Police versus the Paranormal–Atlanta, Georgia

Oakland Cemetery
248 Oakland Avenue, SE

I have covered Oakland Cemetery in two other locations in this blog. My first article covers the history and some of the hauntings; while the second article covers some of the ghostly phenomena taking place there in 1904. I recently come across this 1934 article from the San Francisco Examiner covering the experiences of a handful of policemen who were assigned to patrol the cemetery at night. While the article doesn’t provide dates I was able to locate a reference to one of the officers named here in a 1935 Atlanta paper, so it seems that these experiences were contemporary.

San Francisco Examiner
6 May 1934

Soldier Spectres Rout Police From Cemetery, Driving One Mad, Another To His Death

The ghosts of long dead Confederate soldiers who fell fighting for a lost cause when Sherman marched through Georgia to the sea, have routed the Atlanta, Georgia, police force from the Oakland cemetery. One patrolman who braved the eerie terror of night duty at the cemetery was driven mad, and died, by the strange sounds and shapes he thought he saw as he patrolled his lonely beat through the long, straight row of white crosses that mark the graves of the war dead. Another was driven temporarily insane, and resigned from the police force. A score of others abandoned the post for fear of losing their reason.

Atlanta’s policemen are brave men. They are no more superstitious than the average man. But until some natural explanation is given for the unnatural and weird prowlings of ghostlike figure through the silent graveyard, the police have abandoned their night patrol.

The first reports of ghosts in the cemetery came from frightened citizens who, passing the hallowed spot late at night, reported they have seen strange shapes among the graves, heard the tolling of the sexton’s bell, and listened to ghostly voices that seemed to call the roll of the dead who were buried there three-quarters of a century ago.

Atlanta’s police scoffed then, at these strange reports, but to soothe the fears of those citizens who had sworn the cemetery was haunted, a night patrol was established and Patrolman E. H. Bentley, now retired, was chose. Bentley, a veteran police officer, was a quiet, soft spoken man, a man not easily fooled, and a man not easily frightened.

The officer took his post at dusk each night inside the iron fenced cemetery grounds. An iron gate that clanged behind him as he entered, was securely locked. Bentley proved he was a brave man. He held his post longer than any other officer of all the score or more who eventually were assigned to night duty in the cemetery. Eventually he asked to be relieved.

gates of Oakland Cemetery Atlanta Georgia
The gates of Oakland Cemetery, 2015. Photo by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

“I’ll go stark mad, if I am not,” he said, quietly.

Something was wrong in the cemetery, Bentley declared. High above the building that houses the sexton’s offices in the graveyard is a tower that holds a large bell, a bell that is tolled by the sexton as a signal to the grave diggers when a funeral cortege enters the iron gates.

“That bell rang at night,” Bentley said. It rang, he claimed, even after he had climbed to the top of the belfry tower and disconnected the bell rope. There was no wind which could have rocked the big old bell into voice. And Bentley said he saw strange shapes among the graves. John Rumph volunteered to take Bentley’s place on the night patrol.

Rumph died a short time later in the State insane asylum. He was mad, violently man, and in his madness he told strange stories of spirit mermaids who bathed and splashed about in the beautiful memorial fountain in the center of Oakland cemetery, under the light of the moon. He had heard their voices, laughing voices of ghosts at play, he said, and he described the beauty of these mermaids until he died.

Patrolman Ed Cason, who had braved the withering gunfire of Flanders Fields in the World War, and had been a member of the intelligence branch of the American Expeditionary Forces, was assigned to patrol Oakland cemetery at night.

Cason today bears an ugly scar across his forehead, mute testimony of a grisly race through the night in the cemetery—a race with a ghostly form that trotted beside him.

Cason was on a bicycle. When the eerie shape floated toward him the officer, who was afraid of nothing human, fled. He raced his bicycle toward the gate. But the faster he went, the faster went the mysterious form beside him. Cason finally rammed his wheel into the iron grilled gate. He himself hurtled against the gate, and fell, unconscious to the ground. He came to hours later. The ghost was gone.

W. H. Swords, one of the biggest and most fearless policemen on the Atlanta force was assigned to the patrol. By this time it was becoming difficult to find men willing to take the assignment. But Swords wasn’t afraid.

Oakland Cemetery Bell Tower and Keeper's Lodge
The Oakland Cemetery Bell Tower and Keeper’s Lodge where a police officer heard disembodied footsteps in 1904. Photo 2005, by AUTiger, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Swords went straight to the sexton’s office, which seemed to be the center of phenomena. He entered the building, switched on the light, and almost instantly he had the feeling that the room was filled with presences. He heard strange sounds of an unintelligible language whispered about him. Swords turns out the lights, thinking to give these ghosts, if ghosts they were, a better chance to demonstrate themselves and their tricks.

As the lights went out, there came the sound of a rap at the back door. Swords tiptoed softly to the door, placed his hand on the handle ready to fling it open, and waited. A moment later there came the sound of the rap again. Swords flung open the door. A beam of light from his flash stabbed into the darkness. There was no one there. Three times more that same thing occurred.

Swords left the building, and sneaked quietly out into the graveyards, believing that he might trap the knocked from the outside.

“I ducked down behind a tombstone,” Swords said later, “and waited. I still felt there was some natural explanation of the whole thing.”

“Then I simply froze in my tracks. From what seemed to be right beside me came the soft notes of a bugle. In a moment I heard the throaty voice of an unseen man who seemed to be calling the roll of the dead. ‘Jack Smith?’ the voice intoned, and from the little distance away came the answer, ‘Here!’”

Confederate dead Oakland Cemetery Atlanta Georgia
Rows of Confederate dead, 2011. Photo by Lewis O. Powell IV,
all rights reserved.

Swords listened to that ghostly roll call. Trembling, he flashed his light over the rows of little white crosses. There was nothing visible, but the roll call of the dead went on.

Patrolman W. H. Dodd, driver of the Atlanta patrol wagon, was passing the cemetery one night when he heard the bark of a service pistol ripping through the dark. Dodd jammed on his brakes, jumped from the wagon, leaped the iron fence and rushed into the cemetery.

“I found the night patrolman,” he reported later, “standing in a narrow pathway, his still smoking gun in his hand. The patrolman, a man named Cason, but not the same one that had raced the ghost on his bicycle, was trembling. His wild eyes were staring out into the darkness.

“’God,’ he sighed. I saw a ghost, and shot at it. I couldn’t have missed it, but there is nothing there now.’” Cason withdrew from the beat.

Grave of General John B Gordon Oakland Cemetery
Grave of Confederate General John B. Gordon, Oakland, 2011. Photo by Lewis O. Powell IV,
all rights reserved.

Another officer, one of the last assigned to the cemetery night patrol, came out of the graveyard one morning trembling, to tell that he had seen the Confederate hero, General John B. Gordon, who is buried in Oakland cemetery, astride a white horse, waving a ghostly sword, and issuing commands in a soft whisper to the ghostly figures of his staff who stood around him.

The Atlanta police still explain the happenings in the Oakland graveyard at night. They don’t even try. But they have ended the night patrol in the cemetery.

 

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