Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami, Florida

Imagine a massive amount of above ground, inaccessible burials and a feeling of complete overwhelm and you have Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami- Dade county. It was the one that I wanted to see the most, and not to be a complete drama queen, but after I got my photos I got back in the car and sat in my seat, crying. It’s a horrible place and it made me desperately sad.

Front entrance, Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery.

Shawn and I pulled up to the front gate to see if it was even open for the public and we found the gates shut and closed with a rusted padlock. The last update I’d seen online about this cemetery was from 2015 on a website someone had created in an effort to get help for the cemetery from the city. They were asking for signatures from the public protesting the sorry state that it’s in. I had no idea what to expect, so when I saw the locked gates and saw a cleared path through the center of the cemetery, I thought with relief that someone was caring for it. Maybe the city had become involved after all. There was also a dead Gofundme page with the last donation made 14 months ago. The total raised was 1,600 dollars of a 10,000 dollar goal. And here’s the thing- it’s not enough, even if they make it. An incomplete project in a cemetery is still a problem because it’s not fixed. People who start these pages with good intentions always low-ball the figure expecting the community to help out if the goal is less intimidating, but it’s not enough to complete the project in most cases and if the public doesn’t really know the value of the place, why would they help out? Like anything else you have to sell a cemetery and explain WHY the place is important and why people should want to save it.

I think I just created a job for myself. Call me if you have a defunct cemetery you want to publicize.

Most of Lincoln Memorial Park is above ground.

Here is why this cemetery is vastly important to the community in Miami and in South Florida’s history: the first black millionaire in Miami, Dana Albert Dorsey, is buried there. The first undertaker to serve the black community is there, Kelsey Pharr- in fact, he bought the place in 1937. Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry is also buried there, the first black woman on the Florida Legislature. The founder of the Miami Times is there, H.E.S. Reeves. But there’s no way to see them or get to them because the cemetery is not even functional as a public space. And it’s disgusting.

When I got out of the car I left my door open and the smell hit me. I turned to look at Shawn through in the driver’s seat, and he was making a face.

“I’ve never smelled anything that bad at a cemetery,” I said. He agreed. It was a stench of decay and trash rotting in the sun, and it was rolling across the crypts like a wave. The farther down the fence line I walked, the worse the smell got and I started to wonder about the possibility of broken crypts. At the end of the fence at the corner I turned and the graves were almost completely obliterated by vines and garbage. People had thrown bags and raw trash right over the fence on top of the above ground vaults, and it was nauseating. I moved a few steps closer to get a photo and saw the tail of a large snake moving silently through the green growth. Much of the fence was topped with rusted barbed wire, but on the left side of the cemetery it was regular chain link, and anyone could reach over it or climb in if they were brave as hell.

The side of Lincoln Memorial Park, with trash thrown on top of the graves.

This cemetery has had a problem with vandalism tied to Santeria or some other similar practice. Several years ago seven crypts were broken into and body parts removed, including a child’s skull. Please believe me when I tell you that this is something that happens in most cemeteries that are not cared for, and some that are. In 2015 the owner Elyn Johnson was too broke to do anything about this place, and she was quite elderly. There is no money for upkeep, or at this point- damage control. The cemetery was passed down to her with no funding and she wanted to keep it, even though she can’t afford basic cemetery maintenance. And I get that, it was left to her. But I also don’t get that, because the people buried there deserve better and the families deserve a safe place to go visit. Let it go to someone who can afford to care for it because most people don’t want their legacy to be a rotting, hideous cemetery that no one can enter.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this isn’t the right time or the right cemetery for me to get all preachy. I say choose your battles, and I chose mine awhile back and it’s here in Central Florida.

I dried my tears and Shawn took me out for Cuban coffee and pastries, which helped some, but that night when I closed my eyes I saw those graying vaults in the sun covered in garbage and vines and smelled the stench all over again, and it took me awhile to get to sleep. It’s not ghosts haunting this cemetery, it’s the place itself that haunts you.

 

Cassadaga and the Devil’s Chair

From Find A Grave:

The cemetery is located between the two small communities on property that is county owned.
In order to buried there one must contact the city clerk of Lake Helen.

Here is how I would rewrite this after a visit to this cemetery, so listen up, Find A Grave!

In order to buried there one must be desperate for a place to be laid to rest.

Everybody in Florida has heard the urban legend that has caused the ultimate decline of this cemetery, that if you sit in the brick chair (a.k.a. The Devil’s Chair) at midnight, then the devil will come and talk to you.

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The devil, however, isn’t responsible for the vandalism, as I’m sure some people would say- human beings are, and ignorant ones at that. Who started the rumor is a mystery, most likely it was someone who was trying to find a cheap way to protect the place from kids and vandals, and they started the rumor to scare people away. However, humans are curious creatures, and things like this usually only serve to cause even more traffic. It’s like Cassadaga itself, which began as a retreat for Spiritualists and had its climax in the 1920’s when the hotel was built. Some people mistakenly think Spiritualism is about Satanism, but it’s not, and that makes people curious so they come visit, whether the psychics want them there or not. In my opinion, the group of people living there just want to be left alone. You can feel it.

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The chair itself is situated in the Thatcher plot, and there are two of them that are nearly identical. However, it’s the one in the back. The chair stands out because the plot doesn’t have as much foliage, and the dirt plot is covered with footprints from people sitting in the chair. The footprints were fresh.

The other Thatcher plot had a lot of plant life and curious smell that I couldn’t identify. I hate smells in cemeteries.

The cemetery has three bench structures built into the family plots, and all of them were most likely built for the use of visiting family, not the devil. The design is simple and direct, and would be attractive if it weren’t for the legend, the general feel of the place, and the fact that some douche-nozzle decided to spray paint LOVE GOD on one of the monuments facing the chair.

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The day that we visited was hot and still, and when we got out of the car the heat hit us like a blast from a furnace, which my friend BB later pointed out was probably the ideal condition for the devil. We walked around anyway, sweating and not talking much. The thick woods next to the cemetery were dark, and the sound of cicadas was overwhelming. It wasn’t a good day to be there and I knew that. A vehicle that we couldn’t see due to the downward slope of the property slowed down to a crawl on the main road by the gates and idled for a minute before we heard the engine roar and take off.

Five minutes later the police came, slowly cruising and staring at us. I walked right up to the car and spoke to the officer, who said he was just driving through.

Sure he was. At noon on a Sunday. Someone had called the police because we were there, but he didn’t say so. He asked if we needed anything and when I said no, he left. I was furious.

The cemetery itself is a blighted mess, with weeds and black sand on one side and grass on the other with sparse burials. The earliest date we saw for a burial was 1904, but I’m sure there are some earlier ones. Some enterprising person had gone into the older plots and pulled up every speck of grass or greenery leaving the most depressing scene you could imagine in a cemetery. The place looks unloved, which surprises me since the locals are so protective of it, enough to act like jerks during visiting hours.

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So, Cassadaga, if you want to protect this site you might think about springing for a brick wall and not a flimsy fence, which is torn down on one side by the many people trying to get into this place. You might consider making the entire place look loved and cared for, rather then letting it look bleak and desolate. You might enlist the nosy neighbors as volunteers to get over there and work on the place instead of calling the police every time someone drives through the gates. You might install some lights.

No, I won’t be going back to this one. If you go be aware that the police may randomly show up along with the devil. In fact, just skip it. Drive to Deland and visit Oakdale, Central Florida’s version of Bonaventure.

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Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlo Vista

Sometimes things just catch your attention for no specific reason, and that is how I ended up researching this couple in Lake Hill Cemetery. Even though I was interested in them both, I will admit that women’s stories really fascinate me and I spent a bit more time on Katharina Gemeinhardt’s story than I did her husband.

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A handmade headstone in Lake Hill Cemetery.

But first, a little bit about the mysterious Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlando. It’s in the Orlo Vista area off of Old Winter Garden Road, and it’s small cemetery with about 1000 interments and is full of personal mementos left on the graves. On the right side of the cemetery you’ll find older stones that date back to the mid-1800’s, including a large section for the Patrick family. On the other side you find a number of interesting handmade stones and some graves with a little more creativity. (Mr. Short Legs made me stop and stare.)

Researching this cemetery has been challenging, and one surprise that I got was that the cemetery was once called the Patrick Cemetery, but I was unable to find out the year that it was renamed or why. I found the name Patrick Cemetery on three of the burial records I located for the Gemeinhardt family, some of which are laid to rest there, including Katharina. The cemetery is close to the Lake Hill Baptist Church which may be why it was renamed, either due to ownership or because the cemetery may have once served the needs of that congregation.

The Lake Hill cemetery is a deeply personal one, with a lot of mementos crowding the tops of the graves. We visited at Christmas and two of the graves even had complete, decorated Christmas trees sitting on them. Several of the graves have teacups and saucers, waiting to be filled. (An article that mentions the history of the cemetery and a clean-up in 1991 and can be found here.)

There is a discreet visitor to the cemetery that leaves magical objects such as black feathers and burned candles in different containers, or just stuck into the ground on top of the graves. It makes the visits more interesting when I’m wondering what will be there the next time I go.   

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Four of the family members are buried here.

The headstones for one particular family stood out to me, they have some scroll work on them and the names are unusual, which proved to be challenging when I was looking them up on Ancestry. Katharina was listed under different variations on several different documents, including her ship’s passage from Germany. She was Kate, Katherine, and Katharina, while her husband was William and Wilhelm. Katharina’s middle name was a variation of Rachel that also caused the poor census takers in the 20’s and 30’s some confusion. I found Rachel and Rachiel. She and William were married in 1885 on August 18 in Missouri, the same year that she came to America from Germany. Think of all that change in one year- a new country and a new husband fourteen years older than she was, and children very soon after. It would be extremely challenging.

I moved to Texas from Florida in my 20’s and my hair fell out for 3 months, so I can’t imagine how my body would react to something this drastic.

William (1851-1937) immigrated to the states in 1869, and his older brother John (1843-1932) immigrated two years earlier in 1867. Census records indicate that the family spoke English and owned their own property, but while it specifies that John was a farmer and worked in orange groves, it does not specify what William did. Together, he and Katharina had eight children. Both of their parents were born in Germany, and they were the first generation in the states. John had a wife and 2 children who are buried elsewhere. 

I was unable to find a burial record for William, but there was one for his wife that strangely did not list a cause of death. She outlived her husband by 9 years and was laid to rest beside him and one of their children. 

Only one of their 8 children is buried in this small plot, and that was Thomas J. 1889-1916, who died from Tuberculosis.

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Orlando’s first settler.

This cemetery boasts that the first settler in Orlando is buried there, a Captain Aaron Jernigan 1813-1891. He is here with his family, and there is a small memorial to him at the front of the property. I feel like this space holds a lot of history and many incredible stories, and hope to do more research in the future for additional posts.

The Gemeinhardt family is to the right of the cemetery toward the middle. Look out for candles!