The Rise of the Cities of the Dead
From Churchyards to Cemeteries, Where the Dead Live
Awaiting the Devil’s Coming
Charleston, SC, and Douglas County, KS
The churchyard of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is great with ghosts. Overgrown and rapturously baroque, the graveyard is evocative of the kind of Southern gothic that seems ripe for spirits and phantoms of all manner. A sign meets you at the entrance, proclaiming that the paths are uneven and the grave markers may be unstable. Grass pokes through the disintegrating brick walkways, tombstones tilt amid the foliage, mossladen trees drape over paths. Individual plots are contained by elegant, lacy metalwork, and inside these quadrangles stately obelisks and humble crosses call out, asking you to keep the memory of the dead alive. The weeds and other flora are eager to reclaim the markers of the dead. In the years since a man named Ephraim Seabrook Mikell died, in 1836, the roots of a giant neighboring tree have begun to consume his tombstone, granite and wood fusing together. The legend across the tombstone now reads ACRED TO HIS MEMORY, the “S” now buried inside the tree itself.
“The Souls of the Dead appear frequently” in cemeteries, Joseph Addison wrote in 1711, attributing the thought to Plato, “and hover about the Places where their Bodies are buried, as still hankering after their old brutal Pleasures, and desiring again to enter the Body that gave them an Opportunity of fulfilling them.” Here in this churchyard is the Ravenel family plot, where one might look—in vain—for the marker of Annabel Ravenel. According to sources, Annabel haunts this cemetery, hankering after an old pleasure, waiting for her beloved soldier to return.
Her father, Dr. Edmund Ravenel, divided his time between Charleston and nearby Sullivan’s Island and was famous as a conchologist (several species of mollusk are named for him, including Ravenel’s scallop) when in 1824 he was appointed the first chair in chemistry and pharmacology of the brand new South Carolina Medical College. In time he would be appointed its dean.
In 1827 Ravenel befriended a young soldier by the name of Edgar A. Perry, who was stationed at Fort Moultrie, on the tip of Sullivan’s Island. Ravenel apparently functioned as something of a father figure to the young Perry, whose own parents had disinherited him. Eventually Perry met Ravenel’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Annabel, and the two fell madly in love.
When Ravenel discovered his daughter was in love with Perry, he closed his house on Sullivan’s Island and returned to Charleston. If he’d hoped that that was the end, it wasn’t; Perry followed Annabel to Charleston, where they would meet in secret under the weeping willows of the Unitarian Church Cemetery. When these trysts were discovered, Ravenel locked his daughter in her room. Within a few months she had died of yellow fever.
In order to keep Perry from haunting Annabel’s grave, as it were, Ravenel disguised her tombstone. Perry soon was mustered out of service and returned to his life. But Annabel still waits for him at their secret meeting place.
Annabel Ravenel’s story seems somewhat archetypal of the ghost stories of the old South: a delicate Southern belle, ruled by her passions but trapped within a strict patriarchal system. With a love unrequited, a cruel father, and a tragic outcome, the tale has all the elements of a gothic romance; it is also a universal fairy tale inflected with the genteel manners and diseased miasmas of South Carolina.
The story is particularly endearing to the citizens of Charleston, though, because of the revelation, in 1885, that Edgar A. Perry was not this soldier’s real name. “Perry” was a pseudonym of the man who’d go on to (mostly posthumous) fame as the author of “The Raven” and the “Tell-Tale Heart.” Annabel’s beloved was none other than Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn believes it probable that Poe knew Ravenel while stationed at Sullivan’s Island, and there is some likelihood that the conchologist was the basis for the character William Legrand in Poe’s “The Gold Bug”—a man “well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. . . His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens.” Annabel Ravenel, many now believe, would later serve as the basis for Poe’s famous poem “Annabel Lee,” with Sullivan’s Island as the “kingdom by the sea”:
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
Having fallen in love with his beautiful maiden, the narrator of Poe’s poem laments:
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
All of which, it would seem, tracks with the details of the love affair of Annabel Ravenel and Edgar A. Perry. Theirs is a beautiful story, full of gothic longing, a wasting beauty (so typical of Poe’s writing), an elegy for the dead, all spun around an overgrown, haunted cemetery. We should not be dissuaded by the fact that Edmund Ravenel had no daughter named Annabel. “I was a child and she was a child,” Poe’s narrator waxes, but if this is truly about a daughter of Edmund Ravenel, then they were children of different magnitudes, for when Poe was stationed at Sullivan’s Island, Ravenel’s eldest daughter, Mary Louisa, would have been a mere eighteen months old.
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The Unitarian Church no longer accepts new burials; the last remaining plots have been filled. Most burials in Charleston happen in much larger places, like Magnolia Cemetery and the more modern Live Oak Memorial Gardens. Magnolia Cemetery was dedicated in 1850, laid out on what was then the outskirts of the city. Unlike the Unitarian Church’s cemetery, Magnolia is sprawling, open, and airy, dotted with pleasant lakes and generous views. Dubbed the “City of the Silent,” it quickly became a prime tourist attraction for the city. “If you would see Charleston’s greatest attraction drive to Magnolia Cemetery,” Appleton’s Hand-Book of American Travel advised in 1866. “This is indeed a lovely retreat; a scene of tangled woods and silvery waters, looking out upon the broad surface of the Cooper River, whose waters find their way into its pretty lakelets, over which the majestic live oaks hang their Druid mosses.”
Large, rolling cemeteries like Magnolia, with their contemplative waters and acres of green, came about as a solution to a very pressing modern problem. Since the early Middle Ages, towns in Christian Europe (and later in North America) were laid out around a central church, and adjacent to that church would be the town’s graveyard. It was necessary to be buried in consecrated ground so that one could await the Second Coming, and so graveyards were as centrally located as the churches they bordered.
This layout, with a churchyard at the center of town, worked fine in small towns, but with the rise of cities, it became untenable. For one thing, there were simply too many bodies to cram into a small plot of consecrated ground. As churches ran out of space, they would retrench their graveyards and remove the bones to charnel houses or, in some cases, simply pile new corpses on top of the old. Churchgoers complained of the overwhelming foul odor of decaying bodies, with one critic suggesting the real reason behind burning incense during services was to mask the smell of decomposition. And while germ theory wouldn’t be fully understood until the late 19th century, by the 1700s people already understood that dead bodies could breed disease. In 1744 a story circulated of a funeral procession in Montpellier, France: when workers opened a vault to inter a newly deceased body, a cloud of poisonous gas spewed forth, knocking the priest unconscious and killing three mourners.
The solution, city planners understood, was to move the bodies away from the church and outside of town—far, far outside of town. In 1804 Paris opened Père Lachaise, a lush necropolis of 118 acres on the outskirts of the city. Green, rolling hills with widely spaced, stately monuments replaced the crammed, gloomy rows of decrepit tombstones, and mourners and picnickers alike were invited to spend their afternoons in Elysian idyll and quiet contemplation.
The so-called garden cemetery concept caught on quickly, and large cities everywhere began exchanging their cramped churchyards for pastoral campuses far removed from the urban metropolis. In the United States the first of these was Mount Auburn, outside Boston, opened in 1831, followed by New York’s GreenWood, in the faraway suburb of Brooklyn, in 1838. The most comprehensive plan was adopted by San Francisco when, in 1900, the city moved all its remaining remains to the tiny suburb of Colma. Fully 73 percent of Colma’s land today is occupied by one of its 17 cemeteries. “Colma,” reads the town’s motto, “where it’s great to be alive!”
Keeping the living from encroaching on such places has proved difficult over time. Chicago’s main cemetery, City Cemetery, was laid out in 1842, situated well beyond the city’s northern limits, north of North Avenue and east of Clark Street. Subsequent cholera outbreaks strained its capacity, though, and the site itself was far from ideal for the longterm storage of bodies. Because of its low elevation, the cemetery was regularly flooded, and the waters had the undesirable effect of occasionally forcing coffins to the surface.
By 1858 the city was pressing up against the boundaries of the cemetery, and physician John H. Rauch spearheaded a movement to relocate the dead. Rauch, in line with prevailing medical understanding, argued that “the emanations of the dead are injurious to health and destructive to life”; he wanted to move the dead out of their swampy resting places and away from the city’s population to a drier, forested location where trees could absorb the noxious gases of decomposition.
The city acted fast. In November Chicago’s aldermen acquiesced to Rauch’s pleas, agreeing to investigate the possibility of moving the cemetery to new grounds, and within months they had chartered a new corporation, the Rosehill Cemetery Company, to open up a new burial ground on the North Side. Rosehill Cemetery was inaugurated on July 28, 1859, and was followed that November by the founding of the rural Catholic cemetery Calvary, and finally Graceland, in 1860.
As with Rosehill, Graceland was built and operated by a private company chartered by the city. The cemetery’s founder, lawyer, and land speculator Thomas Bryan, was intimately aware of the shortcomings of the old City Cemetery. When he had searched for a plot for his infant son, who’d died in 1855, he’d found City Cemetery “neglected” and in an “actually repulsive condition,” which had induced him to search for land “for a rural burying ground, more remote from and more worthy of the city.” Contrasted to the lowlying, marshy terrain of City Cemetery, Graceland would be on high ground, wooded with old growth trees. It would be a place of rolling acres, graves ornate and stately, clean fresh air—an idyllic final resting spot. Landscaped with native trees and flowers, it would in time be described as the “most perfect expression” of the “modern, parklike cemetery.”
The plan to build these cemeteries well outside city limits was never truly successful, since inevitably cities spread. Brooklyn is of course now incorporated into New York City, and the real estate surrounding Green Wood is among the most expensive in the nation; one doesn’t have to wonder how many salivating contractors would plow those bodies under in a heartbeat if given the chance to build high rises. Likewise, Colma, California, is today surrounded on all sides by high-priced suburbs. Graceland was a victim of its own success; it was so popular as a destination for day trips that it heightened the value of the surrounding real estate: originally known as the township Lake View, the community adjacent to Graceland grew quickly after the cemetery was founded, first becoming its own city and then, in 1889, merging with Chicago itself.
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The shift wasn’t just about urban space; it also had ramifications both religious and linguistic. For much of English history, a place where dead bodies were buried was known exclusively as a churchyard; this was true even if the land itself was not adjacent to a church (such as the mass burial pits dug in London during the Black Death). The word “cemetery,” which comes from the Greek koimētērion and originally meant simply a dormitory or a place to sleep, had been adopted first by early Christians, who saw sleep as temporary and used the Latin coemeterium to refer to the tombs of martyrs, who were simply sleeping and would soon arise once more. By the 15th century “cemetery” had entered the English lexicon as an acceptable synonym for “churchyard,” and it is not until the 1750s that “cemetery” had its own distinct definition: “a place where the dead are reposited,” according to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. “Churchyard” still meant consecrated ground, but “cemetery” did not; any place that received remains could be a cemetery.
If “graveyard” and “cemetery” had once been more or less synonymous terms, now they represented two very distinct concepts: one tiny, central, and consecrated; the other expansive, distant, and civic in function. By moving the dead out of the grounds of the church, the garden cemetery could also become a place of national significance. At the dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story spoke of transforming it into a “more efficient instrument to elevate Ambition, to stimulate Genius, and to dignify Learning.” The grave, he argued, has “a voice of eloquence, nay, of super human eloquence,” one that, among other things, “awakens a new enthusiasm for virtue,” “calls up the images of the illustrious dead,” and “demands of us, as men, as patriots, as Christians, as immortals, that the powers given by God should be devoted to his service, and the minds created by his love, should return to him with larger capacities for virtuous enjoyment, and with more spiritual and intellectual brightness.” The eloquent voice of the dead, then, could and should be marshaled to enrich the living, to urge us to a higher calling and civic virtues.
Many small towns, of course, continue to use their churchyards. When I was in college in Oregon in the 1990s, I regularly drove past the Old Scotch Church, just off Highway 27 on unincorporated land near Hillsboro. The church itself is a historic monument, with a striking eight-sided steeple, and its churchyard contains the graves of several early Oregon settlers. It also contains fresh graves, including one for a young child, whose unique and singularly disquieting headstone was visible from the road as you drove by: a twofoot-tall Nerf basketball hoop.
Most of these smaller graveyards have stopped taking new occupants, and some cities, like San Francisco, have paved over their old churchyards for new real estate projects. (Only two cemeteries remain within San Francisco’s city limits: one at the Mission Dolores Church, the other at the Presidio.) Others have simply fallen into disrepair. Without an influx of new bodies, these places gradually lost their mourners as well, which is to say that there are fewer and fewer people with a vested interest in maintaining them, and so many churchyards in America have become overgrown and melancholy.
And with the weeds come the ghosts.
* * * *
Churchyards make for good hauntings, not only because they are places of the dead but because they are anachronistic. As garden cemeteries became the norm, with their emphasis on spiritual uplift, old churchyards, almost out of necessity, came to be seen as their opposite: gloomy and forlorn, dire and dreary. While guidebooks were urging tourists to visit Mount Auburn, Magnolia Cemetery, and Arlington, folklorists were recording stories of supernatural disturbances at old graveyards. Ghosts emerge from places of neglect, and churchyards are the homes of the neglected dead.
The graveyard of St. Paul’s Chapel, in lower Manhattan, is home to one such strange ghost: the Shakespearean actor George Frederick Cooke, who was buried there in 1812—most of him, at least. Cooke had been a tremendous success on the American stage when he came over from England in 1810, but he died just two short years later from alcoholism. He had a modest plot at St. Paul’s until a fellow actor, Edmund Kean, paid to have his remains reinterred beneath a grander monument. The process was not without incident; Kean removed one of Cooke’s toes as a keepsake (“it was a little black relic,” recalled one observer, “and might have passed for a tobacco stopper”). Additionally, Cooke’s skull was stolen; no one knows who took it, but the doctor John W. Francis later had it in his possession and years later loaned it out for a performance of Hamlet, the deceased Shakespearean appearing in the role of Yorick. Cooke’s skull now resides in the Scott Library of Thomas Jefferson University, but his headless ghost still haunts the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel, looking for what’s been stolen.
St. Paul’s churchyard, at least, is still in good shape, well tended and surrounded by the bustling metropolis of New York City. Far from the madding crowds you’ll find the Stull Cemetery, in Douglas County, Kansas, all the more legendary for its remoteness. Getting there isn’t easy: after you leave the freeway near Lawrence, you take a series of back roads that even Google Maps doesn’t fully understand. It takes perseverance, more than a little backtracking, and faith. You feel yourself leaving civilization behind as the gas stations and supermarkets fall away and you’re drawn farther out into the untrammeled wilds of the country, dead lands not yet explored, or places that have deliberately been left and allowed to go to seed.
Stull is no longer a town; it’s unincorporated land, and there are only a few buildings near the graveyard, including a church across the road and a shuttered baitandtackle shop. The graveyard itself rises up from the road, occupying the side of Emmanuel Hill and bordered by a chainlink fence. The tombstones these days are mostly in good condition, evenly spaced, with plenty of green grass and small clumps of brush between them. The Evangelical church across the street is new; the one originally attached to Stull’s graveyard no longer stands.
The first haunting stories came from an item in the University of Kansas’s student newspaper, the University Daily Kansan, in November 1974, which reported that the graveyard and its ruined church had been “haunted by legends of diabolical, supernatural happenings” for well over a century. One student recalled how, driving toward the cemetery, she’d seen a house glowing bright red, as if on fire, but as she got closer it returned to normal. An assistant instructor was quoted as saying that he’d heard people who’d gone ghost hunting at Stull would later have three- or four-hour memory lapses they could not explain. A student told the Daily Kansan that he and two friends had journeyed to Stull one night. “All of a sudden I heard a noise behind me and felt someone grab my arm,” he said. “I’ll never forget how cold the fingers felt.” Assuming that it was one of his friends, he turned, only to find them both some 25 yards away.
Through the 1970s and 80s the Daily Kansan continued to report various stories from students—usually anonymous or identified only by their first names—of second and third hand stories about Stull. Two men who’d been wandering in the cemetery felt a strong gust of wind, and when they returned to where they’d left their car in the road, they discovered it had mysteriously been moved to the other side of the highway and was facing the opposite direction. One woman claimed that as she and her friends drove up to the church, they saw before them a giant burning cross. A sophomore told the paper she’d been nine times to the cemetery and on one trip she’d left two of her friends in the abandoned church; she returned to find them lying “in awkward positions on the floor,” a wooden cross lying beside them, and when she approached, one began to convulse about on the floor.
Eventually legends coalesced around a specific narrative of a deformed child who’d lived only a few days beyond birth and was buried at the cemetery in 1850. The child’s deformity was attributed to a union between Satan and the child’s mother, a witch. The ruins of Stull’s former church supposedly contained a set of limestone steps that descended into the bowels of Hell; twice a year Satan himself would climb the steps to pay respects to his dead child. Some creative soul at some point suggested that a grave marked “Wittich” had something to do with this consort of the devil, or that the town was not named after its first postmaster, Sylvester Stull, but was in fact a corruption of the word “skull.” A pine tree in the cemetery was identified as a preferred gallows for Kansas’s witch population, as well as a few errant suicides. Both the Cure’s Robert Smith and Pope John Paul II are said to have avoided Kansas because of Stull (the Cure’s longtime keyboard player, Roger O’Donnell, denies this; the Vatican did not respond to requests for comments).
The Stull churchyard became the unhappy host to kids from the university, who would show up twice a year—on the spring equinox and at Halloween—in increasingly large numbers, drunk and rowdy and awaiting the devil’s coming. In 1978, 150 people were reported to have shown up; by 1999 there were closer to 500. As the devil was a perpetual noshow, in his absence students hid behind trees or set off fireworks to scare their friends, tipped over tombstones or stole them for their dorm rooms, and generally made merry in the land of the dead. In 1985 University Daily Kansan reporter Michelle Worrall concluded that, based on the remains of sixpacks scattered about the graveyard, “whatever lurks in the church satisfies its thirst with beer—not blood.”
The legends of Stull appear to have been fabricated from whole cloth by the staff of the University Daily Kansan. Written by and for college students, articles by the paper amped up the folklore surrounding the cemetery further each year, relying on hearsay and rumor. Having unleashed this unholy monster, the paper in subsequent years tried to keep the beast at bay, as its reporting shifted not to ghosts but to the inevitable trespassing fines awaiting any student who came seeking Satan. “The real evil,” the paper proclaimed in 1990, “has not been Satan but the vandalism that occurs on the church’s grounds.”
Increasingly attention turned to the graveyard’s ruined church. A few local preservationists tried to save it and restore it to some semblance of its former state, even as it became a safety hazard. In the absence of any movement in either direction, the church was left untended and foreboding. This is what happens when you leave something vaguely gothic looking, something associated with death, to be reclaimed by nature—it gets claimed by thrill seekers, too.
The college kids were harder to exorcise than ghosts would have been, but the community has worked hard to drive them off. Preserving the graveyard was particularly important because, desolate as it may seem, the Stull Cemetery was and is still in use, and families do come to visit their loved ones. A chainlink fence went up to keep people out, and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department began patrolling the site. “When I used to patrol out there,” Lieutenant Steve Lewis told the University Daily Kansan in 2013, “I would stop people and they would tell me that they were just trying to see something scary, and I told them they were looking at the scariest thing they were going to see all night, and I charged them with a misdemeanor.”
The ruined church was finally torn down in 2002, after one of its few remaining walls fell in a storm, leaving an even more dangerous hazard. John Solbach, one of the local citizens who’d worked to save it, lamented its loss to local news site Lawrence.com: “A lot of history fell with that building. Those who wanted to see it preserved were heartsick that it was destroyed.”
The demolition of the old church and the removal of the supposed hanging tree have (alongside efforts from law enforcement) helped to cut down on trespassers. A woman who declined to give her name to the paper decried the glut of drunk kids for abusing the cemetery where her ancestors were buried: “One man wrote and said a relative of mine was a werewolf, and that really made me mad.” Solbach himself reported that he knew a man whose son was buried in the cemetery. “Some people came out there to have Halloween fun and they tipped over his son’s tombstone. He found that out and he broke down and just cried like a baby.”
These residents see nothing titillating, or eerie, or goodnatured about the legends surrounding Stull’s graveyard. “This story about it being haunted just tears the guts out of people,” Solbach said. You could almost say that the people of Stull had been presented with something of a devil’s bargain: the destruction of the church might have been the price that had to be paid to save the rest of the graveyard.
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Whereas some places—historic houses, hotels, prisons, and asylums—have found that there’s good money to be had in ghost tours and catering to paranormal enthusiasts, cemeteries have had less success, and less interest, in going down that road. Unlike forlorn churchyards, modern cemeteries don’t attract—and certainly don’t encourage—the same kind of folklore and ghost stories. As stillfunctioning businesses, cemeteries like Graceland in Chicago and Forest Lawn in Los Angeles have little interest in being overrun by thrill seekers or conveying the image to potential clients that their loved ones’ tombstones might be vandalized.
But that’s not to say that ghosts haven’t also found their way to the nation’s modern cemeteries. Though they’re not nearly as numerous as the stories that surround the older churchyards, such as Stull or Charleston’s Unitarian graveyard, you can find them if you go looking. Find yourself in Chicago’s Graceland and you may hear the crying of a young girl named Inez Clarke, who’s buried on the cemetery’s grounds.
Inez was only six years old when, in 1880, she was fatally struck by lightning. Her grave is marked by a beautiful stone statue of a young girl. Legs crossed, she sits atop a stone tree branch, her summer hat askew, an umbrella dangling in front of her legs. The entire statue, which reads only “Inez,” is itself encased in glass atop the monument for John and Mary Clarke, and for years legends have maintained that Inez’s ghost is still scared of lightning; during thunderstorms, people claim, her statue disappears entirely, returning only after the threat has passed.
Inez Clarke was actually Inez Briggs, who died on August 1, 1880, not of lightning but of diphtheria. Her mother had recently remarried, changing her name to Clarke, when her daughter died, and later she denied the existence of the children from the earlier marriage. Compounding the confusion, in Graceland’s burial records “Inez Briggs” was mistakenly entered as “Amos Briggs.” The story of the lightning strike was perhaps conjured from clues from the statue—the hat and umbrella—though most agree that the statue was made not for Inez but as a sample of the carver’s work to drum up business.
The slight confusion surrounding the child’s identity and the lack of a readily available explanation of the statue’s meaning have contributed to the legend that has swirled up around her, and surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping. Is the ghost of Inez Clarke an outlier in a cemetery mostly devoid of phantoms or a harbinger of more spirits to come? Just as we moved away from churchyard burials to cemeteries almost two hundred years ago, we are now, slowly, moving away from the garden cemeteries. Cremation is on the rise, as is green burial and other alternative forms. The era of the lavish, expensive funeral in the rolling hills of the garden cemetery may gradually be coming to an end. If our children or grandchildren have less and less cause to visit these places, they, too, may begin to suffer from neglect.
And if that happens, expect more ghosts to come keep Inez Clarke company.
From GHOSTLAND. Used with permission of Viking. Copyright 2016 by Colin Dickey.