Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Living Cemetery—Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah

Colonial Park Cemetery
Corner of Abercorn and Oglethorpe Streets
Savannah, Georgia

N.B. This entry is comprised of information from two previous blog entries: “Colonial Park Cemetery (Newsbyte)” from 26 November 2010 and “A Figure in Colonial Park Cemetery” from 8 February 2013.

It’s an odd thing to think of a cemetery as a living thing, but in Savannah, a city that luxuriates in its historic spaces, Colonial Park Cemetery is very much alive. Locals and visitors alike crowd the paths and open expanses of green grass between the crumbling monuments, markers, and vaults. The city’s oldest extant cemetery, this space has served as a park since 1895 when the city took over control from Christ Church. In her 1999 history of the cemetery, Elizabeth Carpenter Piechocinski alludes to children once playing within some of the old family vaults that still contained the dusty bones of former Savannahians. The image of children happily playing among bones certainly supports the idea of this cemetery being alive and a place where life and death joyfully intermingle with the ghost stories and occasional evidence also providing tangible support.

The entrance to Colonial Park Cemetery by Eric Fleming, 2007.
Released under a Creative Commons License on Flickr.

Piechocinski’s history, The Old Burying Ground: Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia, 1750-1853, does make a statement about ghosts within Colonial Park: “There are no documented ghosts associated with Colonial Cemetery. Perhaps all the moving and removing of bodies thoroughly disoriented them, and they remain safely interred.” In 2000, a year after her book was released, Piechocinski herself made a disturbing discovery in the cemetery. She discovered the remains of a bound goat with its throat slashed. Not far away the goat’s heart was found on a piece of aluminum foil with a coconut and burned candle. It’s unknown if this was the remains of a religious ceremony or a gruesome prank. Nonetheless, perhaps the souls of the dead are not as safely interred as Piechocinski believes. Since the writing of her book, quite a bit has been written about the spirits that still walk here.

In 2010, I wrote about a video that had been taken by a tourist in the cemetery. The video, taken December 1, 2008, shows what appears to be a small child and another figure. The child is seen running in the background and then the figures appear to possibly fly up into a tree then come down a moment later. Investigation by a film special effects crew hired by Cleveland, Ohio news station, WJW Fox News 8 (see their story here), determined that the video is not a hoax and the ghostly figures are inconclusive.

Personally, I would have to side with the special effects crew. Yes, the figures are strange, but the young man with the video camera did not investigate the figures any more closely, especially after something fell out of the tree. The video shows the cemetery is also full of people, so a small child running along is not that unusual. I’ve visited the park myself a few times and have noted the many palm trees. To me, the falling object at the end of the video appears to be a palm branch. But fake or real however, this video does provide a good reason to discuss the ghosts of Colonial Park Cemetery.

If anything, this cemetery most certainly should be haunted. While it is not the first cemetery established in Savannah, it is the oldest extant cemetery. When the city was laid out in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, the founder of the city and the colony of Georgia, a burial ground was established in 1750 at a site between York, Bull, Oglethorpe, and Whitaker Streets, a location that is a few blocks west of Colonial Park. That cemetery was closed after only seventeen years of use and a cemetery was established at the site of Colonial Park. At the time, this location was outside the city’s walls. Eight years later, the cemetery ownership was given to Christ Church. The cemetery was expanded and opened for the burial of all Christians regardless of denomination. A wall was constructed to surround the cemetery in 1791.

Nearly a hundred years after the cemetery was first established in 1750, the city dedicated space on the newly acquired Springfield Plantation as Laurel Grove Cemetery and closed the South Broad Street Cemetery (as it was known) to burials in 1853. Families with members buried in the old cemetery were encouraged to re-inter their loved ones in Laurel Grove. According to records, some 600 burials were transferred to the new cemetery. Others were removed to the newly opened Evergreen-Bonaventure and the Catholic cemeteries as well. The old cemetery sat lifeless for many years.

On Christmas Day 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman sent a telegraph to President Abraham Lincoln stating, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” Union soldiers, weary from their destructive march across the state from Atlanta, needed a place for quarters within Savannah. The old cemetery grounds proved useful and horses were quartered here. Soldiers also took up residence in some of the old vaults and mausolea. Bored soldiers are noted to have altered some of the tombstones while other stones were moved from their original locations. After the soldiers left, the old cemetery lay neglected for almost 30 years when the city attempted to acquire the space from Christ Church.

Worried that the cemetery would be destroyed, Christ Church sued the city to prevent the sale, but acquiesced when the city assured the church that the cemetery would not be harmed. After some work to restore the cemetery, the site was opened as Colonial Park. In 1998, an archaeological team located some 10,000 grave sites within the cemetery using ground penetrating radar. Only about 600 of these graves are marked with monuments or tombstones.

In addition to the somewhat questionable 2008 ghost video, there are other reports of paranormal phenomena here. James Caskey of the Savannah Haunted History Tour in his book, Haunted Savannah, does provide one personal story. While conducting a tour in November of 2001, Caskey noticed that some of the people in his group had odd expressions on their faces while he talked just outside the cemetery. Turning around, he saw an odd mist near the grave of Edward Malbone which is located just off the main entry path into the cemetery and is perhaps 50-60 feet inside. This grave is particularly identifiable as it has a historical marker (one of many in the cemetery) next to it. This mist rose about five and a half feet off the ground and then dissipated.

Another tour guide and paranormal investigator, Tobias McGriff, writes in his 2012 Savannah Shadows: Tales from the Midnight Zombie Tour of the “Red Girl,” a red-hued young girl’s image that has been captured in photographs taken by ghost tour participants. She is often captured as she kneels at a grave though one intrepid boy saw and communicated with the red waif. As the tour group began to leave, the child inquired why the little girl was in the cemetery and said that the girl had asked him to remain moving the guide and others in the group to tears.

Kady Heard's unadulterated photo, 2013.
All rights reserved.
Kady Heard's photo after I lightened it.
All rights reserved. 



















Three close friends of mine have captured some intriguing images in and around the cemetery. In 2013, my friends Troy and Kady Heard were visiting Savannah on their honeymoon. An alumni of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Troy had worked as a ghost tour guide and was giving his wife an impromptu tour. Passing Colonial Park, Kady spotted an owl perched on one of the crypts. She snapped a picture on her smartphone and posted it on Facebook. When I saw the picture I immediately wondered if she had taken a creepy picture of her husband lost in the shadows, though after talking to Troy, I discovered the picture was looking into the locked cemetery. Apparently, the owl is the roundish figure in the lower center of the photo, but what is particularly odd is the human shaped figure above that. I figure that the very bright lines are reflections from the iron fence. I can't say that this photograph is conclusive evidence of anything, though it is intriguing that it may show something.
 
Celeste Powell's photograph of the playground, 2012.
All rights reserved.
Another friend of mine snapped another intriguing photo at Colonial Park. While passing the playground located at the back of the cemetery on East Perry Lane, Celeste Powell snapped this photograph in 2012. You can see the playground equipment blurred behind a flurry of orbs. While the orbs themselves are often debated as they can be caused by dust, water vapor, or insects, there are three brightly colored orbs in this photograph. According to an internet meme, orange orbs indicate a healing, protective energy. Perhaps that is what appears here. Perhaps the air is full of water vapor or dust or perhaps Celeste captured another piece of evidence of the living energy that still surrounds Colonial Park Cemetery.

Sources
Caskey, James. Haunted Savannah: The Official Guidebook to the
     Savannah Haunted History Tour, 2008. Savannah, GA: Bonaventure
     Books, 2008.
“Fox 8 Exclusive: Video Proof of Afterlife?” WJW Fox 8 News.
     15 November 2010.
McGriff, Tobias. Savannah Shadows: Tales from the Midnight Zombie
     Tour.  Savannah, GA: Blue Orb Publishing, 2012.
Piechocinski, Elizabeth Carpenter. The Old Burying Ground: Colonial
     Park Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia, 1750-1853. Savannah, GA:
     Oglethorpe Press, 1999.
Stratford, Suzanne. “Do you believe? Experts analyze teen’s ghost video.”
     WJW Fox 8 News. 23 February 2011.

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