Last week, I introduced you to Pioneer Cemetery in Greenville, Ala., where you can see a number of patented Joseph R. Abrams cast iron grave covers. In my experience, it’s rare to see this many in one small cemetery.
More Cast Iron Grave Covers
This cast iron grave cover for Elizabeth Routon Gafford Bragg (1802-1870) is an example of one that’s held up fairly well and still has its nameplate intact (although it has broken off). The main flaw is that the finial on top is missing.
Born in 1801 in Georgia to Pleasant Routon and Catherine Lee Routon, Elizabeth Routon married Jeremiah Gafford at age 16 in 1818. They settled in Butler County soon after and started a family. Jeremiah died on July 6, 1844 at the age of 48.
It’s not surprising that Elizabeth, a young widow at 41, remarried in 1846 to widower Dr. Thomas Miles Bragg, Sr. His first wife, Catherine, died in 1838. They had three children (two surviving).
When Elizabeth died on Oct. 11, 1870, she was buried beside first husband Jeremiah Gafford. When second husband Thomas died on Nov. 28, 1882, he was buried beside his first wife, Catherine, in the family cemetery in Greenville.
Attorney, Editor, Pastor
I found two cast iron grave covers connected to the Porter family, who I talked about last week. Joseph Abrams’ wife, Laura, was the daughter of Judge Benjamin F. and Eliza Taylor Kidd Porter. Laura was one of 10 children and her younger brother, James Dellet Porter was born in 1839. He married Vermont native Ellen Tammy Ferguson in Lexington, Miss. in 1861. They would have three daughters and one son together.
During the Civil War, James served as adjutant of Blount’s Brigade (Fifth Battalion, Alabama Infantry Volunteers). While helping to bury the dead following the Battle of Shiloh, Porter contracted pneumonia. He was made a government telegrapher until the end of the war, after which he returned to Greenville. He then practiced law, edited a newspaper, and studied theology.
By 1880, James had become the Rev. James Porter, although I’m not sure he attended a seminary of any kind, and became rector at Greenville’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church. I found a newspaper notice from the May 20, 1880 Greenville Advocate that listed him among the other pastors.
Rev. Porter had not been at his post long when he died on Nov. 20, 1880 from pneumonia, leaving Ellen a young widow at age 40. Their youngest daughter, also named Ellen, had been born only eight months before her father died. Ellen did not remarry and died on Nov. 30, 1896 after a year of feeble health at age 58.
Since Rev. Porter died in 1880 and Ellen Porter died in 1896, I’m not sure that the two cast iron grave covers pictured above belong to their graves. Their footplates are on the other side of the monument they share. But because the name plates that belong to these two covers are gone, we don’t know to whom they belong. Perhaps they were children who died in infancy.
I have another theory, however. Judge B.F. Porter died in 1868 and wife Eliza in 1883. There are no known grave markers for them in Pioneer Cemetery but evidence suggests they are buried here. Could these grave covers be for them?
Pioneer Cemetery has several shell graves. Whenever I show pictures of shell graves to people not familiar with them, they are fascinated yet puzzled. But to those of us who live in the South, they are fairly common. They can be found in many cemeteries here, especially in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Scallop, oyster, clam, and mussel shells were often used. They could be from the ocean or a river. I’m told some can be found further north but I think it’s mostly a Southern thing.
So what do shell graves mean? I could go into all the different theories out there, but that would take up most of this post. If you want one of the best roundups of the proposed meanings that are out there, this article does a wonderful job. But one of the best explanations I’ve seen is that shells were not only a decorative and effective grave protection, they were cheap and available.
Unfortunately, many shell graves lack an accompanying stone to explain whom the grave is for. At Pioneer, there is a shell grave identified as that of Anna Catherine Reid. When I was there, her broken marker had been repaired but it was so faded you could barely read it.
The Reid Sisters
The daughter of prosperous farmer Archibald and Elizabeth Herbert Reid, Anna Catherine Reid was born in 1843. She was one of 13 children born to the couple. We don’t know what brought about her death, but Anna passed away at the age of 21 on Sept. 24, 1864. Her shell grave is the bottom right of the trio in this picture.
You may notice that the two shell graves to the left and behind Anna’s have no identifying stone. The one to her left was probably that of a child. It could be one of Anna’s siblings who died in infancy. Because Anna died in the throes of the Civil War, it may not have been possible to obtain a better grave marker than the one they were able to provide. Anna’s parents, Archibald and Elizabeth, are buried at nearby Magnolia Cemetery.
“Her Death Was Calmly Triumphant”
By contrast, the monument to Anna’s older sister Abigail “Abbie” Susan Reid is markedly grander. Born on March 12, 1838, Abbie married druggist James Hilliard Dunklin on Aug. 5, 1856. She was 18 and he was 21. On April 9, 1859, Abbie gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, who lived well into adulthood. She is also buried in Pioneer Cemetery.
According to Abbie’s obituary, she suffered an illness of 12 days before passing away on June 25, 1860. She was only 22 when she died.
Abbie’s monument is admittedly one of the grandest I’ve seen. The classical female figure on the pedestal is holding a Bible in one hand and a cross (now broken) in the other. One the front is a beautiful wreath and a winged hourglass (meaning time and life are fleeting). I’m not sure when it was installed at Pioneer Cemetery because it would have taken time to obtain. It was likely shipped to Greenville by train.
As I walked around Abbie’s monument, I marveled at the skill with which it had been carved. This was work I had seen somewhere before. Then I saw the side and found out exactly who had done it.
As part of a Charleston, S.C. stone carving dynasty, William T. White was the son of John White, Jr. and the grandson of John T. White. His work can be found in many South Carolina cemeteries. His work was done mostly between 1850 and 1870. I can tell you I was not expecting to see his work so far away from his usual “territory”. Nevertheless, it is a fine example of what he could accomplish.
A Widower Remarries
Abbie’s husband, James, remarried a little over a year after she died on Sept. 17, 1861. It may surprise you to learn that he married Abbie’s younger sister, Mary Jane, who was 19. This was not unusual at the time. Several years ago, I featured the story of the Rev. William H. Clarke, who married three different sisters over the course of his life. It was often a case of proximity and practicality, not romance.
We don’t know what the case was for James and Mary Jane but they did have several children together. Two lived to adulthood, three died in infancy, and one died in her 20s. When James died in 1877, his obituary said he left eight children behind. I will feature some of their grave markers next week.
During the Civil War, James rose to the rank of colonel in the 33rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry, Company C, serving with many men from Greenville. After the war, he entered into a partnership operating a large cotton commission business that made him quite wealthy. In 1876, he was elected to the Alabama Senate. However, he became ill in 1877 and died on May 20, 1877.
I didn’t get a photo of the sides of James Dunklin’s monument to see for sure if William T. White carved his monument as well. The crossed swords in the middle signify his military service. A draped urn tops his monument with a Masonic seal below it.
Mary Jane remarried in 1886 to someone whose name you might remember from last week. Elam M. Padgett’s first wife, Marjorie, died in 1868 soon after giving birth to a daughter who died four months later. Mary Jane became Elam’s second wife and the couple moved to Florida, living there until Elam’s death in 1906. He is buried in Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg, Fla. Mary Jane moved back to Greenville soon after and died on April 7, 1909. She was buried in Pioneer Cemetery.
There’s a sad footnote to Mary Jane’s death. Her memorial on Find a Grave says “Cemetery records indicate there may no longer be a marker for her grave.” If there is one, I didn’t see it when I was there. While her sisters Anna and Abbie, and her two husbands all have markers, Mary Jane’s final resting place is a mystery. Not even marked with a single shell.
More to come next time from Pioneer Cemetery in Part III.