Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bonaventure Mausoleums

Mausoleums have been in existence for over 3,000 years.  The Taj Mahal, originally constructed as a mausoleum, is the most extraordinary mausoleum in the world.  Bonaventure Cemetery is located in Savannah, Georgia and is a former plantation whose name means good fortune.  Most people are aware of this cemetery due to its prominence in the book and movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Taphophiles and cemetery explorers know Bonaventure because it is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in America.  Large live oak trees swathed in Spanish moss fill the cemetery giving it that quintessential southern feel.

I made my first visit to Bonaventure last month and was mesmerized.  Sharing all that Bonaventure offers would take a really long blog posting, so for this first one featuring Bonaventure I want to focus on the fabulous mausoleums that dot the landscape throughout the cemetery.  This mausoleum belongs to John Ernst.  The doors are adorned with wreaths, which commonly symbolize victory.  The size of the mausoleum indicates that the Ernst family was well to do.
 This next mausoleum belongs to the Schroder family and is made from an exquisite white marble and is accentuated by what many of the family plots at Bonaventure feature: a distinctive border with a name plate representing an invisible doorway.  What I loved about this mausoleum was a characteristic shared by a couple of other mausoleums and that is an open front with a large stain glassed window in the back of the vault.
 This is the stain glass window found in the Schroder mausoleum:
 This is an incredibly unique mausoleum built in memory of John D. Moncin and has members of the Blodcett-Moncin-Stoddard families interred inside.  The vault seems to be trying to emulate the shape of a pyramid.  At the top is a carving with wings.  I’m not sure what the center circular shape symbolizes, but wings generally symbolize flight of the soul.
 This granite Greek revival style Mausoleum belongs to the Herman family.  It immediately reminds one of the Greek architecture found in Washington, D.C. at the Supreme Court building and of course at the Parthenon in Greece.
 Inside this Mausoleum one can find another beautiful stain glassed window:
Bonaventure Cemetery has some of the most beautiful mausoleums in America.  There are not many of them in Bonaventure as compared to the amount of acreage upon which the cemetery is housed, but they leave an indelible mark on the landscape.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Barbados' Moving Coffins

Imagine opening the family vault to inter the most recently deceased family member and finding that the coffins inside the vault appear to have been moved around.  Not only would this be shocking, but it would be infuriating.  Did grave robbers break in and open up coffins?  How were heavy lead coffins moved around and more importantly, why?  And most importantly, how was the large heavy stone blocking the door moved?  This is what happened to the Chase family of Barbados.

The Chase Vault was located in a West Indian cemetery and was first used in 1807.  Like most vaults, part of the structure was above ground.  It was built from coral, carved stone and concrete walls.  Several family members were placed in the vault without incident, but when the patriarch met his demise things got really weird.  Bereaved friends and family members were stunned to open the Chase family vault and discover that the previous occupants’ coffins had been moved around.  This same discovery was made each and every time the vault was opened.  Examinations were made to the vault door of stone and nothing appeared out of place each and every time.  Nothing was ever stolen from the vault either.
Chase vault
There was one coffin that was different from the other coffins because it was made from wood rather than lead and it belonged to Mrs. Thomasina Goddard.  Eventually this coffin became so damaged that it had to be wrapped in wire to hold it together.  After this was done, that coffin was never out of place again.  A plan was hatched to prove that someone was entering the vault to move the coffins.  Sand was piled on the floor all around the coffins.  To everyone’s shock, when the vault was reopened several months later, the sand had no footprints.  But the coffins were in total disarray and some were even upside down.  What kind of force could be disturbing the Chase Vault of Barbados?  Out of frustration, all the coffins were removed and buried elsewhere.

Earthquakes have been ruled out as a cause for the movement of the coffins because the wooden coffin was not found out of place.  Flooding of the vault was ruled out as well because the sand trap was undisturbed.  Could the lead that the coffins were made from been moved by some magnetic force that had an effect on a metal like lead?  This seems hard to believe.  Particularly since the coffins were not merely shifted slightly, but were actually tossed about in what seemed a violent way.  Some claim the story is just a hoax.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, surmised that restless spirits were to blame be cause several occupants of the vault had not passed in pleasant ways.  Whatever the case may be, the moving coffins of Barbados are an intriguing mystery.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Herman Webster Mudgett's (H. H. Holmes) Grave

Photo by Karen Valentine

At Holy Cross Cemetery in Pennsylvania, one can find an unmarked grave.  This is not because the purported body inside the coffin encased by cement belonged to someone of little means who could afford no marker, but because there is a need to protect this final resting place.  If indeed there is rest for this person. 

This unmarked grave is where they buried the most prolific serial killer in America and possibly in all of
history.  Herman Webster Mudgett's life of crime did not necessarily start with murder, although some have speculated that he murdered as a young child.  He started out as a fraudster and a bigamist.  While in medical school, he bought insurance policies on bodies that were suppose to be used for medical research and teaching.  He stole the bodies and disfigured them, so that they were unrecognizable and collected on the insurance policies.  During his lifetime, he was married the three women at one time.  Around 1885, he purchased a drugstore in Chicago and a plot of land across from the drugstore where he began construction on a building that would become a place of horrors for possibly hundreds of people.

The Murder Castle was completed and opened as a hotel in 1893 to coincide with the opening of the Chicago World's Fair.  It was the pinnacle of a sinister and macabre plan by Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, the name Mudgett now called himself.  This "hotel" was built near the railroad, so that Holmes would have easy access to visitors to the World Fair and his hotel was in a desirable location and known to be quite posh.  What most people did not know, including the contractors who built the hotel, was that the building housed mazes, chutes, toxic gas lines, doors that opened only from the outside and other terrors.  No contractor knew the complete plans because Holmes fired them on a regular basis to keep his plans secret.  The chutes facilitated the transfer of bodies to gurneys where Holmes would conduct experiments on them, torture still living victims and dissect the bodies.  At times, Holmes would clean the skeletons and sell them to medical institutions. 

It was confirmed that Holmes killed nine people, but he wrote a confessional in which he admitted to 27 murders.  Holmes' great great grandson, Jeff Mudgett, has written the book Blood Stains detailing the life of H. H. Holmes and he claims that the number of murders could be upwards of a thousand.  Considering the proximity to the World's Fair and the secrets of the Murder Castle, I could believe that number.  Jeff Mudgett also hypothesizes that his infamous grandfather committed the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper.  Holmes was in London at the same time as the murders and as a doctor had the skills needed for the delicate organ removals the Ripper is credited with.  His return to America would explain why the evil deeds of Jack the Ripper came to such an abrupt end.

H. H. Holmes was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.  He was hung in 1896 at the age of 34.  As one can see, his grave needed to be concealed and protected by concrete to evade grave robbers and others with macabre plans.  And really, who would pay for a marker for one so evil?  The sad epilogue to this narrative are those left without graves and without peace: Holmes' victims.  Many were placed in pits of lime, while others were dissected down to skeletons and sold off so they were never identified or buried.  He cremated other victims as well.  Cremation was facilitated via a glass factory he had near the Murder Castle.  No glass was ever sold by the factory, but the fires burned hot enough to eliminate all human traces.   So sometimes, where the history of the dead lies, is unknown.  But that history is no less significant.  To that end, Jeff Mudgett has hopes for placing a memorial plaque near the site of the Murder Castle, the location of a post office today, to memorialize the victims.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Unique Homemade Grave Markers

© Denise Moormeier 2013

While driving a back road near Savannah Georgia, we happened upon a small missionary baptist church behind a cluster of trees featuring its own cemetery.  This is a real rarity to find a church with its own cemetery burying people currently.  There were very few graves, but a couple caught our attention because they were unique.  Unique and homemade.  It was obvious that someone had poured out the slabs of cement and then used a stick to write upon them.  The centerpiece of these markers were large glass pieces.  We are left to wonder what the glass was meant to symbolize.  Possibly looking through the veil to the other side or perhaps the glass was just meant to be decorative.  Either way, there is no doubt these stones were made with love.
© Denise Moormeier 2013

© Denise Moormeier 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rendezvous With Death

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Our nation just observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  The President had a favorite poem by Alan Seeger.  President Kennedy always felt as though death was chasing him.  It chases us all.  And some are caught too soon.

I have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sunbury Cemetery In Georgia

© Denise Moormeier 2013

This is a wonderful cemetery because it is basically all that is left of the once prosperous port town of Sunbury, Georgia.  Sunbury is now a famous ghost town, but it rivaled its neighbor city of Savannah at one time.  Sunbury was structured very similarly to Savannah with the town being arranged around squares, in this case there were three squares: Church, King's and Meeting.  The town was founded in 1758 and rose to prominence up until the American Revolution when it was occupied by the British and used as a place to imprison prisoners of war, one of whom was George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Sunbury went into decline and suffered a last blow in the Civil War as General Sherman brought his March To The Sea into town and burned down the Baptist Church.

The historical marker for Sunbury Cemetery reads, "In this Cemetery are buried men and women whose lives contributed much to the early history of Georgia.  Among these were the Rev. Wm. McWhir, D. D. and his wife. The Rev. Mr. McWhir was for 30 years Principal of the famous Sunbury Academy. Born in Ireland, September 9, 1759, he was graduated from Belfast College and was licensed to preach by the presbytery of the City. He died in Georgia, January 30, 1851.  Some burials were made in this plot in Colonial and Revolutionary Days, but most of the markers had been destroyed before 1870's."

© Denise Moormeier 2013
As one can surmise from the marker, Ireland native Rev. Dr. William McWhir is the most famous person buried here.  The Sunbury Academy became a well known higher learning center in the area under Rev. McWhir who replaced Rev. Reuben Hitchcock as headmaster.  He was an exceptional Greek and Latin scholar and well traveled throughout Europe.  Before settling in Sunbury, Rev. McWhir headed an academy in Alexandria, Virginia that boasted George Washington as a trustee.  He traveled to Florida as well to preach and helped establish Presbyterian churches in St. Augustine and Mandarin there.  He died in 1851 at 92 years of age.

© Denise Moormeier 2013
© Denise Moormeier
Only 34 grave markers remain in Sunbury Cemetery with the oldest one dating back to 1788.  The most recent is marked with the year 1911.

There are depressions throughout the grounds indicating that many more people are buried here than markers indicate.  Two families, the Dunham and Fleming-Law families, have plots encircled by iron fences. 

Lt. Charles H. Law is buried here with his grave marked by a stone donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

© Denise Moormeier 2013
Georgia pioneers Rev. Samuel S. Law, who died here in 1837, and G. Law, who died in 1817, are buried here.  Rebecca was Rev. Law's first wife and passed away at only 35 years of age.
© Denise Moormeier 2013

Rev. Jacob H. Dunham preached to the poor without recompense and is considered a pioneer as well.  A smaller tombstone stands before his marker.  I'm not sure if this is for a child or a foot stone designating the end of Rev. Dunham's grave. 
© Denise Moormeier 2013
Ann H. Dunham passed away early in life at the age of  39.  I find it interesting that headstones like Ann's indicate months and days as part of the age as though every day on the earth was considered important.  In a time when life spans were not long, I can understand the desire to commemorate every day.
© Denise Moormeier 2013
The tombstone of Eliza Ann Richardson is decorated with a willow tree and an urn and she only lived until the age of eleven.  The symbol of the willow and urn came into popularity during the late 1700s and early 1800s.  The weeping willow is a symbol of grief and mourning while the urn symbolizes immortality.
© Denise Moormeier 2013
Sunbury Cemetery stands as a symbol that people once lived here and then died here and that is what reminds us that this is where history lies.
© Denise Moormeier 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Memorializing The Dead

Since the dawn of human history, we have memorialized the dead.  We have done so through various means whether we have built megalithic structures, mounds, mausoleums and great memorials or simply piled the bodies in mass graves or cremated the remains or even hoisted the bodies above the earth or dumped them into the sea.  Cemeteries can be found in every country with some boasting ornate sculptures, while others are private and small.  We have followed certain rituals out of love or superstition.

Superstition and religion have played integral roles in the process of dealing with those who have lost their lives.  Some cultures believed that they needed to burn the dead to liberate their spirits.  Others put the lost inside of tombs that they could seal off to keep them at rest.  Burying the dead just made common sense when people realized that decay would set in and stink.  Burying prevented the transmission of disease as well. Over time, cultures began adopting various rituals or symbols to honor the dead.  Graves were marked with stones and eventually names were added.  In countries like Egypt, tombs were elaborate and decorated with gold and jewels and filled with items that they believed the dead would need in the afterlife.  They also practiced embalming of the deceased.

This grave marker was found in Edinburgh, Scotland under a parking lot and served as the final resting place of a medieval knight:
Not quite as fancy as this medieval knight's tomb found at The Louvre:
This blog is dedicated to sharing the way we have memorialized the dead and what history lies with them.