Old City Cemetery is the final resting place for Civil War soldiers, tobacco barons, founding fathers, blacksmiths and porters, and enslaved and free African Americans who called Lynchburg home—and some of those souls have extraordinary stories to tell.
Old City Cemetery created the Calamities and Catastrophes tour, launching in June, to share the stories of some of the souls who died bizarre and unusual deaths of those buried in the graveyard.
In Logan, West Virginia, coal miners and state officials waged a decades-long battle over working conditions and wages. There were reports of bribery and murder that ended in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody battle that pitted 10,000 armed coal miners against 3,000 lawmen.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in the nation’s history and the largest armed uprising since the American Civil War. Dewey Bryant was one of the coal miners killed in the battle; he was laid to rest alongside his LYH family at Old City Cemetery.
“We have about 20,000 people buried here and that means we have 20,000 stories to tell,” says Lucas Peed, marketing and events planner for Old City Cemetery. “Some of those [stories] are just are a little more interesting—and just downright strange—than others.”
As part of the Calamities and Catastrophes tour, a guided walking tour of the 215-year-old cemetery, you’ll visit the gravesites Parham Adams, who died in 1821 when his soda fountain blew up, and Samuel Smithson, a local resident who died in a locomotive explosion. Some of the stories, like the death of Ella Jamerson, changed Lynchburg’s history.
In 1897, after Jamerson died, loved ones attended her funeral and watched as her casket was lowered into the grave. Later, her body was discovered in a barrel that was about to be loaded onto a train and sent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“There was a law in the late 1800s that medical schools could ask cemetery caretakers for the corpses of those who didn’t have any family or who were seen as ‘strangers’ to the community,” Peed explains. When the cemetery caretakers did hand over bodies, by law, they were doing nothing wrong. However, the actual carrying out of this ‘sinister activity’ as it became known, was of course, not publicized [and] when the townspeople learned about the event, they were alarmed and enraged.”
The real scandal, according to Peed, was that the cemetery caretakers removed the body after the casket was lowered into the grave, which was not allowed. Some townspeople insisted on having old graves opened to ensure the bodies were still inside and others started guarding family gravesites at night.
“After a few months, this hysteria ended but even years later, there are accounts of elderly formerly enslaved women living at the Dorchester Home [an old folks home for formerly enslaved women] begging those who ran the home to ‘not let them be taken to Charlottesville when they died,’” Peed says.
The Calamities and Catastrophes tour is just one of the entertaining, educational tours offered at Old City Cemetery. The 27-acre graveyard is the oldest municipal cemetery still in use in the state of Virginia; it’s the final resting place for immigrants and inventors, founding fathers and “disreputable” residents, domestic servants and tobacco barons, free and enslaved African Americans—and each tombstone honors a person with a story to tell.
“In the last year, we’ve really focused on trying to do more specific tours to appeal to specific interests,” Peed explains. “We’ve done tours focusing on veterans of all of the different wars; an African-American history tour…and a tour that focused on the eight early mayors of the city who are buried here…”
The idea for the Calamities and Catastrophes tour came from a visitor who had a memorable experience on the tour when it was offered in 2002 and called the Old City Cemetery and asked if it was still being offered. Peed loved the idea of sharing some stories of unusual deaths and started researching.
“We have people that come by daily, looking for a family member or just walking around and they remember old stories,” he explains. “A lot of the details that we learned, at least initially, came from people sharing their family histories or old stories that were passed down from their families.”
Peed accessed old newspaper articles and other historic records to confirm that stories of bizarre deaths were true and created a tour to highlight those who died in the most unusual ways.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t going to make the history books…but they each had fascinating lives,” Peed says. “A lot of them did a lot of good, and unfortunately they’ve been forgotten, but through tours like this, we can bring them back to life a little bit…and share some interesting insights into some of the stranger episodes of Lynchburg’s history. We certainly have no lack of stories here.”
Old City Cemetery offers the Calamities and Catastrophes Tour on select dates starting in June. Tours are $5 each and pre-registration is required. The cemetery is also open to the public and brochures with maps for self-guided tours are available at the Cemetery Gatehouse. Be sure to stop by Grey’s for lunch and Mama Crockett’s Cider Donuts for a fresh apple cider treat after your tour.