Doug Welsh, president of the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Justin Vaughan photo
"The cemetery becomes a collection of bookmarks where you can anchor a story about a person or a family and make a connection with a moment of the past," says Shockoe Hill Cemetery volunteer Tom Roberts.
He met Doug Welsh, the president of Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery, a couple of years ago at an APVA Preservation Virginia Conference while a student at the University of Mary Washington. Upon graduation in May 2009, Roberts began the process of creating a computer database of the internment records. (Another project, now dropped for lack of resources, is the photographic cataloging of gravestones.)
While sifting through information, Roberts discovered that institutions like Tredegar Iron Works and churches purchased a collection of plots, not just families. There are plots, too, that are still empty, but Roberts doesn't know how many.
Another longtime volunteer, lawyer and historian Jeffry Burden, began his association with the cemetery when researching Confederate and Union dead there. The latter was revealed to be a misinterpretation of records, as the Northern soldiers — and many civilians included among them — were first laid to rest nearby in what is now the Hebrew Cemetery, then interred at the large National Veterans Cemetery on Williamsburg Road.
He, too, often comes on the weekends to help police the grounds of trash and speak with visitors, passing along stories such as one of the most poignant contained within the walls of Shockoe — the tale of the girls killed by the terrible explosion of the Confederate States Laboratory on Brown's Island on March 13, 1863. Here, mostly young women were employed in the manufacture of ammunition.
"They were poor, working class and immigrant," says Burden, gazing off toward the cemetery's southwestern section, at what appears to be an empty swale of green. No markers remain there. It was never plotted, "but it's chockablock full," he says.
In a room where condemned cartridges were getting taken apart, Mary Ryan tried to unloosen a stuck primer by banging it against her workbench.
Buried near each other over several days were Wilhelmina Defenbach, 15; Virginia Mayer, 12; Emma Blankenship, 15; and Caroline Zietenmayer, 16. Burden doesn't think it coincidental that they were placed next to each other. "They must've been friends," he says.
Besides wartime hazard, early death was commonplace during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A sampling of 680 Shockoe Hill internment cards reveals that some 40 percent were children three years and under or stillborns.
Then there is Nicholas Caire, born in France in 1809, who on March 8, 1845, jumped into the downtown Turning Basin (now the site of the Omni Hotel) to rescue his 5-year-old daughter Lenora "from a watery grave." The marker finishes the story: "She sleeps with him."
Volunteer Kristina Leverty says that while some may describe herself as a "people person, that's somewhat inaccurate. "I'm a dead-people person," says Leverty, who started genealogical sleuthing in 2002 after moving to Richmond, her husband's hometown. His family was intertwined with Virginia's history, and she found judges, presidents, authors, professors and more, some of whom now repose at Shockoe Hill.
These varied relations include James E. Heath, writer and editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. His daughter Ellen Maria Heath Dabney died while giving birth to Richard Heath, later a University of Virginia professor. Her gravestone is adorned with a broken flower, indicating that she died before her time, and a new bud, indicating her newborn son.
After meeting Welsh, Roberts and Jeff Burden, Leverty chose to dedicate herself to documenting and remembering the lives of Shockoe's residents. Her own frustration with identifying names on the cemetery's handwritten family-plot map led her to digitize the map and make it searchable. (She hopes to get it online once it's completed.) It's a time-consuming effort, but she finds it rewarding, led on by intriguing names, occupation and causes of death.
"I was reluctant to tell them that I had sat at my computer for hours transcribing the names, figuring that they had a team of people on this already; but I was excited to find out that my work helped and that more help was needed."
Jason Johnson came to work among the Shockoe Hill Friends by court order in 2008. Johnson was one of the "Tredegar 12" arrested for trespassing when blocking the entrance to Dominion's downtown offices in order to protest the construction of a coal-fired plant in Wise County, Va.
As part of a plea bargain, the activists were each given 150 hours of community-service work in Richmond. Welsh was one of a dozen people on Johnson's list, but after meeting him, Johnson says, "I decided to work with him for the majority of my hours."
Welsh wanted a newsletter, a blog, videos and more to boost Shockoe Hill's visibility. Johnson created the cemetery's website, which has provided a connection to distant relatives and family historians across the country.
"Although the circumstances leading up to the transformation at Shockoe Hill seem like one in a million," says Johnson, now in Kentucky, "I'm glad it all happened. And despite my obligations with the court to complete community-service hours, I'm happy I had the opportunity to work with Doug, for he's one in a million himself."