Back to Charleston!
Before I dive in, I have a confession to make. The first cemetery I’m featuring is not from my Summer 2017 visit (from which the rest of my posts in this series will come from). It’s from Summer 2016. I posted a lengthy series on the African-American burial society cemeteries from that visit. Somehow, Bethany Cemetery got left out.
That fact nagged at me so when I circled back to Charleston again, I was not going to let Bethany remain ignored! Having uncovered what I did, I’m very glad I made that decision.
St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church opened Bethany Cemetery in 1856 after its first cemetery (Hampstedt Cemetery) on Reid Street was filled after several yellow fever outbreaks devastated Charleston’s immigrant German population. In the 1930s, the property Hampstedt Cemetery was located on was sold at auction and divided into lots when assessments for a street paving project weren’t paid.
Lo and behold, the Charleston Housing Authority discovered human remains on the property in 1981 whilst preparing to build on it. How they didn’t know seems a bit far fetched to me but nevertheless, close to 500 of those graves were moved to Bethany Cemetery in 2009.
Situated on over 50 acres, Find a Grave lists about 11,300 burials at Bethany. While it started as a Lutheran Cemetery, it is open to all faiths and is home to a large number of Greek burials. When I spoke with the manager, he told me he didn’t know how that happened but that they were happy to have them.
What was a chapel at one time is now the cemetery office. It is not in the best condition, nor is the receiving tomb beside it. The receiving tomb is now used as a maintenance building to store equipment, it appears.
Both Bethany and neighbor Magnolia Cemetery have receiving tombs. These are mostly found in the North because snow/ice would freeze the ground, causing delays in burial. South Carolina doesn’t have that problem. But my guess is that like Atlanta’s Westview, sometimes they had long stretches of rain and burials had to be delayed due to muddy conditions. They had to store the bodies somewhere.
There are plenty of monuments to see at Bethany, like this one.
Most German-speaking immigrants arriving in Charleston during the Colonial period were from one of of two groups: German-Swiss (Switzers) and Palatines (from upper Bavaria and parts of southwestern Germany). The Switzers tended to be more prosperous, while the Palatines often arrived as indentured servants. I have ancestors who came to Philadelphia in the 1700s that were Palatines and indentured servants, so this makes sense to me.
While many of the colony’s German-speakers sided with the patriots, another sizable group supported the Loyalist cause. In May 1775 Charleston’s Germans formed the first German military company in America, the German Fusiliers, which distinguished itself at the Battle of Savannah.
Charleston’s German-Americans were prosperous in the 1850s, with several German groceries/retail stores, its own newspaper (the Deutsche Zeitung), a firefighting company, several fraternal and sports organizations, six militia companies, and two Lutheran churches. During the Civil War, South Carolina’s German immigrants adopted the values (states’ rights and slavery among them) of their new home. Many Germans fought for the Confederacy, resulting in their almost complete assimilation into South Carolina society.
Jacob Seebeck was one of those German immigrants who found success in Charleston. A native of Hanover, he arrived in Charleston in the 1860s and worked as a miller. He eventually owned and operated a successful grocery/liquor store that became JHC Seebeck & Sons. He did serve in the Confederacy during the Civil War in Melcher’s Company as part of South Carolina’s German Artillery.
I found little about his first wife, Anna, whose marker was beautifully carved and inscribed in German. She came to America from Germany in 1861 and died in 1869 of pneumonia. Jacob remarried to German native Christine Doecker a year later and they had several children (the eldest buried in nearby Magnolia Cemetery). She is buried near Anna. Jacob died in 1919 but has no marker.
I noticed at the bottom of Anna’s monument was the name D.A. Walker. You can barely see it in the picture. Charleston is one of the few places where I’ve been fortunate enough to find carver names on monuments.
David Walker was one of the sons of master carver Thomas Walker. A native of Scotland, Thomas arrived in Charleston after the American Revolution and worked from 1790 to 1836. He was best known for his “winged soul” markers found in many of the city’s cemeteries. Four of his sons, including David, went into the business and did well. Anna Seebeck’s marker is evidence of their talent.
It did not surprise me to find a number of children’s graves at Bethany because that’s pretty much the case whenever I visit any older historic cemetery. This one is for the Bittersohn children. But in researching their marker, I uncovered a story I was not expecting at all.
Claus Diedrich and Anna Bittersohn (misspelled Bittesohn on the marker) were the children of saloon owner H.F. Bittersohn and Meta Meyers Bittersohn. Claus was 12 when he died on May 18, 1886. His little sister, Anna, was less than a year old when she died the next day. One can only imagine the heartbreak. The motif of a hand reaching down from Heaven is one I have only seen once before in Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta, Ga. for a young woman who died in her 20s. It means a life taken much too soon.
Like Anna Seebeck’s marker, there was a name at the bottom. I was surprised to learn that Joseph A. Purcell was black. While Charleston was less rigid in its social structure than some major Southern cities for people of color (slave or free), that Joseph not only operated but owned his own stone cutting business blew me away. Yet it appears that this was indeed the case because he appears as early as 1888 in Charleston directories.
Joseph’s age is a bit of a mystery. On some census records, his gravestone and his marriage certificate list him as being born in 1858. But his death certificate says he was born in 1867. He was the son of Joseph A. Purcell (mostly likely white) and a mixed race mother, Laura Huggins. I never found them living in the same household in census records, so I don’t think they ever married.
I do think the Joseph Purcell, Sr. that operated the Mills House Hotel in Charleston in the early 1860s may be Joseph Jr.’s father. According to what I’ve read, “dozens of people, white and black, free and slave, found employment at the Mills House.” So it’s possible that’s where he met Laura Huggins, who may have worked there.
In census records, Joseph and his brothers are listed under the name Huggins until the 1900 Census when their last name changed to Purcell. Did Joseph Purcell, Sr. decide to do right by his children and assist them in their career pursuits? How else would his son, Joseph, have gotten the financial backing to open his business or son Herbert get the money to go to medical school?
I found very little about Joseph, unfortunately. The 1913 Journal of the National Medical Association notes that he contributed a cornerstone to the new A. Markley Lee Memorial Annex of the Hospital and Training School for Nurses, a facility for young black women. He and his wife, Mary Julia Perry Purcell, had a son and a daughter.
Joseph’s younger brother, Herbert, got his medical degree from the Howard University School of Medicine in 1894. After living in St. Louis, he shared a home with Joseph and Mary Julia in Charleston until he married a woman named Mae sometime after 1930. Brother Arthur worked as a tinsmith.
I remembered the name Laura Huggins because I had photographed her grave that same summer just across the street in the African-American cemetery, Friendly Union Cemetery. Also buried there are some of her children, including Joseph, Samuel, and Herbert. In looking through my pictures, I realized I had unwittingly taken a picture of Joseph’s grave while focusing on Mae Purcell’s grave.
When you put it all together, Joseph’s work is standing in a cemetery he could not have been buried in when he died in 1932. The laws back then were against it. Instead, he was buried across the street in a cemetery for the elite mixed race and black business and religious leaders of his time. It was as close as he could get.
More to come next time from Bethany Cemetery.