Oakland Cemetery mysteries

One of the things I love about the Halloween season is the way cemeteries open up to the public. While the Victorian cemeteries were parks for playing in, and other cultures gather as a group in cemeteries, most Americans only visit cemeteries when someone dies. That’s a mistake. There’s a huge amount of history and some great stories to be found. As a bonus, cemeteries tend to be a green space even in very urban areas.

That’s definitely the case in Atlanta, where the “in town” neighborhoods with their small parks are nothing compared to the 48 acres of pleasure gardens and trees that comprise Oakland Cemetery. The space is a certified wildlife habitat, with special bird friendly and butterfly friendly designations. On top of that it’s rather people-friendly with benches, level walking spaces, and very well kept gardens.

Not to mention some interesting headstones.


Rosemary bushes and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit were planted by cemetery volunteers who recreated the Victorian look from the cemetery’s first years. While there are always tours, Halloween season brings a special batch. Careful planning netted me tickets to the sold out Capturing the Spirit tours, but some beautiful weather last weekend meant I took the tour of the day. It happened to be right up my alley: “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem”.

Some stories were not so mysterious but definitely sad, like the playhouse fire that killed several young performers acting as angels. Their paper wings caused the conflagration, so they remained angels forever.

An angels surrounded by rosemary

An angel surrounded by rosemary

Others lived up to the title, like the grave of a maiden aunt who dreamed she would drown the night before taking a boat tour. She claimed to have written a will in her sleep, but insisted on going out on the boat. There was indeed an accident, and her family buried her dress, the only remains ever found, in Oakland. The promotion seems a little suspect, and finding another dress makes me wonder – the garments of the 1890s weren’t exactly easy to get out of. It’s easy to imagine the aunt running away with a lover under the cover of an elaborate plot.

A less elaborate but equally mysterious burial was an unnamed man found after a tornado hit the cemetery in 2008. While his body was found in an above ground vault filled with members of the Holland family, he wasn’t a Holland. No records existed of him ever being buried, and his clothes were modern. More telling of hasty burial, his shoes were facing west. In Christian cemeteries, bodies are almost always buried facing east so they can rise up on Judgment Day.  The cemetery sexton is still hoping someone will claim the poor fellow.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

The tour ended with a few short ghost stories. There’s a shadowy visage who haunts the bell tower. Maybe he’s waiting for the bell ring again? In days gone past, cemeteries rang the bell to chase away the sins of the dead. Twelve rings for men, eight for women, and only six for children, who were presumed least sinful of all. Down another path over three thousand unnamed soldiers from the Civil War supposedly rise up to a ghostly roll call each Confederate Memorial day.

I’ll be back to Oakland for another tour or two at least. The 5k “Run like Hell” sounds like fun too. If you get a chance, take a walk through your local cemetery this fall. I’m sure the folks there would love a visit.




Research Roadtrips: Edgar Allan Poe Museum Richmond, VA

For almost eighty years someone left a bottle of cognac and three roses on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave each year on his birthday. The wonderfully Gothic and slightly spooky story is close to one he would write: a shadowy figure in black formal clothes commits a mysterious act on a dark winter’s night. When the tradition stopped in 2010 I admit that I briefly entertained thoughts of heading out to his grave in Baltimore. It wasn’t that far away, and I’d fallen deeply under Poe’s spell at the tender age of sixteen when I read Annabel Lee.

Edgar Allan Poe, madman, genius, poet

Edgar Allan Poe, madman, genius, poet

Unfortunately, the pull of my warm bed was too much for me to overcome, but a trip to the Edgar Allan Poe museum went a lot smoother. There are actually a number of Poe Museums scattered across the country, but I started with the formal sounding “Edgar Allan Poe Museum” in Richmond, VA. Housed in the oldest house in the state (built in 1740, almost six decades before Poe was born), it contains a strange collection of artifacts and memorabilia.

I was impressed by the Virginia Star quilt on Poe’s bed and the chair he sat in. While the first edition manuscripts and antiques books were impressive, seeing the furniture his family owned made him come alive to me. A lock of his hair and old photos felt haunting, as if the museum was trying to grasp at the life of the man with only a few precious things. His sister’s piano, his trunk, and a chart of his sad family history all felt like threads when I wanted a rich tapestry.

I’m obviously not alone in that desire. Outside the two historic buildings, a third more modern structure is devoted to modern artwork that depicts Poe and his work. The most disturbing offer was a portrait done in the artist’s blood. It wasn’t the media that bothered me, but the deplorable smell. Upstrais, in a small attic room painted in a similarly sanguine color images from his stories were displayed along with the modern diagnosis for the characters. Most were psychological, depression was common but there were physical aliments as well, The Fall of the House of Usher may have been a horrible curse, or perhaps it was Lupus disease.


Edgar cat Poe museum

Edgar relaxes against some vintage furniture inside the main building of the museum.

Jupiter cat Poe Museum

Jupiter enjoys a shady spot in the garden, but does not enjoy being photographed.


Two darling cats came and went freely, sitting on antiques and ignoring roped off areas. Named Pluto and Edgar the pair are part of a trio of black kittens found mysteriously inside the garden.

Poe bust in the garden

The end of the garden, a place to sit in the shade.

The garden is fairly perfect for that sort of thing. A small space with bricks and a tiered fountain bubbling, at the end a brick columned shrine to Poe holds his bust and vintage iron wrought seating. Poe himself had a black cat, as well as a tortoise shell cat who enjoyed riding on his shoulder.

It was facts like that, tiny humanizing things, that made the museum worth the trip for me. In South Carolina I learned about Poe’s brief military service, and listened to a tour guide swear that the real Annabel Lee was a local girl. In Philadelphia I toured the hotel hallway that inspired the Raven and heard about how he created the detective novel. But it wasn’t until Richmond that I found out about Poe as a person, with a dramatic dysfunctional family, lost loves, and a life outside of his work. I’m glad someone is working to preserve it.


Southern but not Gothic

(I’ve often imagined that I could write a complex novel about relationships, prejudice, and sexism set in the deep South like Harper Lee or Fannie Flagg. Sadly, I tend not to make very far with stories that don’t have lots of dead bodies or supernatural fun. This opening is one of my favorites from the pile of never-was.)

I’ll never forget the day Miss Josephine arrived. She wore white linen to direct the movers as they worked around unloading the van. White linen and we were miles away from Labor Day. One of the neighborhood ladies ran over right away to tell her her mistake but she just laughed. She knew. She knew all our rules and she plain didn’t care. That was when we knew we were in for a summer no one would ever forget.

“Well call me Josie, everyone does!” she said with a laugh, but every child on the street knew better. Adults were Mr. and Mrs. After they insisted; they were Mr. and Mrs. with their first name. Rules like that made our world spin in the right direction but Miss Josephine had come to knock it off kilter. Later, much later, when I was older and jaded, I loved her for that but at the time I was just as scared and confused as everybody else.

She’d bought Mr. Walter’s bookshop downtown, bought it lock stock and barrel according to my grandfather. All she had to do was turn the key and it could be like Mr. Walter was there himself, nothing would have to change. But she didn’t. She covered the windows with thick brown paper and closed up shop for a week. We all wondered about what went on behind that brown paper. The drug store sold our comic books, ordering just a handful of copies so we all had to rush there or be left out. They sold candies too, nail polish that peeled off in long strips and makeup that my sister seemed to think I’d want some day. I didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to that brown paper wrapped Christmas present of a store, because it could have what I wanted, what I’d been searching for all along without knowing quite what it was.

I was fifteen that fall, with long legs that were finally growing out of their bony knees. Fifteen and at odds with the world, my body was pulling me one way and my mind was pushing me another. My mother had declared that fifteen meant no more playing with the boys, whether it was baseball, fishing, or shooting it didn’t matter. She’d shipped me off to stay with my Aunts for the summer and I guess the boys in the neighborhood found someone else to cover second base. When I got back they invited me along a few times, maybe for the sake of the games we’d played the year before, but my mother was true to her word. Fifteen was time to be a lady. Ladies didn’t play second base.

There were lots of new rules for me that year, rules that didn’t make a bit of sense. My months with my elderly Aunts had been time without time, there were clocks and calendars but no sense of moving forward. They knit sweaters for me even though it was Georgia in July, hotter than any hell ever described – sweaters in patterns better suited to a seven year old. I was a child there, like I’d been a child at home before I left, but walking back into my front door that September I was suddenly something else, some woman-girl trapped between two worlds.

I missed second base the most, missed the easy camaraderie of my teammates after a game. I wasn’t ready to join the Eastern Star with the other girls, I didn’t want to giggle and lick ice cream like a fool all summer, worried about my nails or whatever Seventeen magazine told me to worry about. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I was a lot like that store, wrapped up and waiting to show the world what I would be.


Miss. Josephine found me outside her shop. I should have been in school or maybe I should have been home with my mother. I should have been lots of places but I was there, throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it, wearing a pair of blues jeans rolled up against the heat and a shirt my brother had outgrown a summer ago. Mother had bought me a slew of dresses for the school year but I didn’t care for them. I dug Tommy’s shirts out of the goodwill box by the door and changed after she’d stopped looking.

Miss. Josephine snatched the baseball out of the air on a good up-throw. Snatched it with a pitcher’s gripe and looked at the ball not me.

“You can’t have played with this one for more than a week,” she said, examining the stitches. “Lord knows it still feels like summer, why not round up a game?”

My jaw dropped open and I just looked at her. The answers were myriad: because my mother wouldn’t approve, because the boys I’d played with had moved on, because honestly at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of September everyone else was following the rules. She didn’t pay any mind to my silence.

“Well if you aren’t looking to play, maybe you want to work. I’ve got boxes that need to be unloaded, follow me.”

“But-” I was talking to thin air. She’d gone on ahead, opening the door to the shop without looking back, not noticing if I was following.

I stepped inside the door and the world went dark. Not pitch black but dusty golden stripped dark. The sunlight was coming in a few holes in the paper here and there, punching through the inside like a ribbon. The shelves that Mr. Walter’s had kept so tidy were in a disarray, half empty here, over stuffed there. In one corner of the giant square room three empty shelves leaned against each other, locked together in a dozen different mazes of plastic coated wire.

“Those shelves.” She pointed to the ones my grandmother liked to browse on weekends. They were tall spindles filled with devotionals, “Serve the Lord in a Woman’s Way” and “Southern Prayers for Southern Souls”, entreated me to turn my troubles over to the Lord. I didn’t tend to listen. I didn’t really have any trouble except for losing my spot on the team and I suspected God had bigger problems to deal with.

“They need to be emptied. Take the boxes over there. Keep track of how many go in each box and pack them tight.” She dispensed the instructions and walked away again.

“Don’t you want to know my name?” I shouted to the empty store.

“I know you,” she said, poking her head in from a back room. “I know every body. They just don’t know me yet. Those shelves, then we’ll take a break, huh, May?”

And there it was, she knew me, she knew my name, and I had a job.