By Morgan Donnally Bunn
Have you noticed any changes at the Old Stone Cemetery? Perhaps some new landscaping and trees trimmed, cleaned and repaired tombstones, sunken stones raised and legible once more.
There is a fenced off section, with a gaping hole, in the center of the cemetery where two old tombstones, a broken fence, over a dozen broken footstones, and two very strange, broken urned columns have been recovered and are currently being restored. Hopefully, these clues will reveal the true story of the mystery of The Potter’s Lost Plot.
A new survey of the cemetery has been completed and past research from the 1880s and 1960s has been discovered and published that reveals 150 tombstones were lost from the Old Stone Cemetery over a 75-year period. The research into the people buried within the grounds is ongoing, with each new discovery adding another layer to the rich history of the Greenbrier area. By unearthing additional pieces of Lewisburg’s past, some stories, local legends, or tales of days gone by are either being proven true or to be fictional. Have you ever heard a local legend? Tales of the town? Greenbrier ghost stories? Most of these tales do no harm and many have their origins in some truth. Yet, there are some stories that do cause unintentional harm.
Of the 1,905 people buried within the cemetery who have been verified to date, some have fascinating stories of heartbreak and tragedy, others of victory and success.
There is the story of the woman who, sitting down to make an apple pie, got too close to the hearth, set her dress on fire, and burned to death – Tragedy at Tucsawilla. There is the martyr of Greenbrier County, David Creigh, who was hanged by Federal troops during the Civil War for doing his duty in defending his wife and daughters from harm and the forgotten tale of The Martyr’s Widow. There are the fascinating stories, The Poet Colonel of the Confederacy, The Boy Etched in Stone and The Gatekeepers of the Greenbrier Bridge.
And then there is the sad story of the bridegroom who left Lewisburg for Staunton to marry at 11 in the morning and was dead by 11 that night. Married and buried in less than 12 hours – and he was rumored to have been poisoned. The Old Stone Cemetery may be the final resting place of the “firebug” arsonist that ignited the flames that left much of Main Street (now Washington Street) in ruins in 1897.
All these tales can be verified in the historic record, yet there is one popular tale that can be proven false, the story of the “Angel of Death.” Tales are told of a little girl dying of a fever and of her heartbroken parents placing a marble angel to mark her grave. As the legend goes, her parents held a ceremony to mark the grave of their deceased daughter with a stunning marble angel and during the ceremony, two girls, twin cousins, supposedly kissed the cheeks of the angel and were both dead within a year of the memorialized girl’s death – one from a fever and one in a carriage accident. Today, as the tale goes, anyone who kisses the angel will also die within the year.
There is much more to the story than the haunting tale implies. The marble angel actually memorializes the graves of two daughters of Alexander F. Mathews, an attorney in Lewisburg in the late 19th Century, and his wife, Laura Gardner Mathews. The daughter who is said to be the “Angel of Death,” Maud Montague Mathews, died on May 30, 1888, at the age of 11 from neuralgia of the heart and pneumonia,according to West Virginia death records,and not the fever the tale implies.
The myth of the “Angel of Death” also leaves out the second daughter memorialized on the stone, Florence Vane Mathews, or Folly as she was lovingly called, who died on Nov. 8, 1889, at the age of 10, from an illness of several years said to be a nervous affliction (also not a fever as the story purports).
The beautiful marble angel marks the graves of both girls and includes their names and birth and death dates, heartbreakingly recorded as “Given” and “Taken,” and beautiful inscriptions that memorialize both girls.
Given the size and weight of the stone, along with the position of the inscriptions, it could not have been put down for Maud immediately after her death, and Florence’s information added at the time of her death the following year. Most graves of that time were not marked for at least a year or two following a person’s death and, given the artist’s attention to detail, the grave was probably marked several years after Florence’s death in 1889, making the tale improbable at best. Additionally, a thorough search of West Virginia and Virginia birth, death, and census records for the two girls who supposedly perished after kissing the angel failed to locate any girls that fit the proper age and that lived in or near Lewisburg or the surrounding area and died from a fever and a carriage accident.
Tragically, Alexander and Laura Mathews lost yet another daughter, Mary Miller (Mathews) Davis, in November 1897, and her obituary mentions that she was buried “beside the angel sisters who had preceded her,” which gives us an indication of how the statue was thought of at that point in time. Given that the girls died and their memorial angel was placed during the Victorian period, had there been any superstitions in regards to the angel sisters, the statue would never have been referred to in such a positive, poetic light.
Because of this myth, candles are being burned on the hands and lap of the angel. The melted wax penetrates the marble, causing pits and fissures as the wax freezes and expands seasonally with the changing weather. There is also discoloration damage from burning colored candles, which has proven impossible to clean from the beautiful white marble stone.
The “Angel Sisters” is not only the finest example of funerary art in the cemetery, but it is also a memorial to two lost young lives, beloved daughters, that deserve to be memorialized with respect and dignity. The sculpture itself is part of the ongoing restoration and preservation effort at the Old Stone Cemetery.
This summer an antique Victorian fence, generously donated by the Lewisburg House and Garden Club, will be installed around the “Sister Angels” to highlight the importance of the museum quality sculpture and to bring back a piece of Lewisburg’s lost history. At one time, over a dozen ornate iron fences, dating from the 1820s to the early 1900s, graced the grounds of the cemetery; sadly only two original fences survive today. The fences were removed over time, for numerous reasons, and yet those fences play an important role to the architectural history of the cemetery. To learn more about the installation of the fence, the restoration work and upcoming workshops and tours of the cemetery, and the stories behind the stones, visit Friends of Old Stone Cemetery on Facebook.
The so-called “Angel of Death” in the Old Stone Cemetery is being damaged by candles burned by superstitious late-night visitors.