Red House Presbyterian Church Cemetery

Red House, founded in the mid-1700s is one of the oldest Presbyterian congregations in the state, although the current structure is its fourth physical incarnation. Reportedly British soldiers camping on the property during the Revolutionary War burned the original building and desecrated the grave of the church’s first minister Hugh McAden. Fire consumed the second structure in the early 1800s, and the third was eventually replaced.


On a sunny March 2014 afternoon I visited Red House Presbyterian Church in Semora, North Carolina during the melting of a recent snowfall.

There were a number of pleasant surprises in the graveyard behind the church in terms of epitaphs and structures.

day is done
Lines from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem on the back of Betty Rainey’s obelisk

Continue reading “Red House Presbyterian Church Cemetery”


"Flung Himself From a Tower" (1894)

On the morning of August 23, 1894 banker Col. James Monroe Winstead sedately climbed the stairs to a balcony tower at Richmond’s City Hall, “threw his cane and shoes down” and then jumped to his death, landing on the iron fence over 90 feet below.

As I dug deeper into the circumstances surrounding this gruesome death, I found two additional pieces of information that in some ways shed more light on what happened that day and other ways only open up more questions.

Continue reading “"Flung Himself From a Tower" (1894)”

Descriptions of the Valencia’s Unknown Dead

As much as I love oceans lakes, and rivers one of my biggest fears is being sucked underneath its fierce waves knowing that I’m virtually powerless if the roaring sea decides to claim these mortal remains.

Even so, I find maritime disasters and water-related tragedies fascinating and have written about unfortunates who fell victim to deathly shipwrecks or were otherwise lost at sea: Capt. Ward of the City of Rio de Janeiro, Dr. Reuben Knox, the Flagg family, and the Titanic casualties.

This episode of Lore Podcast left me hungry for more of the 1906 Valencia wreck, which claimed around 136 lives (sources vary) and sparked  a few ghostly yarns.

One of the most commonly quoted accounts from survivor Chief Freight Clerk Frank Lehn is as follows:

“Screams of women and children mingled in an awful chorus with the shrieking of the wind, the dash of rain, and the roar of the breakers. As the passengers rushed on deck they were carried away in bunches by the huge waves that seemed as high as the ship’s mastheads. The ship began to break up almost at once and the women and children were lashed to the rigging above the reach of the sea. It was a pitiful sight to see frail women, wearing only night dresses, with bare feet on the freezing ratlines, trying to shield children in their arms from the icy wind and rain.”

Continue reading “Descriptions of the Valencia’s Unknown Dead”

James Henderson

The photo you see here was taken in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery on a soggy afternoon in late 2012. The man buried below this vaulted obelisk is James Allen Henderson, Jr. and because he died during the time frame listed in my copy of the mortuary reports, I had a cause of death to use as a springboard for my investigation.

Jas. A. Henderson Jr. age 22 years died from Laudanum at Rocky Mount, NC, Ferrell & Co.” (Ferrell & Co. was the name of the undertaking firm which handled his funerary preparations.)

When I read about someone dying young from unusual or mysterious circumstances I do as much digging as possible in order to piece together what happened during the person’s final moments in addition to creating an overall biographical sketch. Each marker in a cemetery represents a person’s life, not just a death, and my thirst for the hows and the whys often causes me to put off posting until I’m sure I’ve exhausted my resources. This morning I decided to try a different combination of keywords and localities in the newspaper archives and luckily it produced a few more details from April 1, 1895 when he “died from laudanum.” (We’ll get to that later.)

There are still many gaps in James’ story and unfortunately those might never be filled. We often take for granted that our inner monologues and sometimes mundane snapshots of daily life are documented through the magic of the Interwebs. There was no Instagram to document what James ate for dinner or Facebook if he wanted to declare how much he fancied his new velocipede.

So we begin at Mr. Henderson’s beginning.

James  Jr. was born on June 6, 1872 in Caswell County, North Carolina to James A. Sr. and Rebecca Johnston Henderson. I’ve noticed his parent’s names while researching other families as they are biologically linked to prominent Caswell County families. James Sr. was descended from some of Yanceyville, North Carolina’s founding citizens, notably his great-grandfather Bartlett T. Yancey. Rebecca Lea Johnston was a daughter of Thomas Donoho Johnston, the President of the Bank of Yanceyville.

In 1880 the Hendersons lived in the “Village of Yanceyville.” In addition to James Jr. and his parents, other family members included three living siblings Addie (1869-1958), Bessie (1874-1896), and Frank Hurst Henderson (1877-1956). Sometime after the census they moved to 921 Main Street in Danville, Virginia. That address is where the First Presbyterian Church now stands, beside the Sutherlin Mansion. James Sr. was a merchant, tobacconist, and founder of J.A. Henderson & Co., a leaf tobacco firm located at 400 Craghead Street. It’s highly likely that James grew up in some affluence, possibly running in some of the same social circles with other current Green Hill residents from his age group.

The next bit of information about James Jr. comes from the 1890-1891 city directory. He still resided at the Main Street home with his parents and sister “Miss Addie D. Henderson.” Other siblings probably also lived there but not listed separately in the directory due to their age. At that time James was employed as a bank runner, or courier. By 1892 he earned his wages as a tobacconist, suggesting that he intended to follow in his father’s footsteps in an industry that was then booming in the area.

Between 1892 and the date of his expiration on April 1, 1895 he relocated to Rocky Mount, North Carolina after spending some time in Henderson. I couldn’t determine where he worked during those years, but one of the articles printed after his death suggested that he held a job as a tobacco buyer in Rocky Mount.

James was just a few months shy of his 23rd birthday in late March/early April, living at the “Woodard hotel” in Rocky Mount. This might have been more of a boarding house than a typical hotel owned by someone named Mr. Woodard. James had lost his job, fallen behind on his boarding fees, and “for some time had been drinking excessively” to cope with his financial woes and employment status. I wonder if James tried to drown other demons in the depths of the bottle, but I have no evidence to support any other circumstances affecting his state of mind. Because he died from a laudanum overdose we know that he used the drug at least once, but we can’t assume that he had ever previously experimented with it. (In an earlier post I wrote briefly about laudanum use during the 19th century in case you’re not familiar.)

For nearly two years I wasn’t sure if James’ death was accidental or if he’d taken his own life. Every time I visited Green Hill, his monument reminded me of my unsolved mystery, and every few months I opened his case to no avail. Then I located this short piece in The Progressive Farmer: “News from Rocky Mount Monday states that Mr. James Henderson, of that place committed suicide that night by taking laudanum. He was about 21 years of age. No reason was assigned for such a rash act, other than that he had been drinking for some days, says the Wilson Mirror.”

The Progressive Farmer 9 April 1895

James’ untimely death was already unfortunate, but knowing he’d died at his own hands made it that much more heartbreaking. Those of you reading who aren’t invested in historical research might find my sympathy towards unrelated people who died over a century ago a bit odd. I suppose I’d compare my feelings to the manner in which a reader or viewer feels about a character in a book or a television show. The difference is that these characters were real people and I’ve stood at their real graves, with just a few feet of dirt and a metal or wooden coffin separating the living body and the decomposing corpse. (Before you gasp at my ghoulish phrasing, remember that in the end, we’re all just worm food, unless you go with cremation or some other non-traditional burial.)

But getting back to James, the other source of information about his last day was entitled, “Strange Suicide: A Man Attempts to Take the Life of Three People-Then Kills Himself.”

The Caucasian 11April 1895

“A singular case of suicide is reported from Rocky Mount, N.C.. Mr. James A. Henderson, a tobacco buyer, staying at the Woodard hotel, had become despondent, ostensibly in consequence of his inability to pay a board bill which he had contracted at that hotel. While in this melancholy state of mind he made out an insurance policy, which he handed to Mr. Woodard, remarking that he (Henderson) might soon be missing. Then to the great astonishment of his host, he suddenly drew a revolver, and pointed it at Mr. Woodard’s heart. Being foiled in his evident intention to shoot, the unfortunate hypochondriac endeavored to slash the alarmed proprietor with a butcher knife, but was again prevented from carrying his murderous purpose into effect.
Henderson next started to kill a young man whom he accused of causing him to lose his position. While on his bloody-minded errand he met the porter of the hotel, whom he also attempted to dispatch, but who luckily escaped.
Nothing more was seen of Henderson until about midnight last night, when he was discovered, gasping for breath, upon the bed in his room. A physician was summoned, who, upon examination, found that the suicide had swallowed four ounces of laudanum. Death ensued soon afterwards. Deceased came to Rocky Mount from Henderson and for some time had been drinking excessively which seemed to have turned his brain on the night of his death.”

After reflecting on James’ financial problems and his family connections I was curious as to why he didn’t go to his parents for help: was it pride or was there a rift in the Henderson clan that prevented them from communicating? There’s also the possibility that his judgement was so clouded by liquor that he chose to off himself before thinking his options through clearly.

I’m not advocating suicide by any means, but we can’t judge James for his hastening his journey on the pale horse with a few ounces of laudanum. The silver lining about his “strange suicide” is that no one else was killed that night. We can only hope that in death he found the peace of mind that evaded him towards the end of his short life.

I decided to revisit James’ grave this afternoon in light of this new information because it felt like the right thing to do.


James’ sister Bessie’s grave is to his left; their parents are in the background


Their monuments are being uprooted by the nearby tree.

Fort Lauderdale’s Evergreen Cemetery


I recently took a brief trip to Pompano Beach, Florida to visit friends who live and work in the area. Before I even mentioned it, one of them asked me which cemeteries I wanted to haunt. I did some research on Fort Lauderdale boneyards and after discovering that Leslie Nielsen’s grave was in Evergreen, my destination was clear.

The marker at one of the entrances reads:

Established 1910

Many Civil War veterans are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in addition to the founding families of Fort Lauderdale including the Stranahans (who built the Stranahan House on SE 6th Avenue), Bryans, Kings, Cromarties (the maiden name of Ivy Julia Stranahan) (1881-1971) and the Olivers. This burial place for the early residents of Fort Lauderdale was established by Mr. and Mrs. E.T. King in 1910. In 1910 or 1911, a funeral director from Miami moved many bodies from the first burial ground, in the proximity of what currently is Southside School on Andrews Avenue, to the newly created Evergreen Cemetery. In 1917, the City of Fort Lauderdale purchased the cemetery. In 1921, the American Legion purchased four lots set aside for the burial of veterans. In 1926, hurricane victims were buried in unmarked graves in the north central portion of the cemetery. This area is also the baby section. In 1935, B’nai Israel acquired blocks one and two for burials of those of the Jewish faith. Evergreen cemetery is Fort Lauderdale’s oldest intact cemetery.”

I didn’t see the marker until near the end of our whirlwind tour, so I didn’t have any of those names on my “graves to look for” list. For example, Frank Stranahan, credited with founding Fort Lauderdale, is buried on the grounds with his wife, Ivy. Despondent after great financial losses and possibly suffering from what today would be coined clinical depression, Frank Stranahan committed suicide in 1929. He tied a heavy grate to his foot with a rope and leaped into the New River in front of his home.

Tiptoeing through a Florida cemetery in close proximity to a body of water was a totally different experience for me. The grounds were a hotbed of wildlife activity, especially Muscovy ducks which make a hissing sound instead of quacking. The ducks didn’t bother us, even though they approached us several times (probably looking for food). I think the most alarming animal encounter was the sighting of a large brownish-green reptile (which turned out to be an iguana) chilling in the distance near one of the mausoleums. For the rest of the time in Evergreen I was much more careful of my footing.


The shade from nearby trees cast shadows on Leslie Nielsen’s memorial bench and grave marker, but I was so happy that we found them that I didn’t care if the images were a little dark. Nielsen doled out the following advice to aspiring actors: “Sit down whenever you can.” (I think that’s sound advice for those of us who aren’t interested in acting, too.) The inscription on his marker simply reads, “Let ‘er rip.” Thank you, Mr. Nielsen, for keeping us laughing from beyond the grave.


From an architectural point of view Evergreen is quite different from most of the cemeteries that I visit. My interests typically take me to the older sites peppered with tall vaulted obelisks, mammoth surrogate angels, and Victorian symbolism aplenty. What I learned from this visit was that even though the markers are contemporary in style, there are still some very interesting, humorous, and touching memorials to be seen in “younger” skull orchards.


“Dream Great Dreams and Make Them Happen”


quote from Hunter S. Thompson



Victims of the 1926 hurricane are buried in unmarked graves near the baby section.
 Woodmen of the World marker


“I Did It My Way”
“What Can I Do For You?”
“Take The Common and Make It Unusual”





“Whatever”/”I’ll Always Love You”
I love seeing palm trees in cemeteries. I don’t see them often enough.





B’Nai Israel Section Entry Gate

Agnes and Lizzie Langley: The Madams of Buzzard’s Roost

It amuses me that Lynchburg, Virginia is largely associated (in reputation) in some way, shape, or form with Jerry Falwell’s conservative Christian influence, but in 1804 the city was described by one evangelist as “the seat of Satan’s Kingdom.”

The two business-savvy women buried in the plot here at Old City Cemetery lived and worked in one of  Lynchburg’s seediest (and probably also one of the most interesting) neighborhoods: Buzzard’s Roost.

Continue reading “Agnes and Lizzie Langley: The Madams of Buzzard’s Roost”

Tombstone Tuesday: Thankful Ann Hiatt and Twins (1839)


“Thankful Ann
Consort of Joab Hiatt
Born March 26, 1820
Died Jany 28, 1839
They found redemption in the blood 
of the lamb. [illegible]
And their two infant children
Born Jan 22, 1839
one died Jan 24, 1839
the other Feb 1, 1839.”

Thankful Ann Gillespie Hiatt, who was 18 when she died, and her infant twins are buried in the church cemetery at Greensboro’s Buffalo Presbyterian, across the graveyard from her parents, Robert Gillespie and Nancy Hanner Gillespie.

Information about Thankful’s family suggested that she grew up in some affluence, or at the very least were prominent in Guilford County. Both of her grandfathers, Robert Hanner and Colonel Daniel Gillespie served in the North Carolina House of Commons. Daniel Gillespie also served in the North Carolina State Senate from 1790-1795. He was one of the first people to own lots in Greensboro, one of those lots at the corner of  Elm and Market Streets.

Thankful’s father was a farmer on his father’s original acreage and he and Nancy had at least eight children. (I say “at least” because often formal written accounts don’t include children who died in infancy.)

Thankful married Joab Caldwell Hiatt (1815-1867) on January 2, 1838. They’d only been married for a little over a year when the birth of the twins was quickly followed by the deaths of the mother and children. 

The details on this image are a little clearer.

Windows to the Past: Primitive Watercolors from Guilford County, NC in the 1820s

Wednesday’s Child(ren): In Their Death They Were Not Divided

Aug. 1, 2013
 “In Memory of
Beloved Children of 
John L. & Cornelia 
‘They were lovely and pleasant
in their lives 
and in their 
they were not divided.'”

These photos of the Bacon children’s graves were taken last summer at Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery. Looking more closely at the dates, I’m reminded again of how fortunate we are to live in an age where childhood mortality rates aren’t nearly as high as they were during the Bacons’ short lives.

All six of the children who have similarly designed markers were the offspring of John Lydall Bacon and Cornelia Fry Bacon. What position John held during the 1850s isn’t clear, but by 1886 he was the President of Virginia State Insurance Co. and State Bank of Virginia. The four markers that seem to be connected belong to the siblings who all died during March 1858: Eliza (b. 1850), Henry (b. 1852), Cornelia (b. 1853), and George (b. 1855). Francis Bacon also died in 1858, but his death was a few months later in July.

I wasn’t able to find out what took the lives of the Bacon children, but since nothing came up in the newspapers about an accident or fire, I believe that they died of illness. There was one death notice in the archives for George, who died on March 10. He was the third member of the family to pass away that month, with Henry on the 3rd, Eliza on the 8th, and Cornelia on the 26th.

The Daily Dispatch, 12 Mar. 1858

George’s funeral took place at the Monumental Church, so it’s possible that the other Bacon children’s services were also held there. As an aside, Monumental Church has a fascinating history. The ashes of 72 people who died in 1811’s Richmond Theater Fire are buried underneath the church and Edgar Allan Poe attended religious services there.

In the corner of Cornelia’s marker you can see that the monument was designed by J.W. Davies

Francis Bacon’s marker is to the left of Cornelia’s. He was born in June 1857 and died on July 22, 1858. His inscription displays a verse from the Bible: “Even so, Father, for it so seems good in Thy sight.

On the far right is John L. Bacon Jr.’s grave. He was born in March 1847 and died in February 1849, so he never physically “met” any of his siblings. I regret not having a close-up of his marker, but there is a clear photo on his Find a Grave memorial.

Wednesday’s Child-Snatched From His Mother’s Arms by Death

Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, NC

James (Jimmy) Battle Cox, son of William Ruffin Cox and Penelope Bradford Battle Cox, was born Saturday, November 19, 1859 in Wake County, North Carolina. James was the couple’s third child, the first having died while the couple still lived in Tennessee. (The Cox’s second child, Olivia, was also mentioned in the death notice below.)

Jimmy’s father was an attorney and plantation owner during the the infant’s short life, but William would go on to be a Brigadier General during the Civil War and later a Congressman, so there is quite a bit of information available about Jimmy’s parents, but very little about him other than that he died from diphtheria. Diphtheria was referred to as the “strangling angel of children” because victims often suffocated due to swelling of the lymph nodes and “bull neck“. Jimmy died on Thursday, October 25, 1860 and was buried in the Battle family section of Oakwood Cemetery.

Jimmy’s poignant obituary in the Weekly Standard reads more like a eulogy than a death notice, which wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century. 

Weekly Standard [Raleigh, NC] 31 Oct. 1860

     “October 25th, of diphtheria, James Battle, infant son of William R. and P.B. Cox, aged eleven months and six days.
     Seldom has the All-merciful allowed death to inflict a more cruel pang than when suddenly, from his mother’s arms, he snatched little Jimmy Cox. Entwined among her parents’ heart-strings was their first-born, little Olivia. She came into the world with autumn flowers. Through winter and spring and summer she brightly bloomed, and as the autumn flowers came again and faded she too drooped, and soon the pattering of her little feet was stilled, and hushed forever was the music of her lisping tongue.
     God tempered the wind to the shorn lambs, and little Jimmy took his sister’s place in her parent’s hearts, and their tendrils ceased to bleed as they clung to his beautiful form. Like her’s his cheek was dimpled and rosy, his ways winsome and graceful, his heart loving and tender. Like her, he bloomed with the autumn flowers. Like her, even as he learned to lisp sweetly his father’s name, and could totter smiling to his mother’s knee, he drooped and withered with the falling leaves-and his parents again are childless.
     Ye fathers, around whose table the olive branches thickly cluster- ye mothers, whose ears are gladdened with the melody of your childrens’ voices, as they sport in health and merriment, forget not that hearts loving as yours are desolate. And oh ye stricken ones, in whose soul the iron has entered, when the blackness of midnight has given place to the sombre twilight which precedes the coming of the sun again-when the wildness of grief has been calmed into sadness, remember that your darlings are in company with the Angels in Heaven. They are ‘not lost, but gone before!’ You may join them, if you will.”

Dr. Alfred Hughes’ description of diphtheria symptoms, Daily Intelligencer, 28 Feb. 1860