Growing up six miles or so out in the country had some advantages. There were woods paths to explore, old abandon barns and farmhouses to ramble through, and many small interesting cemeteries scattered about. The presence of honeysuckle vines always added to the beauty and sometimes mystique of old abandoned building or old graveyards.
One day, in the mid to late sixties, I was with my Dad while he bailed peanut hay on a nearby farm. Most likely it was in the early fall; maybe on a Saturday, or one afternoon after school. It was too dangerous for me to ride the tractor with Dad while bailing hay, so I would usually stay near the truck, eat peanuts off the ground, or maybe walk around the field with my .410 gauge shotgun. Squirrel season usually “came in” around October 15th. It was fun to plunder around “new woods” with my little gun under my arm, even if I didn’t have permission to do so. If I happened to stumble upon a careless and unsuspecting squirrel, I could “nail him” and ask permission to hunt on the property afterwards.
On this particular day, I only remember walking around the edge of a field, and discovering what appeared to be a very old cemetery. There were several sunken graves, many of them having very weathered wooden grave markers. I never forgot how peaceful this old cemetery looked and how sad it seemed, that those buried there had long been forgotten.
A few days ago, (March 22, 2020) I happened to be at the same location. Though located only a mile or so from where I live and grew up, I don’t think I had visited that exact spot, since fifty plus years ago. It would be dark in only a few minutes, but I decided to once again, visit the old cemetery. Sadly, all of the wooden grave markers are gone. However, there is one grave marked with a homemade gravestone. I approached the grave, got down on one knee and attempted to read the markings on the cement marker. The sun had long since gone behind the trees, and light in the woods was getting low, but I could still make out the name on the marker. The name was Simon S. Griffin. His date of birth was October 2, 1893 and his date of death was September 29th, 1918. I could recognize the words “killed in action, WWI.” Things were starting to get interesting. I left the site with strong intentions of returning soon, during daylight.
A couple of days later, I returned to the site, this time with my camera. Earlier, I had contacted a friend of mine who had grown up near the cemetery. He and I had briefly discussed the cemetery back in the sixties. I asked him if he had ever heard his grandmother mention the cemetery, or who was buried there. He said he had never heard her mention it. I took several pictures of the gravestone, as well as another stone located nearby, which appeared to contain the words of a poem. The lines of the poem seemed a bit too eloquent to have been written by a friend or family member. I suspected that it might have been lines from a poem popular at the time of Griffin’s death. Nevertheless, the words to the poem were very moving.
Now, I felt that I had enough information to start “digging” (npi). First, I wanted to learn the identity of this fallen soldier. Who are his relatives, how and where was he killed? In my lifetime, where this cemetery is located have never been owned by Griffins. However, it is located in Griffin’s Township. Records of Griffins owning property in that community date back to the early seventeen hundreds. Several generations back, the property might have been owned by Griffins. Simon S. Griffin might have been related to the people who owned the property at the time of his death, though they were not Griffins. Whoever owned the property might have allowed his remains to be interred there, even though he was not related to them. It would be interesting to know the connection.
The gravestone states that Griffin was killed in World War I, so I began searching for information about World War I soldiers from North Carolina killed on September 29, 1918 (the date of Griffin’s death). I learned that (according to Mathew M. Peek-Military Collection Archivist) “September 29, 1919, was the deadliest day for service individuals from our state. 241 North Carolinians died on that day, many of these individuals died as part of the push to break the Hindenburg Line during the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. The list is compiled from numerous official records and confirmed against the North Carolina WWI Service Cards. Not all of the names of those who were killed on September 29 are listed, as some have not been able to be confirmed as to their death dates.” https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2018/09/29/list-north-carolinians-who-died-september-29-1918
Simon S. Griffin’s name appears on this list! My next move was to go to the Martin County Courthouse and see if Griffin’s name appears on the fallen veteran’s marker located there, which lists the names of all fallen soldiers from World War I until now. Griffin’s name also appears on that marker!
My next step was to gather information about the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, where Griffin apparently died. I quickly learned that this battle was very bloody and was a decisive turning point in the war. As Peek’s article states “That battle was an important victory in the operation referred to as the breach of the Hindenburg Line.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_St_Quentin_Canal (There are fascinating pictures shown on this Wikipedia page. One image is of hundreds of soldiers gathered at a bridge on the St. Quentin Canal. The picture was taken the day after Simon S. Griffin died. Griffin gave his life in this bloody battle. The battle was won because of soldiers like him. Simon S. Griffin died a true hero.
One small piece of the puzzle was still missing. Where did the poem come from? I googled a few of the words written on the stone. Immediately, I found that this same poem was written in the obituary of a soldier from West Virginia, who had also fallen in World War I. His remains were returned to his family on January 11, 1921. An account of his interment was written in the Baltimore and Ohio Newspaper, February 1921. (To read the obituary, Google “He heard humanity’s clear call”) Obviously, that poem was frequently used in the epitaphs of World War I soldiers.
There are still unanswered questions about Griffin. Who in Griffin’s Township was he related to? (Maybe some of you talented genealogists can help?) Why was he buried in this cemetery?
I am happy to have learned about the life of Simon S. Griffin, and I will remember the sacrifice he made.
He heard humanity’s clear call, and he knew the voice divine.
He gave his life, he gave his all, in deadly battle line.
The silent stars, in love look down, where lies this loyal son.
In frost and dew, they weave a crown, of honor he has won.
A story about Aaron Burr, Theodosia Burr Alston, Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Hatteras Island, The Waters House, and other people, places and things…
Sometime in the late 50s/early 60s, I developed a fascination for a local television personality. It could have been because of his eagerness to share stories about mysterious events that “supposedly” happened in eastern North Carolina, it might have been because of his soft and easy going mannerisms, or it might have been because I felt a bit sorry for him when his fellow panelists teased him for proclaiming that his sometimes “outlandish” stories were true! Whatever my reasons were, I liked Carolina Today Show celebrity Charles Harry Whedbee. The show first aired in 1959. I think Whedbee joined the panelists shortly afterwards. The lively theme song (Al Hirt’s Java) and the playful banter of the panelist usually helped calm the early morning tensions of my parents, who while getting themselves ready for work, saw to it that we four kids got fed, and by 7:15am, were put aboard ole school bus number 20!
A short time ago, I stumbled across one of the many books Whedbee authored. Legends of the OuterBanks and Tar Heel Tidewater was first published in nineteen 1966. Because of its popularity, it would be republished eight more times! Anxiously, I began reading the stories. Some of the tales I remember hearing from Whedbee back in the 60's, such as the one about “the devil’s stomping ground.” When I reached story number nine, titled “Lady in Distress,” to say the least, I became very interested. As you continue to read this “anecdote,” I think you will understand why.
Whedbee begins his story by introducing a fair young lady named Theodosia Burr. She was born June 21, 1783, to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr, in Albany, New York. He goes on to reveal that while still a very young girl, Theodosia’s Burr’s mother dies, leaving her to be cared for by her father. Burr was heavily involved in politics, holding many political positions, including vice president during Thomas Jefferson’s first presidential term (1801-1805). However, Burr is most remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel. Burr’s killing Hamilton turns out to be a very interesting “side note” in Whedbee’s story.
Killing Hamilton caused Burr’s political career to crumble. A few years earlier, his daughter Theodosia, had married a prominent young man from South Carolina by the name of Joseph Alston. Alston would soon become South Carolina’s governor. Theodosia and Joseph were blessed with one child, and though her father’s political career seemed doomed, her life was going relatively well. Unfortunately, those “good times” would soon end. In June of 1812, their young son died from malaria, hurling Theodosia into a downward spiral of depression. Not only was she grieving the loss of her only child, she was also greatly concerned for the health of her father. Burr, struggling with depression brought on by his own political failures, was in failing health. Hoping a visit with her father would bring comfort to his grieving wife, Joseph Alston arranged for a small and fast sailing ship to carry Theodosia from Georgetown South Carolina, up the east coast to New York. The ship would have to sail around the tip of Hatteras Island, and through coastal North Carolina’s “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Stories vary as to what actually took place during this treacherous voyage, but Whedbee alleges that the ship was lured aground by land pirates using a lantern tied around neck of a horse. Many years after the ship carrying Theodosia met with disaster, death bed confessions by at least three men, revealed that they were a part of the piracy, and that that all the crew of the ship were killed except a young well dressed woman. That young woman, presumably Theodosia, was spared because she appeared to be madly insane.
According to the story, Theodosia was brought ashore and cared for by various people on Hatteras Island. At the time of the massacre, the only belonging she saved was a portrait of herself, thought to have been painted by an noted artist from the Charleston area. She had brought along the portrait to present to her father, in an attempt to brighten his spirits.
Theodosia reportedly lived with several different families on the island. Eventually, she came to live with an elderly lady, who suffered with medical issues. She was being treated by a physician from Elizabeth City. The doctor saw the portrait hanging in the lady’s home and obviously showed interest in it. Eventually, the lady offered the portrait to the doctor as partial payment for his medical services. As the portrait was being taken down from the wall for the doctor to examine, Theodosia leaped forward, grabbed the portrait and rushed out of the house. She was last seen running down the beach in the darkness. She would never again be seen alive. Only her foot prints were found, leading down to the dark waters. Later, a little further down the beach, the portrait was found!
The doctor eventually took possession of the portrait, and for years it hung in his Elizabeth City home. Some local people, familiar with the story of Theodosia being lost at sea, saw the portrait and recognized it as being her. Members of Burr’s family were contacted, and after viewing the portrait, they (some) agreed that it was indeed her. The portrait now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut; a department of the Yale University Library. Recently, it was loaned to Elizabeth City’s Museum of the Albemarle. It hung there for public viewing from December 17, 2017 to February 2018!
I think you will agree that so far, this story has been quite interesting. I assure you there is much more !!
Whedbee points out that Alexander Hamilton, the person Burr killed in the senseless duel, was credited as being responsible for financing the first Hatteras Light House!! As Whedbee stated, “Burr would lose his most precious possession, his only child, to “false lights” in those treacherous waters.” “Did this wild and beautiful region strike back in revenge for the senseless killing of one of its first and greatest friends?” “The answer to that question is of course, beyond pondering!”
The story now takes a bit of an interesting turn. Several years after the death of his daughter Theodosia, Aaron Burr married a woman named Eliza Bowen Jumel. “Eliza” was born (1775) “Elizabeth Bowen” in Providence Rhode Island. Her mother’s maiden name is not mentioned in any sources I have found, but her father was said to be a sailor named John Bowen. When Eliza was age 11, her father died. Her mother remarried to a Jonathon Clark. Sources say Eliza and her family “moved from town to town throughout New England, eventually settling in (hold on to your hat), Williamston North Carolina!!” Her parents were living in Williamston at the time of their death (1798) from yellow fever. (Where are they buried !!??) Ironically, the oldest marked grave in the town of Williamston, is that of a young physician (age 25) who is thought to have died in 1792 from yellow fever. He is buried only a stones throw from where Eliza and her parents lived!
Following the death of her parents, Eliza Bowen returned to New York, became a part time actress at local theatres, and eventually (1804) married a wealthy French-Haitian merchant named Stephen Jumel. His wealth and international connections provided Eliza with a life of leisure, privilege and extravagance. The Jumels reportedly had social connections with the French Bonapartes! Stephen Jumel died in 1832. Fourteen months later, Eliza married (can you guess?), former vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr! Though they separated four months after the marriage, Eliza inherited Burr’s estate at his death.
Eliza, is said to have managed her assets well, allowing her to continue to live comfortably the remaining years of her life. She died in her Manhattan mansion at age 90, and is buried in Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum.
In my first mention of this story, as a tease, I named several connections that I found interesting. I will share those connections with you as “foot notes.”
1. The parents of Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr for some unknown reason chose to move their family from the northeast, to Williamston, N.C. I highly suspect it was because Eliza’s father (John Bowen) had relatives living here (Williamston). Though John was already deceased, most likely there was still a Bowen family connection. Another possibility is that Eliza’s mother’s then husband Jonathon Clark had relatives living here. There were numerous Bowens and Clarks residing in Martin County, at that time. As a matter of fact, my Great Great maternal Grandmother was a Bowen!! Am I distantly related to Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr?? “Who knows?”
2. While mentioning to Carol Shields (director of Roanoke River Partners) how much I was enjoying reading Whedbee’s books, she informed me that as a child, she lived next door to Whedbee !!
3. A house that most likely was standing at the time Eliza and her family lived in Williamston (between 1790 and 1805), is the ole Waters House (circ late 1700s). This house is located directly across the street from the Martin County Courthouse, on the same block that Eliza is thought to have lived! Most likely, as a young girl, Eliza walked past this house many times, maybe even visiting the Waters family who lived there!
"Tis a small world afterall!"
Thank you Judge Charles Whedbee for once again, fascinating us with a great story !!