Dead Men Do Tell Tales
photo by Steve Bracci
I am standing in the shade of a magnolia at the corner of 7th Street and de L’Aigle. This may be the most peaceful place in all of Augusta. The old magnolias stand in a long line shading all of de L’Aigle Avenue, and all the cross streets too, from 1st to 15th. It is utterly silent here, yet I am surrounded by thousands and thousands of Augustans: children, soldiers, merchants, doctors, paupers, statesmen, husbands, wives...all of them asleep, some of them since the early 1800s.
The most amazing array of stone monuments marks the places where they lie, celebrating and mourning them. I recognize many of the names carved on the stones—Phinizy, Stovall, Gould, Glascock, Evans—names now preserved in places, streets, counties, towns. Others I remember from history books, for much of Augusta’s history lies here. But many I don’t know at all.
Maybe I should. Take, for instance, the man who sleeps inside this impressive but unadorned granite mausoleum behind me. Every door and opening is bricked in. A weathered inscription identifies him as W. Barron, 1806-1894. If the sun’s just right and you use your fingers to help you make out the verse that 118 years of wind and rain have almost erased from the stone, you’ll hear him say,
“Farewell, vain world, I know enough of thee
And now am careless what thou sayest of me.
Thy smiles I court not, nor thy frowns I fear,
My cares are past, my head lies quiet here.
What faults you knew of me, take care to shun,
And look at home—enough there’s to be done.”
Now there’s a man with attitude and a story to tell. But Magnolia Cemetery is full of such voices longing to tell their stories to inhabitants of their city in a different century than their own. They have much to tell us.
You can hear Wylly Barron’s story and meet 11 other spirits here at Magnolia Cemetery downtown on Third Street, October 13 and 14. Historic Augusta has organized and sponsored this Walk With the Spirits for six years now, alternating between Magnolia Cemetery and Summerville Cemetery. Each year a different set of spirits is selected, men and women of every occupation and social class who walked these streets before we got here.
Historic Augusta researches the characters (this year’s research was done by college interns Traci Melton and Samantha Sherman). The volunteer actors write their own scripts based on that research. Vintage Ooollee provides the costumes. Four spirit guides lead the public to the seven graves whose spirits then tell their own stories. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.
“This is not a ‘spook’ tour,” explains Historic Augusta Director Erick Montgomery. “We do it in the late afternoon and early evening, not at night with lanterns. We try to convey a sense of history in a way more meaningful than if we just went and told people about the stones.
“The Magnolia and Summerville cemeteries were segregated, so hard to do any but white people. (Paine College does its own tour of Cedar Grove Cemetery, the historic burial place of African Americans.) But we try hard not to feature just the rich and famous. Some of our spirits were blue collar workers, some are wives telling about themselves and their husbands. We also pick different eras so it’s not all hoopskirts. We just don’t like to get real close to present day.”
This year’s spirits are Ann Clanton Vason, 1830-1905, portrayed by Sallie Metzel; Ann’s sister, Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834-1907, portrayed by Laurie Montgomery; William Shivers Morris, 1869-1921, portrayed by Mark Albertin; Charles Platt, 1814-1887, portrayed by Danny Craig; Dr. Paul Fitzsimons Eve, 1806-1877, portrayed by James Mason; Jacob Henry Lowrey, 1824-1909, portrayed by Cobbs Nixon; Dr. William West Bussey, 1838-1928, portrayed by Whatley Bush; Thomas N. Hopkins, 1839-1893, portrayed by Jack R. B. Long; Sarah Eugenia Twiggs, 1836-1893, portrayed by Missy Hargrove; John Jay Cohen, 1806-1884, portrayed by Bob Rollins; and Amelia Winter Hack, 1824-1881, portrayed by April King.
Judge Danny Craig has portrayed a spirit every year since the tours began. On a late summer evening, as he leads me along the path of this year’s tour, he slips seamlessly into the character of Charles Platt, founder of Platt’s funeral home. “I started out as a furniture maker in New York. Back in my day, most case furniture makers also built coffins. So when I came to Augusta in 1837 I did that, but I added a couple of interesting services. I’d trained in New York to do embalming. Before embalming, the family was put to immediate tasks—preparing the body, getting the casket, arranging for the funeral that day or soon after. But with embalming, there didn’t have to be that rush and I could take care of many of those tasks the family used to have to perform. I turned the business over to my son Edward in the 1870s. He expanded it and bought the Bohler mansion on Crawford Avenue.”
Craig, Augusta’s longtime district attorney and now superior court judge, is just a guy in shirtsleeves with a chainsaw and a white pickup truck, swatting mosquitoes, cutting back intruding limbs and clearing brush in the cemetery on the weekends leading up to Walk With the Spirits. The 60-acre cemetery, once a popular place for family picnics or meditative visits, is somewhat shaggy and neglected in the 21st century. But Craig loves it here. His grandkids ride their bikes all through the vast park, safely enclosed by the high brick walls that surround it. He’s been coming here since he was a kid himself. He learned to drive here in his father’s 1961 Ford station wagon when his dad came down to maintain his aunts’ graves.
And he’d love to see the place return to its days of glory, perhaps having community work days and then having individuals adopt gravesites for maintenance. Ironically, the beautiful magnolias for which the cemetery is named are responsible, when they go untrimmed for years, for knocking over monuments with their limbs and breaking up the brick pathways with their roots.
Julia Jackson, Historic Augusta’s programs and marketing director, thinks these Walks With the Spirits raise people’s awareness of Augusta’s historic cemeteries. “Historic preservation isn’t only about buildings. It’s also about sites and this is a historic site. So part of preservation is being able to use it and enjoy it, and the more people enjoy the park-like setting the more it will be appreciated. Every year, Walk With the Spirits brings 500 people to discover these places. Augusta is fortunate to have multiple cemeteries rich in history and rich in interesting characters. We could do these tours for many years and never run out of fascinating material.”
Augustans have laid their loved ones to rest here since 1818. Visiting their graves can be instructive and humbling. Death was very familiar to them. So many died in infancy and childbirth. So many died of fevers and diseases we can cure now. So many died just as they were reaching their prime.
“Most of these people accomplished incredible things in their lives by their 42nd to 45th year,” Craig says. “These people did not have longevity. They couldn’t take a long life for granted, so they accomplished great things in what today we consider a short portion of life. Many people in our community don’t get regarded as having expertise in their own walk of life till their 50s or 60s. Well, these people couldn’t count on that. And so it’s amazing how many names you’ll recognize as having accomplished greatness who died very young.”
We live in a three-dimensional world, height and width and depth, but awareness of history adds a fourth dimension—time. That dimension allows us to see the present moment as only the most recent of a long series of events that led to it and give it meaning. “The tour connects the past to our everyday lives,” Craig says. “The names you hear every day, the streets we drive down. In the tour you learn where these names came from, meet these people in the context of their everyday lives, events that shaped them, neighbors they grew up with. You come to realize that God didn’t create our town this way. People actually had to do something, people sacrificed immensely to get it done. “
Not that they were all saints and heroes. Take Wylly Barron, the guy with attitude bricked up there in the mausoleum. Turns out, he was a professional gambler, ran the gambling at the Atkinson Hotel on Ellis Street. One day at his establishment, a man lost all he had. In despair and fury, he.... But never mind. You’ll learn all that on the tour.
The tours begin every 20 minutes from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, October 13, and Sunday, October 14. “For $15 and an investment of less than an hour, you get the benefit of 2,000 hours of research, which is presented in an entertaining fashion so that you can retain it,” Craig says, “and I can’t think of a better entertainment value in the city of Augusta or anywhere else.”
Jim Garvey, a professor emeritus at ASU, retired from his myriad of esteemed duties in 2009. He is enjoying a more leisurely pace but still manages to miss deadlines.