With pumpkins carved and spider webs strung, ‘tis the season to dig up some dirt on local cemeteries.
New Orleans is not the only city noted for its interesting cemeteries. (And by the way, if you think people aren’t interested in touring cemeteries, well you’re dead wrong. Just ask the folks at the New Orleans Tourist Bureau or the Hollywood Cemetery.)
Birmingham’s first official burial ground, Oak Hill Cemetery, is the final resting place of most of the city’s founding fathers and their families. A piece of Birmingham’s early history is told here by ornate as well as simple grave markers scattered across a hill just north of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Most of the burials were prior to 1930.
One of the grave sites in Oak Hill is that of Louise (“Lou”) Wooster,a successful Birmingham madam who ran what was generally considered the best brothel in the city in the late 1800s. Quite a colorful character, Wooster was given to entertaining with true stories about her life adventures, along with stories that might have been embellished, though who’s to say for sure. Wooster solidly maintained that she gave up love affairs after being spurned by the great love of her life, the famous assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Of course Louise Wooster and her “women of the town” were held in the lowest regard by Birmingham society or at least by the female folk, and if the males of the city
had a somewhat different opinion, it was never discussed in polite company.
Wooster’s redemption in the eyes of her fellow Birmingham citizens came in the form of the great Cholera epidemic of 1873 which nearly wiped out the young city. Healthy citizens fled the area and a significant portion of the population died.
In this time of greatest need, Wooster and her staff converted her houses of secluded pleasures into clinics for the ill. Medical facilities were overflowing, so Wooster’s clinics saved dozens of citizens from certain death.
About all else, Lou Wooster was generous. She is buried alongside her sister, also a Birmingham madam, and her nephew in a handsome but modest family plot on a hillside in Oak Hill Cemetery. Before her death she also bought plots adjacent to her own for proper and decent burials of not only her “girls” but also for other members of her staff who might otherwise have been dumped into graves in the paupers’ field.
Another local cemetery tells the story of a latter-day Jewish exodus. The story lives on the tombstones at the Knesseth Israel-Beth-El Cemetery in northwest Birmingham. The graves there document the influx of Jewish immigrants who came to escape persecution in Eastern Europe. Temple Emanu-El donated land for the cemetery in 1890. It is a virtual who’s who of Birmingham’s early store and business owners.
Elmwood Cemetery is another site of interest to cemetery buffs. Unusual markers include a giant Oriental mushroom alongside a bridge, spanning the earthly life with the eternal. Graves of famous Alabamians include that of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, former coach of the University of Alabama’s famous Crimson Tide football team. Cemetery staff received so many requests for directions to Bryant’s grave that they finally painted a crimson stripe to follow from the entrance to his burial site.
Also buried at Elmwood is Eddie Kendrick, founding member of the Temptations. The legendary Sun Ra, who died in 1993, was internationally famous for his wildly experimental jazz. Only in death did Herman Sonny Blount, the name inscribed on his simple headstone, come home to Elmwood to stay.