Drinking with the dead: Friends share Bloody Marys and a stirring visit to Old Gray Cemetery

Bill Lyons, right, and Barry and Madge Cleveland, settle down after lunch in Old Gray Cemetery to listen to historian Steve Cotham.

Bill Lyons, right, and Barry and Madge Cleveland, settle down after lunch in Old Gray Cemetery to listen to historian Steve Cotham.

In my continuing effort to fulfill my New Year’s resolution to redeem the numerous charity auction items we have purchased over the past year, Saturday we gathered some friends and headed to Broadway to collect on our “Bloody Mary Cemetery Tour.” This item was purchased during a Knox Heritage auction and promised not only Bloody Marys and lunch, but a guided tour of Old Gray Cemetery by Kim Trent, Knox Heritage’s executive director, and Steve Cotham, manager of the McClung Historical Collection at the East Tennessee History Center.

I don’t remember what we paid for this item, but, let me tell you, it was worth it. There was something magical about the beautiful weather and the lovely setting. And from the moment Steve started telling us stories of the cemetery and its inhabitants, we were hooked.

Bartending with the dead! Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, sets up the bar. She was to host three such outings within a week. We were happy to be the first!

Bartending with the dead! Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, sets up the bar. She was to host three such outings within a week. We were happy to be the first!

Old Gray Cemetery was founded in 1850 as part of the rural park cemetery movement. At first located on eight acres, but later expanded to 13.5 acres, it had a rough start. Folks thought it was too far from town (two miles), and it was too rocky and therefore too difficult to excavate for graves. It always was a lovely park, though, the scene of many picnic dates and carriage rides. That’s what folks did at that time. It was the largest park in Knoxville.

Today, Old Gray Cemetery has 9,000 graves and is essentially full. It is the resting place of William G. Brownlow, a former Tennessee governor and U.S. senator. It also contains the remains of two other U.S. senators, eight congressmen, 26 Knoxville mayors, and numerous ambassadors, judges, editors, artists, authors, educators, military leaders, physicians and industrialists.

Steve Cotham speaks during our picnic lunch.

Steve Cotham speaks during our picnic lunch.

Most of the inhabitants of Old Gray were buried there between 1860 and 1910. During the Civil War, it was occupied by both the Confederate and Union armies. When we visited, it was just after Memorial Day and all the graves of Confederate soldiers had been decorated with small Confederate flags — not the so-called “Southern Cross” we normally think of as the Confederate battle flag, but the original Confederate flag, which is different. (Click here for some Confederate flag history.)

The cemetery is named after poet Thomas Gray, who wrote the famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Here is the first stanza of that poem. It really encapsulates the feeling you get when you spend any significant amount of  time at Old Gray. (If you’d like to read the entire poem, click here.):

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The first person buried in Old Gray was a young man named William Martin, who worked in an iron foundry. On the Fourth of July, 1851, a cannon misfired during the Fourth of July celebration on Asylum Hill (where the LMU Law School currently is located) and blew off his arm. He later died and was buried in Old Gray in an unmarked grave.

We did not visit William Martin’s grave, but we did drop by the eternal resting places of some other interesting Knoxville characters. Here’s just a small part of some of the things Steve told us. Come along!

The monument of Lazarus C. Shepard and his wife, Emily, is the only cast iron monument in Old Gray. It is white. Shepard was Knoxville’s first embalmer and Steve said that during prohibition, one side panel of the monument was loosened so folks who wanted to purchase liquor could stop by the cemetery, leave their money in the monument and then return later to pick up their hooch!

Steve points out the secret panel on the Shepard monument.

Steve points out the secret panel on the Shepard monument.

The monument of William Brownlow, governor, U.S. senator, newspaper editor and "The Fighting Parson"

The monument of William Brownlow, governor, U.S. senator, newspaper editor and "The Fighting Parson." The Knoxville Journal, the daily paper where I used to work, traced its roots to Brownlow's paper, The Tennessee Whig.

A flag marks to grave of Henry Ashby, a Confederate soldier who was shot and had his horse fall on him. He loved his horse so much that he asked that his horse be tended to before he was.

A flag marks the grave of Henry Ashby, a Confederate soldier who was shot and had his horse fall on him. He loved his horse so much that he asked that his horse be tended to before he was.

This section is known as "Little Ireland" because it contains the graves of so many Irish railroad workers. As you can see from the flags, many were Confederates.

This section is known as "Little Ireland" because it contains the graves of so many Irish railroad workers.

Charles McClung McGhee and many members of his family are buried in Old Gray. McGhee, a descendant of Knoxville’s founders, was a tremendously successful railroad tycoon. Cotham described McGhee as an extremely controlling man who became enraged when his daughter, Lawson McGhee, decided to marry a man without asking her father’s permission. Although she died quite young and is buried in the family plot, her father would not allow a gravestone to be placed on her resting place or that of her daughter, Cotham said. Even today, those two graves have no markers. Interestingly, however, two years later, McGhee endowed the Knoxville Public Library and insured that it would be named after her, a much larger tribute.

McGhee monument

McGhee monument

Due to vandalism in the cemetery (more on that later), the urn is missing from this gravestone in the McGhee family plot. But I was haunted by the sentiment etched on the base beneath the missing flower container. “Bring  flowers/fresh flowers/They are love’s last gift

"Love's last gift"

"Love's last gift"

Knoxville’s most famous impressionist artist, Catherine Wiley, is buried in Old Gray.

Catherine Wiley's marker

Catherine Wiley's marker

As is suffragist Lizzie Crozier French.

Marker of Lizzie Crozier French

Marker of Lizzie Crozier French

Steve Cotham said Virginia Rosalee Coxe was said to be the most exquisite musician around. She had a beautiful voice and was an amazing pianist. Married to an extremely wealthy man, she has one of the must stunning monuments in Old Gray. Journalist Jack Neely said she was best known as a novelist. Click here for his story about her and her monument in Old Gray after vandals broke one of its arms off.

Virginia Rosalee Coxe's grave

Virginia Rosalee Coxe's grave

Another arresting monument is that of Eleanor Audigier, a friend of Virginia Rosalee Coxe and her husband. Eleanor Audigier’s monument is of Italian marble.

Eleanor Audigier's monument

Eleanor Audigier's monument

A closer view

A closer view

Tennessee Williams‘ father, Cornelius C. Williams is buried there. Story goes that Tennessee Williams didn’t like his father and showed up at his funeral dressed in a light-colored suit, explaining that he was a spectator rather than a mourner. At the graveside service, he sat nearby and signed autographs, angering family members.

Cornelius C. Williams' grave

Cornelius C. Williams' grave

One striking tradition in Old Gray is the habit of erecting monuments in the shape of a broken tree to indicate that the deceased was cut down in the prime of his life.

Here is one example of that. John W. Paxton died in 1874 at the age of 50.

Here is one example of that. John W. Paxton died in 1874 at the age of 50.

A Confederate soldier statue marks the graves of two soldiers named Horne. Its head has been broken off and reattached.

Madge Cleveland, Steve Cotham and the Confederate

Madge Cleveland, Steve Cotham and the Confederate

A closer look

A closer look

Old Gray's gate house was built in 1899.

Old Gray's gate house was built in 1899.

Its beautiful gates were installed in 1901.

Its beautiful gates were installed in 1901.

Old Gray is home to the only “receiving vault” in Knoxville. This is a place where bodies were stored when circumstances such as inclement weather made it impossible to bury them at the time of the funeral.

The receiving vault was built in 1885.

The receiving vault was built in 1885.

As you can see, Old Gray is a special place. It is a private cemetery and so, even though it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, it is struggling. Here are three main threats:

  1. Acid rain;
  2. Vandals
  3. Trees

Acid rain is eroding the marble monuments and markers. Here is a good example.

This is the monument of James H. Cowan, a very successful Knoxville merchant who fled to New York during the Civil War because of its affect on his business.

This is the monument of James H. Cowan, a very successful Knoxville merchant who fled to New York during the Civil War because of its impact on his business.

Most monuments are signed by their carvers. You can barely read the signature on the back of the Cowan monument. Acid rain, Steve Cotham said.

Most monuments are signed by their carvers. You can barely read the signature on the back of the Cowan monument. Acid rain, Steve Cotham said.

Any monument or marker of much age has been similarly damaged. “The worst thing you can do is clean a tombstone,” Cotham noted. “It just crumbles away.”

Vandals are a big problem. Cotham said the police responded to numerous complaints and cracked down on some “ladies of the evening” who were plying their trade in Old Gray. But kids practice rituals there — especially near Halloween. And it’s located near the missions on Broadway where it is accessible to vagrants.

I don't understand why folks would think it is fun to push over headstones. Many in Old Gray are quite valuable and historic and the damage seems senseless.

I don't understand why folks would think it is fun to push over headstones. Many in Old Gray are quite valuable and historic and the damage seems senseless.

Resources are scarce to repair damaged tombstones. Many of the families no longer live here.

Resources are scarce to repair damaged tombstones. Many of the families no longer live here.

New decorative street lights, like the one see on the left side of the road in this photo, are being installed as funds become available to cut down on vandalism.

New decorative street lights, like the one seen on the left side of the road in this photo, are being installed to cut down on vandalism as funds become available.

Trees have a very complicated relationship to Old Gray Cemetery. On the one hand, the old oaks, maples and elms are what give Old Gray its park-like character. They are beautiful and huge, providing a wonderful shady canopy for visitors. But most of them are about 150 years old now, which is about their life span. When they die and fall, they cause huge damage to the markers. Some must be taken down before they crash to the ground. Donations are making it possible for new trees to be planted. But they are tiny in comparison to the old trees.

Kim tells us about the tree issues.

Kim tells us about the tree issues.

I asked  Bill Lyons to stand on this stump to show the size of the trees that are being lost.

I asked Bill Lyons to stand on this stump to show the size of the trees that are being lost.

What can you do to help Old Gray? Several things. There is a lantern and carriage tour coming up in September. It’s a fundraiser that has been attended by more than 500 people in years past. Click here for info. And, in addition to the street light project, other on-going efforts are being made to preserve Old Gray as funds become available. Click here to go to the website and explore projects and events that might interest you.

Also, I’d recommend gathering some friends and just going there, preferably with someone who knows something of Knoxville history. Just wander around, maybe take a picnic lunch as folks used to do in times past. Once you do this, you will want to do something to insure Old Gray Cemetery is preserved.

Here are some more photos from our unique Saturday spent there. Thanks again to Kim Trent and Steve Cotham. “Seeing this makes being dead seem not so bad,” said my friend Kim Henry as we left!

This view of St. John's Lutheran Church across Broadway from Old Gray shows how well the cemetery blends with its surroundings.

This view of St. John's Lutheran Church across Broadway from Old Gray shows how well the cemetery blends with its surroundings.

Near the entrance, there used to be a beautiful fountain. Unfortunately, it's not there anymore.

Near the entrance, there used to be a beautiful fountain. Unfortunately, it's not there anymore.

Box lunches from caterer extraordinaire Holly Hambright were on the menu.

Box lunches from caterer extraordinaire Holly Hambright were on the menu.

Barry and Madge Cleveland

Barry and Madge Cleveland

From left, Alan Carmichael, Kim Henry and Bill Lyons

From left, Alan Carmichael, Kim Henry and Bill Lyons

Carolyn Leahy

Carolyn Leahy

Dr. Doug Leahy and Steve Cotham

Dr. Doug Leahy and Steve Cotham

The James Allen Smith plot has this great bench as a monument. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

The James Allen Smith plot has this great bench as a monument. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

Everyone gathered around the directory to see if anyone by their name was buried there. There are two Moxleys, but I don't think they are my relatives. My family is from Georgia.

Everyone gathered around the directory to see if anyone by their name was buried there. There are two Moxleys, but I don't think they are my relatives. My family is from Georgia.

Group shot on a lovely day

Group shot on a lovely day

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12 Responses to Drinking with the dead: Friends share Bloody Marys and a stirring visit to Old Gray Cemetery

  1. Gay Lyons, on June 5th, 2012 at 4:41 pm said:

    Thanks for sharing.–especially since I was out of town and missed it. It’s easy to see why this has become a popular auction item at the Scruffy City Soiree. Here’s a thought: The library named after Lawson McGee does not include her married name. Maybe that’s why the controlling dad chose to endow the library in her (maiden) name rather than erect a tombstone, which might include her married name?

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on June 5th, 2012 at 4:49 pm said:

    Hmmm, Gay. That is a good thought. We missed you Saturday, but glad Bill could join us to help demonstrate how big those trees were!

  3. The Modern Gal, on June 5th, 2012 at 5:15 pm said:

    Drinking in a cemetery? Sounds very Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I’ve driven by Old Gray countless times, but you’ve inspired me to go poke around a bit. Gen. Neyland is buried there too!

  4. Bill Lyons, on June 5th, 2012 at 7:16 pm said:

    In regard to that tree, I am actually a pretty small guy. It is all relative. It was fun to cavort with the no long living and the still living. Thanks.

  5. Rusha Sams, on June 5th, 2012 at 10:03 pm said:

    I’ve been to two lantern and carriage tours, but didn’t know half of what you “dug up”! If you get a chance to go on the event day, you’ll love seeing the people who stand beside the graves pretending to be the one buried there, telling of the life they lived! Very interesting!

  6. monique anderson, on June 6th, 2012 at 7:47 am said:

    That is so cool! I would love to tour. Our cemetary across from the Glencoe is pretty interesting as well and we love the view.

  7. Cynthia Moxley, on June 6th, 2012 at 7:56 am said:

    Wow, MG: I had no idea Gen. Neyland was there! Talk about an historical figure!

    Rusha: That lantern and carriage tour will be Sept. 30 this year. I’m definitely going to try to go! Sounds like fun.

    Monique: We need to get someone to take us through “your” cemetery.

  8. Marsha Grieve, on June 10th, 2012 at 11:04 am said:

    Here’s another reason I love your blog, Cynthia: not only do you and Alan go to many unique and lively social events, but at some events (like this one), you give readers a chance to learn some new and interesting cultural or historic facts — so much fun to read (and photos great too)!

  9. Cynthia Moxley, on June 10th, 2012 at 11:50 am said:

    Thanks, Marsha! We didn’t know what to expect on this one, but we were so intrigued to learn the history of Old Gray and some of its 9,000 inhabitants. The vandalism really angers me, though.

  10. Judy Loest, on June 11th, 2012 at 2:33 pm said:

    I see you’ve discovered my secret garden. Maybe Bluestreak will spur a movement to build a real city park in place of the little jewel (Krutch) that was turned into a sidewalk. Thanks for the fine tribute to dear Old Gray.

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  12. Cynthia Moxley, on June 13th, 2012 at 4:09 am said:

    Thanks for your comment, Judy. It really is a lovely secret garden.

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