Duncan Chapel Cemetery near Furman University is often called “The Children’s Cemetery.” It’s rumored to be haunted, and paranormal investigators have left toys on the headstones to engage the spirits of the children. Dubious science aside, this whole notion and nickname are based on a false premise. While I was out and about exploring Greenville I made some discoveries that cast doubt on the idea of this being a “children’s” cemetery.
The nickname comes from the idea that there are lots of children buried at Duncan Chapel, compared to the overall number of burials. That idea comes from the number of smaller headstones visible. That, in and of itself is an incorrect notion. Many adult graves at Duncan Chapel are also rather small. More on that in a bit, but first, the discoveries…
I actually made two cemetery discoveries on this particular outing. The first was on Highway 14 between Woodruff Road and Simpsonville. That stretch has been almost completely overrun with housing developments. I glanced to my right and saw several headstones at the back of a larger lot. I had to investigate.
There were a couple of fairly recent graves, the latest from 2007. These had an embedded photo portrait, and it looked like this was a predominantly African-American cemetery.
The earliest interments were from the 1910s, and continued up to 2012 for the latest. Oddly enough, some of the older headstones appeared to be just markers, with no writing. Vegetation was starting to encroach on some of the earlier stones.
From the placement of the cemetery at the back of an empty lot, I suspected that the church to which the graves belonged had been on this spot, but was long gone. I checked GNIS data and it confirmed that this had been the location of Mount Zion AME Church. That gave me a name I could look up in Find-a-grave. I could then further confirm the location by cross-referencing the names on Find-a-grave with those in my photos.
Later in the day I was on my way from downtown Greenville to Berea on Cedar Lane Road. Once again I glance off to the side and spotted a cemetery enclosed by a fence. I saw that the gate was open, and made a note to come back to explore when I wrapped up things in at the Berea Wilson’s.
When I got back I found the cemetery with no trouble, just west of the intersection with Highway 253. I pulled into the open gate and began exploring.
In one corner I spotted a large number of smaller headstones. Most of these were marked as “Infant” with a surname. I started counting, and stopped when I got to 50. The number of stones was overwhelming. On my brief circuit, I could see that most of the deaths were between 1905 and 1910. I wondered what in the world happened that could cause so many infant deaths.
Here again, I had to be cautious. I found at least one small headstone for an adult. For example, this individual died at age 25 (still very young) but had the same size headstone as the infants.
I was starting to feel an overwhelming sadness looking at all the infant graves, so I turned my attention to the identity of the cemetery itself. There were no identifying signs for the cemetery itself. There had been a wooden sign, but it was gone. Riverside Holiness Church was across the street, but it looked far too modern for the age of the graves. Of course, it could be an older congregation with a newer, updated building, but there was no obvious connection.
I knew that we weren’t far from the mill villages of the City View area, and wondered if this might have been one of the mill cemeteries. Monaghan Mill was the closest, now turned into luxury condos.
I left the cemetery and drove through the area. There were several rather large older churches without cemeteries. This was the only cemetery I could find in the area, so it was possible that they all could have used it. There was Cedar Lane Baptist…
…and Monaghan Baptist, among a few other, smaller churches.
When I got back home I was able to find that this was, in fact, the Monaghan Mill Cemetery. In describing the amenities provided the mill’s workers local historian Judy Bainbridge stated, “Residents could even be buried in Monaghan’s private cemetery.” Apparently at some point the church across the street took over control of the cemetery. The Find-a-Grave websites lists it as the “Monaghan/Riverside Holiness Baptist Church” Cemetery.
But what about Duncan Chapel’s status as “The Children’s Cemetery” compared to Monaghan? This is where the Find-a-Grave data came in handy. The data for Monaghan has 35 burials simply listed as “Infant.” This in, and of itself is very sad. That many children didn’t survive long enough even to have names. There were an additional 82 listings for children under the age of ten. This makes 31% of the total 369 burials at Monaghan.
The data for Duncan Chapel lists 21 burials for children under ten. Duncan Chapel is smaller, with only 93 total burials. Even so, the number represents only 22% of the burials. So, if looks as if Duncan Chapel really doesn’t deserve its nickname. Sadly, it looks like Monaghan really does have it beat.
I couldn’t find any reason why there were so many deaths in the early 1900s. The flu epidemic started in 1918, which is a bit too late. Perhaps it was just that infant mortality was a sad fact of life.
Regardless, it was a disturbing discovery, but interesting none-the-less.
UPDATE: Thanks to Facebook commenter John Culbertson, we have one possible explanation for the number of childhood deaths during this time. Pellagra was a disease of malnutrition that affected mill workers. The disease was caused by a deficiency of vitamin B niacin. The USC library posted an excellent article describing the disease, using articles from the Chronicling America sources.