Monday, November 13, 2017

Visiting Angels on the Bluff in Natchez

Tickets go on sale every year on Aug. 1 for the annual Angels on the Bluff, the long-running candlelit tour of the Natchez City Cemetery. And folks in the know have this date circled on their calendar. Tickets sell out quickly and its easy to understand why. Local actors and musicians in period costumes channel historical figures from beyond the grave — and the town has its fair share of colorful people who have passed.  

Robert Stewart
I was honored to have been a part of this years celebration, held Nov. 9-11, 2017. There were 16 shuttles the evening I participated, meaning 16 busloads of ticket holders being shuttled from the Natchez Visitors Center to the cemetery on the north side of town. All proceeds benefit the cemetery.

We were the 6 p.m. group and we filled the school bus to capacity. Once at the cemetery, we followed our leader dressed in a jacket with reflector tape and holding a flashlight. The trails we were meant to follow were lighted by luminaries and several of the live oak trees were lighted from below, casting eerie shadows about. Some of the angels atop gravestones, including the famous Turning Angel, (more about her later), were also illuminated and stood out in the darkness as if serving as our protector.

Lilly Granderson
First up to tell her story was Katherine Grafton Miller, the founder of the Natchez Pilgrimage, who described how she saved the town with tourism in the 1930s. We then met cabinetmaker Robert Stewart who once also served as one of the citys undertakers.

L.S. Cornwell, a local merchant and brief publisher of The Eagle newspaper in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, was played by an Angels veteran, a humorous actor accompanied by the dead mans wife, who also gave a humorous tone to the storytelling.

Lilly Ann Eliza Granderson was an inspiring story, telling how she rose from house and field slave to a woman who operated a secret school where she taught other slaves to read and write.

Many people know of Florence Irene Ford because of her unusual grave. Florences mother comforted her in life when thunderstorms hit — she was deathly afraid of them — so when she died at the young age of 10, her mother built a stairway into the ground and a window next to her coffin so that she may visit Florence and comfort her when storms arrived.
The Turning Angel

Back to the Turning Angel. One of the nights storyteller was John Carkeet, a plasterer and undertaker who was the 11th victim of the 1908 Natchez Drug Company Explosion. The downtown building exploded and burned due to a gas leak and five young women were among the casualties. Their bodies are buried beneath the Turning Angel and the angel watches over them. Its said that when you walk near the statue, the angels eyes will turn and follow you.

Greg Iles, a New York Times bestselling author who lives in Natchez, once used her image on the cover of one of his books, appropriately titled "Turning Angels."

Other fun aspects of the night included a fiddler at a Civil War soldier gravesite, reliving the dancing life of Lillie Vidal Davis Boatner and a dance around a campfire by gypsies.

Sound interesting? Mark your calendar for Aug. 1 and nab those tickets fast. For more information on this historic and beautiful cemetery, visit

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dead artists at Mobile Museum of Art

Halloween is the time of year when the veil between the dead and the living grows thin. Which means in Mobile, the ghosts of famous artists come back to life.

The Mobile Museum of Art will host a Day of the Dead-meets-Night at the Museum Halloween extravaganza beginning at 6 p.m. tonight. The museum has partnered with AIDS Alabama South to bring about this family affair and will include performances from a number of community theaters as deceased artists come to haunt the galleries. There will be a gallery scavenger hunt, live music from Melissa Robertson, Day of the Dead altars made for artists no longer with us, sugar skull making, face painting and Tarot card readings.

Costumes are recommended. $5 donation requested.

Chere Coen is a travel and food writer who loves weird Southern stories, not to mention a ghost or two.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Ulysses S. Grant finds a home in Mississippi, new book offers annotated edition of president's memoirs

Former Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885, leaving behind memoirs, letters and other papers. In 1962, during the Civil War centennial, the Ulysses S. Grant Association was formed to collect those papers and publish them.

But they needed a home. What would be the perfect place to house this collection? Why Mississippi, of course!

The papers found a home at Mississippi State University because of the school’s Giles Distinguished Professor of History, Dr. John F. Marszalek, who replaced Dr. John Y. Simon as Executive Director and Managing Editor of the Grant Papers project. The papers were transferred south in 2008.

I found out about this unusual site for Grant’s collection when attending the Mississippi Book Festival this summer in Jackson and paused at the university table. Mississippi State having a presidential collection isn’t uncommon, but it is for a state that doesn’t relate to said president — or has a former violent disagreement with, for that matter. For instance, the University of Tennessee houses the Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson presidential papers, two men who hailed from Tennessee, and Texas A&M is home to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, a man born in Massachusetts but who lived in Texas.

Today (Oct. 23, 2017), Marszalek, David Nolen and Louie Gallo will launch their book, “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. An informal reception begins at 5 p.m., followed by the author's presentation at 5:30 p.m., with book signing both before and after the reading/talk. 

Their book is the first complete annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs and it represents Grant’s thoughts on his life and times through the end of the Civil War—including the antebellum era and the Mexican War—and his perspective on battlefield decision making, according to the publisher’s statement. His two-volume memoirs, sold door-to-door by former Union soldiers in the 19th century, have never gone out of print and were lauded by Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Matthew Arnold, Henry James and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

As for the library, visitors may access the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library Collections or the Congressional & Political Research Center Collections of the MSU Libraries Special Collections department from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or by calling (662) 325-7679. All 32 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant are available in most major libraries and are now available online and searchable via the library’s Grant website.

Some of the items featured in the Presidential Library exhibit include:
  • A letter First Lady Julia Dent Grant wrote about the White House wedding of daughter Nellie.
  • Grant White House china reproductions.
  • Prints and portraits including ones of Mrs. Grant's father, Frederick Dent; President Grant's mother and father.
  • A reproduction of General-President Grant's death mask.
  • A rare, grand "salesman's sample" book of photographs from Grant's 1885 funeral featuring the work of some of the era's finest photographers, Matthew Brady, L.C. Handy, and Frederick F. Gutekunst.
  • A desk originally in the U.S. Supreme Court used by two justices on the bench during Grant's presidency.
  • A love seat and chair featuring designs commemorating Grant's military role in Mississippi created by Annie Coggan-Crawford, a former MSU professor in the College of Architecture, Art and Design.
Chere Coen is a travel and food writer who loves weird Southern stories, including a former Union general finding a home in the Deep South.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The buried leg of John Bell Hood

Gen. John Bell Hood
Alongside the road in the woods of northwest Georgia lies a grave containing only a leg.
It’s a limb left behind by Confederate General John Bell Hood, a Kentucky resident known as a brave but sometimes reckless soldier. He served with Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet in the Civil War, but his left arm was badly wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. He moved south with his troops and was injured again at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia, this time with a leg wound that needed to be amputated.

The wound was so severe that after the amputation four inches below the hip the surgeon placed his leg in the ambulance so that leg and man would be buried together in the likely event they did not survive.

john hood's legBut Hood did survive and returned to active duty, fighting in the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 and other skirmishes until he was defeated at the Battle of Nashville. Legless and with a useless arm, the general spent the rest of his life working as a cotton broker in Louisiana until he, along with his wife and oldest child, died of yellow fever in New Orleans.

His leg, however, was buried on Sept. 20, 1863, near the Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel in what is known as Tunnel Hill, Georgia, just outside the city of Dalton.

georgia train tunnelIf you visit the leg of the Gallant Hood, be sure and walk through the old train tunnel, completed in 1850 and the site of the Great Locomotive Chase. In 1862, several Union Civil War spies stole a locomotive known as the General and headed toward Chattanooga with the aim of damaging the railroad and telegraph lines, therefore cutting off Confederate lines with Atlanta. The Confederates, however, chased them with everything they could get their hands on and stopped the spies before their destination. You can watch the 1956 movie starring Fess Parker to get a more dramatic idea of what went down in Georgia.

The train tunnel, by the way, is rumored to be haunted. Maybe it’s the ghost of John Bell Hood’s leg.

Chere Coen is a travel and food writer who loves weird Southern stories, not to mention a ghost or two.