Last week, we spent some time at Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery. But there are too many stories worth sharing to limit to just one post. So let’s move on to Part II.
If you spend any time reading my blog, you’ll find many stories about women who died young. It was simply how it was before the advent of antibiotics, nutritional awareness and sanitary conditions. As I started looking into the lives of some of the ladies buried at Old Gray, the sad stories accumulated all too quickly.
It’s hard to miss the monument for Virginia Rosalie Coxe. The angel standing in front of the cross is missing part of her arm, but is relatively intact. As you can see, her name is almost worn off of the base. But the lines below it are still there:
In the dawn of the day of ages
in the youth of a wondrous race,
’twas the dreamer who saw the marvel,
‘Twas the dreamer who knew God’s face.
Born in Virginia in 1863, Virginia “Jennie” Rosalie Michie was supposedly educated at Atlanta’s Gate City High School. However, it’s an institution I can find no information about. I think the reporter meant Girls’ High School, which was known for its academic excellence. It was in Atlanta where I believe Jennie met her future husband, Joseph Coxe. They married there in 1882. Coxe is described in one newspaper as “an eccentric coal baron” from North Carolina. Nevertheless, the couple was quite wealthy.
Joseph and Jennie lived in New Jersey and Philadelphia before moving to Knoxville. They had two children, Annie and Rosalie. Annie died in childhood but Rosalie would live well into adulthood, marrying and having children.
The Danielle Steele of the 1890s
The Coxes traveled a great deal and moved in society circles, even living in Spain for some time. But Jennie’s greatest pleasure came from authoring romantic stories under nommes de plume such as Percy Thorpe and Virginia Jerome. It was under the latter that she published the novel Princess Beelzebub. She also enjoyed writing poems, short stories, and songs.
Joseph may have initially balked at the idea of having a popular author for a wife, but eventually Jennie wrote under her own name. It was her book The Embassy Ball, published in 1898, that she is most remembered for. From the articles I read, reporters considered her a good interview and women enjoyed settling down with one of her novels. I’d compare her to a Danielle Steele or a Nora Roberts for the 1890s.
A 1901 article in the Nashville-based Tennesseean newspaper describes her elegant Knoxville home Crescent Bluff as having an Italian rose garden overlooking a river. The Coxes hosted many parties there. I also found an advertisement in a Knoxville-based gardening magazine touting a new hybrid tea rose from the Dingee & Conrad Co. that was named after her.
Jennie and Joseph saw their daughter, Rosalie, married to Daniel Hull in 1904 in a lavish wedding at Crescent Bluff. Sadly, Jennie died of Bright’s disease on June 24, 1908 at Crescent Bluff. She was 44 years old.
What Was Bright’s Disease?
Bright’s disease was a catch-all term for several kidney-related disorders, most often what we now call nephritis. The symptoms and signs of Bright’s disease were first described in 1827 by the English physician Richard Bright, for whom the disease was named. Today, nephritis is much easier to treat and not always fatal as it could be in the 1800s. President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died in 1914 of Bright’s disease when she was 54.
In 1911, Crescent Bluff, the home where Jennie entertained and lovingly tended her garden, was totally destroyed by fire.
Joseph did not remarry but traveled, spending much of his final years in Italy. He died of pneumonia in 1923 while in Lucerne, Switzerland. Records indicate his body was embalmed and placed in a vault awaiting burial instructions. I haven’t found anything to indicate what happened to him after that. Daughter Rosalie died in 1978 and is buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Ga.
Much less is known about a woman buried near Jennie. But the monument for Ora Brewster Blanton got me looking into what her story might be.
Ora Brewater was born in 1858 in Sweetwater, Tenn. It appears her father died when she was a child, leaving her mother to raise her and her two sisters (one died in childhood and the other at age 30). Ora likely had to work to support her family. Ora eventually moved to Shelby, N.C. to teach music at the Shelby Female Academy.
Death After Surgery
It was in Sheby that Ora met Charles Coleman Blanton, a hardware/dry goods merchant from a prominent family. They married in Monroe, Tenn. in 1885 and moved to Meridian, Texas where Charles worked in the banking business. There are no records indicating they had any children.
Ora died only five years later in 1890 shortly after undergoing an operation. I don’t know what it was for. Her body was sent back to Knoxville for burial at Old Gray Cemetery, where her mother and her sister, Vallie, are also buried.
In 1895, Charles returned to North Carolina to work with his father and brother at the First National Bank of Shelby. Charles never remarried, becoming a prominent business leader in Shelby and active community member until his death in 1944. He is buried in Shelby’s Sunset Cemetery, where over 100 Blantons are listed.
Joe DePriest’s book about the Banker’s House in Shelby, where Charles Blanton grew up and I believe returned to after Ora’s death, had the only information I could find on Ora’s life. It’s included on the Banker’s House website. Joe and I have swapped emails and I appreciated his help very much.
The Death of Two Wives
Next to Ora Blanton is the monument to Frank Atkin and his two wives, Rosa and Lida. Frank’s brother, Clay Brown “C.B.” Atkin, was a major mover and shaker in Knoxville’s downtown development. He owned and operated several hotels, the jewel in the crown being Hotel Atkin. He was also instrumental in the Tennessee Theater’s establishment. Frank helped his brother in his many business ventures in a less public role.
Born in 1863 to Samuel and Nancy Ault Atkin, Frank married Rosa Estelle Ault (I am guessing they were cousins) in 1884 in Knoxville. They had one son, Frank Jr., in 1885, and a daughter, Lillian, in 1889. Rose died on Nov. 1, 1890 of consumption, now known as tuberculosis.
In today’s world, tuberculosis is preventable and very treatable, with a death rate of only 10 percent. People with compromised immune systems who contract it are most at risk of death. But at the start of the 19th century, tuberculosis was a serious threat to life. It took the discovery of the tuberculosis bacteria by Robert Koch in 1882 for that to start to change. Even then, developing effective treatment would not come for another 50 years.
Frank remarried in 1893 to stenographer Lida Coffin in Hamilton County, Ohio. Lida died on June 1, 1895 of “puerperal peritonitis” or “childbed fever” shortly after giving birth. She was only 27 years old.
“Childbed Fever” Strikes
“Puerperal peritonitis” haunted women for centuries, often striking a few days after childbirth. Unsanitary conditions played a large role in causing these infections and there were no antibiotics yet to treat them after it occurred. It’s surprising to think that once upon a time, a doctor might drag on the same dirty clothes he wore the night before to deliver another child with unclean instruments, but it happened.
In 1903, Frank married a third time to a woman named Lucille. She was 22 and he was 42, making her only a few years older than his daughter, Lillian. I could not find a record of their marriage but they are listed as such on the 1910 Census. Frank died in October 1910 and records state the cause of death was “general breakdown”. He is buried at Old Gray with Rosa and Lida.
Both of Frank’s children, Frank Jr. and Lillian, lived long lives. Lillian is buried at Old Gray with her parents while Frank Jr. is buried with his wife, Robbie Atkin, at Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville. I don’t know what happened to third wife, Lillian Atkin, but I suspect she remarried.
I have more tales from Old Gray yet to share, so come back for Part III.