N. B. This article was revised 16 June 2020.
70 Cunnington Street
Charleston, South Carolina
After wandering through Magnolia Cemetery in awe for almost two hours, I began to make my way out. The cemetery has winding drives through its oak shaded acres with a posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour. Not wanting to miss anything, I was probably driving slower than that when I approached the massive cemetery gates. The gates were closed with a chain and large padlock securing them. A number of expletives left my mouth and panic quickly set in. A couple of Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottis) loudly scolded me from atop an adjacent tombstone. The welcome sign listed rules for the cemetery but no number in the event that you’re locked in with the dead. As I dialed 911, I prayed that I would not face a fine or worse for missing the very obvious sign stating that the gates would close at 6PM. It was 6:15.
In this city of so many fine homes and buildings, only I would first head to the cemetery. But, this place is so much more than just a resting place for the dead, it’s truly an art museum, a guide to three centuries of art and architecture and a habitat for native plants and wildlife. Wandering among the graves were Domestic and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). I passed a couple of ponds within the cemetery and was excited to see a dead tree in the center of one pond with a number of water birds perching on it. Even better, were the two “Life Birds” I saw there: Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) and American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus).
For a taphophile, Magnolia Cemetery is heavenly. Everywhere there is marvelous funerary art and symbolism. As I walked and was fed upon by legions of mosquitoes (I won’t acknowledge their scientific name as they don’t deserve it) I had to pass graves that in most cases I would be drawn to in order to pursue more interesting graves. By the end of the first hour, I took to riding in my car to avoid the mosquitoes and trying to photograph the most interesting graves closest to the drive.
Among the more notable monuments is the grave of Rosalie Raymond White. Situated next to one of the ponds, the White family plot has some fascinating art, but particularly interesting is the grave of young Rosalie who died less than a year after her birth. There is a hooded cradle and under the hood, the likeness of the child. According to Denise Roffe in her Ghosts and Legends of Charleston South Carolina, the likeness is a death mask and one of the few such things on a grave in the United States.
Another prominent monument is that William Washington. I viewed this one from the car, so I couldn’t get all the information, but it appears to be a cenotaph (a monument to someone who is buried elsewhere) to this notable figure from the American Revolution. The monument, surrounded by an unusual circular iron fence (I’ve not seen one, though they were numerous in this cemetery), is a large marble column with an ivy garland wrapped around it. At the base of the column is a rattlesnake, a creature I’ve not seen at all in funerary art. The snake is taken from the early American Gadsden flag, the first flag carried into battle by the Continental Marine Corps during the American Revolution, which bears the words, “Don’t Tread On Me.” This flag has most recently been adopted by the Tea Party.
This monument was designed by E.B. White and constructed by W.T. White, the city’s most prominent stone carver and monument builder. As I wandered the cemeteries of Charleston, in nearly every graveyard I found monuments with White’s signature.
Nearby, another marvelous monument by White is the stone for the Rev. I. E. H. Seymour. Topped with the statue of a praying woman, the stone bears a wonderful crest. An hourglass is encircled by an ouroboros, an ancient symbol meaning cyclicality; thus in this, the cyclicality of time or that even in death, life is created. This idea is strengthened by a wreath which can mean victory in death. The wings, of course, reference the wings of angels.
Not far away is the monument for Hugh Swinton Legare, who served two years as a state legislator, South Carolina Attorney General, then as a state Representative to the United States House, and then United States Attorney General under President John Tyler. The monument consists of a large marble Corinthian column sitting on a large base. One side of the base is carved with the national crest with a bald eagle, while the opposite site bears images from the South Carolina state crest with a wonderfully carved palmetto tree with a pair of shields underneath back with 12 spears (representing the other 12 colonies); all sitting on a fallen tree. The palmetto’s significance comes from a battle fought on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, June 28, 1776, between colonists and the British. The colonists had built a fort of palmetto logs and the British cannon fire seemed to bounce right off. The dead tree represents the defeated British fleet. This monument was also built by White and is signed “W.T. White/Steam Marble Works/115 Meeting St”.
Lagare died in 1840 in Boston, Massachusetts while attending ceremonies for the unveiling of the monument at Bunker Hill. He was buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery there. Interestingly, this is one of the cemeteries upon which the designs for Magnolia Cemetery are based. Mount Auburn, coupled with New York City’s Greenwood Cemetery, provided the inspiration for the “Garden Cemetery,” a type of cemetery found throughout the United States. These cemeteries, created in park and garden-like settings were a departure from the usual churchyards where most people were buried. In 1857, Lagare’s remains were exhumed and he was re-interred here amongst the lush magnolias.
Magnolia Cemetery was founded in 1850 on the grounds of the former Magnolia Umbra plantation. The old plantation house still stands in the center of the cemetery. Laid out by South Carolina architect Edward C. Jones, the rules for governing the cemetery were copied from those of Mount Auburn and Greenwood. This sacred parcel of land has become the resting place of many of Charleston’s most prominent people.
Nearby is another stone carved with state symbolism including a wonderful, freestanding palmetto. The monument is for James Brown Boyd, Sergeant of the Palmetto Guards of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. He was killed at the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland (usually called Antietam), September 17, 1862. This is not a White monument and is signed “D.A. Walker.” The palmetto sculpture is signed, “A. F. Chevreaux, Sculptor”.
According to Denise Roffe, this cemetery may have a few spirits wandering around. In one story, a brother and sister were fishing in the nearby Cooper River. When the little girl’s favorite doll fell in the water, she dove in to retrieve it and her body was found later clutching the doll. Her spirit has been seen in the company of a Civil War soldier, said to be her father. When the two are approached, they both vanish as the little girl giggles. Another spirit is also a young girl seen near the burial site of Annie Aiken.
The cemetery is massive and I easily could have spent many hours here, but the swarms of mosquitoes feeding on me every time I got out of the car began to be too much. That’s when I decided to leave, and good thing, as I found the locked gates.
A jolly man in a pickup truck pulled up as I spoke to the 911 operator. He had the key. Thank God. I told him I was so bowled over with Magnolia Cemetery that I had lost track of time. Smiling he listed some facts about the place: it contained around 33,000 interments (a number that is still growing) on 154 acres. I’m glad I’m not yet one of those who have found their rest here.
- Hugh Swinton Legare. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 July 2011.
- Jacoby, Mary Moore and John W. Meffert. Charleston: An Album from The Collection of the Charleston Museum. Dover, NH: Arcadia Press, 1997.
- McNulty, Kappy and Nenie Dixon. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Magnolia Cemetery. 23 August 1976.
- Roffe, Denise. Ghosts and Legends of Charleston, South Carolina. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2010.
- Seal of South Carolina. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 July 2011.