NOTE: This post is in need of updating as some new information has come to light in recent years about other cast iron covers that preceded Abrams’ patented design. I hope to follow up on that very soon. Thank you!
I enjoy visiting all kinds of cemeteries because each one has something different to offer. As you’ve learned from this blog, you never know what you’ll find. That was the case when I visited Fairburn City Cemetery for the second time right after Christmas.
I first visited this cemetery in May 2014 when my best friend (who went on my first “hop” with me) Christi was visiting from Omaha. Her Dad still lives near Fairburn. She is always up for checking out a new cemetery with me.
Fairburn City Cemetery is located in South Fulton County, about 20 miles or so South of Atlanta. During this second visit, I saw something that I’d missed before. It was unlike any grave I’d ever seen before.
At first, I didn’t know if it was just some sort of cemetery decoration because there wasn’t a name or dates on it. Nor was there any kind of maker’s signature. You don’t usually see cast iron grave markers unless they are crosses or some kind of emblem for military service. But with the image of a sleeping child resting on top, I knew it had to be a grave of some sort.
When I got home, I started my research and learned that there are indeed others like this one and they exist mostly in the South. Unfortunately, many of them no longer have the sleeping child that rests on top like this one still does.
I discovered there’s another one at a cemetery in Canton. Two in Duluth and a few in Hampton. One in Americus. Another in Macon. More are in Alabama. There are a few in Texas, which seems a bit far flung.
Thanks to John Cox (whose photo is above), I discovered that one of them bore the mark “That’s 1873, by the way. That makes sense because the graves I found of this style usually bore an 1870s era date on them.
So who was J.R. Abrams?
Born in 1835 in South Carolina, Joseph R. Abrams’s parents were from England. In August 1856, he married Laura Porter in Marshall County, Ala. She was the daughter of an influential Alabama circuit court judge, Benjamin F. Porter. Joseph and Laura moved South to Greenville, Ala. and had several children together.
The 1860 Census indicates he was a railroad contractor while the 1870 Census lists him as a fire insurance agent. The 1870 Census also shows that his real estate holdings were worth $4,000 and his personal estate worth $2,000. So he was doing quite well during Reconstruction, a financially difficult era for most Southerners.
According to the book “Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical, Vol. 1”, Joseph was a civil engineer. This may explain why he was keen on creating new inventions. After Googling my heart out, I found a copy of the patent for his iron grave cover and how it works. The illustration shows what his vision was.
As you can see in the diagram, his goal was to protect the small grave by covering it securely with an iron cover. The patent states: “The invention relates to mounds erected over graves; and consists in improving the present construction thereof.” Here’s the written patent so you can read it for yourself.
I’m not good at reading patents, but from what I can tell, Abrams’ design includes three arches to protect the grave that will then be covered. He describes it like this:
The arches A having been adjusted in position across the grave, the frame B C secured in position over it, and the plate D supported on the latter, the earth is filled into the grave, and rounded over the aperture d. A layer of hydraulic cement, containing embedded shells or any other ornamentation, is then placed over the mound.
I don’t know how Abrams went about having the covers made. But I’m willing to bet he had them made in Birmingham, about 130 miles north of Greenville. Birmingham was a major source of iron and is still known as the Iron City.
Another Abrams patent, this one for improvements in pavement, was published in 1876. He supposedly published several more but I was unable to find them. He died in 1893.
Greenville’s Pioneer Cemetery has several of Abrams’ iron grave covers. I noticed that Abrams’ home in 1870 was only a few blocks away from that cemetery. Here are two of them, featured on Ginger’s Deep Fried Kudzu website. Notice the shells on top.
Wanting to see more of these up close, I headed to Duluth (which isn’t far from my house). I wasn’t sure what type of condition they were in but I was eager to see them.
Unlike the Fairburn City Cemetery grave, these bear the first names of their occupants. Cora Lillian died in September 1872 and Phoebe died in October 1874. I did not see Abrams’ name on the covers. There appears to be no concrete layer beneath them.
Cora and Phoebe’s last name is unknown, although a couple with the last name of Mewborn is buried nearby. They could be their parents.
Duluth Cemetery is located next to railroad tracks and a train rumbled by as I was standing beside the graves of Cora Lillian and Phoebe. It reminded me that while time marches on, the past stays with us in small ways like these iron grave covers. They’re a remnant of a time when a creative man from Alabama came up with something new. Something unique and beautiful to protect the graves of children.
I hope to find more as my adventure continues.