Cemeteries: Stories Etched in Stone

One of the things I will miss about living in Albany, Georgia is my small-town notoriety. People stop me on the street and in the stores all the time to comment on my articles. One such encounter occurred recently when a gentleman approached me in the shoe store. He had been waiting in his car for his wife when he spotted me walking in. He found me trying on a new pair of Sketchers walking shoes.

The man had, it turned out, seen my articles on Southern plantations and was reminded of a story that played out in Albany over a hundred years ago. He had read about it in the Albany Herald but had loaned the article to someone and never got it back. His memory was a little vague, but he wondered if I was familiar with the story. I was not, but I said I would look into it. I did, and here is what I discovered.

According to the Memoirs of Judge Richard H. Clark, published in 1898, Judge Clark was summoned to Albany Georgia in March 1859 to join the prosecution of the killer of Mr. Joseph Bond. Bond’s story sounds like the tale recalled by the man in the shoe store.

Joseph Bond tombstone, Macon GA

Joseph Bond was one of the wealthiest men in middle Georgia before the Civil War. He was the state’s largest cotton grower and most successful planter. It was reported that in 1857, he set a world record with a cotton sale of 2,200 bales for $100,000. Bond was from Macon, but had holdings all over Middle Georgia including, it would appear, in the Albany area at a place he called White Hill Plantation.

According to his contemporaries, Bond was not only a talented farmer and businessman, but he was also a man of the highest character and talent. “He was brave and courageous beyond measure. He could not brook an insult or submit tamely to a wrong.”

When one of Bond’s employees, an overseer by the name of Marshall Brown, beat one of Bond’s slaves nearly to death, Bond fired the man and threatened to whip him if he ever touched one of his slaves again. Brown promptly found a job at a neighboring plantation, which put him in continuing contact with his former boss’s slaves.

Brown, as the story goes, held a grudge against his former employer and found an opportunity to antagonize the man by once again beating one of his slaves. When Bond found out, he immediately rode out to confront Brown and, true to his word, commenced to beat the cruel overseer with a stick. Unfortunately for Joseph Bond, the overseer had the foresight to arm himself. Brown also made sure to have white witnesses present to testify that he was being beaten and acting in self-defense when he pulled out a small pistol and shot and killed his former boss. Joseph Bond was 44 years old. Brown was tried in an Albany courtroom but never charged in the killing.

Joesph Bond’s contemporaries portrayed him as “a kind master”. His slaves were “well clad, well fed, and well cared for”. After his death, his former slaves supposedly spoke of him “with trembling accents of love and gratitude”. I don’t want to be an apologist for slave owners, but Bond was a man of his times, and he did die defending the honor of one of his slaves.

The person who killed Joseph Bond was a cruel, vindictive man who had severely beaten a slave and deliberately shot and killed the man who came to his defense. But he was acting in self-defense. It was a sad story for all involved—especially for any slaves who came under of the lash of Marshall Brown.

The incident is recorded in Judge Clark’s memoir (available at the Dougherty County Public Library). It is also recalled in great detail at the Rose Hill Cemetery blog because, as I discovered, Joseph Bond is buried there.

Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery is a 50-acre property located on the banks of the Ocmulgee River. It opened in 1840 and boasts the claim-to-fame as being the hangout and artistic inspiration for the Allman Brothers Band during their early years. In fact, Duane and Gregg Allman are buried there. The cemetery was developed outside of the city because the land was less expensive. It was originally designed to be a both a cemetery and a local park.

People who visit Rose Hill Cemetery today might come across the Joseph Bond grave site and be impressed with the memorial’s size and beauty. They might also do a bit of quick math and discover that he was only in his forties when he died. But they will need to inquire further to learn the rest of the story—something I might never had known but for a chance encounter in a shoe store.

Cemeteries are more than just places to lay our loved ones to rest. They are as important to our communities as parks, libraries, and town centers. They are historical archives. When I visited Albany’s Oakview Cemetery, I was impressed with the burial plot of Nelson Tift and his family, but I already knew his story. He was the founder of Albany and the employer of the former slave and bridge builder, Horace King.

I was struck, however, as I explored the tragic story of Joseph Bond that Nelson Tift was in Albany when the incident played out. I wonder if their paths ever crossed. Joseph Bond was murdered near Albany in March 1859, the year after Horace King completed the bridge house and its crossing of the flint River. But if there is a story there, I can find no record of it. Cemeteries only give us the headlines.

Decatur Georgia Cemetery

Another intriguing but untold story surrounds a simple, unassuming grave in the cemetery my wife and I recently explored in Decatur, Georgia. The Decatur Cemetery, we discovered, is the oldest burial ground in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The earliest headstones date to the 1820s, predating the City of Atlanta itself by more than a decade. The cemetery is Decatur’s largest downtown greenspace—a quiet park that covers about 58 acres and contains well over 20,000 graves. The landscaping and monuments in the 8-acre Old Section are historically significant and include the graves of local dignitaries, numerous Civil War veterans, and a man named John Hays.

John Hays tombstone

Hays was born on November 2, 1751, and he died June 17, 1829. In 1776, Hays would have been 25 years old. He was, according to his marker, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. How did this contemporary of George Washington come to be buried in Decatur Georgia and what was his role in the revolutionary war? Maybe that’s a story for another time.

We can wander among the monuments, headstones, and markers, looking for stories. We can remember heroes and ordinary people, slaves and their owners, people who lived a long life and children who died too young. The stories may be personal or just a collective memory of our community. But cemeteries are a touching reminder of our own mortality because, at the end of the day, whether etched on a stone monument in a cemetery or simply carved into the hearts of loved ones left behind, we will all have an epitaph.

I’m not sure how I would like to be remembered. I like the humorous gravestones, like the one that recalls the famous “I see dead people” line from the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense. One tombstone changes the language of that quote and perhaps gives us a glimpse into the afterlife when it says, “I see dumb people”. Another tombstone says, “Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go.”

Since I wish to be cremated or composted, I don’t plan to have a tombstone. If I did, I would probably just keep it simple. I like Mel Blanc’s epitaph. The voice of Bugs Bunny and a thousand other cartoon characters has on his tombstone: “That’s All Folks”.

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