Located high atop a ridge south of Charleston, the remote Smith Murphy Cemetery features close to 20 marked graves, but the history contained therein cannot be measured.
In addition to some of the early settlers of the area — including Dr. George W. Payne (1817-1878), for whose family the nearby community of Paynes was named (after it was first called "Page's on Sculmore" and then "Dogwood Flats") — the cemetery has countless unmarked graves.
Some of those unmarked graves are of people who died while living in the county poorhouse, which once stood nearby.
"They probably did have a wooden cross or something at one time and it deteriorated," said Bill McHann, commander of the Tallahatchie Rifles Camp #2287, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "If you were in the poorhouse, you didn't have any money anyway. If you were a veteran, the military would go put up a tombstone for you."
McHann was one of a handful of members of the local SCV chapter who visited Smith Murphy Cemetery March 20 to take the first step toward cleaning the gravestones — some almost 175 years old and many whose faces are now obscured by the buildup of dirt, tree sap, algae, mold and other biological deposits.
One of the most imposing grave markers here is that of Dr. Smith Murphy, born in Caswell County, North Carolina, on May 14, 1795 — less than 19 years after the United States was founded in 1776 — and died July 10, 1847, here in Tallahatchie County. The headstone, of course, gives no indication as to how long Dr. Murphy had been in this area, but it is worth noting that his passing came just 14 years after the founding of Tallahatchie County in 1833.
People back then endured some of the same hardships that we face today — but without our modern remedies or comforts.
Dr. Payne's death, for instance, came during the time of the great Mississippi River Valley yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The outbreak, which began in New Orleans, spread up the Mississippi River and inland. Records show that 120,000 cases of yellow fever were reported, with between 13,000 and 20,000 people dying from the disease.
An Oct. 6, 1878, dispatch from Charleston, Mississippi, printed Oct. 23, 1878, in a Jackson newspaper, noted that 12 deaths had occurred at Dr. Payne's house "six miles south of Charleston," including those of two of his grandchildren. Interestingly, his tombstone shows that Dr. Payne himself died on Oct. 3, 1878.
McHann said the story about the yellow fever and its mention of Dr. Payne piqued his curiosity and helped draw him to this cemetery.
Nearly three years ago, the local SCV chapter began cleaning tombstones in local cemeteries as a largely weekend community service project. No fee is charged.
Using hand-held plastic tank sprayers containing a solution called D/2, the SCV volunteers fan out, each step carefully and deliberately placed — even more so in wooded areas with heavy ground cover and sketchy terrain. They examine but do not disturb the headstones, and then they spray on the cleaning agent. No rubbing or scrubbing is involved.
According to its website, D/2 is a biodegradable liquid cleaner developed by conservators to safely remove stains from monuments and other architectural surfaces. It contains no acid, salts or bleach, is not a hazardous material and requires no special handling or protection.
The D/2 works over time to weather away stains. Rain helps to speed up the process, which results in the washing away of decades of buildup from exposure to the elements.
"We're just trying to go around and clean up as many historical sites here as we can find," said McHann, who noted that each grave marker has the power to convey history. Cleaning them, he added, makes it easier to read the messages etched on those stones, ensuring that each tribute to those the marble or granite memorializes can live on.
In addition to spraying the D/2, which McHann said costs about $80 a gallon — the nonprofit SCV camp does accept donations to help defray the cost of that expense — the group plans to come back in the fall and clear some of the undergrowth and saplings that have made this cemetery difficult to navigate and, in some instances, even threaten the headstones.
"We want to kind of clear it up a little bit where you can get around in here and see," McHann noted. "If nothing else, we would at least like to get it where you can read the inscription on the stones."
He said the cemetery cleaning initiative evolved from a shared respect for history and for those who paved the way.
"We are all about honoring our ancestors," stated McHann, who said two of his ancestors from Virginia fought and died in the Revolutionary War.
In particular, the camp is interested in spraying the headstones of any and all military veterans from any and all wars when they have permission to do so, he added.
"It doesn't matter whether they're a Confederate or what," McHann explained. "We're just trying to help out and clean up and, maybe, give people knowledge."
To date, the group has cleaned grave markers in several Tallahatchie County cemeteries, including one that sits atop an Indian mound in a farm field near Sumner. That one holds the graves of J.B. Sumner, the founder of the town of Sumner, as well as some of his family members.
They cleaned the Old Masonic Cemetery in Charleston. Established in 1850 by the local Masonic lodge, the cemetery is the oldest in the city and contains the graves of many of the area’s pioneers.
At Bethel Cemetery in the Enid-Teasdale community, they cleaned the headstones of all of the military veterans, including the grave markers of 22 Confederate soldiers.
They have worked at burial sites in Panola and Yalobusha counties and plan to soon clean markers at cemeteries in Duck Hill, where McHann said 29 Confederates killed in a railroad accident are buried alongside the tracks; Vaiden, where a cemetery contains the graves of 47 Confederates; and Durant.
Some especially old cemeteries are off the beaten path, not widely known about and even harder to get to, McHann said.
"A lot of time on these old ones, you don't really have access to them because you've got to go through private land to get to them," he noted.
In the case of the Smith Murphy Cemetery, the person who told SCV members about its location is an adjacent landowner and gave them permission to cross his land to reach it.
McHann and company said they are glad to help clean burial sites because those stones are a link to our shared history.
"A lot of it is lost; you just happen to come across it."