Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Graves of Old Tampa Bay

It’s so cold here in Philadelphia in mid-January that the veiled threat of snow makes me want to go to Florida for a while. So here we go. I was in Tampa a couple years ago, and spent some time in its quaint downtown Oaklawn Cemetery. If you think Florida has been northernized by all the tourists and retirees, a quick look at some of the gravestones will remind you of where you are (and where your ancestors have been!).

Oaklawn is Tampa’s oldest public burial ground, established in 1854, not long after the city itself came into being. Not having much in the way of stone quarries, the early graves had wooden markers. It was only later that residents became wealthy enough to afford “imported” (by ship) stone with which to mark their graves. 

It’s a small, lovely place – quietude in the midst of a commercial area about half a mile north of Tampa Bay’s convention center. Oaklawn is surrounded by mostly government buildings, a bus depot, and bail bondsmen – a typical urban area, yet with a startling number of vacant lots. It’s almost as if all of the cemetery’s surrounding urban decay was razed in the past ten years, leaving only the Baptist church across from the entrance.

Along with the old cemetery, the church’s mission bell (lodged into its front wall) is the only extant reminder of Tampa’s historic past. It’s a colorful past with a cast of characters that includes the Ybor cigar-making family (whose tomb is here), statesmen, businessmen, Confederate soldiers, scalawags and pirates. The latter, I must confess, is the main reason I sought the place out. Photos of its pirate graves were all over the Internet and I needed to see them!

As you roam the grounds, you notice the strange old ironwork and mosaic tile unique to the craftsmen of the area (read more about that in a previous blog I wrote). Everything is shaded by trees with hanging Spanish moss. There’s an ancient oak on the side of the cemetery where the pirate graves were supposed to be (“Morgan” Street, I swear!), that is so ridiculously huge that its branches swoop down to the ground then back up again! 

The place is very quiet, still, and contemplative. Maybe a little spooky. A large, rolling, concrete bed-shaped family crypt is the first thing you see as you hop over the wall from the parking area. This large (twenty feet square?) concrete structure most likely has bodies buried under it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how they would actually do that. Usually when you see an above-ground family monument, it marks the spot of an underground mausoleum. There has to be a way to access the opening in the roof of the mausoleum to add bodies. This thing didn’t seem to allow such access. Curious. 

More so than the impending snow storm, what prompted me to recall my visit to Oaklawn was a blog I just read yesterday by a woman who had visited the cemetery in 2008. Something she said rang true with me, though at the time I was there, I couldn’t really put the feeling I had into words. She writes:

I always got this feeling when I walked into this particular cemetery like you are being watched, but not by anything sinister necessarily.” (ref)

Without a doubt, I had the same feeling. Not a scary feeling, just a feeling like I was being watched. It didn’t seem to be anything worth noting at the time, but when I read the woman’s account of her visit, it brought back the feeling quite distinctly. I mentioned that Oaklawn is surrounded by a commercial area, but there weren’t many people around. It’s not a tourist site and the locals know better than to spend much time outdoors in 100-degree high-humidity heat. Not sure what was watching me.

The writer also thought she had captured orbs and apparitions on film, as she stood on the porch of the white sexton house (maintenance shed). This quaint little Victorian-type structure, whose porch overlooks a mass grave of yellow fever victims, didn’t appear on any of my memory cards, even though I photographed it. You can see a photo of it here.

As I mentioned earlier, my main reason for visiting Oaklawn was to cadge a few pics of the pirate graves, but damn if I could find them! I had directions off the Internet, I KNEW what they looked like, but I never found the blasted things! However, I might have caught a pirate spirit (below). 

The cemetery was very pleasant and relatively cool, what with the majority of it shaded by trees covered with low-hanging Spanish moss. I had a Holga with me, loaded with slow film, but there really wasn’t enough light to expose the film.  The only notable exception being this image of some grave markers in the vicinity of where the pirate graves were supposed to be. Now, if you want to think of the misty business in the photo as some sort of piratical apparition, be my guest. I just like it because its wonderfully creepy.

Pirate lore is rampant along the Florida coast, and for good reason.
"Florida, like all other states, has a fascinating and romantic history. Seven different flags have flown over her, not to mention the black flag of the pirates. Florida became the haven of many notorious pirates, including Blackbeard, Lafitte, Gasparilla, Kidd, Rackham, Bowlegs, Bonnett, and possibly even Morgan himself [Morgan Street  borders the west side of Oaklawn] . They roamed the waters of the Caribbean Sea, and captured every ship in sight. Often, they brought their loot back to Florida, and buried it on some lonely shore. When they finally died, the location of their hidden wealth died with them. The majority of all buried treasure in Florida is the work of pirates." (ref)

A few nights later I witnessed an unexpected squall on the bay that had palm trees bent over as sheets of rain pummeled the shore and six-foot waves rocked the docks. As lightning flashed it was easy to see how a treasure-laden ship could capsize just off shore in such a tempest. Pirates that made it to land could easily have buried their booty anywhere in the area. Maybe the phantom "watchers" of Oaklawn are just checking to make sure their buried treasure is still safe.

Further Reading: