‘A solemn Stillness holds’ at Old Gray

The grave of Belle Coffin Williams in Old Gray Cemetery. Source: Knoxville History Project

In this week’s Hard Knox Histories, local historian Jack Neely and editor J.J. Stambaugh discuss the background of one of Knoxville’s most prominent landmarks: Old Gray Cemetery. 

The main entrance to the sprawling cemetery lies directly across the street from St. John’s Lutheran Church on Broadway. Thousands of graves, monuments and mausoleums share its 13 acres with towering oak and hackberry trees, all of it surrounded by stone walls and iron gates. 

Its first interment took place in 1851, after a man named William Martin was killed by the explosion of a cannon that was being fired as part of a July 4 celebration. He’s been joined by many others over the following 170 years, and today the cemetery is an essential stop for those interested in the city’s history or its many examples of Victorian art and architecture. 

Old Gray was named after Thomas Gray, a English poet who is remembered mainly for “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which includes the following stanzas: 

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd winds slowly o’er the Lea,
The Plowman homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

Now fades the glimmerin
Landscape on the Sight,
And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight,
And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.

J.J. Stambaugh: I know Old Gray isn’t the oldest cemetery in Knoxville, even if it is the most famous. My understanding is that the oldest graveyard in town is First Presbyterian over on State Street. Is that correct?

Jack Neely: First Presbyterian is probably the oldest in the city proper, established in the 1790s (though the oldest grave legible today is that of William Blount, in 1800), but the one at Forks of the River, associated with another Presbyterian church called Lebanon in the Forks, now defunct, is likely a little older.

J.J.: When exactly was Old Gray formed, and under what circumstances?

Jack: It was established in 1850 as a private project, not associated with a church. There was probably a profit motive attached, but many of the founders just wanted a nice place for their own families to be buried. 

It was actually part of an international trend called the Garden Cemetery Movement. It started in Paris, earlier in that century. Before then, graveyards were mainly expediencies, crowded little churchyards downtown or family plots near a farmhouse. By this new movement, cemeteries were spread out some, with landscaping and flowers and trees and meandering paths, and not divided by denomination. The idea was that cemeteries should be more like gardens or parks, and be nice places to visit. Old Gray wasn’t one of the very first cemeteries of that sort in America, but it was part of that original wave.

On the suggestion of Sarah Reese, wife of the president of the university, it was named Gray Cemetery in honor of Thomas Gray, the English poet of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It became Old Gray in the 1890s, when a New Gray Cemetery opened on Western Avenue.

J.J.: In its early years, who did it serve? Were cemeteries back then segregated by income, social class or race?

Jack: Old Gray’s clientele was overwhelmingly white, of course, but it seems to have had no rules about excluding any race. Several Black people are buried there —six that we know of, including one marker that says “Born a Slave.” They were mostly family servants, I think, buried in the plots purchased by their employers. Beyond that, Old Gray has a diversity of immigrants, including people born in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. A couple of stones are carved entirely in Greek. 

They weren’t necessarily segregated by income, but some parts of the cemetery were more expensive than others. I gather the wealthier and more powerful families favored the area near the entrance and the center lane of the cemetery, though there are exceptions. There were several single-grave plots on the southern and northwestern extremes of the cemetery that have graves of people we know to have been very poor.

The Mead Monument at Old Gray. Source: Knoxville History Project.

J.J.: When I read history texts, one thing that strikes me is that funerals often seemed to be a more lavish, communal affair than they are today. A century ago, long processions with hundreds or even thousands of mourners seemed to be unremarkable, while today we seem to value small, intimate, and especially private gatherings. Can you think of any particularly famous funerals at Old Gray?

Jack: Probably the most famous funeral was that of Sen. (and former Gov.) Robert Love Taylor, in 1912. He was a very popular orator, sort of a comedian and motivational speaker, and died suddenly in office, in Washington, at the height of his popularity. They claimed it was the biggest funeral in Tennessee history. It may have held that distinction until Elvis died in 1977. His funeral is described in a slightly disguised form in his grandson Peter Taylor’s last novel, In the Tennessee Country

The hubbub around his burial is particularly ironic, though, because about 25 years later, the family chose to have him disinterred and reburied in a family plot near his childhood home near Johnson City. Today, all that remains at Old Gray is a couple of stone steps that say, “TAYLOR.”

J.J.: How did the Civil War affect the cemetery?

Jack: It helped populate it. 

There are Civil War soldiers of both sides at Old Gray. It was also part of a battlefield, especially when U.S. Col. William Sanders made a raid on Confederate-held Knoxville from that general area in June, 1863. But several major figures in the war, notably Gov. W.G. “Parson” Brownlow and U.S. Congressman Horace Maynard, who amazingly kept his seat in Washington for two years even after Tennessee joined the Confederacy, are buried there. Also buried there as Col. Henry Ashby, the Confederate officer killed in a downtown gunfight three years after the war by U.S. Maj. Eldad Cicero Camp, over a war argument. 

Thomas Humes, who was an Episcopal priest during the war—and at war’s end, helped put the war-scattered university back together as its first postwar president—wrote The Loyal Mountaineers of Tennessee, the best contemporary account of the war in the Knoxville area. He’s buried there, near some of his Unionist chums.

J.J: Is the National Cemetery part of Old Gray, or is it a separate entity? If it’s separate, can you tell its story?

Jack: It’s separate, but that’s a pertinent question, because it was originally perceived to be a prospective expansion area for Old Gray. 

It’s really a Civil War relic, and one of the most vivid in the region. Just days after his arrival in Knoxville in September, 1863, U.S. Gen. Ambrose Burnside acquired that 10 acres north of Old Gray as a cemetery for the Union war dead. One of the first to be buried there was a Union soldier who had died in Confederate custody some months earlier, but buried carelessly. He was disinterred and buried at the new National Cemetery. 

Most of the Union troops who died in defense of Fort Sanders that November were buried there. But so were hundreds of other troops who died of wounds, injury, or disease all over the region. Eventually it contained more than 3,000 Union dead, many of them “Unknowns.”

It was designated as a National Cemetery, a new idea passed by Congress, so our National Cemetery was from that original generation of national cemeteries, and older than most. One of the interesting features of National is that even during the Civil War, it was a burial place for multiple African American soldiers, distinguished from others only by the mention of “colored infantry” or artillery. It was originally an expediency for war dead the army was unable to ship home, but eventually began to be seen as an honor. It has seen burials from veterans of all the conflicts of the 20th century. Even Gen. Bob Neyland, who died in 1962, chose to be buried there, with a simple soldier’s ceremony.  

We have a full account of its often-surprising history on our website, https://knoxvillehistoryproject.org/national-cemetery-2/, including the rather bizarre story of the Union monument, which was erected twice.

The National Cemetery that adjoins Old Gray. Source: Knoxville History Project.

J.J.: Old Gray is well known for some of its ornate statues and tombs. What are some of the most interesting ones, in your eyes, and why?

Jack: Hard to pick favorites, but one of them is the angel representing Virginia Rosalie Coxe, a notable novelist who lived on Kingston Pike, but died as a young woman. It has an interesting poetic inscription. And speaking of poetry, there’s the big stone of Congressman Henry Gibson, near the entrance, and his wife, Frances. Both of them were published poets, with an interest in the surreal, but the big stone actually mentions the name of one of her poems, “The Moon Maiden.” That always catches peoples’ eyes.

The Tyson monument, visible from Tyson Street, is the tallest, an impressive obelisk. General and Senator Lawrence Tyson, his wife Bettie, and their son McGhee Tyson, for whom the airport is named, are buried there. Parson Brownlow’s is another pretty tall one.

The Mead family, of Mead’s Quarry at Ijams, were so proud of the potential of marble that they used their family monument, with its notably elaborate scrollwork, in advertisements for their business.

J.J.: Why did people invest so much in ornate tombs and memorials? How did they view death and mourning, compared to us? I don’t think that I’ve know anyone in my lifetime — even the wealthy — to have more than a basic marker on their grave. 

Jack: That’s also true of very old graves. Before the Civil War, almost all graves here were pretty simple. But fashions changed during the Victorian era. Houses were fancy, clothes were fancy, facial hair was fancy, and so were graves. And, at the same time, some very big fortunes were being made. Knoxville was growing rapidly, and people had money to invest. Nobody wants to be forgotten, and in the Victorian era, a big, impressive grave seemed a way to assure that the memorialized would be remembered.

J.J.: Why are so many of the monuments carved from marble rather than, say, granite?

Well, that’s pretty obvious. High-quality marble was plentiful in Knoxville. It was the Marble City. But marble was common in graveyards elsewhere, too. And a few at Old Gray are made from non-local marble. Arts patron Eleanor Audigier, who died in Rome, wanted a marble marker made from the Carrera quarry in Italy, the one used by Michaelangelo.

J.J.: Why do so many statues seem to depict young women? Was this an aesthetic choice?

Jack: That’s a very good question, and one I’ve looked into. 

With only one exception, that of a diminutive Confederate soldier, all the statues in Old Gray are of female. Women are better-looking than men, of course. But I think the deaths of mothers, wives, and daughters, bring out grief more than any man’s death ever did. In most cases, the choice to spend a lot of money on a monument was made by a man who was grieving for a wife or daughter. Men died young more often than women did, but often when they were engaged in something dangerous or stupid. When a woman died, perhaps in childbirth, she was innocent, and her death elicited grief of a sort that made you feel you had to do something. 

It’s interesting to note that almost all of those female statues memorialize girls or women who died before the age of 45. Their deaths were often sudden, shocking, and so deeply mourned that their survivors needed to put something up to take their place, in some cases an image that may have resembled the deceased. The most heartbreaking statue in the cemetery is that of Lillien Gaines, who died at age 7.

Monument to Parson W.G. Brownlow, a major figure in his time. He was a longtime controversial newspaper editor who became, unexpectedly, the governor of Tennessee. Source: Knoxville History Project.

J.J.: Who are some of Old Gray’s most famous “residents?”

Jack: To a degree that I’m not sure is recognized today, except by historians, Parson W.G. Brownlow was a major figure in his time. He was a longtime controversial newspaper editor who became, unexpectedly, the governor of a state at a critical time. He was regarded by some as a hero, by some as a demon, but I’d be willing to bet that most newspaper readers in America in the years just after the Civil War recognized his name. He was the main reason Black men in Tennessee could vote so soon after the Civil War, the reason Tennessee rapidly passed the 13th and 14th Amendments and was readmitted into the Union much quicker than any other Confederate state.

Several important U.S. Congressmen, including our first several Republicans, like Horace Maynard, William Rule, Leonidas Houk, and others–and our last-ever Democratic congressman, William Churchwell—lest we assume he was a liberal, he was an antebellum pro-slaver–are buried in Old Gray.

A couple of diplomats, like Horace Maynard, who helped Schliemann’s search for Troy when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. And Ebenezer Alexander, the former UT classics professor who promoted the groundbreaking 1896 Olympics when he was ambassador to Greece. He may have been key in seeing that America had a team in those first Games, which were otherwise mainly a European party.

Lee McClung was both a very early football champion for Yale, and promoter of the game, when UT didn’t even have a team, but also, later, U.S. Treasurer. His name appears on currency printed between 1909 and 1912.

Suffragist Lizzie Crozier French, the middle lady in the statue on Market Square, is there. Painter Catherine Wiley, considered Tennessee’s greatest impressionist, is there. Early classical-music pioneer Gustavus Knabe, who had played for Mendelssohn in Leipzig.

And close family members of important literary figures are there: Tennessee Williams’ father, aunts and grandparents are at Old Gray, as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s mother.

J.J.: What are some of the more interesting tales surrounding Old Gray?

Jack: Peter Taylor’s story about his grandfather’s burial, and subsequent exhumation, is told in In the Tennessee Country. There are inevitable stories about hiding moonshine there. But other graveyards have stories like that, too. It sometimes sounds as if people spent more time hiding moonshine than enjoying it. There’s a story about Tennessee Williams attending his father’s burial in 1957, and drawing criticism for signing autographs in the graveyard. He responded to that criticism by noting that if it’s impolite to sign autographs at your father’s funeral, it’s also impolite for people to ask you to do so. Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, visited his former mentor William Rule’s grave in 1929, not long after his burial, and declined to be photographed.

I gave a three-hour tour at the annual event there the other day. That place is just full of stories, and I know only some of them. It’s a fascinating place to take a walk, any time of year. Come in the spring or summer.

Albers Fountain at Old Gray. Source: Knoxville History Project.

Editors note: That wraps up today’s Hard Knox Histories, a bi-weekly collaboration between the Knoxville History Project and Hard Knox Wire. We’ll be back with another installment on November 5.

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com

Published on October 22, 2021.