Some call it the end of winter; some call it spring. Increasingly, Texans call it wildflower season, but I’ve come to think of it as cemetery season: that time of year when human preferences for tidiness and uniformity are challenged by nature’s urge toward abundant, irrepressible growth. In at least some of our cemeteries, nature wins, and a visit to one is sheer pleasure.
In Galveston, it’s the six-block area known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries that crowns the season. Comprised of seven burial grounds plotted between 1839 and 1939, it includes three associated with faith communities (Hebrew, Catholic, and Episcopal) and four which are non-sectarian. Some allow wildflowers to flourish while others don’t; in spring, the difference in appearance between the mowed and the unmowed is remarkable.
The cemeteries themselves have interesting histories. Today’s Oleander Cemetery, previously Potters’ Field, provided a resting place for the indigent. The New City Cemetery, originally known as the Yellow Fever Yard, was established around 1867 in response to a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak that ravaged a city already familiar with the disease. From 1839 to 1867, at least nine yellow fever epidemics swept through Galveston; in 1853, sixty percent of the city’s approximately 45,000 residents contracted the disease, and 523 died.
Evergreen and Old City Cemeteries are filled with victims of a different sort: many who lie there perished in the Great Storm of 1900. Of course, apart from the twin insults of disease and natural disaster, each cemetery also provided final resting places for some of the earliest immigrants to Texas; soldiers from both sides of the Civil War; businessmen; legislators; and entirely ordinary families.
In spring, the twin pillars of history and remembrance are joined by a third: the simple beauty of the flowers.
Even the simplest stones are enhanced by the flowers surrounding them. James Grice, known as ‘Shorty’ by the fishermen he served, established a waterfront bait and tackle shop after arriving from Liverpool, England. He slept in the back of his shop, and willingly served even those customers who felt the urge to fish at midnight.
Jennie Rust’s stone has its own simple dignity, though it raises a question or two. During the Great Storm of 1900, a father named Charles Rust was knocked from a wagon while attempting to carry his family to safety; he perished with three of his children. Jennie died in 1880 at the age of eighteen, so she clearly wasn’t the wife of that Charles Rust, but I suspect the desperate father and Jennie’s Charles were somehow connected.
Not all graves are so simple, of course. The Broadway Cemeteries contain a remarkable collection of Classical Revival vaults, Gothic Revival mausoleums, and towering obelisks.
Here, lush blooms surround one of two Willis family mausoleums. Peter James Willis, one of several family members interred in the impressive edifice, arrived in Texas from Maryland in January 1836, shortly before the fall of the Alamo. He returned to his home state in June of that year, but came back to Texas in October, bringing two younger brothers — William and Richard — with him.
The trio went to work on Buffalo Bayou, supplying wood to steamboats. They intended to use their profits to open a store in Washington on the Brazos, but fending off Brazos river bottom mosquitoes wasn’t easy, and William died of malaria. After that, the two remaining brothers moved to Montgomery, Texas, and opened their store.
In 1845, Peter married Caroline Womack, the daughter of a prosperous planter. One of their six children, a daughter named Magnolia, married wealthy businessman George Sealy in 1875. George and his brother John were involved in cotton, banking, and railroads; John’s son, owner of the Magnolia Petroleum Company, is said to have named it for his aunt Magnolia.
My favorite Willis family story involves Magnolia. According to family legend, the construction of the landmark Sealy mansion was instigated by a statement made by Magnolia after the birth of the couple’s fifth child in 1885: “Sir, I’ll give you a second son, if you’ll build me the finest home in Galveston.”
Whatever the actual circumstances, the Neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889. An elaborate carriage house designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton was finished in 1891: the very year the couple’s second son was born.
The less elaborate but still appealing crypt of the Haden family can be found near the edge of the Episcopal Cemetery. Dr. J.M. Haden, born in Lowndes county, Mississippi in 1825, contributed significantly to the health and well-being of Galveston residents.
A graduate of Jackson college in Columbia, Tennessee and La Grange college in Alabama, Dr. Haden received his M.D. in 1847 from the University of New Orleans. After serving the United States military and then that of the Confederacy, he returned to Galveston at the end of the Civil War to begin the practice of medicine. Elected president of the Galveston County Medical Society as well as the board of directors of the Galveston Medical college, he went on to head Galveston’s Board of Health. During his tenure, it became recognized that yellow fever had been brought to Texas from outside the state, and his obituary, published inThe Galveston Daily News on October 31, 1892, noted his role in containing the disease:
It is probably due to Dr Hayden’s measures adopted in the [yellow fever] epidemic of 1878 that such a strict state quarantine has been established, and the testimony of leading citizens is preserved which credits his vigilance with the preservation of this city from horrors of the epidemic which swept over some of our neighboring communities during his administration of our health affairs.
Occasionally, gravestones hint at nearly unimaginable horrors. After emigrating from Germany to Galveston with his family, Louis Alberti eventually married Galveston native Elize Roemer and established a successful butcher shop with his brother-in-law.
After Louis and Elize’s first-born child, Louis, Jr., died of tetanus at the age of seven, friends and family noticed changes in his mother’s behavior. Ten years later, after the births of several other children, daughter Caroline was born in 1894, then died in April of that year, before reaching her first birthday.
By May, Elize began exhibiting aberrant and violent behavior, and was sent to live with her parents in a different part of Galveston. After a few weeks she returned home, despite showing continued signs of disturbance. On the evening of December 4, 1894, Elize called her children into the dining room and offered them a few sips of wine: a customary practice in Victorian times.
Not long after, Louis began hearing screams from his children, and rushed home from his shop next door to find them in agony. Under questioning, Elize admitted she had put morphine into the wine, intending to kill both the children and herself; only Louis’s return to the house had kept her from suicide.
Despite attempts by physicians, four of the children died: Willie first, then
Dora, Ella, and Lizzie. Emma, 16, recovered enough to be sent to the hospital for a day, and she survived. Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina escaped, since she was studying in a different room when her mother called.
The next day, Mrs. Alberti was arrested and charged with insanity. Asked if she knew what she had done, she replied that she did, and regretted only that she had not been able to take her own life. “I have been ill for the last eight months,” she said, “and know that I could not fill my obligations to my babies. They are better off.”
After the murders, Alberti spent time in the San Antonio Asylum. After her release, she returned to Galveston, and — free to achieve her goal at last — committed suicide.
Despite the reminders of human frailty and foibles hidden among the stones, every cemetery provides an amusement or two. Here, an angel seems to be pouting, and with good reason. The drape of Mardi Gras beads on the cross in front of her hasn’t changed in a year; she probably would enjoy more beads, in different colors.
I hope she can’t see this stone, visible in the photo of Dr. Haden’s crypt. It’s not only decorated with three times the number of beads that decorated it last year, it has snails ready to join the party.
In spring and summer, grackles qualify as Broadway’s most enthusiastic party animals. They feed among the flowers and nest in palm trees, while the boys show off for the girls from atop the gravestones.
More than birds and flowers flourish above the crypts. Trees and shrubbery seem willing to set up shop wherever conditions are right; someday, enterprising birds may nest in one of these oddly-rooted trees.
Many palms scattered throughout the cemeteries weren’t available for nesting this year, having lost their fronds to our February freeze. Still, grackles were flying into and out of this trio of palms next to an obelisk marking the grave of Abraham Parker Lufkin (1816-1887), a cotton merchant and Galveston City Council member for whom town of Lufkin is named.
Hints of green suggest this palm, too, will survive and continue to provide a pretty backdrop for the memorial to paint store owner Joseph Rice; his wife Mary; and several of their children. Changing technology brought grief to this family when daughter Louisa, quite deaf, was killed when she walked in front of a street car whose motor she couldn’t hear.
Despite the intriguing histories contained within the Broadway cemeteries, and despite the beauty of the flowers decorating them, the greatest delight on my day of exploration was a gravestone I’d never before seen. The identity of the child is unknown, as is the hand of the sculptor. Even the inscription was invisible until the stone was raised some years ago, but its tenderness, and the love of those who chose its words, is unmistakable.
Who plucked this flower the angry gardner cried
The Master hath his mate replied
Thereat the gardner paused and held his peace