Ghostly encounters

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 24, 2010

In Memorial Park, it is wise to watch where you walk. It’s hard to know what, and who, you might be walking on. The location is now a picturesque public park but its history is a little dark.

The plot of land situated behind St. Mary Basilica in downtown Natchez was originally on a steep hill and set aside as a burial ground in Natchez.

When the Natchez City Cemetery was established in 1822, the remains of many buried there were moved to the new cemetery, but some remained, Mimi Miller, director of the Historic Natchez Foundation said,

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When remains were moved from one burial ground to another it wasn’t exactly a professional process. In the book “The South-West, Vol. II” written in 1835, Joseph Holt Ingraham recounted his impressions of Natchez’s burial ground.

Ingraham described the Memorial Park burial ground after the founding of the Natchez City Cemetery as “strewed with dismantled tombs, monuments and fragments of gravestones.”

He further wrote that the abandoned cemetery was “a testimony of characteristic negligence and indifference of Americans for the repositories of their dead.”

Because of its location near the center of town, Ingraham was a frequent visitor to the land. He wrote that each time he walked through the old cemetery he was struck by what was under his feet.

“Every step through this repository of human ashes, over sunken graves and shattered marble, once reared by the hand of affection or ostentation, forcibly recalled the littleness and vanity of men,” he wrote. “The dead slumbered beneath my feet in a marble sleep — cold, silent and forgotten.”

But Ingraham soon learned that not all were forgotten.

One evening while strolling in the center of town, Ingraham wrote that he ventured into the burial ground and walked to the top of the hill. At that high point, with a full moon overhead, he noticed two men ascending the hill on the opposite side.

The men carried a spade and a mattock, a tool similar to a pickax. Ingraham asked the men what they were there to do under the cloak of darkness.

Ingraham wrote that the men were removing the remains of a gentleman and the remains of several members of his family “who had lain buried there for more than 30 years.”

Ingraham watched as the men worked to unearth the remains. As the workers removed shovelfuls of dirt, something caught Ingraham’s eye.

“My eye was attracted by a white object glistening upon the thrown-up head by the side of the grave,” he wrote. “I raised it from the damp soil — it was a finger bone!”

Horrified, but unable to leave, Ingraham continued to watch as the men unearthed even more bones from what was once a man.

There was no trace of a coffin or of the burial clothes.

It wasn’t much longer before one of the workers abandoned his spade and knelt beside the grave to retrieve something.

He “lifted to his companion a round, glaring, white shell” that was once the skull of the man, Ingraham wrote. “A few corroded bones and the half-decayed skull (was) all that remained of the human form.”

The few remains the two men could find were hastily thrown in a box, the grave refilled and “the desecrators of the repose of the dead departed.”

The land was soon leveled to resemble the land that is now Memorial Park, but all of its early history was not removed.

Miller said fragments of bones and broken and whole tombstones were grouped in the center of the land as a sort of final resting place for those who remained.

The city was sued by the family that donated the land who wanted the land back and said the land was no longer a cemetery, Miller said

But because of the grave of remains and tombstones the court ruled the land was still a cemetery.

“You can take a stroll through Memorial Park, notice the stones that remain and think back to what Joseph Holt Ingraham must have been thinking and feeling,” Miller said.