With all the terrifyingly thrilling buzz about Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights XX and Sea World/Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream, the Top 5 is embracing the spooky season… we’ve dusted off our collection of Edgar Allan Poe tales, along with Washington Irving‘s ghost stories. (Yep, we’re kind of geeks!)
So, when Don Price, the sexton of the Greenwood Cemetery–the City of Orlando‘s only cemetery–invited us for a Moonlight Walking Tour, we jumped at the chance to stroll among the headstones and crypts, and ponder the souls that dwell there. So, into the car we went and bravely made our way to the Greenwood Street entrance, where a set of intimidating wrought iron gates lit by flickering lamps awaited us.
With a sardonic smile, Don greeted us, along with a few other unfortunate souls from the Orange County Convention Visitors Bureau and the Orlando Arts Magazine, and so our small pack followed our fearless leader armed with a single flashlight into the night. Dark clouds masked the eye of the moon and from time to time helicopters cryptically flew overhead as if searching desperately for someone or something. Other than that, the grounds were quiet as we were followed by our own footsteps. Silent owls swooped and the whisk of bats’ wings could be heard. I, of course, shivered despite the heat and humidity, and was fully prepared for a shadowy figure to be stalking us.
What I found instead, was a truly refreshing new look at the city I call home.
The first grave we happened upon was that of July Perry, a black man who in 1920 was stabbed, shot, and then hanged on the property of Orlando judge John Cheney as a dire warning. (I had no idea the namesake of Old Cheney Highway had played such a large part in the racial tensions that historically plagued the South!) During the time of the Jim Crow Laws, Perry had been denied the right to vote, and Judge Cheney was attempting to aid Perry, by sending him back to the voting precinct to get the names of the men denying him.
Perry made the ill-choice to return with a friend and a shotgun for support. In Ocoee later that night, retired sheriff Sam Salisbury would be shot in the right arm as he was attempting to serve a warrant on Perry, and things quickly spiraled out of control resulting in a lynch mob, as well as 25 black homes, 2 churches, and a masonic lodge burned to the ground.
Perry was laid to rest in the “black part” of the cemetery, and ironically enough, I discovered the cemetery was segregated in many more ways: ”Union” vs. “Yankee” soldiers, the “in” crowd and the “out” crowd, the “English” colony vs. the “Americans.”
I had studied Florida’s past, hadn’t I? Why was all this missing from the history books!
It should be noted we later crossed near the grave of Sam Salisbury, the retired sheriff who got shot while serving a warrant on the tragic July Perry. Karma apparently has a way of finding itself and its unknowing victims…Sam’s right arm was left paralyzed as a result of the gunshot wound on election night in 1920. However, 54 years later, Sam tripped down the stairs, and the gun he had tucked in his belt went off, killing him with a bullet to the head!
Continuing to meander through the stones, Orlando’s streets came to life as we were told stories about their namesakes. We met Samuel Robinson, think Robinson Street, who served as county surveyor for 16 years. In his travels across Central Florida, he gathered a large collection of gold and silver ornaments from Native American mounds, a collection that now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And, it should be noted that Sam Robinson chose the highest point in Central Florida for his gravesite.
We also heard about Aaron Jernigan, Orlando’s first settler and the city’s original namesake. It would be called Jernigan until the name was changed to Orlando by Judge J.D. Spear. Spear was a great fan of Shakespeare, and relished the performances of Shakespeare among others at the Orlando Opera House, and so it is rumored that he chose to name the city after one of Shakespeare’s characters from As You Like It. (This would make sense with Rosalind Street, Orlando’s love interest.) However, other rumors of the city’s naming center around an unconfirmed account of a heroic soldier named Orlando Reeves.
We also heard about other city founders and pioneers, including Holden, Delaney, Gore, Leu, and Beacham. (I remember my mother telling me stories about the old Beacham Theater.) Apparently, Beacham teamed with J.F. Ange of the Angebuilt Hotel across the street. It turns out, there is a tunnel running under Orange Avenue connecting the two, so Beacham’s actors could make their way to and from the theater in secret. (Yes, the tunnel is still there, although bricked up on either side.)
We ran across other names, fixtures in Orlando’s history, albeit not quite as famous as those with streets named after them. We saw the grave of Ruth Pounds, of Edgewater Drive’s Pounds Dance Studio, where generations of teens have been sent for ballroom dance and etiquette lessons. (Your Top 5 editor is included in this! I spent every Monday night during 7th grade at her dance studio…) We saw the headstone of Chauncey Boyle, at one time the strongest man in the world.
We also saw the grave of Delta Burke‘s father. Apparently she visits fairly often, casually chatting a while with Don and the other caretakers at the cemetery. (My hubby liked hearing about this as Delta was a companion of his mother, when they both were in their pageant days!)
And then we saw the grave marker of Francis Eppes… who is he? He is Thomas Jefferson’s grandson (he was even born at Monticello) before making his way to Florida. Want to know why else he’s important? He founded the Florida State College for Women… now known as Florida State University! (Hmmm…shouldn’t we ship him back to the panhandle or something?)
We also saw large crypts, straight out of H.P. Lovecraft‘s “The Outsider.” (By the way, if you’ve never read this tale, it is my all-time favorite!) The Wilmott family, who owned the Tremont Hotel, has a crypt with a curious window of orange glass in the back, and on certain days of the year, when the sun is just right, the entire crypt is aglow with the eerie orange color.
Another crypt, hand-built by its owner, mysteriously has no death date. It simply reads “1836 - 19–” This leads many a mischief-maker to light candles on the doorstep, in hopes the still-living undead might make an appearance. (Apparently the owner died with no heirs to pay for the remaining numbers, thus it is not quite as mysterious as it appears!)
So as we made our way around in the dark listening to Don spin his sinister stories of Orlando magic, I found myself reflecting on this wonderful city of ours. It is thrilling to now understand that we have an actual history–one that is great and turbulent and full of true characters that forged us into “The City Beautiful.” (Yes, we also saw the grave of Jessie Branch, the lady responsible for giving Orlando this motto.)
I believe we should all come to understand the factors that led us to today, we should embrace both the warts and the beauty marks. If we don’t, how can we truly appreciate all that Orlando has overcome to be “The City Beautiful” it is today?
Don retold history in such a respectful yet intriguing manner, that he rivals any professional story-teller. So, in between your trips to the theme parks this Halloween season, make your way to the 100 plus rolling acres near downtown where Orlando’s most exclusive and famous residents now call home. You will be glad you did!