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Tour resurrects historical figures

Annual activity meant to be fun, educational

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POSTED: November 2, 2011 9:18 a.m.
Lewis Levine/

A re-enactor mourns at the gravesite of Dr. Abner Porter, whose tomb has been dislodged over the years by a large oak tree. Legend has it that the uprooting may be the cemetery’s way of rejecting the doctor, who once was buried outside the walls of the site.

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Small groups of people braved mosquitoes and a slight nip in the air Friday night to learn about the history of one of Liberty County’s often-overlooked legendary landmarks — the Midway Cemetery.

The cemetery tour was sponsored by members of the Midway Museum, which oversees the grounds that serve as the final resting place for many notable people, including Gen. Daniel Stewart, for whom Fort Stewart is named, and Gen. James Screven, who was a member of the provincial congress that met in Savannah on July 4, 1775. Screven later was killed by the British in 1778 during a battle near Midway, according to information given during the one-hour tour, which was led by Midway Museum Executive Director Diane Kroell. The cemetery also is said to be the center of supernatural forces, which some visitors insist still are present.

“This is an annual event put on by the museum not to provide ghost stories, but to educate the community on what Midway and Liberty County have to offer,” said Lesley Francis, the museum’s marketing director.

Friday’s event began with a brief history of the nearby Midway Congregational Church, which, to this day, has not been wired for electricity and has no internal heat source. The original structure was burned by the British in 1778 and was rebuilt afterward. 

The group of visitors then made the short walk across Highway 17 North from the church to the cemetery, which is estimated to contain upwards of 361 graves — some unmarked and some belonging to people who helped shape Liberty County and the nation.

Stations had been set up around the cemetery, where board members dressed in period costumes stood by the graves of the historical figures they were portraying. The group first stopped at the grave of John Elliot, who was an attorney in Sunbury. When he was 45, Elliot, a widower, married Gen. Daniel Stewart’s daughter, who was 18. He died 10 years later and was entombed in a crypt. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Elliot’s skull allegedly was removed from the crypt and used for voodoo rituals up and down the coast until it was found and returned to the crypt. It is rumored that his spirit haunts the road from the cemetery to Sunbury. He is said to be searching for his skull.

Next, tour participants visited the gravesite of Gen. James Screven, where a uniformed re-enactor stood. 

The next two stops addressed some of the cemetery’s unexplained mysteries. First, Kroell led the group to the wall that surrounds the cemetery.  Standing before a section of wall that obviously had been mended, she told a story about a crack that had reappeared in the wall after countless repairs.

According to the legend, the wall was constructed using the free labor of slaves due to the high cost of the bricks. During the construction, two slaves started to argue. Because they had not completed their share of the work, they were ordered to stay behind and finish their portion of the wall.

Instead, the two argued and began to fight. One of the men struck the other in the head with a brick, killing him. Afraid of the consequences of his actions, he buried the body within the wall of bricks. The next day, the surviving slave told his peers the other man had run away.

Later, the wall was completed, separating the living from the departed. It was a beautiful enclosure and a sturdy wall, everyone was sure. As soon as it was finished, though, it started to shift, crack and crumble. Years later, the dead slave’s bones were found in the wall. The bones were removed and the wall was repaired, but to this day, the crack remains.

The grave of Dr. Abner Porter also is situated near the wall. Porter, whose wife died, allegedly became lonely and sought the companionship of not one but two young women. As the story goes, he fell in love with the two women and they fell in love with him.  Porter became desperate and guilt-ridden and wanted to end the relationships but did not know how. To make matters worse, rumors circulated that both women were pregnant. Porter was treated as a social outcast and ostracized. He eventually killed himself. 

Because he committed suicide, he was not allowed a Christian burial and was buried outside the cemetery. The graveyard was expanded years later, offering the doctor a spot in the cemetery next to a large oak tree that, over the years, has dislodged the doctor from his resting place. Legend has it that the uprooting is the cemetery’s way of rejecting the doctor.

The tour group later listened as volunteers playing scientist Louis LeConte and his wife, Anne, spoke of their botanical garden. William Robarts, who may have been poisoned by a slave girl named Chloe, spoke of the deaths of his three wives.

Charlotte Puglisi of Tampa, Fla., said Robarts was her great-great-great grandfather. She found the tour fascinating.

“It was awesome to hear about him. It’s just amazing how they lived during those times.” 

Puglisi said the story about the cracked wall was “a little creepy” but plausible. “I do believe there is something to that story.”

Allyra Williams and Donnie Pulliam, both 11th-graders at Liberty County High School, attended to earn extra class credit. 

“I didn’t know there was so much history in the cemetery,” Williams said.  Pulliam was fascinated by the story of Robarts and his three wives. 

“I really think Chloe had something to do with it,” he said with a laugh.

 

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