Published: Sept/Oct 2003

Before You Go
For more information, contact:
• Angels on the Bluff, 1-800-647-6724
• Columbus CVB, 1-800-327-2686,
• Le Monde Creole Tours, (501) 568-1801
• New Orleans CVB, 1-800-672-6124,
• St. Francisville Tours, 1-866-276-1088,
• Arkansas Post National Memorial, (870) 548-2207
• Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Department, (479) 784-1006
• Mount Holly Tales of the Crypt, (501) 376-1843.

Travel Assistance
Visit your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.
Order travel materials online or use our online travel research tools.

Tales from the crypt
Commune with history in these Southern cemeteries where re-enactments and tours bring to life the lives of soldiers, slaves, politicians, outlaws and beloved heroes

Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Miss., was the site of the first recorded Memorial Day observation (above). /Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau photo. Some of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens are buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (below), the city’s oldest cemetery. /New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau photo
By Carolyn Thornton

Shrouds of mist cloaked the Natchez City Cemetery as a guide carrying a lantern halted with a group of onlookers. From the inky hills studded by whitewashed tombs, a gray horse and rider galloped into view.

He represented Capt. Allen T. Bowie, born in Natchez in 1840 and buried there in 1925. During the Civil War, Bowie successfully led a cavalry charge against the U.S.S Petrel, a Union gunboat.

“As the Petrel was trying to navigate up the Yazoo River, it got too close to the bank,” said Craig Bradford, who portrayed Bowie. “Our squadron rode right up to the bank and jumped our horses right onto her. Why, I believe that is probably the first time in history that a cavalry unit captured a gunboat.”

A Confederate sergeant (musician Terry Trovato) began playing “Camp Town Races” on the banjo as a reminder of that era, and Bowie’s horse pranced to the music.

Angels on the Bluff

This was just one of 10 graveside vignettes presented at Angels on the Bluff during the Natchez Fall Pilgrimage. Re-enactments change each year, but Bowie and his music-loving horse might be seen again riding around the cemetery. This year’s event will be Oct. 24–26.

As a fundraiser for the City Cemetery, Natchez residents honor their long-dead rascals, heroes and beloved citizens by telling historically researched life stories rather than ghostly tales.

Often the actors have a connection to the person portrayed. Gen. Charles Dahlgren, builder of the Dunleith antebellum mansion, has been portrayed by Mike Worley, the mansion’s present owner. The story of gambler John Lee was told by his son.

“They’re not professional actors,” said Bee Byrnes who researches and writes the skits, as well as selects the sites with co-chairman Don Estes. “But some people are so good we have them back every year.”

Throughout the South, re-enactment tours are bringing once neglected cemeteries back to life. One of the oldest such portrayals began at Friendship Cemetery (Fourth Street South) in 1991 in Columbus, Miss.

Friends among the flowers

Friendship Cemetery is designed in a series of interlocking links representing Friendship, Love and Faith. After the Civil War, four Columbus ladies decided that the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers who had fallen during the Battle of Shiloh should be decorated with flowers for a Decoration Day. New York Judge Francis Finch wrote about the gesture in a poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” which appeared in an 1867 issue of “Atlantic Monthly.” It was the first recorded observation of Memorial Day. As a result, Columbus has been called the city where flowers healed a nation.

Students of the Mississippi School for Math and Science spend up to a year researching the biographies of departed Columbus citizens, among them, four Mississippi Congressmen, two governors, five Confederate States of America army generals and numerous authors, lawmakers and merchants. Candlelight living history tours will occur several evenings during the Spring Pilgrimage (March 30–April 11, 2004).

Cities of the dead

With most of New Orleans lying below sea level, flooding was a frequent hazard in the early days. To prevent coffins from washing up and floating away, tombs were built above ground in “cities of the dead.”

Numerous tours are offered year-round by several companies. The New Orleans Visitors Guide has more information.

The city’s oldest is St. Louis Cemetery No.1 founded in 1789. Here lie some of the city’s most illustrious citizens, including Etienne de Boré, the first to successfully granulate sugar; William C. Claiborne, the first American to govern Louisiana; and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the first black mayor of the city.

Voodoo queen Marie Laveau also is buried here. Her tomb is curious to many visitors. No matter how often her tomb is whitewashed, “x” marks appear on the face.

“Someone said ‘xxx’ is knocking on the spirit door,” said Peter Athas, a former guide for Le Monde Creole Tours. The superstitious believe the “x” marks are signs of good luck.

Grace Episcopal Church and Cemetery in St. Francisville, La., has stories to tell through its graves, including an open grave for a claustrophobic woman (above). /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo. A statue of an angel at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans (below). /New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau photo
Spirits in St. Francisville

Because St. Francisville, La., claims The Myrtles Plantation as “America’s Most Haunted House,” cemetery tours are a natural. St. Francisville Tours visits Grace Episcopal Church and Cemetery year-round and leads a candlelight tour during the Audubon Pilgrimage (March 19–21, 2004). The tours also visit The Myrtles, which has been written about in newspapers across the country, plus other plantation homes in the area.

Established in 1828, Grace is the second-oldest Episcopal church in Louisiana. The long history provides many tales to tell.

“We have some really good stories in the cemetery,” said tour operator Rachel Hall. Among those is the grave of a Federal gunboat commander. There’s an open grave designed for a claustrophobic woman, and an Egyptian-style mausoleum.

“You know that the huge (above ground) tombstones belonged to someone wealthy. Flat stones with a person’s birth and death date mark the graves of people who were too poor for anything else,” Hall said.

Arkansas’s frontier cemeteries

Arkansas Post, the oldest settlement in the Lower Mississippi Valley, was founded in 1686 by Frenchmen under Henri de Tonti. The only armed encounter to occur in Arkansas during the Revolutionary War, the Colbert Raid, took place here in 1783. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, this was the only permanent European settlement in Arkansas. The settlement of Arkansas Post had a number of cemeteries during its history, but river erosion has destroyed several of them.

Located one mile north of the park on Old Post Road is the Scull Cemetery. The cemetery has been documented as being the oldest cemetery in Arkansas. One of the more famous people from Arkansas’s history buried there is Henry W. Conway, who was killed in a duel in 1827.

On Oct. 25, candlelight tours through the town site will focus on the Louisiana Purchase era during the Arkansas Post National Memorial’s ninth annual "Ghosts of the Past" event. Although the tours are free, advance reservations are recommended. The National Memorial is located about eight miles south of Gillett on state Highway 169.

“Tales of the Crypt” at Fort Smith recalls heroes and outlaws. Many of these desperadoes were hung by Judge Isaac C. Parker.

Tales of the Crypt volunteer Jerry Akins in May portrayed Henri Stewart, a doctor who later turned outlaw and was executed by the court. He stressed that while the volunteers and guests have fun, Tales of the Crypt is a living history lesson.

“We also have wandering spirits,” said Akins. “They stop visitors and ask for help in finding where their graves are.”

The seventh annual Tales of the Crypt event will be at Oak Cemetery on Memorial Day next year. Oak Cemetery dates to 1850. The event–recently given a national award for innovative arts and humanities programming–is free.

Called “The Westminster of Arkansas,” Mount Holly Cemetery, 1200 Broadway in Little Rock, is the burial place of 11 Arkansas governors and three U.S. senators.

Drama students from Parkview High School research and re-enact the lives of notable characters for “Tales of the Crypt,” set for Oct. 14. The event is free.

Favorite portrayals include David Owen Dodd, a 17-year-old who was hung for carrying messages to Confederates during the Civil War, and Cherokee Chief John Ross’ wife, Quatie, who died during the Trail of Tears. Until recent cemetery excavations unearthed it, her monument had been lost. Now it stands as a fitting memorial along with others who rest in peace.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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