St. Marks Coffin Incident
W line Sec 2, E line Sec 3, 4S, 1E
W border or astraddle Fire Escape Rd.
H.H. Strickland (b.1926), who lives north of St. Marks, accompanied Mays L. Gray and David Roddenberry of the Wakulla County Historical Society to a site in St. Marks where he says he saw a good many wooden "slabs" that he took surely to be an old graveyard. That observation was in his childhood, perhaps about 1934 or 1935 as well as he recalls. The place is on the south and west side of a jog in Fire Escape Road. And Mr. Strickland reports that at the north edge of that site, at a later time that he places around 1950, in the excavation of a major drainage ditch still to be seen, a coffin was unearthed accidentally. He says that although he did not see the coffin a good many people of St. Marks did; the incident was well known. Standing on the north edge of this northeasterly-southwesterly ditch, just east of the junction with a similar north-south ditch and on the southwest flank of Fire Escape Road, Mr. Strickland points to the land immediately across (south of) the ditch as the place where he saw the graveyard with its many grave markers. The place is in a southerly projection of Fire Escape Road's north segment, or where the road would go but for the jog made for some reason at this point.
Historian Elizabeth Smith, in an article "A Hankering for Hunting Heads" in her Magnolia Monthly for July 1964, gave a "tour" of graveyards of Wakulla County. There she said:
Another cemetery seldom seen or even mentioned is the St. Marks plot. This one was abandoned years ago because of the high water table. Essie Cogdill, postmaster at St. Marks, remembers an old lady telling her years ago that during the yellow fever epidemics in the last century, lighter knots could be seen at night flickering in the graveyard where furtive burial of the victims were made hurriedly to prevent the spreading of the plague.
The flickering lights of night burials in the time of yellow fever is a memory still living in St. Marks families. However, it seems that no knowledge of a particular place remains. And Elizabeth Smith gave no indication where the old plot may have lain.
The incident of the coffin unearthed at St. Marks is one that Mays Gray had heard of independently, though he did not know the location within the town. Since gaining the information on-site from Mr. Strickland, he has talked to others at St. Marks and received corroborating information - as to that incident. Bill Ward says that he was present, with his father, Jack Ward, when an adult-size coffin was unearthed and opened. But he says this was after one or two smaller coffins had been unearthed and taken to a place behind the schoolhouse. One small coffin contained short blond hair. Bill Ward says that heavy rains that came during a weekend then exposed the larger coffin in the bank of the ditch. He recalls much of the experience in detail (saying that a full and long mane of red hair was removed by the ditch-works superintendent and placed in a bag), but is not certain of the spot amidst modern developments; he thinks the place may have been somewhat east of where Mr. Strickland points out - perhaps under the new residential subdivision Pelican Bay where a stretch of the ditch has now been covered.
Mr. Ward says, as Mr. Strickland does, that authorities or experts came from Tallahassee, perhaps from FSU, to investigate. He doesn't know what proceeded from this, or where and when the coffin(s) may have been re-interred. Mr. Strickland reports seeing these investigators working on ground that he knew to be north of the graveyard, perhaps just beside Fire Escape Road in its jog, and so informing them. Mr. Ward thinks that the incident may have been in the late 1950's, but is unable now to reckon the time closely.
Rod Strickland (b.1949) and Everett Roberts, both of St. Marks, saw a coffin that stuck out of the north bank of the ditch after the excavation work. They say that the wooden coffin was somewhat open and that they saw the red hair that remained in it. They say that the coffin remained partly exposed for quite some time, but they do not know what eventually became of it. Rod Strickland says that he was perhaps 12-14 years old at the time; thus he reckons the time as 1960-62. The men both say that the spot was either right where Fire Escape Rd. now crosses this ditch or a short way west (indicating a space of less than 40 yards running west to include the spot where H.H. Strickland had indicated). They seem not to know anything of any other coffins being unearthed in the same ditch-excavation project.
The county public works office says that it has no records of the mosquito-control works as far back as 1960. But Raymond Nichols of Sopchoppy was a County employee and was witness to some of this coffin incident. He recalls the spot where the coffin was unearthed as being on the east side of the present-day Fire Escape Rd., and the north bank of the ditch. He recalls large live oaks at the place. Mr. Nichols says the time was around 1960 or 1961. He says that there was only one coffin involved, and that he saw it (seeing a little bit of red hair on a pillow inside). He says that the coffin was taken to the Sopchoppy shed of the mosquito control operations, where it long remained and could possibly remain now. He says that the operator of the excavation equipment was Frank Revell (who lives at Sopchoppy), who might recall more of the incident.
(The discovery of some 19 coffins and human remains elsewhere in St. Marks in 1965 is clearly a separate incident, although the principal archaeological investigator in that case, L. Ross Morrell - who knows nothing of this one - recalls features quite similar, reporting that it was County mosquito-control excavation that first exposed a side or end of one coffin. That find was only a few hundred yards east of San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site, was successfully interpreted archaeologically, and led to removal of the 19 graves to the park grounds. None of the testimony cited above suggests any confusion of the two places, even if no definite time interval between the two incidents can be established now.)
Bill Ward says that it seems to him that he saw grave markers someplace in woods perhaps in this general quadrant of St. Marks, this when he hunted the territory as a boy. But he does not recall that it was necessarily near the place in question. Moreover, he says that at the time of the unearthed-coffin incident he asked his grandfather's sister Dora Kennedy whether she knew of a cemetery there, and she did not.
There is no site file for any historical or archaeological site in this immediate part of St. Marks in the State of Florida Division of Historical Resources. This fact may mean that it was not that state agency which investigated at the time.
The place or places that H.H. Strickland points out on-site are near the west line of Sec. 2, T4S, R1E, and the east line of Sec. 3. The jog in Fire Escape Road and the junction of major ditches are immediate references. The place of the exposed coffin indicated by Rod Strickland and Everett Roberts corresponds closely. The site is about 1/3 mile north of the St. Marks Cemetery in use today.
Mr. Strickland has wondered in recent years whether the old cemetery he recalls at this spot may be the African-American cemetery of St. Marks that is on record. However, evidence is strong that that cemetery is encompassed by the present-day St. Marks Cemetery.
Date of site report narrative - November 2001
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