The True History of the “Ivy Rock”

by Carol Kaplan.

The large ivy-covered boulder, so different from other grave markers at Nashville City Cemetery, has excited curiosity for more than 150 years. As the true story was forgotten, romantic tales of love and tragedy, each sadder and less realistic, swirled around “The Rock.”

The “Ivy Rock” (photo courtesy of Nashville City Cemetery Association

Did a lover’s quarrel cause a young lady to drown herself in the Cumberland River? Or perhaps a young bride was killed in a carriage on the way to her wedding. In every fanciful variation of this tragic death, the bereaved suitor or husband had the “trysting rock” where the young lovers met brought to her gravesite. The grieving young man allowed no name or date: he knew, and that was enough. One variation said the young lady was afraid of the dark, so a lantern was placed on top. Perhaps there had been an identifying inscription, but it had worn away. No one remembered who was buried under the boulder.

In 1959 a plaque was attached bearing the inscription “Ann Rawlins1 Sanders, 1815-1836.” As shall be shown, this attribution was an error.

Who was Ann Rawlins Sanders? Do her life and death reflect any part of these fanciful stories?

No, they do not. Far from being a suicide or a casualty on her wedding day, Ann was a loved and respected Nashville community member. She was married to Charles H. Sanders by the Reverend William Hume on August 29, 1832, in Nashville, and she attended the First (now Downtown) Presbyterian Church. On April 1, 1836, a local newspaper lamented her death: “A soul of bliss winged its way to mansions on high. Too pure to remain here below, it returned to its maker after a sojourn of twenty-one winters. She was a happy representative of the Church. Her lovely expression was a magnet to the lukewarm and the skeptic.” So there was no scandal or tragedy here, but just the sadness of a young life cut short. The first survey of the City Cemetery, in 1908, labeled the box tomb next to the “Ivy Rock” as belonging to Ann.

The box tomb of Ann Rawlins Sanders is adjacent to the Ivy Rock. (Photo courtesy of the Nashville City Cemetery Association)

If Ann Rawlins Sanders isn’t buried under the Rock, then who, if anyone, is?

Nashville City Cemetery Association researchers have made every effort to read and transcribe, from microfilm, all articles about the history of the cemetery. In 2013 the discovery of one story refuted all the tragic tales. On August 14, 1882, The Daily American let readers know this:

“Some months since, a part of the ivy was cut away on two sides where the inscriptions were said to be. There the rough letters were, but nearly worn away; with care and painstaking they were finally deciphered.

“On the south, the side towards her former home was: ‘Lucy Rawlins Steele / Died May 9, 1847.’

“On the east was carved: ‘1848 / THE DEAD / The only beautiful that change no more.’”

Photo courtesy of Nashville City Cemetery Association

The reporter learned the truth from the City Cemetery Sexton, who remembered that a gentleman named Mr. Steele had had the stone carried to the cemetery a year after his wife’s death. At that time Edward G. Steele was serving as Secretary of the Building Commission for the new State Capitol. For the building construction stone was being cut, by prisoners from the State Penitentiary, at a nearby quarry. According to the Sexton, “Mr. Steele had the stone brought out in a high wagon drawn by eight mules, and six convicts were taken along to aid in unloading it. He then put it there and then spoiled nature by putting that iron on the top, as I told him at the time. But there isn’t any truth in all those romances that young people are so fond of telling and believing about the ivy stone.”

With her name discovered, what more could be found about Lucy’s life? Davidson County marriage records show that Lucy was married to Edward Steele on November 24, 1832, by Reverend William Hume2. She was baptized at Christ Church, the first Episcopal Church in Nashville, on October 13, 1837, and two days later the Steeles’ baby, Albert Wagner Steele, was baptized. Parish records list Lucy’s death in May 1847.

The City Cemetery Interment book shows that Lucy, wife of E. G. Steele, died of consumption and was buried on May 6, 1847. One month after her death, Mr. “Steel” bought Lot 9 in Section 18 where Ann and Lucy are buried. As they have the same maiden name, it is possible they were sisters. The entry, deciphered with difficulty, states that Lucy died May 9, a date which is a few days different from that in the interment book. The name Steel/Steele was variously spelled in 19th century records.

Less than two years after Lucy’s death, Edward G. Steele resigned his position as Secretary of the Building Commission and left Nashville. With his departure, Lucy’s name was lost to memory.

The lantern which once adorned the “Ivy Rock” has since been taken down. (NCCA photo)

The “Ivy Rock” is now correctly marked. The cast iron ornament placed there by Edward Steele remains, but the lantern, added years later, has been removed. The “Ivy Rock” stands again as the memorial to Lucy Rawlins Steele that her loving husband intended, so many years ago.

1 Ann’s surname, “Rawlins,” is spelled “Rawlings” in several records. Sources have consistently used the spelling “Rawlins” for Lucy’s name.

2 Three months after the marriage of Ann Rawlins and Charles H. Sanders by the same pastor.

Fletch Coke’s research contributed to this story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: