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Tallahassee’s ‘Witch’s Grave’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 27.3, Fall 2017


In Tallahassee’s Old City Cemetery stands an imposing monument that—many people insist—denotes the grave of a witch. Curious symbols atop the marker and a cryptic verse, together with other factors—notably the monument’s facing west rather than the traditional east—are cited as evidence in the identification. But was “BESSIE,” as her name is boldly incised, truly a witch, or can we unlock the secrets of this mysterious grave? (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The so-called “Witch’s Grave” in Tallahassee’s Old City Cemetery. (Sketch by author.)

Gravesite

Old City Cemetery, established in 1829, is the oldest public graveyard in Tallahassee. Once scandalously overrun by hogs and cattle, it was acquired by the city in 1840. It was laid out in lots the following year when an epidemic of yellow fever swept the area, mandating sanitation regulations to protect the public. Originally burials were segregated, with the graves of whites restricted to the eastern section, while both slaves and free persons of color were interred in the western half. Today the cemetery is considered “one of Tallahassee’s most distinctive historic sites” (“Walking Tour” n.d.).

The grave markers reflect the evolving attitudes about death in popular culture. While the earliest—wooden head- and footboards—have deteriorated, later marble tombstones of simple shape bear inscriptions expressing loss or hope. Later Victorian monuments reveal that era’s emphasis on classical art forms, as well as on death and mourning.

In the southeast quadrant (bordering Martin Luther King Boulevard) is “The Witch’s Grave,” as it is now known far and wide, marked by a towering obelisk of elaborate Victorian design, its gray French granite estimated to weigh more than fifteen tons. The grave is that of Elizabeth Budd Graham (1866–1889), and the inscription also provides her nickname, “Bessie”; her husband’s and parents’ names; a verse; and other information. The most-sought grave in the cemetery, it often bears coins or other mementoes left by visitors.1

Claims Refuted

Some of the “witch” claims are set forth in Haunted Places: The National Directory (Hauck 1996, 129), as well as some online sources. As we shall see, they are based on whimsy, superstition, ignorance, and misinformation. Let’s look at the main claims.

  1. “To begin with” (says “Weird U.S.” 2016), “Bessie was born in October, the month of Halloween.”

    However, unless we are to accuse everyone born in one of twelve months of witchcraft, perhaps we can move on.

  2. Bessie’s “is the only grave in the cemetery facing west” (Hauck 1996, 129), a statement endorsed by others; “Weird U.S.” (2016) adds, “which some say is contrary to Christian burial customs.”

    In fact, according to the Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board (“Walking Tour” N.d.), it was once a custom to orient a monument facing west, and “there are many examples of this custom in Old City Cemetery.”

  3. Next there is what Hauck (1996, 129) calls the monument’s “enigmatic epitaph.” He cites only a portion, selected lines out of the following excerpt:

    Ah! Broken is the golden bowl!

    The Spirit flown forever!

    Let the bell toll!—A saintly soul

    Floats on the Stygian River. . . .

    Come, let the burial rite be read,

    The Funeral song be sung;

    An Anthem for the queenliest dead

    That ever died so young,

    A dirge for her, the doubly dead—

    In that she died so young.

    Hauck apparently fails to recognize the lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s Lenore. They were obviously chosen to urge proper funeral rituals for one who died at such an early age (twenty-three).

  4. According to some, “queenliest dead” suggests Queen of the Dead, which they interpret as meaning a witch (Mohan 2016).

    Actually, Poe’s poem goes on to say the deceased has passed “to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven,” the very opposite of a witch!

  5. Then there is the motif near the top of the monument, a cross inside a crown. Some of the “witch” hunters ignore this, while others seem ambivalent about it, conceding Bessie may have been a “white witch.”

    However, “white witch” is not a Christian concept but one of a form of “good” witchcraft popularized by the New Age movement—with its self-styled mediums, psychics, astrologers, folk healers, “druids,” and others engaged in mystical play-acting. The cross and crown motif, on the other hand, combines traditional Christian symbols—the cross representing suffering and death (e.g., Luke 14:27) and the crown eternal reward (James 1:12) (“Cross and Crown” 2006). (More on this later.)

  6. Finally, the very expense of the grave is cited as evidence. Bessie supposedly “bewitched a wealthy man into marrying her and wanted to commemorate her with the most elaborate stone in the cemetery” (“Weird U.S.” 2016).

    This stands her husband’s actual motive on its head. He obviously simply intended—in the showy Victorian fashion of the day—to mourn the loss (as he had the stone read) of “A dutiful daughter, a devoted mother and a loving and faithful wife.”

The Real Bessie

A newspaper obituary for Bessie Graham noted that, the mother of an infant, she was “the lovely young wife of Mr. John A. Graham,” who “loved and adored his wife with all the affection possessed by human nature.” She herself exhibited “rare personal beauty and excellent traits of character” (“Obituary” 1889).

Her husband was a lumber magnate, a cattleman, and leading real estate developer of southern Florida. In 1894, he remarried and still later, despite his age, volunteered to serve in World War I, earning the rank of major (Moore 1922, 248, 387). Meanwhile he raised his and Bessie’s son, John A. Jr.

Other information about Bessie is scant, although her monument—properly read—tells more. As an obelisk, its form “was meant to represent rebirth and the spiritual connections between Heaven and Earth, life and afterlife” (Lorentz 2014). Near the top, the cross and crown not only express Christian belief, but the motif is also used in Freemasonry (and indeed, not surprisingly, her husband was a Mason). The verse’s invocation of the tolling (church) bell, “saintly soul,” and singing of “funeral song” all evoke traditional Christian worship, which, in Bessie’s time and place, were antithetical to witchcraft. Although graves traditionally faced east for the rising sun (a symbol of resurrection), the westward orientation would be consistent with Victorian emphasis on dying, sadly evoking the setting sun.

Conclusions

Still, slanders and errors about Bessie continue. One source, a YouTube video, is so egregious I am embarrassed for its amateur raconteur (Mohan 2016). Without offering any evidence, he claims that Bessie was rumored to have been poisoned and suffered “a long, painful death” (although she actually died of heart trouble after a brief illness [“Obituary” 1889]). He says the ghost of a young woman is seen sobbing at the grave (but this too appears suspiciously to lack any source). He insists actual witches perform nighttime rituals at the grave during the full moon (but these are unknown to the cemetery’s management), and he states that anyone visiting the grave will have Bessie appear in his or her dream “that very night” (yet I can attest that that never happened to me).

Everything we know of Bessie Graham speaks of the tragically brief life of a very good woman. Nothing whatsoever has come to light to warrant insinuations about her having been a witch—no document or even folklore from her time. There is nothing but nonsense, and most of that is apparent fakelore and social-media talklore. All of it is born of ignorance or mischief—leading to the careless defamation of her name, the wanton misappropriation of her legacy, and—in a very real sense—the shameful desecration of her grave.



Notes
  1. People have long left mementoes at gravesites for various purposes: small stones on a Jewish grave (supposedly originally to keep the soul down), flowers, coins, or other items by people of various beliefs to show remembrance, or a coin left in making a wish, etc. (“Adventures” 2013).


References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.