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Before and after: Shockoe Hill Cemetery in 1865 (above) and today (below). Photos, from top: Alexander Gardner and Justin Vaughan
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Time has taken its toll on Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Justin Vaughan photo
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Richmonder Elizabeth Van Lew, who supplied information to the Union during the Civil War, is buried at Shockoe Hill. Justin Vaughan photo
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The final resting place of Chief Justice John Marshall (left) and his wife, "Polly," can be found in Shockoe Hill. Justin Vaughan photo
Of the 13 Angels at Shockoe Hill Cemetery, seven died before their third birthday.
Joseph Angel, 8 months old, came to Shockoe on Oct. 11, 1865, while on Feb. 11, 1882, the somewhat more fortunate Hannah, aged 74 years, was laid to rest.
The most prominent angel arises in triumph from the marker of Nannie Eupehmia Caskie. She died at age 61 in Florence, Italy, and was placed at Shockoe on June 23, 1893. Etched on the stone beneath the winged being is "MIZPEH." The Hebrew word describes the view from a high place, or, a memorial shrine. Both definitions suit the cemetery, situated on a bluff at Fourth and Hospital streets.
Shockoe Hill is one of the city's most historic yet least known burial grounds. For many years, it suffered from waning public attention and the vagaries of city budgets. Then in the fall of 2006, Doug Welsh, at the behest of the John Marshall Foundation and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, walked with some apprehension through the part-open door of the old keeper's house. What he saw there changed his life.
Shockoe Hill appears to be farther from downtown than it is due to the rude interposition of interstate highway ramps.
Gilpin Court arose next door in what was once referred to as " 'Postletown," for streets named after James, John, Paul and Peter (and the apostolic quality of Charity).
The valley beneath Shockoe Hill is an unappealing assortment of scrub lots and industrial buildings dominated by the city jail. Razor wire is the motif, and a long freight train can delay a visitor's approach from the southeast on Hospital Street.
Shockoe Hill's current circumstance is predicated — as much as it ever has been — on the situation of nearby neighborhoods. City proposals under consideration for remaking Gilpin Court or a new location for the jail will affect Shockoe's visibility and accessibility in its third century.
After the cemetery of St. John's Church filled up in the early 1800s and before Hollywood's memorial park glamour outshone it, Shockoe received the bulk of Richmond's dead.
Chief Justice John Marshall is there alongside his "Polly," Mary Willis Ambler. Here, too, are Richmond's first mayor, physician William Foushee; Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew; and John Allan, the temperamental Scottish merchant who became the warder of the orphaned Edgar Poe. Several of Poe's boyhood friends are here, as is the inspiration for his poem, "To Helen," Jane Stith Craig Stanard, who went insane and died when Poe was just 15.
Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, Poe's childhood sweetheart, was a middle-aged widow by the time he returned to Richmond in the summer of 1849 and resumed a courtship. She outlived him by several decades, coming to Shockoe in February 1888.
At least two African-American women are buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. They were both family domestics and, due to Richmond's segregation, required official dispensation to receive memorial in a majority-white graveyard.
Lucy Taylor, who died May 22, 1882, was, as her stone describes, the "Mammy Nurse In The Family of Wm. C. Allen/ Faithful Unto Death." Lucy Armstead, buried Dec. 31, 1895, was the servant of Dr. Woodbridge, 701 E. Grace St. "Buried by Special Ordinance," the internment card notes.
And here is Mrs. McCormick, age unrecorded, first name not given. She was Shockoe's first official burial, April 10, 1822. Almost two centuries later, in 2003, came two veterans, Thomas M. Bliley of the Marine Corps and Bernard Gerard Bliley, who'd served in the Air Force.
Between Mrs. McCormick and the Blileys are some 8,000 others, each with a story signified by the space between dates on the headstones.
From Order to Chaos
Shockoe Hill's 1822 opening signified in Richmond a shift away from small rural and family burying grounds. As historian Tyler Potterfield explains in his Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape , by the late 18th century, cities began creating "large and orderly places of burial tranquilly situated away" from their centers.
By 1815, clustered along ridges north of town overlooking Bacon's Quarter Branch came several graveyards. The Burying Ground Society for the Free People of Color established the Phoenix Burial Grounds north of the stream. Eventually, this evolved into the Barton Heights cemeteries.
A city almshouse was completed around 1800, and in 1816, the city's Jewish population acquired an acre of its land because their Franklin Street Burial Ground (the site remains in Shockoe) was full. This evolved into the Hebrew Cemetery adjacent to Shockoe.
When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted visited Shockoe in 1852, he described the then-5-acre Shockoe Hill as a "neat, rural ground, well-filled with monuments and evergreens."
But by 1866, an editorialist for the Richmond Whig went ambling about the cemetery attempting to decipher famous names from fading engravings. The condition of the grounds was less then desirable, too, and with some alteration for modern sensibilities, this description could've been written in 1936 or 1996: "There is some difficulty in finding the graves of many of the citizens of mark who are buried in these grounds," the Whig writer testifies. "Some of the monuments are covered with weeds and shrubbery and not easily accessible, and others are protected from intrusion by lock and key; others still are so defaced that the letters are scarcely legible."
In 1931, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes visited the tomb of his great predecessor, John Marshall. Hughes planned to place a wreath and give a brief address. The event went awry when several containers of bootleg whiskey "were found reposing in the sarcophagus on Marshall's grave," recalled historian Virginius Dabney. (The incident may have amused Marshall, who liked his drink and wasn't much on ceremony).
Genealogist and historian Alice Boehmer Rudd took it upon herself to transcribe as many of the legible stones and put them in two volumes, published in 1960.
A 1977 Times-Dispatch article followed caretaker Ulysses Edward Williams around the graveyard, again pointing out the prominent names but expressing concern for deteriorating conditions. "Natural forces are conspiring with vandals to ruin its appearance," Jerry Lazarus wrote, "and Williams acknowledges there is little he can do about it."
What miscreants weren't accomplishing, erosion was. An obelisk that Williams pointed out had slid from its base due to water insinuating beneath it, shifting grounds cracked foundations and falling tree limbs bashed brittle headstones. James E. Conway, director of the bureau of cemeteries explained, "The grounds are the responsibility of the city. But the monuments are the responsibility of the family or whoever placed them. We don't have any money to take care of them."
Mark Robertson and Vann Graves, who visited the cemetery in 1986, wrote to the News Leader Forum page of how they were "appalled at its condition." What at first appeared to be outright vandalism turned out to be simple neglect. Overgrown grass, collapsed tombstones and unpaved roads made it a disgrace to the city.
They came to Shockoe two days before Memorial Day but found just one flag, on the grave of Gov. William Cabell. Disgusted, the two placed an arrangement on Marshall's grave and a flag by the plaque honoring Confederate and Union dead.
"Hollywood may be larger and more impressive," the letter went, " but this one deserves the same care. Something needs to be done now before it's too late."
Beginning in 1988, researcher Kathryn Whittington began photographing and documenting the funerary sculptures of Shockoe, work that culminated in placing the cemetery onto the National Register of Historic Places.
Whittington sighs. "After I did all that work, the city never did make any improvements, not to the grounds or roads — they didn't even put up a plaque saying this is a national landmark. I couldn't believe it." (The Friends of Shockoe Hill website makes the note, but the 2007 state marker at the site doesn't.)
Even while Whittington was going about her research, the funerary sculptures were vanishing — either stolen, collapsed or deteriorated. The walking paths disappeared under grass, and the access roads fell apart.
By the mid-1990s the age, expense and condition of the seven city-owned cemeteries moved City Council to try and divest Richmond of the responsibilities. In 1995, Richmond's living population was approximately 201,000, while the city's public cemeteries held the remains of some 673,500.
The dead do make their demands.
Among the city's older cemeteries, Oakwood in the East End and Manchester's Maury have endured continued depredation, while among African-American cemeteries, a combination of official disregard and the passage of those immediately associated with the cemeteries has caused considerable maintenance challenges. Denise Lester stabilized the privately owned Barton Heights beginning in 1992, but the private cemeteries Evergreen and Woodland also possess great historic value and are in various forms of distress.
In May 1995, Council reduced the annual cemetery subsidy from a proposed $322,000 to $100,000. Council also sought to sell the cemeteries for an estimated $5 million to $12 million. "We want the cemeteries to be self-sufficient," said Deputy City Manager Jerry N. Johnson. The cost of "perpetual care," offered with well-intentioned idealism in 1906, wasn't possible in today's circumstances. It was thought that a private firm could better maintain the grounds. Of the seven city burying grounds, four were active, and the remainder were maintained as parks.
The effort to privatize Richmond's cemeteries collapsed in 1997, when the city attorney called a halt to a $6 million deal because of a failure to follow the public-bid procedure with the Loewen Group, a Canadian-based multinational death-care conglomerate. Not mentioned in reporting then was that in 1996 Loewen lost a $550 million lawsuit to a family-run funeral business in Ocean Springs, Miss. The company went bankrupt in 1999.
Meanwhile, back on Shockoe Hill, an August 2000 storm caused the partial collapse of a 30-foot long, 5-foot-high brick wall.
Down the hill, Doug Welsh worked as an interpretive guide at the John Marshall House. Not one to see the need for action without taking action himself, he utilized a program of court-ordered community service to make numerous minor repairs to the building and for sprucing up the grounds. Important maintenance issues got resolved.
Then one day he was raking in the yard, and Lynn Brackenridge, executive director of the John Marshall Foundation, strode up to him. She needed help putting together the 2005 celebration for the 250th anniversary of John Marshall's birth.
"And, so, I had new orders," he recalls with a smile.
He soon found himself with an office and a computer in the basement of the Marshall house. He and Brackenridge worked closely with the APVA through four years, organizing a big Marshall gala, conducting teacher seminars and facilitatingin-classroom programs.
Welsh went about this work with industry and humility borne of his Hammond, Ind., upbringing. His father was a mechanical engineer, and his mother was a master tailor and nurse. In retirement, the Welshes restored the Greensburg, Ky., home of Mentor Graham, who gave Abraham Lincoln his earliest and sparse formal education.
Welsh had not been to Shockoe Hill Cemetery and knew little about it beyond a visitor at the John Marshall House's remark that she'd recently avoided getting mugged while visiting the site. In 2005, though, events sponsored by the John Marhsall Foundation were going on there. Though Welsh was more involved with planning a dinner event at the Marriott, he checked on Shockoe.
"Those first trips were a bit like going on a military scouting mission into unknown territory," Welsh remembers "I just did not know what to expect or to what extent the cemetery was frequented." He was somewhat unnerved by shouting men who seemed always to gather at Bates and Second streets. They weren't yelling at him, but at each other, or anybody around. Welsh would drive in but leave his car engine running.
With each trepidatious visit, Welsh went deeper into the cemetery, becoming acquainted with the fine jingling of names inscribed on the weathered tombstones. He'd get to know them in time: William Cabell, governor of Virginia from 1805 to 1808; Joseph Mayo, Richmond's mayor who surrendered the city to Union forces with terms written on a piece of wallpaper; attorney John Mercer Patton, the celebrated World War II general's great-great-great grandfather; and Peter Francisco, the 7-foot-tall Revolutionary War hero.
In the summer of 2006, Doug Welsh approached the Keeper's House with its door cracked toward the darkness inside. He entered, quiet, and slow, as if not to startle something or someone. For the first time he saw the old wooden desk, a large paint-flecked safe, the long work bench along the south side of the second room. Some of the tools were caked with earth from their last employment. The bathroom had been used, "but not cleaned," Welsh adds with euphemistic understatement. On the desk, Welsh found the long leather strip from the binding off one of the cemetery's ancient registry books.
"It was kind of strange, I have to tell you," he says.
Friending the Cemetery
Welsh realized that maintaining Marshall's gravesite would remain a constant challenge if the entire cemetery wasn't stabilized.
"At some point, I had a discussion with the [John Marshall Foundation] board or Lynn that, look, we have to do something," he says. "This isn't going to work."
Welsh researched what other old civic cemeteries around the country were doing. Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, founded in 1836, established its auxiliary group in 1978. The missions there were to "preserve, sustain and educate" and reposition the cemetery as a cultural and historical destination. Restoration and research efforts continue to this day, funded through memberships and other efforts that include an annual Gravediggers' Ball, and the group keeps donors up-to-date on their progress through a newsletter.
He was suspicious about whether the city would assist. The place was grown up, and within a few weeks of his taking interest, two cars crashed into the cemetery's exterior wall.
On Aug. 17, 2006, members of the John Marshall Foundation and city representatives came together at a lunchtime meeting in the foundation's West Franklin Street offices. The participants included Welsh, Brackenridge, then cemeteries manager Patricia A.B. Taylor, parks director John R. Pope and Larry Miller, deputy director of administration.
Taylor, according to minutes of the meeting, stated, "The city owns the land. Everything above the land is owned by you," meaning the relatives of the interred.
The foundation sought to ensure the maintenance of the John Marshall plots and, through alliances with other historic preservation and social organizations, include the entire 12-acre cemetery. The meeting ended with the city and foundation agreeing to not work at cross-purposes.
Everything needs a place to begin, and John Marshall's fenced-in gravesite was the spot. Landscaper Ralph Higgins, a several times great-grandson of John Marshall and a foundation member, gave the necessary authorization to care for the Marshall gravesite. In September 2006, Welsh and assistants Ben Feole and Joseph Juhasz cleared six large trash bags of debris from the fenced-in Marshall gravesite. They installed liriope grasses along the fence base and laid topsoil.
Kathryn Whittington's research, with the John Marshall Foundation push and the Virginia State Department of Historic Resources, got the cemetery a long-needed state road marker. Lynn Brackenridge spearheaded that effort, and Welsh doesn't think she gets enough praise. "People were standing back amazed that we were able to get this far," Welsh says.
His earlier concern that city officials wouldn't care was allayed by the appointment of O. Wayne Edwards to oversee the city's cemeteries. Edwards responded to Welsh's requests to upgrade the Keeper's House, among grounds maintenance needs.
What got accomplished was more than a sign, a ceremony, and a fife and drum band. From 2007 forward, the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery incorporated as a nonprofit, created maps and rack cards, and set up an attractive website. Meetings were held with developers and Jackson Ward and Gilpin residents.
A database project was initiated to match historical information with the approximate 7,500 remaining monuments. It will be a boon for genealogists or family members just trying to figure out where they came from when it becomes available through the website. The Keeper's House was renovated.
New visitors were brought in via programs and tours — one explored the Irish buried in the cemetery around St. Patrick's Day, while another related the romantic stories embodied in the tombstones around Valentine's Day. This month, Haunts of Richmond ghost tours will dramatize Shockoe Hill's abundant Poe connections during presentations from July 15 to 17.
Purloined Bricks and Family Bonds
J.R. Pope, director of the city parks, agrees that the Friends of Shockoe Hill does invaluable work, as do the several other parks friends groups throughout the city.
"It really makes these places a joy to pull into," he says. The city's cemeteries operate under an enterprise fund. They are treated as a business. No general funds go toward them.
Pope would like to have a cemeteries historian. People like Doug Welsh know quirky facts about these places, but given the present economic situation, "It's just not in the cards," he says.
Despite the momentum, there have been setbacks. A public-works employee in early 2008 tipped off police about a man removing the herringbone pattern bricks from the North Fourth Street side of the cemetery. They caught him shoveling bricks into a van. In six weeks, he'd taken up some 15,760 bricks — enough, it was reported in the Times-Dispatch, to build a small house. He sold them for 50 cents each to an antique store. The brick thief served six months in jail and was ordered to make $7,407 restitution to the city.
In another blow, Welsh's liaison position between the John Marshall Foundation and the APVA was de-funded in 2008. What was going around in the economy at large didn't spare historic-cemetery coordinators. He nonetheless retained a sense of urgency and mission about Shockoe Hill.
In early 2009, Welsh began spending Sunday afternoons at the cemetery, most often from noon to three or so. "You never know who's going to show up, and people do show up, looking for relatives. And lots of times, we find them."
In May, James M. Potter of Pfafftown, N.C., e-mailed Welsh and park officials about finding the partial 1840 gravestone of his wife's great-great-great-grandfather. It was located, following Welsh's direction. "When family members reconnect with an ancestor who was part of Richomnd's history," Potter wrote, "they form a bond with the place that goes beyond just a nice tourist destination." He urged the city to provide someone who could remain available and on site for visitors.
Some days, Welsh wonders if he should leave the cemetery. But then, somebody like Potter arrives, and he can connect them to their family past. "It really makes it worth it," he says.
Volunteers, knowing Welsh is there, come to pick up fallen tree limbs, collect any garbage, weed around plots, clean and repair markers.
Like 16-year-old Pierlouigi Mena, a rising junior at Deep Run High School, who came here initially through HandsOn Greater Richmond, a volunteer-coordination group. He was interested in the connection between Poe, the writer's relatives and his friends.
"Other places, you see nature cramped by industrialization," Mena explained while enjoying the spreading shade of one of Shockoe's old trees on a day when the temperature flirted with 100. "I like seeing the green here and making it better."
Welsh's anxieties of 2006 have mostly been allayed. During this time at Shockoe Hill, he's not experienced anything untoward, nor had report of such. This is significant, he says.
"As we know, ‘fear is often the catalyst of suggestion,' " he says. "There is truly a sense of peace and well being within the walls of the cemetery. I think it is important to note that often our perceptions of an area lead to its definition — both bad and good. In this case we are ‘willing' goodness and serenity at Shockoe, and it seems to be working."
That Little Bit of Sweetness
Calvin Kroll's wife, Francis, was buried here on Oct. 13, 1998, in her family's Faust plot. They'd been married since 1960. Kroll, 72, plans to be placed here, too. For the past few years, he's been tending not just to the graves of his wife and her family, but to those of complete strangers.
The son of a German-Russian father and Romanian-Hungarian mother, he is a proud first-generation American, glad of his working-class heritage, his late-1950s stint in the U.S. Navy, and those whose memories he tends in Shockoe.
A few days a week, he comes in an old van he bought for the purpose, carrying cleaning supplies, water and something to snack on.
For Kroll, Shockoe tells stories of another time when people were of a different gauge. They founded the country, fought over it and then marched together for its defense through world wars.
Kroll explains, "I'm not here because of the famous people, but those who no matter their station, made contributions and sacrificed and died. This is life. It is suffering, but there is always also the little bit of sweetness that makes it all worthwhile. You see the families here together, husbands, wives, and children. You see, too, there was love."
He extols the work of the Friends of Shockoe, and praises Welsh, "He is a good man, and with all the big companies in Richmond, you think they could manage to help support what's getting done here." He laughs. "I mean, it only makes sense, right?"
He gets rust off fences and paints them, scrubs dirt from the stones, while contemplating his life and those who are represented here. "You read their stones, and it gives you a good feeling. What they experienced in their lifetimes — we can only imagine it."
Sometimes he finds himself singing while he works, to himself, "And, to my friends here."
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.