I promised when next I wrote, I would share my visit with Frank Karpiel to St. John’s Lutheran churchyard. It was as easy as opening the gate in the Unitarian churchyard to accomplish that.

A History of St. John’s Lutheran Church

According to St. John’s web site, the congregation dates its start to the 1742 arrival of Dr. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, father of the Lutheran Church in America. He made a two-day stop in Charleston on his way to visit the Salzburger colony at Ebenezer, Ga. A month later, he came back to spend three weeks waiting for a ship to Philadelphia during which time he taught catechism to the children of the German residents, and held services with communion on Sundays.

The Rev. John George Friederichs came in 1755 and organized the congregation. While evidence points to several trained men conducting Lutheran services in South Carolina prior to this era, organization of the congregation into a formal body and the hiring of a pastor seems to mark the beginning of Lutheranism in South Carolina

Side view of St. John’s Lutheran Church from the churchyard.

Services were held in the French Huguenot Church until the first Lutheran church was completed in 1763 and dedicated by 1764. According to the National Park Service, this wooden building was located behind the site of the current church on Clifford Street. St. John’s pastor during the American Revolution, the Rev. John Nicholas Martin, was expelled from Charleston because he refused to pray for the King of England. Dr. John Bachman, from Rhinebeck, N.Y., directed construction of the current church building.

Built from 1816 to 1818, the design of the church is attributed to Charleston architect and church member Frederick Wesner. Other Charleston craftsmen and builders contributed to its design and construction. The rectangular, stuccoed brick building combines Federal and Baroque elements. The Italianate steeple with bell-shaped roof wasn’t added until 1859, and was built by David Lopez, contractor for the Kadal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue (which I toured several years ago).

A True Survivor

Like many historic buildings in Charleston, St. John’s sustained damage in the Charleston earthquake of 1886 and the 1891 hurricane. St. John’s was also damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 but was restored.

This was not my first visit to St. John’s. I had passed through back in 2013 when Chris and I did a hurried cemetery day on an anniversary trip. But with Frank to give me some guidance, I saw some gravestones I had missed on that first trip.

Since Sarah Bieller was a German immigrant, it’s not surprising her grave marker is written in his native tongue. Because St. John’s is a Lutheran church, many early members were native Germans.

The marker for German-born Sarah Bieller (1735-1802) doesn’t tell us a lot about her but the sight of it alone makes one stop abruptly. I’ve seen other skull graves in Charleston, but this one has more detail than most. The teeth, the seams along the top of the skull, the detail on the eye sockets. It’s awesome.

Memento mori is Latin for “Remember, You will die.”

The next marker I found lying on the ground near the back wall. The uprooted tree design got my attention. As I began to dig into the life of the man it had been made for, I was fully pulled in. It was a story with undertones I was familiar with from other people whose pasts I’ve uncovered in Charleston.

Free Persons of Color in Charleston

Born in 1811 in Hanover, Germany, Gabriel Garbon made his way to America, settling in Charleston. His profession is unknown. At some point, Gabriel met Flora Scott, who was known as a “free person of color”. The 1850 Census lists Flora as a “mulatto” which usually meant she was of mixed race. Charleston was actually home to a small group of such residents at that time, with a few doing quite well in the merchant class.

Flora’s son, Thomas Scott, is listed on the same census record as three years old at the time. In later records, he would be listed as Thomas Garbon so I believe he was the son of Gabriel and Flora. Later, the couple would have another son named Dietrich in the early 1850s. He, too, would eventually take Gabriel’s last name.

While Gabriel Garbon’s grave marker has an inscription that is not easy to read, it describes him as noble, gentle, and having good sense.

A few years ago, I shared the story of Joseph Purcell. He was an African-American stone carver who was the son of Laura Huggins, a servant of mixed race, and a wealthy hotel owner with the last name of Purcell. The pair never married. Joseph’s brother, Herbert, attended Howard University’s School of Medicine and became a doctor. I suspect his well-to-do father assisted him financially and gave both brothers his name.

Unlike other states, South Carolina did not prohibit interracial marriage until after the Civil War. The state suspended the prohibition in 1868, only to re-enact it in 1879. That did not change until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia ruling barred all states from outlawing interracial marriage.

When Gabriel died on Oct. 22, 1854 of consumption (now known as tuberculosis), his will clearly spells out that he left his estate to Flora, Thomas, and Dietrich. While he does not name her as his wife or the boys as his sons, future documents for the boys would list their last name as Garbon.

Serving in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT)

I don’t know when Flora died or where she is buried. But Thomas Garbon went on to serve in the 103rd Regiment, Company D, of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. The 103rd was organized near the end of the war. It performed garrison and guard duty at Savannah, Ga., and at various points in Georgia and South Carolina.

I’ve seen plenty of markers with trees on them but never one that was uprooted like this one appears to be.

In 1866, Thomas opened a bank account with the Charleston branch of the U.S. Freedmen’s Bank and listed his father as “Gabriel.” His profession is listed as cigar maker. In 1890, he applied for and began receiving an invalid’s pension for his military service. He died in 1892 and is buried at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina. Younger son Dietrich worked as a ship’s carpenter in Charleston in the 1880s. He married and had a family before dying around 1890. I don’t know where he is buried.

Decoding Masonic Symbols

The final marker I want to show off today is that of an infant, Ann Allison. The daughter of James and Elizabeth Allison, Ann was born on Oct. 10, 1786 and died on Oct. 25, 1787. She barely lived a year, sad to say.

Frank pointed this one out to me since he included it in his book. He notes that the compass on top is Masonic in nature. I thought that was intriguing since the child was barely a year old. While little Anna was not a Mason, my thought is that her father James Allison most assuredly was.

Infant Ann Allison was not a Mason. But her father, James, was a key player in the formation of Charleston’s first Masonic Lodge.

The emblem of the compass with a sun inside of it may indicate he was involved in the Scottish Rite, the largest and most widely practiced Masonic Rite in the world and employs a lodge system. A grave I’ve seen with a very similar sun marking was for a Past Worshipful Master of the Masonic order. It’s possible James Allison had achieved that rank at the time of his daughter’s death. I’m not an expert on Masonic symbols so I could be wrong.

I also learned that the first Grand Council of Princes of Jerusalem was organized at Charleston on May 12, 1788, just months after Ann died. I have a feeling James Allison may have also been involved with that as well.

Next time, I’ll have more stories from St. John’s Lutheran churchyard.