Old City Cemetery is the oldest public burial ground in Tallahassee, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit, because it’s really like a beautiful park, shaded by old live oaks and cedars and protected by a tall black iron fence. In spring the azaleas put on a spectacular show, as do the bulbs—the daffodils and summer snowflakes. The old tombstones, of course, are works of art.
Old City Cemetery was established in 1829, and in the beginning it wasn’t very nice, apparently. Cows and pigs roamed around among the grave markers, which were mostly made of wood since stone was so expensive to ship down from the North. With time, though, the cemetery became more civilized and home to fancier monuments. By the late 1800s there was more money in town, and the wealthier folks were being remembered with marble and granite pillars and crosses and tablets and angels.
There are lots of important people buried in Old City Cemetery. Thomas Van Gibbs, one of FAMU’s founders, is buried there. So is Thomas Brown, Florida’s governor from 1849 to 1853, and the Reverend James Page, the first African American in Florida to be ordained as a Baptist minister.
People say there’s a witch buried in the cemetery. Her name is Elizabeth “Bessie” Budd Graham, and she died in 1889 at the age of 23. Her remains lie under a flamboyant obelisk decorated with stone feathers and a verse from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “Lenore.” It’s probably the presence of these words by the master of the macabre that started the witch rumors. Or maybe it’s the fact that Bessie was born in October, or the fact that her grave faces west when all the others face east. Bessie’s grave is one of the most visited in Old City Cemetery, and when I came close, to take this picture (below), I spotted a little assortment of offerings—rocks and coins and seashells.
I’ve visited Old City Cemetery all my life. Back in the ‘80s when Kris and I were angsty teens, we used to pose for pictures among the graves, dressed in our all-black outfits. In college my dramatic friend Vici and I would picnic on Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies under the cedars and talk about death and the Smiths.
Later, in grad school when I was teaching freshman English, I’d bring my students to the cemetery to do a little creative writing . . . and they’d inevitably slack off. One time half the class sneaked away after I took the attendance. I told them they could wander the cemetery and write whatever they felt inspired to . . . and they just slipped out the gate as I sat, dreamy-eyed, composing a poem under a magnolia.
It’s a funny thing, living in the same smallish city most all of your life. By the time you reach a certain age every square inch of the place has a memory attached to it and means something to you personally. Every nook and cranny is haunted by the past. And that’s how it is with Old City Cemetery. Whenever I go there I’m bound to see a ghost—a dorky, dumb, spike-haired ghost, the younger me.