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Tales From the Crypt: Nashville City Cemetery Edition

February 5, 2022
View of the Oak St. entrance to the Nashville City Cemetery
View of the Oak St. entrance to the Nashville City Cemetery

A walk among the tombstones at the Nashville City Cemetery means a walk back through a full-scope of Nashville's past. Most don't realize this significance as they drive down 4th Ave S, but it's been there 200 years now, and will be for 200 more. 

The Nashville City Cemetery was not the city's first public burial ground, nor the second, but it has been the permanent one since 1822, making it the oldest public cemetery in the city. And many of the city's former prominent residents rest there now, and collectively tell a variety of narratives about the city's history. 

If you're curious about the history of this cemetery, plus want to learn about one of the legends of the grounds, please read on...

Early Nashville Burials: "Bring Out Your Dead!"

When Nashville was just a young pup of a city (only roughly 38 years old), it had already outgrown its physical roots (for burials at least). 1822 was a time in Nashville's past when the city was truly beginning to see its future potential of being more than mostly farmland - it was going to hold its own as an economic and commercial center of the South. That growth meant a physical change in many ways, especially this changing concept of where to bury their deceased. 

The Nashville City Cemetery was not the city's first public cemetery, nor their second. While there is no evidence of the first cemetery's location, it is believed to have been located right within the city near the Cumberland River bank and the former public square. The second site was said to be located "...on a hill overlooking the French Lick in the area later known as the Sulphur Spring Bottom." To be a little bit more specific, it was located roughly where the baseball park sits today since it was near the former Sulphur Dell Park, south of Jefferson and between 4th and 5th Aves. 

See the 1804 map below with the white arrow indicating approximately where the first burial ground was located. 

1804 map of Nashville

Little to nothing is left of either site today, but with about 40 years passing before the creation of the Nashville City Cemetery, it is believed there were many graves at both sites. 

Carole Bucy and Carol Kaplan explain in their book The Nashville City Cemetery: History Carved in Stone, how Nashville's decision to look for more space for a burial ground went against the norm of the day for cemeteries. Burial grounds were typically within a municipal area or church graveyard, with graves close to each other instead of allowing space for future burials; clearly posterity was not considered.

With the need for much more space and better soil, the city began planning and looking outside its limits. 

Nashville Whig newspaper clipping for public meeting about a cemetery site
Nashville Whig clipping from March 27th, 1819, advertising a meeting about selecting a new public burial ground.

After a public meeting to discuss the matter, four acres of land was purchased from a local tavern keeper and land speculator, Richard Cross for the site of the new cemetery. They purchased the land for $1,200, and the deed specifies...

"...on said four acres to have and to hold the said four acres of land and thirty feet alley to the said Mayor, Alderman and Corporation of Nashville and their successors for the use of a burying ground forever."

From Deed Book O, pg. 9...

Deed Book O, pg. 9 - purchase of land for burial ground

I bet you're wondering 4 acres, that can't be enough! Well it eventually wasn't. Over the cemetery's first 20 years, the city made 8 more land purchases to expand the grounds to its current 27 acres. 

The aerial image below from the Walter Williams Collection is from 1936 and shows the cemetery within the yellow box, and the view is facing north. 

1936 aerial view of south Nashville, with the cemetery in the center

Since this 1822 beginning, there have been roughly 20,000 individuals buried there. Sadly, the records of the earliest burials between 1822 and 1846 were lost during the years of the Civil War. However, over its first few years, burials from other sites such as the Sulphur Spring burial ground and other private places were gradually moved and reinterred at the new cemetery.

Other Facts You Should Know:

  • Captain Alpha Kingsley was hired to be the first sexton of the new city cemetery, or essentially the caretaker and gravedigger. It was Kingsley and Louisa Grundy McGavock (daughter of the city's largest landowner Felix Grundy and wife of Jacob McGavock) that created the plans for the new cemetery, which was eventually designed further by Kingsley in the way we know today - with family plots and dividing roads.  
City Cemetery
View of the Cemetery in approximately the 1950's, with family plots divided up.
  • Kingsley himself appears to be buried in the cemetery, in section 28, according to his lot card. 
    • Lot card for A. Kingsley - Capt. Alpha Kingsley. Unsure of the W.B. Kingsley (not his wife, I don't think). But the E.C. Willson could be his daughter, Eugenia, who passed away in 1841. 
Lot card for A. Kingsley - City Cemetery
  • While the cemetery was maintained by the sale of lots and by other fees, such as for digging graves, in Kingsley's years, there never seemed to be more money earned than spent. And sadly for Capt. Kingsley - his salary was only $400 for his hard work. He'd requested a raise closely before he passed away, but there doesn't appear to be any record whether he received it.
  • By 1855, there were more than 11,000 burials in the cemetery. The bulk of those occurring around 1849-50 during the Cholera Epidemic (which occurred several times in Nashville's past). Interments were often listed in the newspapers. 
Tennessee Baptist clipping from July, 1850
  • The area around the cemetery grew more crowded after 1860, when the railroad moved in to the south and several other mills and warehouses as well; the cemetery was no longer on its own out in the countryside. 
  • With the opening of other cemeteries in the area such as Mt. Olivet (1856), Calvary Cemetery (1868), Mt. Ararat (1869), and several more outside of town - some families of those already interred at the City Cemetery chose to remove their family to these other private locations.
Clipping announcing the Mount Olivet Cemetery Construction
Daily Nashville Patriot clipping highlighting the plans for Mt. Olivet Cemetery, 1855.
News clipping for Calvary Cemetery's opening, 1868
Tennessean vlipping highlighting the opening of Calvary Cemetery in 1868.
Tennessean clipping highlighting the purchase of the land for Mt. Ararat
Tennessean clipping highlighting the purchase of the land for Mt. Ararat Cemetery, in 1869.
  • The location of the cemetery next to Fort Negley was significant considering the impact that had on the grounds; the years during and after the war were tough for the cemetery considering there were a large amount of soldiers' burials that occurred there - for both the Union and Confederacy. The grounds suffered from this and from vandalism that occurred there. However, when the war was over, Union soldiers were removed to the Nashville National Cemetery (est. 1867) on Gallatin Rd. The Confederate burials remained there for a time until a group of Nashville women purchased a large plot at Mt. Olivet and reburied them there in 1869.
  • 1878 was a pivotal year for the cemetery. Because of an outbreak of disease in Nashville (Diphtheria) that was believed to have originated from the Cemetery, a vault (housing the infected bodies) was burned down earlier in the year. And, the cemetery was closed to further interments UNLESS it was for already-existing lot owners (which still stands true today). This was an easier alternative to the demand for the cemetery to be permanently closed but thankfully that didn't happen. See the page from the 1878 Board of Alderman minutes, discussing the approval to raze the vault. 
Board of Alderman Minutes from February 1878
  • Over the years, many people attempted to help maintain and restore the aging and deteriorating cemetery, including Mayor West in 1958, who urged the City Council to appropriate $75,000 for the restoration of the cemetery. This helped significantly, adding new water mains and light poles, among other new enhancements.
  • In 1972, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 
  • And lastly in 1998, a group of interested citizens including preservationists and other members of the academic community, plus descendants of those buried there met with staff of both the Metro Historical Commission and Metro Board of Parks, to see what could be done to further restore the cemetery. Out of that came the Nashville City Cemetery Association, that oversees the care of the cemetery today. 
Mayor West looking at the City Cemetery Registration Book that was turned over to the TN Historical Society in 1955
Mayor West and others looking at the City Cemetery Registration, that'd be turned over to the TN Historical Society in 1955.

Notable Burials

Grave of William Driver - the man that coined the name of the U.S. Flag "old glory" in 1831.

As of today, there are approximately 22,000 people buried at the cemetery, 6,000 of those buried there are African American (the section for the African American graves is separated from the rest and located at the southwestern part of the cemetery). And the rule/law/bill from 1878 that prohibited further burials in the grounds UNLESS you already own a lot still stands - I think. Don't quote me but as far as I can tell - family of those buried there or mayors of the city are able to still be buried there. 

Are you curious about who is buried there? Here are a few notable mentions with their date of death in parenthesis...

  • Charles Dickinson (1806): Successful in life but sadly listed here because he was shot and killed by Andrew Jackson in a duel. 
  • Andrew Ewing (1813): Nashville's first clerk of the County Court; signer of the Cumberland Compact.
  • James and Charlotte Robertson (1814 and 1843): Two founders of Fort Nashborough; James was another signer of the Cumberland Compact.
  • Polly Hill (1847): Mother of former Nashville caterer, Sarah Estell (click on this link and scroll to the bottom of the blog post to learn more about Sarah Estell's career). 
  • It is believed that President James K. Polk (1849) was buried there for a brief time (this man might've traveled more in his death than when he was alive).
  • Wilkins Tannehill (1858): Former mayor and business partner of William T. Berry, which is discussed in a previous blog post.
Deed for the lot owned by Wilkins Tannehill
  • William Driver (1886): Coined the nickname for the U.S. Flag "Old Glory". See photo above. 
  • Ella Sheppard (1914) - Famous for her voice and musical talent, and the matriarch of the original Fisk University Jubilee Singers. 
  • Mabel Imes (1936) - Another member of the original Fisk University Jubilee Singers. 
  • Harlan Howard (2002) - Country music singer and songwriter. 
  • 16 (I believe) of Nashville's former mayors are buried in the cemetery; the most recent one being Mayor Fulton. 

Ghost Stories

Now, for what you're reallllyyy here for, right? What else coincides well with cemeteries than ghost stories. Well trust me, with 200 years of existence under its belt, the City Cemetery has some good ghost stories and legends. I'll provide you with one of them... 

The Tale of Ann Rawlins Sanders 

Grave of Ann Rawlins Sanders
Gravestone of Ann Rawlins Sanders, with the rock and lantern.

It isn't very often you see a huge rock with a lantern on top as a gravestone in a cemetery, but that is very much the case for the grave of Ann Rawlins Sanders, or so it was rumored for many years. 

Poor Ann passed away in 1836 from an apparent suicide of jumping into the Cumberland River after a lover's quarrel. Or so the legend goes. 

National Banner and Nashville Whig obituary for Ann Rawlins Sanders
Obituary for Ann Rawlins Sanders from April, 1836.

After she was buried, it was said that her fiancé brought a boulder from the river, and a lantern, to the cemetery because Ann was afraid of the dark (not sure being buried 6 feet under a boulder would help that). How romantic yet heart-breaking though. 

Over the years, the story has been embellished with people claiming they've seen a woman's ghostly shadow near the grave at night (now I'm embellishing but it could be true). 

Here's where I burst your bubble though...none of that is true, including the fact that Ann is not even buried under the boulder. I'm pretty sure she passed away from another affliction as well. Also, she was a married woman and the lantern itself is not from the 1830's, but rather is dated around the early 1900's.

Though what is true is that she is buried on the same lot. The lot where this boulder and lantern reside belongs to Edward Steele (Ann's brother-in-law), and the 1902 sexton, Dan Marlin, said that it is Marion Steele who is actually buried under the boulder. If there's ever a zombie apocalypse with people coming back from the dead, I think it's safe to say she won't be one of them. 

For reference if you'd like to visit the cemetery yourself and see this grave, here is the cemetery plat and section 18 is the location of the Steeles' lot (coming from the Oak St. entrance, this grave is easy to spot)...

Cemetery plat showing the area around Oak and Cedar Aves

If you're interested in learning more about the cemetery, I will provide you with three recommendations...

  • Check out the book below that I used for research: The Nashville City Cemetery: History Carved in Stone.
  • Check out the City Cemetery Association's website, and better yet - go on a tour of the grounds. They provide information for a self-guided tour. Or you can schedule a group tour. 
  • Lastly, when the cemetery discontinued keeping the cemetery's records within the office on site, they moved their records to the our collections in Archives. We have plats, deeds, lot cards (as I provided example of above), and photos of the cemetery. So we're glad to assist you in your research. 

And this post was supposed to be finished by the end of January, so stay tuned for another post later this month. 

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.