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Thriller Thursday: Cemeteries of the Past

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

We’re going to do something different today. Instead of profiling a heartbreaking true crime case, I’m going to talk about a place most of us likely fear: the cemetery.

I won’t lie–I’m equally terrified and fascinated by death, yet cemeteries are strangely beautiful to me, especially the ones so steeped in history. There’s one near our house with a large section dating back to the very early 1800s and possibly earlier. Walking among these headstones, however morbid it might seem, helps me to truly envision a past beyond my own. Cemeteries are an important reminder of how short and precious life is. Look beyond the immediate sadness that envelopes you when you first pass through the cemetery gates, and you can not only appreciate the beauty but understand the importance of those who’ve gone before us.

St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans

Saint Louis Cemetery is the name of three Roman Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana. Graves are above ground vaults, and most were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

All three cemeteries boast famous names in jazz, Civil War history, French history, Louisiana politics, and more. One of the more interesting–and sinister–inhabitants of Cemetery No. 1 is Marie Delphine LaLaurie, known as Madame LaLaurie. She was a Louisiana-born socialite known for her cruel torture of black slaves.

In 1834, rescuers responding to a fire at her Royal Street mansion found slaves bound and displaying long evidence of torture. Outrage New Orleanians attacked her home, and LaLaurie fled to Paris where she was reported to have died. Circumstances surrounding her death are vague, however, and in the late 1930s, an old, copper plate was discovered in Alley 4 of Cemetery #1 with the inscription: “Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, décédée à Paris, le 7 Décembre, 1842, à l’âge de 6.”

 

I love the complex mix of legend and history of the Saint Louis Cemeteries, and they are at the top of my list of places to visit in New Orleans.

Salem, Massachusetts

The Salem Witch Trials have always blown my mind. They’re one of the earliest accounts of mass hysteria and cult following, and it’s hard to fathom how different things were over 300 years ago. What seems foolish now was absolutely terrifying to the people of Salem.

The catalyst to the trials occurred in what is now Danvers, known then as Salem Village. Two girls related to minister Samuel Parris began exhibiting bizarre behavior. They screamed, threw things, made odd sounds, twisted into contorted positions, and crawled under furniture in flat-out freakish ways. They also complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. No medical cause was found, and when other young women in the village began to have similar symptoms, panic ensued. In a time where Satan was most feared, the jump to witchcraft was immediate.

From June through September of 1762, nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged on Gallows Hill. Hundreds more faced accusations. Eventually, the hysteria subsided and those not hanged were released. The town was never the same, and the cause of the symptoms by those claiming affliction was never explained. Various theories, including hysteria, convulions from eating rye bread infected with a fungus containing LSD, to an epidemic of encephalitis to flat out egotism and jealousy have been banded about. Many modern historians believe the girls were simply acting out for attention and the idea caught on.

 

The story of George Burroughs is just one of dozens from the Trials. He was the only minister executed. While standing on the ladder waiting to be hanged, he recited the Lord’s Prayer, a feat the Court believed impossible for witches to do. This is an excerpt of the original account from his hanging compiled and published by Robert Calef in 1700.

Mr. Burroughs was carried in a Cart with others … When he was upon the Ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew Tears from many, so that if seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers said the black Man [Devil] stood and dictated to him … when he [Mr. Burroughs] was cut down, he was dragged by a Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two feet deep; his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed put on his lower parts: he was so put in, together with Willard and Carrier, that one of his Hands, and his Chin, and a Foot of one of them, was left uncovered.
—Robert Calef

I’ve been to Salem, and it’s a haunting place. The headstones in the historic cemeteries are graying and cracked, and poignant quotes from the victims make the terrible truth of the place come to life. There has always been unimaginable cruelty in this world, and cemeteries are a way of reminding us all to respect the past.

Have you visited any famous cemeteries? Is there one near you that has special meaning?

Salem Witch Trials
Saint Louis Cemeteries

33 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Cemeteries of the Past”

  1. How very sad. The story of the minister, George Burroughs, is awful. The Salem witch trials have fascinated me ever since I read The Crucible. Beautiful photographs.

  2. Yes, that story about Burroughs is horrific. How awful it must have been for the victims of the witch trials, to be innocent, and yet not be able or allowed to prove it.

    There was a cool cemetary in my home town of Martinez, Ca. It’s a pretty place, over-looking the bay. One of the graves was the last resting place of an ‘indian princess’.

    • I know it. I cannot imagine living in such a strange and frantic time period. The trials were completely unjust and ruled by paranoid fanatics.

      Ooh, that cemetery sounds very cool. An Indian princess? Would love to see that one:)

  3. The sad part about the incidents at Salem was that most were innocent, victims of firestorm of religiousity and paranoia.

    • That’s very true. And really, in many cases, we aren’t as far removed from that as we’d like to think. Thanks, Tom.

  4. Very interesting topic, Stacy. Glenwood Cemetary in Houston is known for being the resting place of the last President of the Republic of Texas, 4 Texas Governors, Howard Hughes Sr. and Jr., and famous actress Gene Tierney. It opened in 1871 and includes beautiful gravesites and family plots with statues, walls, and well-designed landscaping. My best friend who died of breast cancer is buried there.

    I never thought I’d visited a cemetery (to me, the person isn’t in the body so they aren’t there); however, I find Glenwood to be a peaceful and intriguing place. The amount of history there is fascinating, and the graves are interesting to peruse. Moreover, there are tales that the cemetery is haunted. There are visiting hours, so you can’t go in at night and ghost hunt. However, the rumors that spirits walk among the graves certainly gives the historical place extra spookiness.

    • I’ve heard of Glenwood. It looks and sounds beautiful. I love the old graves. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to look at them as history rather than as last resting places. And I’m sorry about your friend. Always rough.

      Oh, there are plenty of tales with all the Saint Louis and Salem being haunted, so I’m not surprised. That seems to go hand in hand with cemeteries. Thanks for sharing!

  5. My how time has changed. I’m still pretty young (at least in my mind) and I realize how the world has changed since I was just a little girl… There is an old old cemetery down the road from where I’ve grown up and the headstones are over a hundred years old. I taught my children how to make impressions of them and research the people on the stones. I think it’s a skill but it ticks off my mother… whatever, it’s the writer in me.

    Great post and photos!

    • Very true. Time has change a lot since I was a kid, too. That is very cool! I think what you’ve taught your kids is a great way to help them appreciate the past and (maybe) not fear death. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Not sure we’ve progressed so far – seems like there are still a fair number of paranoid and hysterical people around, but…

    Cemeteries – the older Gothic ones are the best, IMO, with the elaborate statues and monuments. Angels, Lambs, soldiers’ statues… Most cemeteries are NOT creepy (athough I do think the people who fetishize cemeteries and have a checklist of all the ones they way to visit, are).

    And check out this cool story about a wandering cemetery statue that may be in my old home county: http://www.yorkblog.com/yorktownsquare/2011/11/15/monumental-mystery-wandering-woman-cemetery-marker-reportedly-resting-in-york-pa/

    • Now that is a very cool place. I love the mystery behind it old. Yes. I agree, the older Gothic cemeteries are awesome. To me, wandering through them is like stepping back in time.

      And you’re right, the paranoid still exist. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Good post! “The Heretic’s Daughter” by Kathleen Kent is a great historical fiction novel about the Salem witch trials.

  8. I’ve never been to Salem, but I’ve been to Marie Laveau’s grave. There were all sorts of things on it. Black X marks. Rum. Funky little objects that I didn’t dare touch. St. Louis #1 is interesting because you could really get lost in there. Once you get deep inside, the high crypts block your view of the street. We also visited Lafayette Cemetery, which is located in New Orleans beautiful Garden District. Like St. Louis #1, the tombs were tall. You could get lost in there. Lafayette #1 was pretty, but it wasn’t as freaky and weird as St. Louis No. 1.

    Close to home. Hmmm. We’ve gone on a few photography expeditions to Brookside Memorial Park in Houston a few times. It is just gorgeous, Stacy. There are these HUGE, ancient live oak trees whose branches dip to the ground. W.D. Jones (of the Bonnie and Clyde gang) is buried there. We always take him flowers. LOL

    One of the coolest cemeteries I know of is Thornton Cemetery in Trinity, County, Texas. I think this cemetery is cool because you have to a) be descended from the Thorntons who settled in Trinity County in the 1850s and b) either be married to a Thornton, have the surname of Thornton, or be the daughter of a Thornton. The very first of my Thornton ancestors who came to Texas are buried at the center of Thornton Cemetery.

    I could be buried there, but my plot is at Chita Cemetery in Trinity County. Chita Cemetery was started by another branch of my ancestors in the mid-1800s.

    Of course, the Rhodes side of my family is buried at Trevat, Texas (which is named after some of my ancestors who were Trevathans). That branch of my family has been here in Texas since before the Texas Revolution. I’ve been out to that cemetery a few times, and it is neat. The gravestones are very, very old. You can barely see the engraving on them. You can tell they were handmade.

    Great post. Really enjoyed it.

    • Sigh. I’m so jealous of your visits to New Orleans. I would love to wander those cemeteries. And Lafayette is another great one. Several of the N.O cemeteries are worth touring. Salem is kind of touristy, but it’s still got the aura of tragedy for me. Especially when you’re walking among the graves and see the injustice.

      The Houston park sounds amazing – live oaks are incredible and symbolize the old south for me.

      You have such cool family history! I love the idea of Thornton cemetery. My husband’s family had a similar area in Missouri. Many of the Greens are buried in Greenwood cemetery, and my Grandpa bought my parents, aunts and uncles plots beside him for Xmas years ago (only he would do that for Xmas) but we don’t have any yet.

      So glad you enjoyed!

  9. If you get the chance to go to Buenos Aires grab it and be sure to visit the famous cemetery in the Recoleta neighborhood of the city. It is amazing and creepy and everything a fiction writer like me needs to get the creative juices flowing!

    • I will! Buenos Aires is on my list of places to visit. The cemetery sounds great – thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post:)

  10. Wow! I would love to visit both these cemetaries. Especially the one in New Orleans with the graves above ground. So amazing and interesting and full of rich history and secrets. Thanks for the fab intro Stacy!

    • You’re welcome, Natalie. The New Orleans cemeteries are amazing, and I’ve only seen them in pictures. Glad you enjoyed!

  11. I freaking love cemeteries! When I went to New Orleans, the Graveyard/Voodoo tour was one of my favorite things that we did. New Orleans “cemetery practices” are amazing.

    • 🙂 Another person to be jealous of! I swear I’m going to New Orleans in the next three years. Once I make money from writing;)

  12. What a neat piece. I confess I too quite like old cemeteries – and discovered on holidays, I seem to even make a habit of taking a few pictures here and there. I’ve visited some in Scotland in various cities throughout the country, as well as Rob Roy’s grave (very small cemetery, fairly isolated grave), some very old family plots attached to various Scottish castles, and some of the ancient burial cairns. There’s something beautiful about these places, about the ways we (and our ancestors) remember the dead, perhaps try to honor their memory and lives. Thanks for a neat post.


  13. leilani


    The colma cemeteries in San Francisco have a lot of history and they’re my favorite cemeteries. Also the ones that are associated with the California missions

  14. The Salem Witch Hunt just blows my mind. As does New Orleans, but for a different reason. I’ve never considered visiting Salem but New Orleans I hope to visit one day. I hear their grave tours are amazing. 😉

    • Me, too. I can’t even imagine what those poor people went through or the hysteria of the time. I know what you mean about New Orleans. It’s at the top of my list. THanks for stopping by!

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