Who says dead men tell no tales?
On an autumn morning in 1981, the tap-tap-tap of a hammer and chisel banging against bricks and mortar echoed through the still air over Colonial Park Cemetery in downtown Savannah. As powdered mortar gave way and steady hands removed the first brick, shafts of blue sunlight filtered into the Graham–Mossman vault for the first time in close to eight decades. It was a defining moment for Savannah historian Preston Russell—in spite of the overpoweringly musty smell and the sight of a brown recluse spider scampering off into a dark corner of the tomb. “I was thinking of a certain French archaeologist who, in the 19th century, entered the tomb of the Pharaohs, and he noticed some footprints in the dust which had been left there from 3,000 years before,” Russell explains. “That’s the way I felt.” Like Egyptologist Pierre Montet before him, Russell was indeed searching through ancient graves—but in pursuit of facts rather than gold. He eventually solved one of the most important mysteries of this old Savannah burial ground, where nearly 9,000 bodies have been misplaced in a little more than two centuries.
Colonial Park’s story begins in 1750. The city’s first cemetery, located in what is now the southwest corner of Wright Square, was completely full. Out of space and desperate for a solution, colonial authorities opened a new, roughly 6-acre plot on the corner of modern day Oglethorpe and Abercorn streets.
From its opening in 1750 to the end of authorized burials in 1853, Colonial Park was the place for Savannah’s dead: From princes to paupers, they all called the graveyard their final home. Twenty-first century tourists flock to the cemetery’s iron gates to see long, florid—and sometimes unusual—inscriptions on gravestones like the one belonging to Susannah Gray, who “departed this life by the will of God, being killed by lightning on the 26th of July, 1812.” Some are buried beneath crooked, weathered markers bearing strange, ancient symbols, ranging from bats representing the dark night of death, to poppy flowers for the forgetful sleep of the dead. Others sleep forever with members of their families in brick vaults that historians believe are unique to Savannah, Charleston and the central Georgia town of Sandersville.
One of these vaults is the Graham–Mossman mausoleum, which originally belonged to John Graham, Georgia’s royal lieutenant governor. After the Revolutionary War, it was given as part of a war-prize package deal to General Nathaniel Greene, a Patriot hero and trusted aide to George Washington. When Greene died in 1786, his remains were placed inside the old Graham vault, sealed up and forgotten about.
Like what you’re reading? Read the full article in the October/November issue of South magazine.
Tags: cemetery, Haunted, history