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(CIRCA Magazine-A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
With Halloween in the air and the holiday season ahead, it’s time for a whirlwind tour of a very spooky and convenient drivable destination.
The old town cemetery on North White Street is filled with scenic walking paths and monuments to both the famous and the ordinary. Where else can you mingle with four Wake Forest College presidents, 35 professors, and a left-handed powerhouse Yankee pitcher?
Although most of the sleepers stay quietly beneath the sod, some relatively recent spirit sightings suggest a few of our dearly departed aren’t finished roaming the streets of Wake Forest.
A spirit inhabitant of the Powell-Autry House on North Main Street is said to attend the bedsides of sleeping children to help them downstairs for a drink of water if they awake in the night.
In the historic Glen Royall Cotton Mill, ghostbusting bloggers claim they have heard a disembodied voice rudely shout, “I’ll snap your neck, you bastard!”
Even Ed Morris, Executive Director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum, once saw an old-fashioned figure in a heavy winter cape walk into the underbrush near the Calvin Jones House—and disappear.
With such a rich and varied spirit population, it seems passingly odd that Wake Forest’s most compelling boneyard mystery isn’t a ghost story at all. It’s a grave story. More specifically, it’s the story of a grave that went missing.
It was the grave of “Doctor” Tom Jeffries, a former slave from Virginia who became groundskeeper at Wake Forest College in 1884. You probably know his work. Jeffries built the dry-stack rock wall around the old campus that inspired the outdoor aesthetic of the Heritage Community. As for the original construction, Ed Morris says, “It’s been there for well over a hundred years, and in a hundred years from now it will still be there.”
But not long after Jeffries died in 1927, the town discovered his grave was not there. Rather, it existed in some location. They just didn’t recall where.
This was an odd development for a man who’d received a big, celebrity send-off. The school held his funeral in the College Chapel where professors carried his coffin; the administration ordered a marble marker inscribed “Doctor” Tom, reflecting the honorary title given by generations of students drawn to his remarkable wit and wisdom. There was even a commemorative plaque installed. But after all of that, the grave got lost. Time passed and its precise coordinates faded from memory.
These things happen, I suppose.
For decades, newspaper reports and public appeals turned up nothing. Then three summers ago, an intrepid historian—armed with outdated cemetery maps and original documents—hiked the graveyard, beating back underbrush until she found the lost grave. Rae Harris uncovered “Doctor” Tom’s final resting place just outside the town cemetery, in a graveyard beside the Massenburg Center at the corner of Taylor and Walnut Streets.
He’d been gone 84-years, and it was good to welcome him home.
Jennifer Smart is Assistant Director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum, where a multi-media exhibit tells the full story of “Doctor” Tom and his lost grave.