Last week, I introduced you to Magnolia Cemetery in Greenville, Ala. One of the many reasons I put this cemetery on my bucket list years ago was because a special man is buried here: Joseph R. Abrams. He is one of the first people to patent a cast iron grave cover as a way to protect a grave. This week, I’m doing a deeper dive on these and you won’t believe what I found.
This is just one of several cast iron grave covers I saw at Magnolia Cemetery. I’m not sure what the white coating is on it but I’ve seen it on a few others over the years.
I first wrote about Abrams’ grave covers in January 2015. He’s not the first person to come up with this idea. There were a few before him and even a few after. But his cast iron grave covers are the ones most frequently seen in Southern cemeteries and were patented in the early 1870s.
As I shared in an earlier post about Pioneer Cemetery, civil engineer Joseph R. Abrams was a native of South Carolina and a graduate of the Citadel who married Laura Porter in 1856 in Marshall County, Ala. Her father, Benjamin Faneuil Porter, was a physician before becoming an attorney then a prominent Greenville, Ala. judge. In fact, he ordered his daughter’s marriage license to her future husband, as this note I found on Ancestry.com reveals. He misspelled his future son-in-law’s last name, too (Abrahams instead of Abrams).
Over the years, Joseph and Laura had at least six children together. Joseph worked as a railroad contractor at one point but in later years, sold fire insurance. All the while, he was inventing new things and having them patented. His cast iron grave cover was just one of many.
The Abrams family lived in this home on 201 Herbert Street after purchasing it in 1863 for $4,000. It remained in the family until 1904 (after Joseph and Laura died) by their daughter Kate Abrams Persons, who gave birth to future Alabama Gov. Seth Gordon Persons in 1902. Kate sold it to Laura B. Knight, who had it until 1939. The home was designated an Alabama landmark in the 1970s and while not currently on the market, it looks like it will take much TLC to renovate and restore.
Was the Meley Patent Grave Mound a Shell Grave?
With this round of research on Joseph R. Abrams, I uncovered a startling bit of new information. An article from June 12, 1873 refers to Abrams’ connection to marketing a Meley “grave mound”, a term I’d never heard of before.
When I looked it up, I found a 1868 patent by a man from Trenton, Tenn. named Jonathan Meley who had patented his own “grave mound”. But Meley was using seashells! Does that sound familiar? You might remember there are several such graves at Pioneer Cemetery and a few are at Magnolia as well. Here’s a photo of one of them.
Take a look at this ad in the Aug. 1, 1872 Eufaula Weekly News. It mentions that these Meley grave mounds can be found in Greenville and Troy cemeteries. I found similar ads in 1870s newspapers in other Alabama cities, along with more in Mississippi and even Galveston, Texas.
I even found a drawing of the Meley grave mound in the patent he submitted in 1868. It may very well be that Meley had a hand in providing many of the shell graves I’ve seen scattered across Alabama. Maybe they weren’t just randomly made after all. I’ve posted it on its side so you can get a better idea of what it looks like flat on the ground.
From Shells to Cast Iron
According to another article I found from 1872, Joseph Abrams had been promoting the Meley grave mounds but was leaving Greenville for a time to market his own new invention, the cast iron grave cover. Unlike Meley, Abrams took the grave mound covering idea to a new level by replacing a mound of cement-bonded sea shells with a longer-lasting cast iron cover with the goal of providing protection for the grave mound.
It’s my belief that Meley’s 1868 invention inspired intrepid inventor Joseph Abrams to go one step further. I think it’s fascinating that Abrams knew all about shell graves, was promoting them in the state, then got into the “grave cover” game himself.
Take a look at this list of patents I found. Both Abrams and Meley are listed.
Abrams was in business with a gentleman named Dr. J.P. Amerine (who is also buried at Mangolia Cemetery) to sell his grave covers. I found a few 1873 articles promoting their enterprise. I don’t know where they had them made but it’s possible manufacturing took place in Birmingham or nearby Montgomery.
This time when I took a look on Newspapers.com, I found ads for Abrams “metallic grave covers” in several newspapers. Here’s one in the Moulton (Ala.) Advertiser from July 25, 1878. You cannot imagine how excited I was to finally find an ad for one! It’s further proof that Abrams contracted with agents in various states to sell his invention during the 1870s.
Despite his efforts, I don’t think Abrams made much money from selling his grave covers. Dr. Amerine died in 1876. In the years to come, most of the news I found about Abrams concerned his civic involvement in Greenville and his thriving insurance business.
Joseph Abrams died at the age of 62 on Oct. 5, 1893. Laura died 10 years later in 1903. I was very curious to see if any of the Abrams family had a cast iron grave cover but none buried in the plot did. Since the earliest death in the plot is for Joseph in 1893, it’s my guess they simply didn’t make them any longer.
Joseph and Laura are buried with two of their daughters. Lida Abrams Moody died at 44 in Ocala, Fla. in March 1900. Her sister, Dixie Abrams Howard, died five years later in 1905 at age 45. Dixie’s daughter, Kate Abrams Howard, never married and died in 1953. She is buried beside her mother. Their oldest child, Benjamin H. Abrams, was an insurance agent like his father and died in 1910 at age 53 in Atlanta, Ga. and is buried in Westview Cemetery.
The Short Life of Sidney Johnson
Near the Abrams family plot is a nice specimen of an Abrams grave cover. You may remember last week that I featured Jake McGeHee, a Greenville merchant. His nephew, son of his sister Emily McGeHee Johnson, was Sidney Johnson. Sidney was born on Sept. 20, 1873 and died almost a year later on Sept. 18, 1874.
Although Sidney’s nameplate did break off, it is still with the grave so we know that it’s his grave.
“Her Pure Spirit Has Gone to Rest”
This cast iron grave cover I wanted to share with you is probably the nicest one in the cemetery. At first, I thought it was for one individual but it appears that Callie is probably not alone.
Born on 18, 1853, Callie was the daughter of Comer Watts Knight and Catherine Priscilla Reid Knight. On Nov. 18, 1872, at age 19, she married Greenville druggist Robert Payne. She gave birth to a baby on Oct. 4, 1874 and died a few hours later. According to her death notice, the child died the following day. I believe they are buried together.
The finial to the top of Calliei’s grave cover is missing. I suspect it was a shell. But her nameplate is still attached to her grave cover.
I learned that there was a good reason Callie has a cast iron grave cover. Her husband, Robert Payne, sold them at his drugstore in Greenville. Take a look at the ad I found in the Aug. 24, 1876 Greenville Advocate. Note that it mentions that they are “offered at prices that bring them within the reach of the poorest.”
A Life Cut Short
The last cast iron grave cover I’m going to share is for a child. We don’t know Lilly Perdue’s exact birthday but the stone marker that backs up to her grave cover states she was nine months old when she died on Sept. 14, 1870. She was the daughter of Greenville sheriff James H. Perdue and Jane Franklin Perdue.
On the other side of the marker is Lilly’s grave cover. Note that she died in 1870. This was before Abrams had officially patented his cast iron grave cover. I think the Johnsons likely purchased the cover a few years after she died and placed it over her grave. I’ve found this to be the case at other cemeteries even after burials in the late 1860s.
There’s still quite a bit of Magnolia Cemetery you haven’t seen yet. I’ll have more in Part III.