This historic cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee is the final resting place for more than seventy-five thousand people – some were war veterans, politicians, ministers, madams and millionaires, both famous and infamous and, of course, everyday folks. Some of the graves have small markers, while others have elaborate monuments – one family plot features a sixty-foot granite shaft.
The cemetery was established in 1852 when fifty men contributed $500 each to purchase a forty-acre plot of land (later expanded to eighty acres following the Civil War). The first person buried there was Mrs. Mary E. Berry (July 15, 1853). There are also hundreds of “unknown” graves in an area of the cemetery referred to as “No Man’s Land.”
In 1878 a yellow fever epidemic swept through the city and hundreds of people died, some of them the doctors, nurses, priests and nuns who were tending the sick. The task of burying the dead was overwhelming and many never received a proper burial. According to The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, “wagons full of bodies arrived, and citizens just walked into the cemetery, a corpse thrown over their shoulders and a shovel in their hands, to bury bodies anywhere they could find space.”
Over five thousand people died during the 1878 epidemic and I don’t think anyone really knows how many might have been buried in “No Man’s Land” (epidemics also occurred in 1873 and another in 1879). In contrast to the elaborate monuments erected throughout the cemetery over the years, this area of the cemetery is marked by one solitary monument:
Some of the graves were shallow – only sixteen inches beneath the surface of the ground. There were places where one could see coffins laid side by side in long rows. According to Crosby, “on more than one occasion, a knock was heard before the lid was screwed tight or the coffin lowered into the ground, and a patient, thought to be dead ,would call out from inside.” Through the years the bones of unmarked victims have been discovered when digging a new plot.
Another story Molly Crosby related in the book’s epilogue about the cemetery superintendent’s daughter was especially poignant:
In 1878, another man held the same position as [Sunny] Handback. He worked as the superintendent of Elmwood during the yellow fever epidemic, and he lived on the grounds with his daughter, Grace, the “Graveyard Girl.” In the cemetery’s red leather logbook, the handwritten names begin in August. At first, the cause of death is listed as yellow fever, but by September of 1878, ditto marks are used, page after page. In many cases, a whole family – husband, wife and all of their children – are listed in a long row. It was Grace’s hand that wrote the names, dates and cause of death, and it was Grace who rang the bell each time a body was buried. The bell tolled continuously until Grace too was stricken by yellow fever.
Today’s article is a bit of a departure from the regular Tombstone Tuesday article. Ancestry.com and all its related sites such as Find-A-Grave were experiencing technical difficulties, but I hope you found it interesting and informative nonetheless. If you’d like to read more about this historic cemetery, check out these sites: Historic Memphis and Elmwood Cemetery Website.
Also, if you missed my review of The American Plague awhile back you can read it here.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!