It started with a quest for a grave robber and ended with a fascinating find — no grave robbery, perhaps, but lots of little-known local history.
Amite County Sheriff Tim Wroten got a call earlier this week about a possible grave robbery at Brown Cemetery just south of Liberty.
Cheryl Rape of Liberty said one of her children had been out there several months ago when they came across fresh dirt.
“Somebody had been digging down in a grave and the dirt had been piled on the leaves and pinestraw,” she said.
She regretted not reporting it sooner as weather and logging may have obscured the site.
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The cemetery is hard to find. It’s on Higgins Road, which runs into County Farm Road, and nestles in an island of tall trees amid a cutover, with no trail, sign or anything else to indicate it’s there.
Chief deputy Rodney Murray and deputy Tony Rouse located it after much riding and tromping through bushes.
“Me and Tony walked every inch of this and didn’t find any evidence of grave robbery, just a lot of sunken graves,” Murray said.
I was at the sheriff’s office Thursday morning when Murray offered to take me to the site. Grave robbery or not, the cemetery is really interesting, he said.
I loaded up with Murray and Wroten and we drove out to Higgins Road. When we got out, we faced a wall of chest-high weeds.
Murray had been unable to find a bush axe so he had grabbed a baseball bat to clear a path with.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m a reporter. I’ve no doubt made you guys mad at some point. Now you’re taking me out to a cemetery with a baseball bat, and nobody even knows I’m here.”
They got a good laugh out of that, and Murray started beating a path through the brush.
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The real danger was snakes, which are definitely on the move.
I’ve heard countless snake stories lately, especially rattlesnakes, and had a spooky encounter myself.
Last Saturday I was riding my side-by-side on a dirt lane when I heard a terrible buzzing noise and looked back to see a five-foot timber rattler leap out from under the rear tires. It went airborne, three feet off the ground, glanced around at me, then dove into a briar patch where it sulled up, rattling.
I went home for a shotgun but when I got back, the snake was gone.
That got my attention as that’s a place I frequently walk.
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The cemetery sprawled among tall trees choked with undergrowth, especially yaupon holly, so it was hard to walk around. But there were plenty of old gravestones, many if not most of them broken, and lots of sunken places where unmarked graves lay.
It was surrounded by a deep moat and perched on a high hill, allowing glimpses down to the Amite River in the distance.
In fact, it was a lot like a cemetery described in “Tom Sawyer.”
“It was a graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind,” the novel recounts. “It was on a hill, about a mile and a half from the village. It had a crazy board fence around it, which leaned inward in places, and outward the rest of the time, but stood upright nowhere. Grass and weeds grew rank over the whole cemetery. All the old graves were sunken in. ...”
That chapter, by the way, goes on to describe a midnight grave robbery and murder most foul.
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I jotted down some of the names visible on markers:
• Stephen Van Allen, died 1862 at age 42, and his son R.W. Van Allen, died 1871 at age 20.
• Jason G. Lea, 1802-1824.
• Robert James Lowry, 1783-1825.
• Minor M. Whitney, died 1847 at age 45.
• Thaddeus Maxwell, a Mason, 1824-1849.
• Ellen H. Brown, 1842-1853.
• J.S. Dunn, 1813-1880.
• H.S. Barkdull, died 1871 at age 39 years and 15 days.
• Two infant children of R.W. and Alice Vallotton, no dates visible.
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I later gathered information about the cemetery from a couple of local history buffs.
Tom Lewis remembered his late business partner, Kenneth Gordon, talking about it.
“My understanding is that was the first cemetery for the town of Liberty,” Lewis said.
“There was some kind of an epidemic in town and they always try to get the deceased away from the population to bury them. A lot of people died and they were buried there.”
The moat was designed to keep cows out.
“I’ve never known it to be called Brown Cemetery,” Lewis said. “I’ve only heard it called the Old Liberty Cemetery.”
He added, “That was the tale that Kenneth could have told you. He could have given us all the details with it.”
Next I talked to genealogist Glen Huff. He said it’s one of the few cemeteries he knows of that’s designated on a land deed.
He’d never heard of it being associated with an epidemic, nor the name Brown Cemetery.
“I’ve always thought it was the Liberty Cemetery,” Huff said.
He used to keep it clean with the help of inmate trusties.
“I always had a thing about that particular cemetery because I thought it was probably one of the original ones having to do with Liberty, and it was designated by the owner to be a cemetery,” he said.
Huff cited a new state law authorizing county supervisors to clean up cemeteries, and suggested Amite County supervisors do that in this case.
Oh, and he did remember, decades ago, seeing evidence of a grave robbery.