Secrets and Stories in Tallahassee’s Old City Cemetery

old city cemetary tallahassee florida

Late October brings thoughts of changing colors, falling leaves, crisp apples, pumpkins, ghosts, and cemeteries.

I’ve never found cemeteries to be especially spooky. Famous ones such as Père Lachaise in Paris, the three Saint Louis cemeteries in New Orleans, and the Necropolis in Glasgow certainly make you think about the lives of those who lie there, though. That’s just as true of graveyards at small rural churches in the Appalachian mountains or small town cemeteries in New Zealand. What all these have in common is that they are places that tell stories.

Old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida, is a burying ground whose stories find it somewhere between those well known cemeteries and the family graveyard. Its history as a formal place of burial goes back to 1829, when it was designated by the Territorial Legislature. There’s historical evidence that people were being buried in the area long before that, however.

In 1829, the cemetery was on the outskirts of the then frontier settlement of Tallahassee. These days it makes a quiet place in what is a quite central part of Florida’s capitol city.

old city cemetery union soldier grave

old city cemetery confederate soldier grave marker

There are Union soldiers buried here, who fell at Civil War battles fought at Olustee and at Natural Bridge. Their Confederate counterparts rest here too. So do other veterans of that war, and of other wars. There are politicians and working people. There are Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, and people whose faith is not known. There are slave owners buried in Old City Cemetery. There are graves of enslaved people, free people of color, and African Americans of all stations who lived in the city after slavery times.

There are elaborate grave markers and simple ones, ones which have stood the tests of time and weather and occasional vandalism and ones which have not.

old city cemetery broken stone marker

There are unmarked graves, as well. All of these lie among oak and other trees which have themselves seen more than a few decades.

Though Old City Cemetery is not rumored to have resident ghosts, there are some who think it does hold the grave of a witch. The grave of Elizabeth Budd Graham faces west, has a quotation from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe inscribed on it, and she was born in the month of October. Those are the things that got people talking soon after she was buried.

old city cemetery budd graham marker

old city cemetery budd graham inscription

Many but not all Christian traditions prefer an east facing grave, Poe’s spooky reputation, and that of the month of October, were well known even back in 1889 when Budd Graham died at the age of 23. Nothing in her life suggested witchcraft, and some of the witchcraft rumors name her as a white witch who dealt in love spells and potions. Perhaps she was a healer who used herbs and that caused such rumors, or perhaps she was not. Her grieving family created a large memorial (inscribed, among other things, with the Christian symbol IHS). I’ve never felt any sort of witchcraft there at all, but it is said that witches sometimes visit to pay respects. I’ve never met any of them, either.

If there were ghosts in Old City Cemetery, I’d think they would arise from another spot altogether. When you visit, you will notice that the eastern part of the cemetery is very thickly populated with headstones, wall enclosed family plots, and all sorts of grave markers, quite crowded in fact. The farther west you walk, the more open space there is until you come to an area where markers are few and far between, or sunk far down into the ground.

old city cemetery african american area

There are graves here, though, just as many if not more than the ones marked by stones and guarded by wrought iron fences. This is the area where where enslaved people, free people of color, and African Americans in reconstruction and Jim Crow times were buried. Their markers were most often made of wood, and so did not survive. There are some with stones which last, however, and they are not as isolated as they seem.

old city cemetery ella grave marker

There are many other cemeteries in the region now. This is still an active one, though the last plot was sold in the 1920s. Some were family plots with space for oncoming generations. These days, three or four burials take place every year.

The Civil War veterans on both sides of the conflict are remembered by members of legacy organizations. To some graves, family and friends still come. Other graves, though, are so weathered or so broken that they cannot be read.

Some markers suggest their own stories.

old city cemetery our baby marker

ols city cemetery tallahassee mcclellan marker

For most, they offer only hints of a life lived in another time and somehow ended in this place.

old city cemetery cooper donegal marker

old city cemetery at rest marker

Those who lie in the unmarked area are called to mind too, and not only by those who walk this quiet place from time to time. Every year on 20 May, the day the Emancipation Proclamation was first read in Tallahassee in 1865, there are many events. They begin with people of all races gathered at the marked and unmarked graves in the west end of Old City Cemetery.

People of all walks of life, all races, all faiths, though laid to rest in varying parts of this place, are all here within close sight of each other as neighbors now. If there are ghosts here, perhaps they have had time to talk. Perhaps they’d be reminding us of the importance of living as good neighbors, while still we have the opportunity to do so.

With that idea in mind, take a listen to the song Audience of Souls, from Emily Smith. Smith is from Dumfriesshire in southwestern Scotland. She used to live near a graveyard, and had the idea for this song while walking there one day. You may find it recorded on her album Too Long Away.

If you would like to visit Old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, you will find bounded by West Park Avenue and West Call Street, not far from the historic state capitol building and the campus of Florida State University. It is open from sunrise to sunset each day. The main gate is the only way in. If you have mobility concerns you may want someone to walk with you as there are many places where the ground is uneven.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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