Crypt Keepers

Visiting the spirits of our Knoxville predecessors at Old Gray Cemetery

In a weekend filled with sundry other scheduled events, and with football in full swing, it seems counter-intuitive that several hundred people have chosen to spend the better part of a pleasant early fall Sunday afternoon at a graveyard off Broadway. Wandering through the stones eating grilled hot dogs, no less. Riding in horsedrawn carriages. Watching local actors and musicians conjure spirits of the residing dead.

But then Broadway's Old Gray Cemetery is no ordinary graveyard; it's a singularly beautiful place, full of stately, well-kept gravesites, towering memorial spires, and lovely statuary—all set amid huge trees with long, weeping branches, leafy giants that seem to both haunt and protect the grounds' winding pathways and sullen gray stones. And the cemetery's fundraising Lantern and Carriage Tour, featuring historic recreations and traditional music, makes for an afternoon spent among the unliving that's far more interesting than it has any right to be.

A few yards from the entrance, there's a trim, dapper gentleman with a courtly beard and a twinkle in his eye: Cornelius Coffin Williams (played by Robbie Griffith), b. Aug. 21, 1879, d. March 27, 1957. You may not recognize his name, he tells onlookers, but you will surely recognize that of his son, Thomas Lanier Williams III, aka Tennessee Williams, the playwright and short-story writer. The younger Williams was born in Mississippi and buried in Missouri, but his father is buried here, in the city of his own birth. Cornelius Coffin's ghost comes off as a gentle, friendly sort, though, seemingly at odds with historical reality, which holds that the elder Williams was "by turns distant and abusive" toward his son, according to one biography. But then one can certainly imagine that death might effect profound changes in one's attitude.

Not far from Cornelius Williams is Lt. Col Barzilla P. Stacy (played by Matt Lakin), d. Sept. 20, 1882, a Union soldier and native Ohioan called hither during the Civil War, one of several such "experienced Northern veterans" brought in to bring discipline to unruly Southern soldiers. He recalls his time here after the war, when "Knoxville was a dangerous place, with shootings in the street almost daily," and his marriage to the daughter of much-despised reconstructionist Gov. William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow, whom he still refers to without irony as "our blessed governor."

Nearby, there's a well-rehearsed little ensemble consisting of two guitars, a clarinet, and an accordion; the accordion player's name is never spoken, though he looks suspiciously like Marcus Shirley, the (very much still-living) accomplished Knoxville jazz pianist. And the singer, dressed in an apron, dowdy skirt, and high-collared white blouse, likewise bears an uncanny resemblance to Nancy Brennan Strange, present-day local chanteuse. She says her name is Eliza Boond Hodgson (d. March 28, 1870), though, mother of author Frances Hodgson Burnett (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden). After a lilting version of "Beautiful Dreamer," she tells a gathering of several dozen 21st-century visitors her story, with periodic interruptions to verbally spar with her "son" and second guitarist, John Hodgson (Dennis Perkins), who's buried in the same plot. ("John was a bartender at the Lamar House; that caused a little rift in the family," she says with some regret.)

The yard is also attended by William Briscoe Jr. (aka Lee McCord), d. 1950, whose father was a renowned painter of Knoxville streetscapes; Martha Sargent/Ingerton (Lois Campbell), the bitter wife of a bigamist husband; and John Fletcher Horne (John Hitt), d. 1906, a grizzled Confederate soldier with formidable gray mustache and goatee. Every 15 minutes or so, Horne shocks everyone at Old Gray into taking note of his presence when he fires off a miniature cannon that discharges its load with a disproportionately loud crack.

"It's not often we here at the cemetery get to speak to folks who are so... alive," Horne says, straight-faced.

In addition to the resurrected spirits of Old Gray's more noteworthy residents, the cemetery also hosts a small exhibit staged by the Citizen Soldiers WWII Living History Group, featuring World War II relics like a gunnery Jeep; soldier's cot, tent and field equipment; helmet; portable desk and typewriter; and a couple of period weapons. The equipment is attended by a few WWII-era soldiers, including a pair of smartly-dressed WACs.

And through it all is the never-ending promenade of two large 19th-century carriages, pulled by pairs of huge, muscular black steeds, carrying visitors through this bizarre little afternoon menagerie of the living dead. For a few hours, Old Gray seems like a lively, even downright cheerful place to be.

Intermittently, anyway, until Eliza Hodgson and her spectral crew wade into a wistful air, like the Scottish traditional "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." Then the whole cemetery seems taken in an attitude of mournful reflection, sad harmonies abound, and the lonely crack of a dead soldier's cannon echoes through the watching trees just one more time.