Last time, I finished up my two-part series on Charleston, S.C.’s French Huguenot churchyard. Today, I’m going to feature a brief stop Frank Karpiel and I made at the churchyard at the Unitarian Church of Charleston. I’ll explain why it was brief in a moment.
To get to the Unitarian Church, Frank led me through what’s known as the Gateway Walk on Church Street. It was opened in 1930 by the Garden Club of Charleston to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city. The club maintains the walk with proceeds from fundraising projects. The walk is well worth the time and you’ll end up in the Unitarian churchyard eventually.
History of the Unitarian Church of Charleston
A National Historic Landmark, the Unitarian Church of Charleston is the oldest Unitarian church in the South. In colonial Charleston, membership of the Circular Congregational Church (then known as the Independent Church) became so great that they decided to build a second church building. Construction began at this site on Archdale Street in 1772, temporarily interrupted by the Revolutionary War. The small rectangular brick church was finally completed in 1787.
In 1817, the Archdale congregation was chartered as the Second Independent Church, with a Unitarian minister presiding. Because the American Unitarian Association was not organized until 1825, it wasn’t until 1839 that this congregation was rechartered as Unitarian.
Architect Francis D. Lee is responsible for the 19th-century Gothic Revival additions to the building. In 1852 his two-year renovation of the church began, which included adding the rear chancel, a four-story tower, and stucco to the original brick walls. The remodeled church exhibited typical Gothic features such as the crenellated tower, arched windows, stained glass panels, and Tudor arch entrance. When the building suffered significant damage in the earthquake of 1886, people across the country sent donations to fund repairs.
Today, the Unitarian Church of Charleston is thriving and has a growing membership that is active in the community.
On to the Churchyard
So why did we not linger longer, so to speak, at the Unitarian churchyard? It wasn’t for lack of interest. The Unitarian churchyard is quite unlike most you’ll see elsewhere because they pretty much let the flora and fauna grow as it wishes with little taming. The flagstone pathways are clear but the gravestones are sometimes obscured by the plants.
Many people adore the charm this style of churchyard offers. It’s incredibly creative. But at the same time, it came make photographing the graves a tricky business unless you want to tear out grass to see the names/dates and that’s not a good idea.
I did see some gravestones from the Unitarian churchyard that I think you’ll enjoy. Like the memorial monument for Dr. Edward Henry Strobel. I say memorial because I’m pretty sure he’s not actually buried there. Let me explain.
Born on Dec. 7, 1855 in Charleston, Edward H. Strobel was the son of accountant Maynard Strobel and Carolyn Bullock Strobel. He attended Harvard University and Harvard Law School, being admitted to the New York bar in 1883. After helping in the 1884 Presidential campaign of Grover Cleveland, he was offered the post of Secretary of Legation to Madrid and held the post for five years. It was clear fairly soon that Strobel was destined for a life of international work.
A Diplomat’s Life
Based on notes from his period in Madrid, Strobel penned a book on the Spanish Revolution in 1868. He returned to America to become Third Assistant Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. from 1893-1894. Then it was off to serve as U.S. Minister to Ecuador in 1894, and then Chile from 1894-1897. He returned to Boston in 1898 to become the Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard.
By this time, Strobel was in his 40s and could have remained at Harvard, enjoying a pleasant career. But in 1903, Strobel took a leave of absence to represent the Kingdom of Siam at the International Peace Court in The Hague. In 1906, he moved to Bangkok to become the American Adviser in Foreign Affairs to the government King Chulalongkorn of Siam.
That same year, Strobel visited Egypt and while there, was stricken by an infection caused by an insect bite. His health declined and despite several surgeries, he eventually died in Siam on Jan. 15, 1908 at the age of 52. He never married and in his will, he left his estate to his mother, sister, and other family members.
Now comes my uncertainty. According to the New York Times, Strobel was cremated in a ceremony on Feb. 5, 1908 at which King Chulalongkorn himself lit the funeral pyre. There’s a stone for him at the Bangkok Christian Cemetery in Thailand (see above). But as you can see in the photo further up, Strobel also has a marker at the Unitarian churchyard. Odds are his ashes are not buried at neither spot but with two markers, his life will not soon be forgotten.
“Sweetly Retired from Mortal Life”
Frank pointed out the next marker to me, which he included in his book. It’s noticeable for the smiling soul effigy on the top but shares a sad story as well. The stone for Charles Otis reads:
Sweetly retired from mortal life, Lies here Sanctified Excellence, Matured understanding, the gentleness of the passions, The hopes of the aged and boasts of the Young: The solace of his family and, we trust, The approval of his God. Mr. Charles Otis, the 5th Son to Joseph Otis, Esqr., and Mrs. Maria Otis, his Consort, of Barnstable in the State of Massachusetts, In which place he was born on July 8th, 1777, and who departed this life in this City August 12th, 1794, Aged 17 years, 1 Month & 7 days, After a residence in the same of 6 months.
Born in 1777, Charles was the son of lawyer Joseph Otis. Charles’ uncle was also a lawyer named James Otis, Jr. who (according to Frank’s book) first said the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” He was a political activist, pamphleteer, and legislator in Boston who stirred up controversy throughout his life. Oddly enough, on May 23, 1783, he stepped outside to watch a thunderstorm and was killed by a lightning bolt.
How Charles came to be in Charleston in 1794 is unknown. But after only being in the city for six months, he died of yellow fever at the age of 17. His handsome stone was carved by the talented John Just Geyer of Boston, Mass., who carved other markers for the Otis family over the years.
Portrait of an Author
The last person I’m featuring has some mystery surrounding her. I don’t think the person who created her Find a Grave memorial realized who she was because there are no dates on her gravestone, which has a planter as part of it. So her FG memorial has no details on her brief life, which it turns out was quite full.
Mary Elizabeth Lee was born in 1813 to attorney William Lee and Eliza Markley Lee, who married in 1803 in Charleston. Her uncle, Thomas, was a U.S. District Judge. Born with a delicate constitution, Mary was much shielded from the world. However, she was much loved by her parents and many siblings. She didn’t begin attending school until the age of 10 when she was placed in the charge of a Mr. A. Bolles, who proved a talented teacher.
A Writer’s Life
Entering school changed Mary’s life and books became a passion. She made rapid progress in her studies and developed an aptitude for learning languages. She might have pursued this harder but her health wouldn’t allow it. She loved to write poetry and stories.
At age 20, Mary became a contributor to The Rose Bud, a popular periodical edited by Caroline Howard Gilman. The wife of a Unitarian minister, Gilman was thought by some to be the most famous female author in the South from the 1830s to 1850s. She, too, is buried at the Unitarian churchyard.
Mary also began contributing to The Southern Rose, Graham’s Magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the Southern Literary Messenger. She used the pen names “M.E.L.” and “A Friend”.
Her first volume, entitled Social Evenings, or Historical Tales for Youth, was published in 1840 by the Massachusetts Board of Education School Library Association, and proved to be one of the most attractive in the collection.
Stymied by a right hand that was paralyzed, Mary learned to write with her left hand. Sadly, her health eventually broke down completely and she died among her family on September 23, 1849. The Poetical Remains of the late Mary Elizabeth Lee, with a Biographical Memoir by S. Gilman, D. D., was published after her death in 1851.
Mary’s marker includes the following epitaph:
My Sister, As some Mighty swell Doth part two vessels to one Haven Bound,
So death has come between us.
Mary’s mother, Eliza, died in 1855 and is buried beside her. Mary’s father, William, is thought to be buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.
Before I forget, there’s a ghost story attached to this churchyard that gets talked about a lot. Many think Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Annabel Lee is based on a tragic story of a young woman buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard. You can read about that here.
Next time, we’ll explore the churchyard next door at St. John’s Lutheran Church.