Historians often talk about "buried secrets" and "digging up the past," but -- unlike archaeologists -- for us, it's usually a metaphor. Sometimes, however, history really is buried. In honor of spooky season, I'll be sharing stories this month from a few of the cemeteries I've visited over the course of my research, and the insights I gained there that I couldn't have learned from the archive.
Note: No graves were disturbed in the making of this post.
North of Huntsville, Alabama, in the tiny community of Hazel Green, a low stone wall marks the gravesite of two brothers: Samuel and Edmund Townsend. Located directly adjacent to a cornfield, the green, grassy cemetery sits on land the Townsend brothers once owned. Samuel and Edmund were wealthy white cotton planters of the antebellum era, multi-millionaires by today's standards, with thousands of acres of farmland, herds of hogs and cattle, stands of beehives for honey, and a big house shaded by fruiting pecan trees. They were the aristocrats of the pre-Civil War South, and their lifestyle was only possible because they kept hundreds of enslaved people in bondage on their vast plantations.
A few years ago, a local woman told me that the neatly manicured Townsend cemetery hid the unmarked graves of these enslaved people. The men and women who built Samuel and Edmund's wealth are certainly somewhere on the grounds of the former plantation, but no stone or marker can tell us where.
The planter brothers' graves, however, are designed to be noticed. Inside the waist-high stone wall, the brothers rest side by side under stone pillars carved with their names. Edmund died first, in 1853. At the time of his death, he had a net worth of $500,000; that's 16 or 17 million dollars in today's currency. When Edmund died, Samuel also ranked among the wealthiest men in the county, though well behind his brother: Samuel owned 86 enslaved people and "only" $20,000 in real estate. He would only reach Edmund's stratospheric heights after Edmund died and Samuel inherited $150,000 from his estate.
While researching my book, Happy Dreams of Liberty, I wondered about the brothers' relationship. Did Samuel envy Edmund's success? Did he resent the older brother who had always overshadowed him? In his will, Samuel set aside $500 to $700 for a "marble monument" to stand over his grave -- clearly, he wanted to be remembered. Then I visited his grave and saw the eight-foot marble pillar throwing Edmund's modest tombstone into eternal shadow.
I had my answer.