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.
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.
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!
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.
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
Knoxville’s most famous impressionist artist, Catherine Wiley, is buried in Old Gray.
As is suffragist 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.
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.
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.
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.
A Confederate soldier statue marks the graves of two soldiers named Horne. Its head has been broken off and reattached.
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.
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:
- Acid rain;
Acid rain is eroding the marble monuments and markers. Here is a good example.
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.
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.
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!