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 it’s 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.
I was honored to have been a part of this year’s 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 Visitor’s 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.
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 city’s 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 man’s 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. Florence’s 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 night’s 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. It’s said that when you walk near the statue, the angel’s 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.