High above Mark Twain Avenue, at the confluence of Summer and Section streets, a lonely cemetery slumbers quietly, nestled next to homes that cling to the edge of the hillsides. Hawks float peacefully above the trees, robins hop between the gravestones looking for worms and nesting materials, bats swoop down to feast on insects through the shroud of the grey dim light at twilight. The terrain of the property is uneven; the midpoint of the cemetery is its highest ground, with miniature hills and valleys created by sunken gravesites found throughout the center of the rise that eventually drops off to severe slopes on all four corners of the land. In summer, the unused lots that surround the west and north perimeters of the area are overgrown, tangled with fallen trees and vines growing unencumbered, a reminder of how the entire cemetery once looked. Autumn brings down the fruit of the century-old walnut tree in the northern section of the plot. Winter bares the trees and makes visible the highway at the foot of the northern slope where people speed along, not realizing how near they are to such hallowed ground. In spring, peony bushes, planted decades before on graves by loved ones who may now also be gone, bloom to celebrate the resurgence of life. These fragrant blooms are soon joined by miniature versions of the Stars and Stripes carefully inserted next to the resting place of our fallen heroes, placed there by those who vow to never forget as they decorate cemeteries each May for Memorial Day. This is Hannibal’s Old Baptist Cemetery.
In 1841, the United Baptist Church of Hannibal, first organized in 1837, began holding their services at the home of the Halsey family who lived near the area where Old Baptist Cemetery is now found. After purchasing land near this residence, members of the congregation began to plan a cemetery, and in 1844, William T. Bridgeford filed the first plat of the area which featured lots for homes to be constructed and just over three acres set aside for the cemetery. 200 grave plots were immediately made available for purchase, set in tidy rows with sixteen feet wide alleys in between and a twenty foot wide aisle through the center of the grounds. Reverend Benjamin Stevens, the Baptist minister, was responsible for the recordkeeping of lot sales and burials.
The cemetery was used by Hannibal residents, regardless of religious affiliation, until about 1871. That year, the Mt. Olivet Cemetery Association was incorporated and began selling cemetery plots on the high bluff south of Hannibal; once Mt. Olivet became fashionable, and because there were few plots left to sell at Old Baptist and no opportunity to expand its grounds, Old Baptist began to fall into disrepair.
In their book, Hannibal’s Yesterdays, J. Hurley and Roberta Hagood reported on the plight of Old Baptist Cemetery:
“After many years of disregard and only limited use the ownership of the cemetery became confused. The records of the cemetery could not be located. No one seemed to claim ownership. The Baptist congregation which had owned it had become extinct during the Civil War when many churches closed during controversy about the issues of the day. After the Stevens family members died, no one claimed it or cared for it.”
During the time of its abandonment, as some bodies at Old Baptist were exhumed and moved to cemeteries that were being better tended (such as Mark Twain’s father, John Marshall Clemens, and brother, Henry Clemens, whose remains were moved to Mt. Olivet), people still continued to be buried at Old Baptist. Because of the evidence of hand-made headstones such as small squares of concrete with names scratched onto the surface (some with letters that face backward), it is believed that many poor and indigent Hannibalians were interred in Old Baptist while the property remained unclaimed. The most recent headstones that can be seen today date into the 1950s, but no one has been buried at Old Baptist since that time.
One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, in 1965, the property was deeded to the City of Hannibal. Attempts were made over the ensuing years to clear the overgrown vegetation in the cemetery, as well as to establish some record of those who were interred on the property. The Hagoods combed through death certificates and other documentation to establish a list of burials, but no complete records of Old Baptist exist. As years went by, gravestones were stolen, damaged by weather, knocked over and broken by falling trees, or washed over with soil erosion leaving many unmarked graves. We will never know all of the people who now rest in Old Baptist Cemetery. There are, however, many headstones that survive at Old Baptist that allow us to remember those who are buried there. Their stories are remarkable: some tragic, some inspirational, but each one important to recall and record for posterity.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for all those who have served our country in its military defense. As you walk amongst the graves at Old Baptist, many markers can be found of Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War. While most of these headstones are identical in shape, size and design, one is unique: the grave site of Lieutenant Colonel Erastus Morse.
Now fallen, laying prostrate in pieces among clover near the center of the cemetery, is the large, white headstone of Erastus Morse. At the top, an eagle, wings unfurled, clutches the staff of an American flag, also unfurled, above a shield adorned with stars and stripes. At the bottom, a poetic sentiment:
In time of joy and time of woe,
Each a peaceful angel know,
Guarding Angels hover round
Peaceful home and battleground
Morse died from wounds suffered during a skirmish near Renick, Missouri, defending the North Missouri Railroad line from Confederate guerillas. The long funeral procession which brought his body to its final resting place at Old Baptist left Brittingham’s Hall (located at Fourth and Broadway) at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of December 31, 1861. The cortege was lead by six companies of the 26th Illinois Infantry commanded by Major Gilmore. Next, the horse-drawn hearse carrying the Colonel’s body and six pall bearers could be seen. Members of Company D, Missouri 22nd Infantry, the unit Colonel Morse had led, was followed by the carriages of family and friends. Hannibal’s Mayor, B. F. Hixson, members of the City Council and other city officers were followed by members of the Marion Battallion, U. S. R. Corps. The parade was trailed by citizens on foot and horseback.
Another unusual Union headstone is that of Andrew Green, U. S. Navy. Many historians who have toured the cemetery say they’ve never seen a “sailor” headstone from the Civil War. It is likely that Mr. Green helped patrol the Mississippi River during the war, keeping traffic open so as to furnish the Union army with supplies and troops up and down the river.
There are several dozen Union headstones in Old Baptist, and of those, at least eleven are African-American men. By mid-1863, free black men in and around Hannibal (and probably a few who convinced recruiters that they were free) were recruited for the Union and shipped off to join the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth Volunteer Regiment, a sister regiment to Robert Gould Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, which sent the first predominantly black troops into battle (commemorated in the 1989 film Glory). Three members of the Massachusetts Fifty-fifth are interred at Hannibal’s Old Baptist Cemetery today, along with many others who served as members of U.S. Colored Infantry Divisions.
The most-photographed of the headstones in Old Baptist is that of Agness Flauteroy. According to the inscription, she was a slave owned by Sophia Hawkins who died July 16, 1855. Sophia was the mother of Laura Hawkins, Sam Clemens’s childhood sweetheart who was the inspiration for Becky Thatcher. It is likely that Agness lived in the house now known as the Becky Thatcher house on Hill Street, knew Sam Clemens as a boy, and helped raise Laura Hawkins while serving as a domestic servant in the household. The Hawkins family must have felt as though Agness was a part of their family — it is very unusual for a slave to have a marked grave, and even more rare for the headstone to give the name of the owner as well.
Many headstones at Old Baptist Cemetery have the birthplace of the interred inscribed along with the birth and death dates. People born in Virginia and Kentucky are represented, but so too are immigrants who made their way from Europe to settle in America. A. Rowan Hamilton was born in County Down, Ireland, one of the six counties of Northern Ireland where many of Scots-Irish descent were in residence. These “Ulster Irish” migrated many years before the potato famine, most in the 1830s. Mr. Hamilton was born in 1814 and died in Hannibal at the age of 34 in 1848.
Nearby Hamilton’s grave site, a white limestone obelisk stands tall with its inscription written in German for Johann Georg Schanbacher. There are several headstones at Old Baptist written entirely in German; Missouri was a popular destination for German immigrants, many of whom chose to make their new lives in the picturesque town along the banks of the Mississippi River.
There are some buried at Old Baptist that we wish we knew more about. One grave simply reads, “Cora Ann Cash, Aged 110 Ys.”. We have no idea when she lived or died, but it is quite remarkable for anyone to live to that age, particularly in the 19th century. A double-headstone has the names of John and Charley, both infant children of A. P. Engnehl, whose headstone has a lovely sentiment at the bottom: “Budded on Earth to Blossom in Heaven”. We’d also like to know more about Mary Stewart, who was born March 10, 1768. She would have been fifty years old when Moses Bates built the first log cabin in Hannibal in 1819, and was buried at Old Baptist in December of 1856, having lived to be 88 years old.
As we were giving a tour of the cemetery one afternoon last summer, a guest asked us if we knew the story of two men buried on the east side of the cemetery. Their identical headstones sit closely together, side by side, and both men had died on the same day, June 5, 1898. We were not familiar with their story; our guest took photographs of the headstones and told us she would do some research after she returned to her home.
A few days later, we received an email from our guest. She had found a New York Times article that had been written about the two men. Although it is a sad tale, we cannot change history nor should we shy away from the more difficult images of our past…
On June 5, 1898, some three hundred African-Americans were enjoying a sight-seeing cruise on the Mississippi, having left Quincy, Illinois on the way to Clarksville, Missouri. One of the young men, Curtis Young, got into an altercation with one of the ladies on board, Miss Lena Bryan of Hannibal. The City Marshall who was overseeing the cruise, a white man named Meloan, broke up the fight and placed Curtis under arrest. As the Marshall turned to leave, he was shot in the back by an unknown assailant in the crowd and died fifteen minutes later. Hearing of the incident, a posse of fifty armed men gathered to meet the steamboat when it docked in Clarksville. Curtis Young, his younger brother Samuel, and two other African-American brothers, Bob and Charles Taylor, were rounded up and taken to jail. Later that evening, a mob totaling more than 200 arrived at the jail. A gun was put to the head of the jail’s sheriff, and the mob demanded the keys to the cell where the men were being held. Although the sheriff pleaded with the mob to disperse and leave the prisoners alone, Curtis and Samuel Young were taken from the jail and lynched on a nearby tree. It was not reported what happened to the Taylor brothers. Curtis, aged 22, and Samuel, aged 18, were buried side-by-side in Old Baptist Cemetery.
These are but a few of the stories of the remarkable people who will spend eternity on top of a small hill in Hannibal. Every person who rests there has a story to tell. Each were born, were loved, were buried with tears. Each deserves to be remembered. Fortunately for those buried at Old Baptist, a group of dedicated volunteers, members from the group Friends of Historic Hannibal, began restoration of the cemetery in 2002, clearing away the brush and uncovering the remaining headstones. Once the land was brought back to a manageable level, the City of Hannibal began a regiment of regular maintenance of the cemetery’s grounds. Because of both groups’ generosity of time and effort, thousands of people each year now have the opportunity to visit the cemetery, hear the stories, touch the headstones. Flowers and flags are carefully placed. These beloved have not been forgotten.
On this Memorial Day, take time to remember those loved and lost. Record their information for your children and grandchildren. For to know who we are, we must know from where we came, and we all hope to be remembered long after we are gone. During a tour of Old Baptist, a guest once told the group to “remember the dash”. She pointed to the grave of Anna Parsons, whose headstone simply recorded the years of her birth and death, 1861-1950. “The dash in between the years represents her entire life,” our guest explained. “Always remember the dash.”
Ken and Lisa Marks are curators of the Hannibal History Museum and conduct Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tours. Their books Hannibal, Missouri: A Brief History, Haunted Hannibal: History and Mystery in America’s Hometown, and Molly Brown’s Hannibal, published by The History Press, are available at the Museum’s gift shop, located at 200 N. Main Street.