By GARY SWEENEY
In Richmond, Virginia, the word “Hollywood” represents a sprawling, 130-acre field of aging monuments that pre-dates the Civil War by nearly 20 years. Inspired by Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, Hollywood Cemetery was the brainchild of William Haxall and Joshua Fry. They enlisted Philadelphia architect John Notman to see it to fruition; and when Notman began to design the grounds in 1847, he suggested the name “Hollywood” as a nod to the amount of holly trees peppering the landscape.
In less than two decades, the remains of United States Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler would be interred in Hollywood Cemetery, the former in an ominous Gothic Revival tomb dubbed locally as “The Birdcage.” Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart also rest in Hollywood.
And while the cemetery has more than enough historical significance to attract visitors, the darker aspects of its existence beckon people through the mazelike roads on a regular basis.
Hollywood Cemetery – Dimmock’s Pyramid
One of the most prominent structures in Hollywood Cemetery is a 90-foot stone pyramid–designed by Charles Henry Dimmock, built with stacked blocks of James River granite, and dedicated on November 8, 1869 as memorial to the 18,000 Confederate War Dead buried in close proximity. The bodies of the soldiers were brought from numerous battlefields, including many from Gettysburg. The pyramid took a year to construct and was fraught with injuries and accidents, specifically the repeated breaking of the stone-hauling derrick.
Thomas Stanley, a convicted horse thief working as part of the crew, volunteered to climb to the top and place the capstone. So perilous was the feat that Stanley’s early prison release presumably followed. There was never an official confirmation of such, though Stanley’s release box included a penciled notation that read “transferred,” without any indication as to where or when. Romanticists believe that the warden himself opened the gate, told Stanley to leave, and to never come back.
The pyramid is an architectural marvel (despite having no bonding), but the whispers of the dead have made it infamous. There are endless reports that a burst of ice cold air can be felt along the pyramid’s rear wall. Of the 18,000 soldiers buried nearby, 11,000 remain unidentified, and some say their restless spirits are trapped in a spectral loop around the obelisk. Disembodied moans at dawn and dusk have also been reported.
The Iron Dog
In February of 1862, a two-year old girl named Florence Rees died of Scarlet Fever. The cause of Florence’s death was common in the 19th century; thus, it is not as remarkable as the conspicuous statue keeping watch over her grave. A life-sized, black cast iron Newfoundland dog is situated on the right side, and there are two conflicting explanations for its presence.
The first story suggests that an anonymous shopkeeper, remembering how much Florence had loved the dog perched in front of his store on Main Street when she visited with her father, decided to bequeath the statue as a testament to Florence’s kind heart.
The second story, though not as sentimental, asserts that Florence’s father, Thomas, installed the dog statue at his daughter’s grave to prevent it from being melted down for bullets during the War. Because materials were in short supply, a chunk of iron so large would surely have been pilfered. But Thomas Rees, assuming that no one would dare insult the memory of a two-year old, placed it in Hollywood Cemetery.
There has never been a definitive answer for the dog’s company. Still, those who pay their respects claim to hear random barking near Florence’s final resting place, while those who lean too close to the grave have heard growling. The dog’s position is also said to change, sometimes facing the opposite way, perhaps to protect the little girl beneath.
The Richmond Vampire
Arguably the most notorious haunting in Hollywood Cemetery is that of the Richmond Vampire. The legend can be traced to the factual Church Hill Tunnel collapse on October 2, 1925. The tunnel opened in 1875 and was part of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Initial construction was nightmarish, due in part to Virginia’s clay soil, which changed with rainfall and caused frequent cave-ins. Years of persistent collapsing forced C&O Railway to seek a safer alternative. The company completed a riverfront viaduct in 1901, after which the Church Hill Tunnel fell into virtual abandonment.
That is, until 1925.
It was in this year that officials decided to restore the tunnel to operational condition. During repairs on October 2, a collapse near the western end trapped a work train. Engineer Thomas Joseph Mason was killed, and others were never found. Three men, including fireman Benjamin F. Mosby, managed to escape through the east end of the tunnel. Mosby, who had been shoveling coal into the firebox of a steam locomotive, was seriously burned by a ruptured boiler.
In the aftermath of tragedy, strange reports arose. A local story alleged that a hideous creature with jagged teeth and hanging skin had emerged from the tunnel collapse and made its way towards the James River. Pursued by a mob, the creature darted into Hollywood Cemetery, where it vanished in the hillside mausoleum of one W.W. Pool. Pool was an 80-year old bookkeeper at the time of his death in 1922. Yet his mausoleum bears the year 1913. The incongruous date supposedly marks his wife’s death. Folklorists, however, believe that Pool himself was the Richmond Vampire, and that the omission of his own birth-death years is proof of his immortality.
The plausible explanation is that onlookers actually saw Benjamin Mosby emerge from the tunnel, his teeth broken and his skin seared and mangled from his injuries. Mosby died the day after the cave-in at Grace Hospital. After eight days of rescue efforts, only the body of engineer Thomas Mason was recovered.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the enduring tale of Hollywood’s vampire. To this day, wary visitors take photos of Pool’s mausoleum, hoping to catch a glimpse of something unexpected emerge from its door.
Beautiful and historic, Hollywood Cemetery is a must-see. Its winding roads and handsome stone monuments make it one of Richmond’s crown jewels. But within its gates reside thousands of anguished soldiers, a faithful Newfoundland, and maybe … just maybe … a vampire.
Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons; All other photos courtesy of Stephanie Sweeney
by Mary H. Mitchell [Library of Virginia]
by Hollywood Memorial Association [CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform]
by John O. Peters [Richmond History Center]