Funeral Customs of the 1800s

by Kathy Lauder.

Most burials in the Nashville City Cemetery took place during the 19th century. It was a period, perhaps more than any other, when people obeyed formal rules of behavior, and there were very particular rules regarding death.

Queen Victoria’s daughters in mourning for their father, 1862

When a Victorian family member died, people in the household carefully followed certain customs to honor the departed and to inform others of the death. The bereaved family would close the curtains, stop all the clocks in the house at the time of death, cover mirrors with black crepe or other veiling (in order, as some believed, to prevent the spirit from being trapped in the looking glass), and turn family photographs face-down (to prevent the spirit from possessing others in the household). Families commonly hung a black bow, a wreath of laurel, or a bundle of yew branches on the front door to let neighbors and visitors know there had been a death. Flowers and candles throughout the house lent a somber touch, but also, of course, scented the air, a particular comfort in the days before embalming – burial might not take place for as many five days after death in order to allow distant family members to arrive.

A covered mirror indicates that the household is in mourning (photo from Appalachian Mountain Roots)

The position of the body in its coffin also held significance. Coffins were carried out of the house feet first in order to prevent the spirit of the dead from looking back and beckoning someone else in the household to follow. In many cemeteries the graves are still placed with the head to the west and feet to the east to correspond with the Christian belief that the final Call to Judgment will come from the east.

For at least a year after the death, close relatives would dress in black, using stationery and handkerchiefs with a black border. Widows wore mourning for two years or even longer, and many would not leave their homes without covering their faces with a dark veil. Many widows dressed not only themselves but also their servants in black, leaving home only to attend church services. Some restricted their jewelry to what was called “mourning jewelry.” This was limited to black (primarily jet) stones and featured lockets, bracelets, or brooches woven or braided from the hair of the deceased. Men’s mourning practices were a little less restrictive. They could generally go about their lives and jobs, sometimes wearing a black arm band to signify their loss.

Mourning brooch made from human hair (from the permanent collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

 19th Century Superstitions about Death, Funerals, and Cemeteries

  • Cover your mouth while yawning to keep your spirit from escaping or prevent the devil from entering your body.
  • If rain falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven.
  • It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head-on. If you cannot turn around, hold onto a button until it passes.
  • A clap of thunder after a burial means the soul of the deceased has arrived in heaven.
  • Never wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes.
  • If a dog howls at night when someone in the house is sick, it is a bad omen. You can reverse the bad luck it by reaching under the bed and turning a shoe over.
  • If you spill salt, throw a pinch of it over your left shoulder to prevent a death.
  • You must hold your breath when passing a cemetery, or you will not be buried.
  • If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers will bloom on her grave; if not, only weeds will grow there.  (2009)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

“To Live in Hearts We Leave Behind Is Not to Die”

by Carol Kaplan.

Jeffrey Lockelier was a black man, born free in North Carolina in 1788.  A young fellow with a taste for adventure, he came to Nashville in 1807.  Because the idea of soldiering appealed to him, he joined the militia, serving under Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812.  He distinguished himself in the Indian Wars at Enitachopco and Emuckfau Creeks and in the deadly Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which finally crushed the Creek Nation, forcing them to turn over 23 million acres to the U.S. Government.   Lockelier served with distinction in every conflict: his obituary stated that “none could boast of a heart more devoted to his country’s cause,” for “his military services terminated only when his country ceased to have enemies.” After the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Jeffrey Lockelier, now known as “Major Jeffrey,” returned to Middle Tennessee, where he met and married a woman named Sabina, a slave of the Sumner family in Williamson County.  He soon purchased his wife from Thomas Sumner and petitioned the court to grant her freedom in July of 1817.  The census taker spelled their entry as “Major Locklun.”

Painting of the Battle of New Orleans by Edward Percy Moran (Library of Congress at

Struggling with a heart ailment in his early 40s, Major Jeffrey “endured a long confinement,” during which he was visited by his old commanders, President Andrew Jackson and General John Coffee.  He “enjoyed, to a high degree their good opinion and friendship.”  Lockelier’s death occurred September 22, 1830, at the age of 42.  His obituary appeared in newspapers across the country, including the New York Evening Post, which marveled: “Though a very humble member of society, still it may be truly said, but few enjoyed the esteem and good will of the community to a greater extent than he did. His universal benevolence was a distinguished trait in his character; and it seemed to be the business and the pleasure of his life to serve others without even the expectation of reward.”

The admiring obituary that appeared in the National Banner & Nashville Whig 27 September 1830, ends like this: “One should not be forgotten who bestowed his best days to the service of his country; who lived a life of active benevolence, and died praising the goodness and mercy of his God.”  (2009)

Jeffrey Lockelier’s grave at Nashville City Cemetery

Jeffrey Lockelier (whose name was spelled a variety of ways in different sources) was not forgotten by the city planners who named Nashville’s Locklayer St., near the Bicentennial Mall, in his honor.  Unfortunately, the original stone that marked his grave in Nashville’s historic City Cemetery disappeared long ago, but it was replaced in 2010 as part of the cemetery’s tombstone restoration project, which had previously replaced missing stones on the graves of Sally Thomas and Angeline Brady. 

The title of this essay comes from the poem “Hallowed Ground” by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844).

Previously published in Monuments and Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.

A Lovely Sunday for the Cemetery

by Carter G. Baker.

On a beautiful early spring Sunday afternoon, about twenty descendants and relatives of Private Robert Bradfute (1794-1861), a veteran of the War of 1812, gathered in City Cemetery for a dedication of his recently installed military marker. The ceremonies were arranged by Ruth (Bradfute) Heizer of Knoxville, a great-granddaughter of Private Bradfute’s brother, and were conducted by the United States Daughters of 1812.

British Burning Washington during War of 1812 (illustration from Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Vol. 1, 1816)

Robert Bradfute was a Virginian, and sometime after 1821, following his war service with the Virginia Militia, he and his wife, née Lucy Ann Vasser, came to Nashville, where he worked as a brick mason. One of the many buildings he worked on was the old insane asylum, which was torn down in 1999 for the new Dell campus on Murfreesboro Road.

In addition to the Veterans Administration headstone for Robert, Mrs. Heizer and her husband Jim purchased monuments for six other relatives buried in the Bradfute lot. The family placed another marker for Lucy Ann, who died in 1826 while still a young mother of three or four children. Lucy Ann is buried about 50 yards from the Bradfute lot on Oak Street.

After the death of Lucy Ann, Robert married Sarah Holman Snead and fathered four more children. Sarah is buried next to her husband, along with one of her children. Robert’s brother Hamilton, his wife Nancy Robinson Bradfute, and their daughter Blanche, are also buried in the Bradfute lot.

William R. Bradfute, the second child and oldest son of Robert and Lucy Ann, served as a captain in the Mexican War and a colonel in the Confederate Army. In 1853 William’s first wife, Ann Bennett Bradfute, only 22 years old, died in Nashville and was buried in City Cemetery, although her grave is not now marked. Colonel Bradfute later moved to Texas, along with other family members. After his death, he was buried in the National Cemetery in Austin, Texas.

A number of Bradfute descendants had come from Texas to attend the dedication ceremony. One of them, Roland Bradfute Jr., Robert’s fourth great-grandson, sang the National Anthem a cappella. He sang beautifully, and everyone present found it especially inspiring to hear the words written during Private Bradfute’s war sung in the shadow of the two flags displayed at the ceremony: the current U.S. flag and the 15-star flag that had been the national flag during the War of 1812.  (2014)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

Sally Thomas  (1787 – 1850)

by James A. Hoobler.

On to Liberty (Theodore Kaufmann, 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Born into slavery in Charlottesville, Virginia, Sally Thomas, the slave of Charles Thomas, bore two sons to John, her owner’s brother – John, born in 1808, and Henry, born a year later. Around 1817 Sally and her children were sent over 550 miles to Thomas family land near Nashville. Here her owner allowed her to take in laundry if she gave him some of the profits. Ceding control over her, he made her a “quasi-slave,” who could rent her own house, move about freely, buy, sell, and negotiate her own business contracts. Although in time her owner even stopped requiring her to share her earnings with him, Sally was still legally considered his property.

Justice John C. Catron (portrait by Chester Harding, Tennessee Portrait Project/TSLA)

 In 1827 attorney John C. Catron fathered Sally’s third son, James P. Thomas. Sally and her children lived then at the corner of Cherry (4th Avenue) and Deaderick Streets, a block from the Davidson County Courthouse.  There she ran her laundry business, saving money to purchase the freedom of her children. Sally’s oldest son, John, worked for a Nashville barge captain, even taking his last name. Captain Rapier, who had taught John to read and write, saved his own money to free John, and in 1829 his executors obtained permission from the Alabama General Assembly to use estate funds to purchase John’s freedom. 

In 1834 Sally learned that she, Henry, and James were being returned to Virginia to settle her owner’s estate. Fearing they would be sold separately, she urged Henry to escape. Hiding by day, avoiding farms where he might be spotted, Henry fled north to Louisville, Kentucky, only to be caught and jailed. Still chained, he miraculously escaped the first night in a stolen boat. Surviving a plunge over the Falls of The Ohio, he crossed into Indiana, where a sympathetic individual removed his chains. Henry eventually arrived in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a barber; he later moved to Canada.  

Meanwhile, to keep James from being sold away from her, Sally persuaded attorney Ephraim Hubbard Foster to help her buy the child from John Martin, the Thomas relative who owned him. Martin wanted $400 for the seven-year-old, but Sally had saved only $350. Foster agreed to lend her the other $50 and arranged the sale with Martin. Although Sally soon paid off her debt to Ephraim Foster and personally held James’s bill of sale and “free papers,” under Tennessee law James was still considered Foster’s slave. Since the 1834 state Constitution required free blacks to leave Tennessee immediately or return to slavery, James had to appear to be someone’s property in order to remain in Nashville.

Senator Ephraim H. Foster (portrait by Washington B. Cooper, Tennessee Portrait Project / Cheekwood Museum of Art)

Sally purchased her own freedom with the assistance of Godfrey M. Fogg (nephew of educator Francis B. Fogg, and law partner of Ephraim Foster), who loaned her part of the money. Deeds in the Davidson County Courthouse list Sally as the property of G. M. Fogg, and James as the property of Ephraim Foster – legally Sally and James would remain slaves until the courts ruled them free and permitted them to remain in Tennessee as free persons. Regrettably, Sally died in 1850, before such a ruling was made. James, now running a barbershop in the house Sally had rented at Deaderick and Cherry, purchased a grave site for her in City Cemetery, erecting a tombstone inscribed, “Sally Thomas 1787-1850.”  On March 6, 1851, Ephraim Foster petitioned the Davidson County Court to allow him to free James. The court found in favor of the petition, Foster posted a bond, and James was free. James’s own petition to be permitted to remain in Nashville was also approved, with the posting of a good character bond. Ironically, James was the natural son of Tennessee’s Chief Justice, John C. Catron, whom Andrew Jackson had appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court during his last days in office, when the court was expanded to nine members. Thus Catron’s Dred Scott ruling that African Americans were property and had no citizenship rights applied to his own son.  (2009)

Dedication ceremony for new Sally Thomas grave marker, 2009

Sally Thomas died during Nashville’s 1850 cholera epidemic. In 1908 her tombstone could still be found, but by 2005 it was no longer standing. In 2009 a replacement tombstone for Sally Thomas was dedicated in a well-attended ceremony at City Cemetery.

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

The story of the Thomas-Rapier family is the subject of the book In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger (Oxford University Press, 2005).

The Duelists: Jackson and Dickinson

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Charles Henry Dickinson was born around 1780, the year Andrew Jackson, a scrappy 13-year-old, ran off to fight in the American Revolution. The two youngsters could hardly have been more different. Dickinson was born into wealth and privilege on a Maryland plantation; Jackson’s parents were immigrant Irish pioneers. When young Dickinson arrived in Nashville in 1801, he carried a letter of introduction from Chief Justice John Marshall. By late spring 1806 he owned a thriving law practice; had married Jane Erwin, the daughter of a prosperous Nashville family; and was the proud father of a two-month-old son. Jackson, 39, a self-taught lawyer married to the former Rachel Donelson (who had come to Nashville in 1780 with the town’s founding families), had already become a key figure in regional politics: he had been a judge and district attorney in the Mero District; had taken part in the state constitutional convention; had served in the U.S. House and Senate; was Major General of the State Militia; and had spent six years on the Tennessee Supreme Court. He also raised cotton on his plantation, The Hermitage, and bred racehorses. It was apparently a conflict over a horse race that led to Jackson’s fatal duel with Dickinson on May 30, 1806.

Horse racing in the 19th century

The details of the argument vary with the storyteller, but it seems that Jackson took offense at an insult (directed at his wife, his horse, or his integrity) uttered by Joseph Erwin, the father of Dickinson’s wife. Dickinson, who some think may have tipped the balance with a cruel comment aimed at Rachel, took up the challenge in Erwin’s stead. Jackson himself later told a friend, “I had no unkind feeling against Mr. Dickinson . . . My quarrel had been with his father-in-law, Col. Erwin.” Since dueling was illegal in Tennessee, the two men and their companions set out on horseback to Logan County, Kentucky, near the Red River. Afterward Jackson admitted to being “badly frightened” – “I knew Dickinson to be the best shot with the pistol I ever saw.  I therefore went upon the ground expecting to be killed.”

Dickinson would shoot first. To alter his profile, Jackson, who was six feet tall but weighed only 145 pounds, wore a large, bulky coat with a rolled collar, and apparently turned his thin frame sideways. Dickinson aimed and shot. When Jackson did not fall or cry out, Dickinson, startled, believed he had missed. Then, very steadily, Jackson took aim and fired. Later someone would claim that the gun had misfired and that Jackson broke the rules by re-cocking and firing again, but, in fact, the seconds reportedly accepted the second shot. Jackson himself was quoted as saying, “Under the impression that I was, perhaps, mortally wounded, and upon the impulse of the moment, I fired, and my antagonist fell.” The future president had indeed been shot as well. Surgeons were never able to remove the bullet, which was lodged near his heart. It would cause him intense discomfort for the rest of his life. (Several scholars have suggested that Jackson may finally have died, 39 years later, of lead poisoning from that bullet, so Dickinson’s shot may have been responsible for his death, after all!) Young Dickinson lingered for several hours in excruciating pain before his own eventual death. Jackson would always feel deep remorse over the outcome: in his last years he confessed to his old friend General William G. Harding that he regretted nothing in his life so much as this duel. 

Although dueling was illegal in much of the country, it was nonetheless a popular subject for artists.

Dickinson’s companions carried his body back to Nashville, where he was buried on Joseph Erwin’s estate, six miles west of Nashville, on June 1, 1806. For many years the site was marked by a large box tomb, but around 1926, as the land was being developed for housing construction, the tomb’s marble slabs disappeared, as did, gradually, local memory of the exact site of the grave. Meanwhile, Maryland historians insisted that a faithful slave had carried Dickinson’s body back to Caroline County and buried it in a lead coffin there. Decades later, when a metal casket was discovered on family property, the remains were examined by experts at the Smithsonian, who declared they were likely those of a female. 

Tennessee historians, meanwhile, were convinced that Dickinson was still in Nashville. On May 23, 2006, almost exactly 200 years after the duel, State Archaeologist Nick Fielder conducted a high-tech probe of a West End property and determined there was a “50-50 chance” that the grave was there, but no digging occurred at that time. The obliging new property owners, Mr. and Mrs. James Bowen, sought Chancery Court approval for the archaeological investigation and exhumation of any remains discovered on their land, asking permission, in so many words, for their front yard no longer to be a burial ground! On a cold December 15, 2007, neighbors and historians huddled in the sleet, watching as an archaeology team dug in several promising spots, but with no success. In a subsequent dig, in August 2009, archaeologist Dan Allen, guided by historical documents, located the angular outline of a coffin, a number of rusty coffin nails, a screw, and two small bone fragments, probably finger bones. Dickinson had been found!

A crowd gathers at the site of the first Dickinson dig, December 15, 2007.

Researchers knew that Dickinson’s in-laws, Colonel Andrew Hynes and his wife Ann, had been buried at City Cemetery. (Ann Erwin Hynes was Jane Dickinson’s sister.) On Friday, June 25, 2010, in the presence of more than 300 witnesses, Charles Henry Dickinson’s remains were laid to rest in the Hynes plot at the Nashville City Cemetery. The funeral eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Kenneth Locke, Downtown Presbyterian Church. And great-great-great grandsons of both duelists attended the dedication: Dickinson’s descendant Charles Henry Miller, along with Andrew Jackson VI and his daughter Rebekah. (2010)

The Jackson quotations are taken from “Gen. Jackson as a Duelist,” The Daily American (Nashville), February 18, 1877. 

For another look at this story, you may enjoy Betsy Phillips’s delightful article from the August 1, 2022, edition of the Nashville Scene: “On the Hunt for the Jackson-Dickinson Dueling Site.”

My gratitude to Dr. Wayne Moore, Jim Hoobler, Fletch Coke, Mike Slate, Carol Kaplan, and James Castro for their input.

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.

Consumption: The Taker of Young Lives

by Carol Kaplan.

In the 19th century consumption, a disease of the lungs we know today as tuberculosis, was a dreaded killer. No cure was available. More than 1,700 of the individuals buried at City Cemetery died of consumption. No respecter of persons, the disease killed a huge number of people, ranging from unnamed slave children to John L. Marling, ambassador to Guatemala (1855-1856). Young women seemed especially vulnerable, sometimes dying quickly but occasionally lingering for years.

Septima, Francis and Mary Rutledge Fogg’s only daughter, became so sick so quickly that her brother Henry*, touring Europe with a group of Nashville friends, did not find out about his sister’s illness until she was already dead. As Randal McGavock noted in his December 1, 1851, account of the group’s travels, “When I returned to the hotel, I found American newspapers . . .. I noticed the death of my old friend Miss Septima Fogg. Her brother left on Saturday with the view of reaching home before the crisis. She was a lady that I estimated very highly and I lament her early dissolution.” Henry Fogg left Naples for home on November 29, a month after Septima’s funeral at Christ Church and her burial at City Cemetery on October 28, 1851.

Araminta Jane “Minta” Wharton’s struggle with the disease was mentioned frequently in the letters of Philip S. Fall, minister of the Nashville Christian Church and former head of the Nashville Female Academy. Minta had been a close friend of two of the Fall daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline. Fall wrote his wife Anne on October 29, 1867, that “our friends her are all well, except dear Minta. She came home yesterday, not expecting to remain long with us in the flesh. She was very ill on Saturday & Dickson [her brother] went up to see her on Sunday, but telegraphed his father that she was better.” However, Minta was not better, and on Tuesday, November 5, Fall wrote, “I went home, and Kate Wharton [Minta’s cousin] told me our dear Minta had just died. I saw her on Sunday morning, and found her as calm and serene as if she were about to compose herself to sleep. She could scarcely speak . . .. We read Psalm 23 and engaged in prayer. I bade her goodbye and she said ‘We shall meet again.’ She then slept and this continued until about 9 o’clock at night when she awoke and called her father and said: ‘Pappy, goodbye, I am gone; God be with you all,” and gently fell asleep in Christ, without a struggle or groan . . .. She was the light of the household and the joy of her father’s heart. He is greatly distressed. She is to be buried tomorrow. At 10 o’clock I have to speak at the church on the occasion. How I can get through with the duty I hardly know. The reflection that Bro Wharton officiated on a like occasion for us almost overcomes me now [their son Albert had been killed at Fort Donelson], and I fear I shall break down wholly. I must cast my care, however, on Him that careth for me, and must endeavor to make such a death following such a life speak to those who may be present.”

Nine days later Philip Fall sent Anne an account of the funeral: “Our beloved Minta was buried yesterday. The body was taken to the Church, where a large & very sympathizing crowd assembled. I tried to speak, and got on tolerably until I had to speak of her, & that was almost impossible. By the request, I suppose, of the family, the plate was removed from over the face, before the service was commenced. I thought, of course, that it was desired that those who wished to see that peaceful face once more were to have the opportunity, and so announced. Remarks were made, of course, in regard to so unusual a procedure by those present. At the grave people seemed to linger, as unwilling to leave one so universally beloved. I have rarely seen an assemblage more deeply moved. It was a death rarely witnesses, so thoroughly was our dear one in her full senses, and yet so calm, so affectionate, so perfectly ready and willing to go to a cherished home.”

Minta Wharton’s grave in Nashville City Cemetery

Thanks to modern medicine, tuberculosis, which once killed so many, has been largely eradicated from our world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes 7:10 reminds us, “Do not ask why were the old days better than these?”  (2013)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

Author’s note: Philip Fall’s letters are part of the Philip Slater Fall Collection Disciples of Christ Historical Society. I thank the Society Archivist, Sara Harwell, for permission to quote from them.

*Editor’s note: Henry Middleton Rutledge Fogg, the last surviving child of Francis Brimley Fogg and his wife, née Mary Middleton Rutledge, was his father’s law partner at their Cherry Street (4th Ave.) office. During the Civil War Henry served as aide to Confederate Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer, a three-term U.S. congressman from Tennessee. On January 19, 1862, during the Battle of Fishing Creek (also called the Battle of Mill Springs), both Henry Fogg and General Zollicoffer were killed within minutes of each other. Young Fogg’s body was brought back to the family home on Church Street. A Nashville resident who attended the funeral wrote in her diary: “Today attended the funeral of Maj. Fogg . . . I think I never saw such grief & sorrow in any one’s face as in Mr. Fogg’s . . . His mother was wonderfully sustained by the hope she has in his death & her abiding faith in God. She sang at the funeral of her lost child.”  Fogg was buried in Nashville City Cemetery.

William Driver’s Flag

Primary Source Document from Nashville’s Post Five Legionnaire, July 1956, p. 6.


            U.S. Rep. J. Percy Priest has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to permit an American flag to fly 24 hours daily over the grave of Captain William Driver in City Cemetery at Nashville.

            The bill was introduced at the request of the Post 5 Committee for the erection of a shrine to Captain Driver, who named the American flag “Old Glory.”

William Driver’s monument in Nashville City Cemetery (NHN photo)

            Burr Cullom, Chairman of the Post 5 committee appointed by Commander Lannom, introduced the original resolution last year at a Post meeting and forwarded the Post’s request to Congressman Priest recently.

            Congressman Priest’s H.R. 12092, introduced on July 3, 1956, and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, follows:


            “To permit the flying of the flag of the United States for twenty-four hours of each day over the grave of Captain William Driver in City Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

            “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That notwithstanding any rule or custom pertaining to the display of the flag of the United States of America as set forth in the joint resolution entitled “Joint resolution to codify and emphasize existing rules and customs pertaining to the display and use of the flag of the United States of America,” approved June 22, 1942, as amended, authority is hereby conferred on the appropriate officer of the State of Tennessee to permit the flying of the flag of the United States for twenty-four hours of each day over the grave of Captain William Driver in City Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.”

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

Dr. Felix Randolph Robertson (1781-1865)

by Jill Farringer Meese.

Felix Randolph Robertson, a man of diverse talents, contributed much to the development of Nashville from its beginnings through the Civil War. Born January 11, 1781, to Nashville founders James and Charlotte Robertson, he was the first Caucasian child born in the new settlement.

Dr. Felix R. Robertson (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Although the son of a pioneer, Robertson earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and graduated in 1806, specializing in children’s diseases.

Robertson courted Lydia Waters in Maryland but, uneasy about asking Lydia to abandon her comfortable surroundings for a frontier town, returned alone to Nashville to build his home and practice. He erected a two-story building at 129 Cherry Street (near today’s 4th Avenue N. and Church Street) that served him as both office and home, and he became Nashville’s first pediatrician.

Eighteen months later Robertson returned to propose to Lydia, who not only accepted but also arranged to bring her mother and siblings to Nashville. The couple married on October 8, 1808.

Lydia and Felix Robertson had eight children before Lydia’s 1832 death at 44. Felix never remarried, remaining a widower for 33 years.

Dr. Robertson made many contributions to the field of medicine but is probably best known for advocating the use of quinine to treat malarial fevers. Founder and first president of the Nashville Medical Society, he served as president of the Medical Society of Tennessee from 1834-1840. He was a professor of medicine in the University of Nashville Medical Department, served briefly as president of the Bank of Tennessee, and was twice elected mayor of Nashville.

Dr. Felix Robertson, pioneer, physician, Jeffersonian Republican politician, Mayor of Nashville

In 1826 Robertson, as president of the Texas Association, led thirty men to Texas to survey land and start a settlement in what is now Robertson County, Texas. Though he did not stay in Texas, his cousin, Sterling Clack Robertson did. After winning a legal battle with Stephen F. Austin over the land, Sterling surveyed and established Nashville, Texas, on the Brazos River.

Felix Robertson lived alone in his later years after all six surviving children married and settled outside of Nashville. He died in 1865, at the age of 84, from injuries sustained in a buggy accident caused by a runaway horse. The first-born Nashvillian had lived through the War of 1812, the growth and development of “the Athens of the South,” and the devastating Civil War, in which family members fought on both sides.  His positive impact on Nashville is reflected in his tombstone inscription in City Cemetery: “First white child born in Settlement now called Nashville. Distinguished as a physician. Foremost as citizen.”  (2013)

Felix Robertson’s tomb in Nashville City Cemetery

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

Life and Death in the 19th Century

by Kathy B. Lauder.

As you explore the Nashville City Cemetery website, you will come across a link to 19th century City Cemetery burial records that have been made available through the Nashville Public Library. Not only do the records list the name, age, gender, race, and date of death of most individuals buried in the cemetery, but they may also include the cause of death – data that can prove both startling and informative.

Scene in Nashville’s City Cemetery

A careful reader will notice how profoundly medical terminology has changed since the 19th century, largely because of improved diagnostic procedures. Many older terms (some of which were sublimely imprecise!) have simply fallen out of fashion. For example, among the more frequently listed causes of death in the mid-1800s are apoplexy, or softening of the brain (cerebral hemorrhage or stroke); dropsy (edema or congestive heart failure); catarrh (influenza, the croup, or even a common cold); consumption (tuberculosis); marasmus (a general term for diseases of infants and children, including malnutrition, rickets, and tuberculosis); dysentery or flux (intestinal inflammation); scrofula, or the King’s evil (tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, particularly those in the neck), La Grippe (influenza); mortification (gangrene, which killed a disturbing number of small boys); and erysipelas, or St. Anthony’s fire (a streptococcal infection typified by severe inflammation of the skin or mucous membranes).

A few illnesses appeared so frequently at certain times of the year, they were named for the associated seasons: winter fever was almost always pneumonia. The summer complaint (cholera infantum) was food poisoning caused by improperly stored food, especially milk and meats.

Many once-fatal diseases have been largely eliminated. Today’s children are routinely vaccinated against the most common childhood diseases of their parents and grandparents: measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Other deadly diseases swept through 19th century communities in frightening epidemics. Five thousand Memphis residents died of yellow fever in 1878, but vaccination has proved greatly effective against it in recent times. Cholera, spread by contaminated water and poor hygiene, killed nearly 1,500 people a year in New Orleans alone in the early 1850s, but it can now be successfully treated if diagnosed early. (Hundreds of people in the Nashville City Cemetery died of cholera.) As many as 17,000 American children died of diphtheria each year before a vaccine was developed in the early 1900s; today diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus (lockjaw) are seldom found anywhere in the industrialized world, thanks to infant vaccination programs. Smallpox, which killed up to 500 million people during the 20th century, is now considered to be completely eradicated. Polio, which peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, paralyzing and killing over half a million people throughout the world each year, has now been virtually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere.

Hundreds of polio victims during the 1950s and 1960s were forced to stay in tank respirators, known as iron lungs, in order to breathe.

Some of the “diseases” named in the burial registers tell their own sad tales: childbed . . . smothered (tragically common among infants, who often slept in beds with other family members . . . found dead in a well (11-year-old) . . . hung himself (12-year-old slave boy) . . . kicked by a horse (young woman, 18) . . . burned by accident (6-year-old girl) . . . and found dead at wash landing (infant). Spelling can sometimes be a challenge when deciphering the lists: dispepsey . . . fever . . . numonia . . . stabed . . . appoleptick . . . and dearhaera are all found in these records.

In 1894 dentist M. Thrasher wrote, “So deadly has teething become, that one-third of the Human Family die before the twenty deciduous teeth have fully appeared.” However, teething, once regularly blamed for infant deaths, was often innocent. Nineteenth-century doctors overlooked the reality that teething babies were exposed to many life-threatening illnesses, including influenza, tetanus, and meningitis, and that lethal rashes, fevers, and diarrhea often had other causes than dentition. Nursing mothers were likely to wean teething babies, switching from breast milk to dairy, which spoiled quickly without adequate refrigeration. Even medical treatments to soothe teething infants could cause illness – consider such practices as blistering, bleeding, or lancing gums (sometimes with the fingernails!), applying leeches, or prescribing medications containing opium, morphine, or mercury. Before 1970 paregoric could be purchased without a prescription, and loving parents who dutifully rubbed it on their babies’ swollen gums would have been horrified to learn that the licorice-flavored tonic was a mixture of opium and alcohol!          

Teething baby

Teething and hives were both high on the list of common causes of death in the mid-19th century, obviously a case of mistaking a symptom for the true illness. Other entries on the burial lists leave us wishing for just a little more information: complicated . . . died in Virginia . . . cramps . . . intemperance . . . and the blithely simplistic died suddenly. And, of course, there are always a few items on the list that simply mystify us: worms . . . insanity . . . gravel in blades . . . found dead on Tower Island . . . and shot by Judson. Anyone who takes a look at the City Cemetery burial records will discover a compelling chronicle of life and death in earlier times.  (2010)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

Walker, Taylor, and Carr: The Men behind Nashville’s African American Parks and Cemeteries

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Although City Cemetery, Nashville’s first public burial ground (1822) accepted people of all races from the beginning, the rise of the “Jim Crow” South after the Civil War compelled African Americans to look elsewhere for a final resting place. In 1869 black businessman Nelson Walker and the Colored Benevolent Society bought land for Mt. Ararat Cemetery near the Elm Hill-Murfreesboro Pike intersection, directly behind today’s Purity Dairy plant. Walker (1825-1875), a barber at the Maxwell House, became an important figure in African American politics after the Civil War. Elected president of the first State Colored Men’s Convention (August 1865), he was active in the Masonic Order, the Sons of Relief, and the State Colored Emigration Board. Largely self-educated, he became a practicing attorney and later a Davidson County magistrate. An outspoken supporter of the public schools, Walker encouraged his seven children to become well educated – his daughter Virginia was a member of Fisk University’s first graduating class in 1875.

·         The Maxwell House Hotel, built between 1859 and 1869, was partially completed in 1862, when the occupying Federal forces used it as a hospital, a prison, and barracks for Union soldiers. (In 1863 over 100 Confederate soldiers fell five stories when a staircase collapsed, killing up to 45 men and injuring many more.) Maxwell House coffee, introduced by Nashville’s Cheek family, was served in the hotel dining room. The building was destroyed by fire on Christmas night 1961.

When Mt. Ararat burial plots went on sale in May 1869, church leaders urged their parishioners to purchase them. Mt. Ararat received considerable media attention in 1890 when Reverend Nelson Merry’s remains were reinterred there from City Cemetery, and again in 1892, after three heroic African American firemen lost their lives fighting a devastating fire in downtown Nashville. The day of their burial was declared a city-wide day of mourning, and the procession leading from their funeral ceremony at the Capitol to the cemetery was said to be over a mile long. Mt. Ararat (now Greenwood West) became part of the Greenwood Cemetery complex in 1982.

Another key figure in Nashville history was the Reverend Preston Taylor (1849-1931). Born into slavery, he served as a Union Army drummer boy when he was a young teenager. While still in his 20s he founded a Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, church, attracting the largest congregation in the state during his fifteen years there, while also working as a contractor to build several sections of the Big Sandy Railroad. After moving to Nashville, he preached at the Gay Street Christian church and also joined the Masons and the IOOF, holding state offices in both organizations.

Rev. Preston Taylor

As the 19th century ended, Preston Taylor committed himself to improving the social and economic condition of Nashville’s black community. Already well known as a local religious leader and businessman, he opened the city’s first African American mortuary, the Taylor Funeral Company, in 1888, the same year he and three others came together to purchase land for a “first class burial space . . . available at cost” for African American families. After his partners backed out of the project, Taylor alone funded the purchase of a 37-acre site on Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane, near Buttermilk Ridge (so-called because of the scattering of dairy farms along the big S-curve on Lebanon Road east of Spence). Greenwood Cemetery, still in operation today, opened in 1888. Preston Taylor’s will deeded the cemetery to the Disciples of Christ religious organization, who continue to operate the facility (now merged with Mt. Ararat/ Greenwood West) as a non-profit enterprise. Preston Taylor is buried beneath a striking monument near the entrance to Greenwood. He was also involved in establishing the Lea Avenue Christian Church, the National Colored Christian Missionary Convention, the One Cent Bank (now Citizens Savings & Trust), and Tennessee State A&I Normal School (now Tennessee State University).

Preston Taylor’s monument in Greenwood Cemetery. (photo from NHN collection)

Jim Crow laws barred African Americans not only from cemeteries but also from many entertainment venues. However, in 1905 Preston Taylor responded to these restrictions by opening Greenwood Park north of the cemetery on the large unused portion of his original 37-acre land purchase. The park’s entrance stood just west of the intersection of Lebanon Road and Spence Lane. The first recreational park for Nashville’s black community, its attractions included a merry-go-round, a roller coaster, a shooting gallery, and a skating rink. Visitors could attend events at a baseball park, a bandstand, or a theatre, and if they were hungry, they could eat at a barbecue stand, a lunchroom, or a well-maintained picnic area. The area was spacious enough to include a Boy Scout camp, a racetrack, and a zoo, and it was home to the Colored State Fair, as well as other popular annual celebrations on Labor Day and July 4th. The Barbers’ Union, Masonic Lodges, and USCT veterans scheduled special events in the park. Taylor, who actually lived on the grounds, banned fighting, drinking, or cursing by Greenwood visitors and required them to dress appropriately. When white neighbors complained about Greenwood and its attendant congestion, only Ben Carr’s last-minute appeal to Governor Patterson rescued the park from ruinous legislation. In 1910 a suspicious fire destroyed Greenwood’s large grandstand, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Preston Taylor died in 1931, but the park survived until 1949, superintended by Taylor’s widow.

The Taylor home in Greenwood Park. (photo courtesy of Peggy Dillard)

Benjamin J. Carr (1875-1935) was another remarkable Tennessean, whose concern for his fellow black citizens resulted in the creation of both a second park and a notable educational institution. Born into poverty, Carr grew up working on farms in Trousdale County, Tennessee. He carefully set aside most of his meager earnings (50¢ per day) to purchase his own farm. In time, the frugal young man was able to pay off his mortgage with income from his tobacco crop. Shortly before 1900 Carr came to Nashville, where he was elected porter for the state Supreme Court and became an unexpected friend and ally of Governor Malcolm Patterson (1907-1911), who sent Carr on a lecture tour throughout Middle Tennessee to educate and inspire black farmers. Carr headed the citizens’ organization that brought the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School (Tennessee A&I, known today as Tennessee State University) to Nashville, and he was the school’s first agriculture teacher. He was also the driving force behind the city’s purchase of 34 acres near the college for use as a municipal park. When Mayor Hilary Howse dedicated Nashville’s Hadley Park in 1912, it became the first public park for African Americans in the entire nation.

Ben Carr (TSLA photo from Calvert Collection)

The name given to Hadley Park is still a matter of some dispute. When Major Eugene C. Lewis (chairman of the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway and director-general of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition) named the park, many assumed the title was a tribute to John L. Hadley, a white slave owner whose home plantation became the site of Tennessee State University. However, Lewis may have intended instead to honor Dr. W. A. Hadley (1850-1901), a physician-educator with whom he had worked closely during the Centennial Exposition, and for whom the Hadley School was named. A graduate of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Hadley had taught briefly in Davidson County schools before opening his medical practice. In 1880 he was elected secretary of the newly formed State Medical Association, and in 1883 he was chosen as a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville. He founded the Independent Order of the Immaculates and served on the executive committee (with Major E. C. Lewis) of the 1897 Centennial. After practicing medicine for several years, Hadley returned to teaching. At the time of his death, he was principal of Carter Public School in Nashville.

Adapted from the Greenwood Project.