction,” she said. “We really need to respect people from all different backgrounds. … Even though you have a traumatic or difficult life, you can still find satisfaction and joy.”

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