Sunday, November 14, 2010

Natchez Mississippi cemetery

Angels on the Bluffs
November 12, 2010

"This ain't no Pease. This here is just the pod. I shelled out and went to my Heavenly reward"
eptaph on grave of John Pease

Angels on the Bluffs is an annual two night cemetery tour in an 1822 cemetery held the first weekend of November. It is very hilly and beautiful and worth a trip to see even during the daytime although the Angels on the Bluff tour is decidely more livley than any other cemetery tour you will find anywhere. Tickets are sold through the Natchez, Mississippi Tourist Center which is located next to the bridge going to Vidalia, Louisiana across the street from the Isle of Capri casino.

640 Canal Street, Natchez, Mississippi


Although it is an evening program there are several local restaurants nearby staying open to feed those with an appetite after the event: Fat Mama's Tamales and Pig Out Inn,
both on Canal Street a few blocks away. Pig Out Inn has excellent barbeque with a wonderful marinated vegetable salad for side orders. One of the walls is painted from ceiling to floor with reasons why it is great to be from the South and a photo of this has been featured in Southern Living Magzine. My best guess on the recipe for the salad is lime/basil marinade with black beans, garbanzo beans, mexican corn, hominy, cucumber, pimento, garlic, vidalia onion, celery, tomatillo, pimentos and canned mushrooms.

Cock of the Walk on Main Street was also open.

If you are there at lunchtime the best place for lunch is

Mammy's Cupboard, a restaurant in a building that
looks like a giant Aunt Jemimah on the outskirts of town
on Highway 61. Cash or checks only. If there is a full parking lot outside it is open. If not it is closed. A good souvenir from there is a cookbook. Art on the cover is a sketch of the place circa 1947
by local famous author Greg Isles. Usually open for lunch 6 days a week.

Places to stay include the wonderful Eola Hotel on
North Pearl Street a couple of blocks up. The Eola is where everyone in town has lunch in its beaugiful dining room on Sunday after church. It has a gorgeous inner courtyard with fountain and on the upper floors there are huge intimate balconies with ceiling fans on both sides of the building. The furnishings were made even more marvelous after the owner acquired the contents of the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria when it closed. After it opened in the early 1930's movie stars stayed here plus some famous generals from World War II.

The Eola also operates a Victorian bed & breakfast house by reservation.

This Victorian bed and breakfast building was orginally a wedding present from the mayor of Natchez to his son upon his marriage in 1874. The B&B is beautifully decorated with antiques in every room and if you are a guest they serve afternoon tea. Given a choice of accomodations I would definitely stay at this boutique hotel.

There are other hotels of course.
The Grand Hotel conference center next to the
Visitor center, Hampton Inn next to the bridge
and an immaculate Best Western about a mile from there.

If we had spent the night we could have gone to a big
antiques show in Woodville, Mississippi the next day
on our way home. Woodville is south of Natchez on Highway 61 and close to the state line.

Natchez is about an hour and a half north of Baton Rouge. It was a 4 hour one way trip for us coming from New Orleans.

Tickets go on sale in August and sell out fast, $20 for a guided walking tour. Buses holding about 30 people depart every 15 minutesfrom the staging area in the tourist center parking lot beginning around 6 pm. The cemetery association began this event in 1999 in order to raise money for restoration because 'perpetual care' only covers mowing the lawn. 10 tombs are selected for the presentation, with an easel holding pictures at the site and details of the person interred there are narrated by actors in period costume speaking in first person. Many are related to the subject so they look like them too. Buses debark at the gate and it lasts about an hour. The road is lit on both sides with candles in paper bags and some of the trees are festooned with tiny lights including a tunnel through a grove of huge crepe myrtle trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Our route was in the shape of a U from one gate to another.

It was a beautiful evening.The night before had been the inaugural event cosponsored by Natchez and Vidalia, the lighting of the bridge.

Tables were set up on the sidewalk of the tourist center. They were selling t shirts,
notecards, and two books about the Natchez cemetery. One was on grey paper stapled
together with black and white illustrations. The other was an excellent hard backed book
with color illustrations titled 'Legends of the Natchez City Cemetery, the Most Interesting Cemetery in the South.' The author was on hand, Mr. Don Estes. He is a retired major of the army, banker and director of the cemetery. Before he retired from that position he cofounded the Angels on the Bluffs program 11 years ago. He is available for tours by appointment. You may reach him at

He says his epitaph will read " I used to love history and now I am history."

Different tombs are featured from year to year. I don't think they have honored the same ones twice. The bus driver gave us a mini tour enroute to the cemetery, telling a bit of history as we passed antebellum and Victorian mansions plus this one shotgun house with all manner of decorations nailed or glued to the exterior. It resembled an art car. He swore it wasn't part of the tour.

We drove up Canal Street to the end, took a right and then a left into an area that was originally the first subdivision and a couple of blocks past that to one of the gates of the cemetery to begin our walking tour.

This year first stop was an empty tomb, the grave of Alfred Bernard White who was 18 when he drowned after jumping off the ferry coming back from a baseball game in Ferriday. It was a prank that backfired.

We learned that an empty tomb is called a cenotaph, that a marble slab on the ground is called a ledger, that the deceased married member of a couple is called a consort, the surviving spouse is referred to as a relict.

Actor Sam Jones played the part of James Clay White, Bernard's adoptive father who owned a billiards parlor, smokehouse and tavern. He told us about the time a couple came into the smokehouse for sandwiches and the lady did not care for
her sandwich, started complaining loudly. Her date
put down $5 on the table and they left. That was alot of money at that time so he called the police. Although the station was only around the corner they took their time investigating it.
When he called to ask what was taking them so long the desk sargeant told Mr. James that it was Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and they were waiting for them to leave town first because they didn't feel like fighting that day.

Down the road we met Anna James, a founding member of the cemetery association. It started out as a cooperative effort of all the churches in town which included the Methodists, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominations. The cemetery is now 100 acres and has been expanded since it first opened with 10 acres. Anna stood with a cane in a pleasant garden,wore clothes that placed her circa 1932.
Hat with veil, gloves, tea dress and a fur stole.

We met Madame Marguerite Justin Belhomme Benoit Marchand in the Catholic section.
She was a French citizen and is buried between 2 of her 3 husbands who were also French citizens. She was a milliner with a successful hat shop when Union forces invaded Natchez and took over her shop. They staffed it with their own people and made her pay rent.She had to continue to work in it or lose it. She filed a suit against the US government after the war because she was a French citizen. It was not resolved by the time of her death. Louis Benoit, her only surviving child was born in 1852. He pursued the case through to the higher courts. He had haberdashery shops in Natchez and New York and was a state senator. The actress playing the part of Madam Marchand was played byJennie Benoit, a descendant of Louis.

Next we met the Reverand Ashley Vaughn who was pastor of First Baptist Church and founder of the Baptist newspaper. He died of complications from weak lungs at age 32. His part was played by the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Natchez, Dr. Doug Broome.

At the conclusion of his presentation a girl from New Orleans, Allison Forbes sang 'Amazing Grace' acapella across the aisle from us.

As we walked past the military burial section many graves had Confederate soldiers standing next to them. One soldier broke rank and leaned out to whisper 'boo' to an unaware passerby who had not noticed the soldiers in the dark.

Professor Samual clay Owen played by actor Ralph Jennings was next. He was the president ofNatchez College and had four sons who all became doctors. He was criticized for expanding the cirriculum of his school to include classical studies in Greek, Latin and Western civilization instead of endorsing agriculture as the only venue for former slaves at the turn of the next century. He died in 1939.

Next we heard the story of a couple who bought a mansion called The Towers in 1861. The Flemings were played by Ginger Hyland and James Wesley Forde who now own the Towers.
Mr. Fleming was a law partner in the firm of Baldwin and Fleming. The Flemings had 7 children. No sooner had the Flemings moved into their new home the Yankees set up headquarters in it since a fort was behind it. General Grant rode his horse up and down the main hallway and broke their fireplace mantle. The Yankees let the Flemings and their servants stay in the house in order for them to wait on them hand and foot. The main problem they said was putting up with the 200 German mercenary soldiers outside camped on their property.

Next we heard stories of Charles Ferriday Byrnes who was the son-in-law of the Flemings, married to daughter Roanne. Roanne was famous in her own right for being president of the Natchez Trace foundation, raising money for this project even during the Depression and knew every politician from the President of the United States on down in her day. Her husband went by his middle name and was also a lawyer. Ferriday's part was played by lawyer Rusty Jenkins who is also his great great nephew. Ferriday was short and fat and a binge drinker. He was partners with another lawyer Jim Fleming who was also a binge drinker. They got along well because they usually did not go on a binge at the same time. Once though when they were both drunk the circus was in town camped out below the bluffs. Elephants were unattended and the two guys thought it would be funny to liberate one of the elephants and take it to their favorite bar. The elephant tore that place up. This prompted the next session of the Mississippi legislature to pass a law that it is illegal to bring an elephant into a bar. Rusty said he has been with Angels on the Bluffs since the beginning and at first was given obscure roles to play that no one knew much about so he just made it all up but in the case of Ferriday Byrnes it was all true.

The last set was an outdoor piano bar at the end of the route. Terry Travato sang two songs and played singer Marion Mongtgomery accompanied by a 3 piece band with pianist Dianne Glaze. Marion Maude Runnels was from Natchez. Her father was the assistant manager of the Eola Hotel. She quit high school and went to Hollywood, spent her career singing in smoke filled bars, lounges and strip clubs.Her voice was described as a cool martini on a Savanah balconey. She performed in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and knew Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra and got a recording contract with Columbia Records through the efforts of Peggy Lee. Although Miss Montgomery never smoked it is surmised that she developed cancer from the second hand smoke she was exposed to doing her nightclub act. She married and had a daughter and died in England in 2002.

I had first read about Angels on the Bluff a week after it happened in 2007. The next year I was no longer traveling on business in that area and had a job closer to home so I couldn't attend.
I subscribe to the excellent online publication of Country Roads magazine which keeps us informed on things to see and do in our area.

This week's edition came out Thursday mentioned that the Angels event was to be the next day. I phoned the tourist center only to learn that it was all sold out but they gave me 3 phone numbers of locals who were selling tickets due to guests cancelling. The second number I called said she had two tickets for Friday night. Since my daughter was going to be off work on Friday and wanted to go also I agreed to pay this nice lady for the tickets that were being held at the tourist center. As it turned out the next night's show was cancelled due to heavy rains.
Natchez cemetery also has a website for more information on this program plus details about the property:


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