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Published October 19, 2015

Oakwood Cemetery: Stories Behind The Headstones

It’s October— and Oakwood Cemetery is booming! As you can imagine, we get a lot of visitors this time of year. From special tours, to college courses, to nighttime photography classes, and just an increase in folks enjoying our grounds— everyone wants to see the Cemetery in October.

Can you blame them? The leaves are turning, the sky is brilliant blue—and our imaginations run wild!

While we don’t do “ghost tours” out of respect for our families, we do have our fair share of bizarre deaths and intrigue throughout our history. We’ll share some of our staff favorites with you in light of the Halloween season!


Confederate Soldier, Laid To Rest

George Pettigrew Bryan, buried in Battle Section, died in August of 1864. He was re-interred here after the Cemetery opened in 1869. A gallant Confederate Cavalryman, he was shot down in battle outside of Richmond in the final months of the war. His last words, engraved on his tombstone, “They have killed me, but we have taken the works.” His death occurred the day before he was to be promoted to Lt. Colonel.


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The Murder of Oakwood’s First Superintendent

Brinton Smith served as the Cemetery’s first superintendent, after our charter was signed in 1869. He was also the first leader of St. Augustine’s University, and he had his own Geometry students lay off the cemetery into plots. He was known to work his students–and his own son–very hard. Part of their responsibilities was to work in the fields for their room and board. Tragically, this hard labor ultimately resulted in his son’s death. Not long after, J. Brinton Smith was served oatmeal by his wife and daughter. He promptly dropped dead. Enough strychnine, said the coroner, to have killed 20 men. After four days in jail, his wife and daughter were released, exiled back to the North, never to return to Raleigh. Smith rests under a unique monument within sight of St. Agnes Hospital in Battle Section. It is said his students laid off his grave as a final tribute.


Suicide On Fayetteville Street

In 1888, Halbert Thomas, son of CSA Veteran and prominent banker J.J. Thomas, walked into the Julius Lewis Hardware Store on Fayetteville Street. He went up to the counter and talked to clerk Charles Busbee about pistols. Busbee recommended one that appealed to Halbert, who was 23 years old. Busbee showed him how to load it, which they did. With the new pistol in his hands, Halbert put the pistol to his head and killed himself right at the counter. It turned out he had just come from a men’s shop where he had bought a new suit of clothes and asked the clerk there if he looked appropriate for a suicide. The clerk thought him joking, and laughed. The men in the hardware store could do nothing to save Halbert, who was bleeding profusely. But they tried to dress him as best they could and took him to his father’s house. He rests in Magnolia Hill with his family.


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Murderer And Victim, Buried Close Together

The biggest criminal trial of the 20th century, before the OJ Simpson case that is, occurred in Raleigh in 1903–just months after the scandalous murder of Ludlow Skinner on Fayetteville Street. Skinner was the son of Rev. Doctor Thomas E. Skinner, one of the best-known Baptists in the South. On February 21, 1903 Skinner was shot by Ernest Haywood after a domestic dispute. A hundred people witnessed the shooting in front of the post office. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes, and came back with the verdict of not guilty- because of a combination of defending a man’s honor and self-defense. The closing arguments are considered one of the top 20 summations in American History. Skinner rests in Polk Section; Haywood in Heck section, a mere 175 steps apart.


The Doctor And The Locomotive

In September of 1904, Thomas Deveraux Hogg, son of noted attorney Gavin Hogg, was trained as a doctor, but preferred to work with “internal improvements,” such as plank roads, the gas company, and railroads. One morning he took a walk over to the railroad yards, not far from his home in downtown Raleigh, and didn’t see the locomotive with tender backing up. He apparently tripped, fell on to the tracks, and the locomotive ran over him, cutting his body in several pieces. Rescuers, in a panic, apparently tried push the body pieces together…..He is buried alongside his father in Heck Section.


When you stoll through Historic Oakwood Cemetery’s beautiful grounds, you’re walking across Raleigh’s history. You never know what stories lurk behind each headstone.


In case you are looking for some more intrigue, be sure to come to Oakwood Cemetery on Saturday, October 24 from 6-10pm. The annual Lantern Walk will be held through our Confederate Cemetery with all proceeds benefiting the continued preservation of that sacred space. Earlier that day, consider running the Day of the Dead 5k which gives you a chance to run through our grounds. There are still slots for runners available! This great race benefits the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club.

Care to honor the grave of a family member, or adopt a grave? Participate in our All Saints’ Day Orange Ribbon Campaign. To learn about how to make a donation to this project check out our flyer. And be sure to follow our blog and stay up to date on events at our website!

RELATED: Oakwood Cemetery’s Origins: Digging Up The Past.

Oakwood Cemetery is 146 years old. It is truly a cemetery full of life. Come, walk our grounds, and listen carefully as the wind rustles through our trees. Explore the nooks of our grounds, and you’ll find something different each time. Our gates open 7 days a week 8am- 6pm until time changes, then 8am-5pm. We hope to see you soon!


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All Photos by Michael Palko, Photographer-in-Residence for Historic Oakwood Cemetery.

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  • Robin Simonton


  • Robin is the Executive Director at Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC. She supervises the day to day operations of this 143 year old site, including the overall maintenance of the grounds, sale of property, and programs and events. All my articles.

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