Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery

The photographs that accompanied the blog related to my initial visit to the abandoned Johnson Cemetery were not my best (see link below). I know that’s like the cardinal sin of the public speaker—apologizing that he had a memory lapse and left something out. Regardless, after that first visit to this abandoned/repurposed Cemetery “Park” in Camden New Jersey, I lost one of my camera’s memory cards. The images on that card were better than the ones I published. So with a heavy heart (and much profanity), I returned a week later in an attempt to recreate those better photos and slip them into the first article without you noticing. As I found out, you really can’t step in the same river twice, as they say. My second  Johnson experience was radically different.

No drug deals going down this time, just a pair of homeless guys hanging out at the ersatz main entrance. As it was late in the day, I went right to the headstones laid flush in the grass to get some better shots of them. I noticed that some of the stones had the surrounding dirt brushed away, as with a broom. I kicked some booze bottles out of the way and shot about five images, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two figures in overcoats moving quickly toward me with what looked like machetes.

Bracing myself, it turned out to be two women, maybe in their late thirties, each well-dressed and brandishing a long ice scraper/snow brush—the kind we northerners use to scrape the ice and snow off our automobile windshields on winter mornings. They came up to me and asked if I could take some photos of the tombstones for them! Guess I watch too many horror movies.

They said they were doing genealogical research and were looking for members of their family tree. One had a point-and-shoot digital camera, but she said the battery died. I said, sure, I’d shoot some images for them. They had just been to the dollar store to buy something to sweep off the stones and came back with these brush scrapers. The devices turned out to be quite the archeological tools with which to excavate many of the UNSEEN headstones! I hung out with them for about an hour while they continued sweeping off the exposed stones. During my prior visit, I counted about 20 partially exposed grave markers.

At one point I think it occurred to all of us at the same time that there was a pattern to the way the stones were laid out, sort of in a long, gradual curve, from the northeast corner of the cemetery toward the center. There were spaces between some of the stones so one of the ladies flipped her instrument over and began using the ice scraper end to dig through the dry, grassy dirt. About an inch or so down came the unmistakable sound of plastic on stone! The soil was so thin, it was relatively easy to scrape it away. I watched and photographed with amazement as they unearthed about six additional stones--it was like finding buried treasure.

Periodically people would walk by, entering or exiting through the mangled cyclone fence that separated the cemetery from the projects. They seemed to pay us no mind. The two homeless guys kept their vigil on the bench near the road the entire time. One of the ladies told me about her research and visits to many south Jersey cemeteries, and finding hundreds of relatives to fill out her family tree. She was quite excited to find the Johnson graves and told me about some small old churchyard burial spots in Mt. Laurel (NJ) that I may need to locate.
It’s my guess that wind and rain covered most of the Johnson headstones with dirt and debris over time; according to the fragmentary information available, over a hundred people are buried here. Two of the more decorative stones uncovered today are shown above, perhaps the first time anyone’s seen them in a decade or more. They are decorative to a degree, that is--the elaborateness of a grave marker being directly proportional to the affluence (and sometimes influence) of the deceased. I couldn't help but contrast in my mind these meager, sad stones with the opulent monument to (presidential candidate) John and Elizabeth Edwards'  teenage son, Wade. I had photographed this ten-foot high contemporary marble sculpture (below) at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina some years ago. The angel that cradles the lost son seems to elevate the value of that life over that of say, African-American veterans of the Civil War (the main inhabitants of Johnson Cemetery--see previous blog link below for detail). It's a skewed way of looking at things, but we often remember those with the biggest monuments, don't we?

Wade Edwards' Monument, Raleigh, NC

After a while, I counted the headstones, 30 in all, when one of the women made an astute observation—it looked as if there were actually TWO curved rows of stones! It was getting dark and chilly at that point and my camera battery had just died. I told them this project looked like it should be continued at some later date and was about to excuse myself. We traded contact information and said our goodbyes when I realized they had every intention of staying! Hmmm. Either they’re twin spectres of (Sir Walter Scott’s) “Old Mortality” or just na├»ve. I looked up the hill at the homeless guys and suggested the ladies not stay there much longer. They looked around and realized we were standing at the bottom of a gully beneath a grove of pine trees, not in plain view of the road—not the safest area to be after dark. The fact that they were well-dressed, drove an Acura SUV, and were not from the area, I assumed they didn’t know the place was nicknamed “Needle Park” and so I merely suggested they not remain there too much longer. The cold hard light of reality broke their genealogical reverie and they quickly followed me up the hill.

As we passed the benches at the entrance, the two homeless guys got up and hustled down to the benches close to where we’d been working. Apparently they had dibs on these as sleeping quarters--that’s why there were flattened beer case boxes laid out on the benches. These gents were about to enjoy the dead man’s sleep,  above the remains of a hundred forgotten and battle-scarred Civil War infantry and naval servicemen. As I drove away, I thought of the recent popular song “In the Room Where You Sleep,” by the band Dead Man’s Bones, and these lyrics in particular:

"There's something in the shadows
in the corner of your room.
A dark heart is beating
and waiting for you.
There is no open window, but the floors still creep.
In the room where you sleep.
In the room where you sleep......"

Further Links of Interest:

First Visit to the Johnson Cemetery

Listen to the song “In the Room Where You Sleep,” by the band Dead Man’s Bones 
Dead Man’s Bones’ Website