23 October 2010

A Remarkable Funeral: Burial of the Victims of the Woolfolk Tragedy


On this lot are the graves of nine victims of a kinsman who slew with an axe almost his entire family. This was Thomas Woolfolk, and the extraordinary crime was committed one night in August, 1887. He paid the penalty of his deed on the gallows.

I will not go into a lot of detail here about the Woolfolk murders. The subject has been written about and debated ever since its occurrence. Did Thomas Woolfolk really commit the crime for which he was hung? Countless articles have been written, as well as at least two books. The best online article I have found is Bloody Woolfolk by UGA Professor Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. The two books are The Woolfolk Tragedy: The Murders, the Trials, the Hanging & Now Finally, the Truth! and Shadow Chasers: The Woolfolk Tragedy Revisited, both by Carolyn DeLoach.

Following is a short video of the stones located in the Woolfolk family plot at Rose Hill. The plot is off of a narrow road on a grassy terrace not far from the Ocmulgee River. On the day of the funeral, thousands surrounded this little family plot. Following the video is a newspaper account of the funeral.



Macon Telegraph, Georgia
8 August 1887

A REMARKABLE FUNERAL

BURIAL OF THE VICTIMS OF THE WOOLFOLK TRAGEDY.


The Woolfolk tragedy, as might be supposed, was the absorbing question yesterday. The TELEGRAPH, containing the full story of the crime in its most minute details, exhausted its unprecedented extra supply of papers by half past nine o'clock, and it became necessary to print more. The streets were unusually full of people for a Sunday morning, long before breakfast time, and they could be seen in groups discussing the affair. There was little else talked about during the day by the men, and there seemed to be universal regret that young Woolfolk was allowed to leave the vicinity in which the horrible crime was committed. Those who were at the scene of the tragedy after he was carried off, are certain that had he been there when the shirt and drawers were drawn from the well, short work would have been made of him, as up to that time their was some little doubt resting on the minds of the people. This discovery was the turning point and decided his fate if they could have laid hands upon him.

...Undertaker Clay reached the house with the caskets about 12 o'clock and began at once to prepare the bodies for the grave.


THE PROCESSION

At six o'clock yesterday morning the remarkable procession began its long and slow journey to Macon. There were five hearses in line. The first contained the bodies of Pearl and Rosebud, the second Capt. Woolfolk and Mattie the baby, the third Mrs. Woolfolk, the fourth Richard and the fifth Mrs. West. The body of Charlie was placed in the undertaker's wagon and that of Annie in a carriage. Close behind these followed in carriages Mr. Ben Howard, father of Mrs. Woolfolk, his sons, Charles W. and John, and their families. Then came a long line of vehicles containing the immediate friends of the family, and to these were added many others as the procession winded its way toward the city. Almost at every turn of the road there were crowds of people who had gathered to see the cortege pass, and as it neard town there were many who followed on foot. Between twenty and thirty carriages were following the hearses as the procession passed through the city.


AT ROSE HILL

At the cemetery nearly two thousand people had gathered, hundreds having remained on the grounds since early morning. These people represented all classes.

The work of digging and repairing the graves was begun on Saturday evening. The lot is the new Woolfolk lot, to the right of Central avenue and about two hundred yards from the river bank. The grave-diggers were obstructed in their work by large rocks which they found as they went down into the earth. Although a large force of hands were at work the graves could not be gotten ready in time, and when the cortege arrived it was necessary to place the coffins on a vacant lot adjoining the Woolfolk lot. The nine caskets were placed by the side of each other; the five grown persons in black cloth-covered caskets and the children in white caskets. Around those the great crowd stood. The hill under which the lot was situated, was covered with people looking down upon the scene.


THE FUNERAL SERVICES

Shortly after 10 o'clock, Rev. I. R. Branham took his position between the coffins, and pausing for a moment for the noise of the crowd to be stilled, said he scarcely knew what words to utter that would be appropriate to the occasion...

He then offered up a prayer for the surviving members of the family, and for the one in prison, for "whatever may be his destiny, O Lord, prepare him for it."

Continuing his discourse, Dr. Branham said he knew of no words more fitting as a starting point than those which occur in the parable of the ten virgins, which will be found in the 25th chapter of Matthew: "For you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." This comes today with tremendous force this morning. Spread out before us are nine persons, from the infant to the grandmother, all of them stricken down without notice; aroused from slumber's charms without warning...

He spoke of the uncertainty of life and said the whole of figure and metaphor would be exhausted to give a description of the shortness of life...The missiles of death fly thick and fast around us.

He said a solemn duty must be performed by the law makers...In the administration of the law lies our safety and our hope...All over this land murder dips its hand in blood, the bullet and the knife are conspicuous, and blood flows. We must improve the terrible calamity of today.

The great concern for us all is to be ready. Christians, are all the hinderances that prevent your readiness gathered up and put out of the way? If the Master should come and call today are you ready to "rise and open to him immediately," would there be no trepidation, no hurrying to and fro, no confession and dismay consequent upon a complete surprise? Is there no duty due to God or your fellow man unperformed? ...No friend, no neighbor, exposed to eternal death unwarned? ...Is the doom of the soul forever sealed when the body dies? Oh! then let us rise from our apathy and plead with our fellow men, or with those who stand upon the brink of a fathomless abyss, with one foot uplifted, ready to take the step. Let us see to it that our daily accounts with God and our fellow men are balanced, and that we are ready at a moment's notice to make the settlement and go in peace.

...Turn the ear of your soul, and listen to the silent warning that comes from these coffins, and may the Holy Spirit indelibly impress the mute message upon your hearts and consciences! The speaker knew most of these who have been sent suddenly to their final account. Not long since it was his happy privilege to hear the beautiful story of repentance and faith in Christ from the lips of the oldest daughter. It is doubtless true that, though unwarned, they were ready....


A SAD SCENE

At this point of the services Mrs. Edwards, who was in Athens at the time of the tragedy, and who arrived yesterday morning on the 10:10 train from Atlanta, arrived at the cemetery. She went at once to the lot, and, threading her way through the crowd, uttered a cry as she beheld the coffins. Tears started to the eyes of the people as they saw her great grief and heard her lamentations over the still forms of all her father's family. Many turned away that they might not look upon a scene so sacred and so sad.

The close of the services were announced, and the great crowd filed by that all might see the caskets. For some time the family remained near them. Among these were the Howards, Mr. John Woolfolk, of Houston county, Messrs. James and Thomas Woolfolk, of Jones county, and Mr. Lowell Woolfolk, of East Macon, and their families. After this departure, the caskets were lowered into the graves as they were completed.

The nine graves were divided into two rows. In the front row rest Capt. Woolfolk, Mrs. Woolfolk, Richard, Pearl and Mrs. West; on the lower row, Charlie, Annie, Rosebud and Mattie, in the order named. The graves were walled up and cemented over nearly on a level with the ground.

During the day two heavy showers fell, but the rain did not keep the crowd away, and it was not until 5 o'clock, when the graves were finished, that the people ceased to visit the cemetery.
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