After dropping Christi off at the airport in Panama City to fly back to frozen Nebraska, I headed for Greenville, Ala. I’d long wanted to visit Greenville because it was the home of Joseph R. Abrams, inventor of the cast iron grave cover. I must note that there are others who made attempts at earlier versions but Abrams was one of the first to patent it. In 1875, Egbert Sipes of Pennsylvania filed a patent for an improved design.
I originally wrote about Joseph Abrams back in 2015 after I’d found one of his cast iron grave covers in Fairburn City Cemetery in Fulton County, Ga. I had never seen anything quite like it and I still find them fascinating.
Abrams moved from South Carolina to Greenville (in Butler County) sometime after he married Laura Porter in 1856. When he wasn’t working as a railroad contractor (1860s) or an insurance salesman (1870s), he loved inventing things and one of them was the cast iron grave cover, originally targeted to protect the graves of children. I had seen photos online of several cast iron grave covers in Pioneer Cemetery and nearby Magnolia Cemetery, where Joseph and Laura Abrams are buried. I’ll be writing about Magnolia Cemetery later. But for now, let’s focus on Pioneer Cemetery.
Established in 1819
Greenville became Butler County’s seat of government in 1822. Residents set aside a two-acre plot for a church and graveyard, marked on three sides by what are now South Park Street (originally named Cemetery Street), Walnut, and Dunklin Streets. The western side of the churchyard and cemetery, where the First United Methodist Church stands today, was then the town’s western boundary.
Pioneer Cemetery is one of the oldest I’ve ever visited in Alabama. Established in 1819, it’s Greenville’s oldest cemetery. The oldest known grave is that of James Dunklin (1779-1827), but there are many unmarked and “lost” graves that may be older than that.
Captain William Butler, for whom the county is named, is buried there along with many Greenville/Butler County pioneers. The last burial took place in 1961 when Lily Black Stanley (1876-1961) was buried there. There are almost 300 recorded memorials for Pioneer Cemetery on Find a Grave.
When I visited Pioneer Cemetery, it was undergoing restoration work. These efforts are often expensive and take a lot of time. In 2008, Greenville began working hand in hand with The Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Association (PCPA) to accomplish this. The PCPA has been fortunate to receive grants from the Alabama Historical Commission to help with expenses. So when you see piles of bricks and mounds of dirt in some of my photos, it’s not from neglect but a snapshot of a moment in time amid this restoration in February 2019.
I didn’t photograph James Dunklin’s grave but I did see the large memorial boulder placed next to the grave of Capt. William Butler. His grave has a connection to Joseph Abrams in a roundabout way.
A Bloody Death
A Virginia native born in 1759, Capt. William Butler fought in the War of 1812. He lived in Georgia for a few years before coming to Alabama. On March 18, 1818, Capt. Butler (accompanied by Daniel Shaw and William Gardner) was delivering a message to nearby Fort Dale when he and the two men were violently attacked by Native Americans led by warrior Savannah Jack. The account I read describes how they were killed in such horrific detail that I won’t share it here. It’s graphic by even today’s standards. It was later referred to as “Butler’s Massacre” by some.
The men’s remains were buried in the nearby forest and left there for many years until the 1850s when a group of locals had them moved to Greenville Cemetery. One of them was Eliza Taylor Kidd Porter, the wife of Judge Benjamin F. Porter and mother of Laura Porter, who married Joseph Abrams. The remains of Capt. Butler, Shaw, and Gardner were exhumed and re-interred with much ceremony at Greenville Cemetery in 1858.
Eliza Porter paid for the small marker to be placed on Capt. Butler’s grave in 1861. The large boulder was not placed until 1926 by the Father Ryan Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). I’m not sure why Capt. Butler’s death date is inscribed as 1820 instead of 1818 on it.
I’d like to share the Caldwells graves with you because not only do they have cast iron grave covers marking their burial site, they also have a handsome marble gravestone in front of it.
Born in 1801, North Carolina native John Carruthers Caldwell helped establish Greenville’s Presbyterian Church. In 1819, he married local Butler County miss Elizabeth Black. John became a prominent merchant, jeweler, and goldsmith. He also served as justice of the peace.
The fact that John Caldwell was a jeweler leads me to believe he knew and appreciated beautiful, artistic items. It’s my belief he probably knew Joseph Abrams and was aware of the fascinating new invention he’d come up with. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he had two planned for his and Elizabeth’s graves to accompany their grave marker.
The cast iron covers that top the Caldwell graves feature shell finials on top. Sometimes these are stolen or vandalized, but it thrilled me to see these both intact. You can also see the acorns surrounding the finials, symbolizing wisdom. To get a better look at home these pieces come together, you can see Abrams’ original 1873 patent here.
Abrams patented his invention in 1873, shortly after the Caldewells died in 1871 and 1872. So there may have been a delay in their placement. The name plates originally attached to the back broke off and were lost. This is a common occurrence since the cast iron lattice work sometimes became brittle and broke. But the pair are still a great example of this invention.
Mother and Daughter
There are two pairs of cast iron grave covers at the rear of Pioneer Cemetery and both were in the process of being restored. I’m featuring the graves of Lucinda Brazzell Taylor and her daughter, Sarah Taylor, because the both still have their nameplates.
The story behind this mother/daughter duo is intriguing because there are some holes in their history. We do know that the mother was Lucinda Brazzell Taylor. I’m using the spelling Brazzell for her maiden name although it has been written as Brassell and Braswell in other places. Born around 1812, she married Ludwell Taylor in Montgomery, Ala. in 1832. Of their four children, daughter Sarah was born on June 23, 1836.
Ludwell Taylor passed away in 1842 and Lucinda remarried to a William Turner in 1849. They had a son, Richard, but he only lived a year. Interestingly, in the 1850 U.S. Census, William Turner is not listed but baby Richard is. I can only surmise that William Turner died soon after they married. In the 1860 U.S. Census, Lucinda and Sarah were living with the family of Marcus Lane, a successful Greenville attorney. Marcus was the husband of Lucinda’s daughter (and Sarah’s sister), Frances Taylor Lane.
Lucinda died on March 25, 1868 at age 56 after a “protracted illness.”
Although Lucinda had remarried, the last name on her grave cover is Taylor. You’ll note that the finial on her grave cover is not a shell like the Caldwells but a cup or urn, which is rare. The cover is also decorated with carved flowers instead of acorns like the Caldwells’ grave covers.
I found a record for Sarah’s marriage to a John Kelly in Butler County in 1864. But when she appears in the 1870 U.S. Census, she is listed as Sarah Taylor and living next door to the Lanes. She died at age 36 on Feb. 20, 1872.
So how do we know for certain that this is a Joseph R. Abrams cast iron grave cover? As I wrote in 2015, Joseph was a true patent enthusiast and he applied for many of them over the years. You can see the notation for it at the end of Sarah’s grave cover if you look closely. Although Abrams’ grave cover was not patented in 1868 when Lucinda died, I suspect they did not install it until after Sarah’s death.
You might also notice that these covers are flush with the ground. Others I have seen have a concrete, brick, or stone base underneath them.
At the time, I didn’t know the connection but beside the Taylor graves is an obelisk for Frances Taylor Lane and her husband, Marcus. Frances died on April 18, 1868 at age 34, the day after giving birth to a baby girl who lived less than four months. This happened less than a month after her mother, Lucinda, died. Marcus, who was by then a judge, died on July 28, 1870 at age 45. The couple left behind five children.
I pointed out earlier that many cast iron grave covers have missing nameplates that have snapped off at some point. As a result, unless they are next to a stone grave marker or someone has other proof, the identity of the deceased is often unknown. This can often pose problems if a cemetery does not have good burial records.
Just down the way from the Taylor graves is the grave of Marjorie Dunklin Padgett. Born in 1845, she married Elam Padgett in 1868. She died on Jan. 10, 1872 after giving birth to an infant son. Like the daughter of Marcus and Frances Taylor Lane, the child died four months later.
I suspect the two cast iron grave covers (one topped by a shell finial) beside Marjorie’s grave are for two of their children, whose graves Abrams originally intended for his invention to protect. One may be for the baby born in 1872 but nobody knows for sure. Both graves have a brick base beneath them.
I’m just getting started with stories about Pioneer Cemetery. More to come in Part II.
Jan Hall said:
Thank you for all these adventures. I have never seen anything like a cast iron grave cover, but I haven’t been in many Southern cemeteries. I have seen large flat stone slabs over early graves, which I was told were called “wolf stones” presumably because they kept the animals from digging. I have just discovered your lengthy archive and I know where I am spending this snowy day.
Hi, Jan! Yes, the cast iron grave covers are quite unusual. They are mostly in the Southeast in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. But they have been spotted as far away as cemeteries in Texas and one in Indiana. They have fascinated me since I found the first one in 2015.
I hope you enjoy reading some of my blog posts today. There’s a little bit of something for everyone in there! Thank you for your kind comments.