As the sun sets, Bruce Miller leads his monthly tour over the treasury of Raleigh’s bones: the died-young and died-old, the gentlemen and thieves, the charlatans, lovers and politicians with their causes long forgotten.
He walks backward through Oakwood Cemetery, pointing his flashlight on chiseled names: Pullen, Broughton, Mordecai and other names we know from street signs. After 10 years spent walking this graveyard beat, he knows the dead well enough to use their nicknames. Hurricane Haywood. Dr. John. The Boy Colonel.
Without consulting notes, Miller can tell you how John Ludlow Skinner died of a gunshot wound on Fayetteville Street in broad daylight, defending the honor of his sister-in-law, sparking what locals called “the trial of the century” in only 1903.
Miller not only knows where to find Louise Bunker Haynes – one of 21 children fathered by the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng – he knows that her 9-year-old son died of accidental electrocution when he grabbed a live wire on a sidewalk a few blocks away.
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So now the cemetery adds Miller’s name while he is still breathing, naming its storied Magnolia Walk after the man who can identify every person sleeping under every stone. Without even looking.
Miller shies away from such tribute. “If I told you all the evil things I’ve done,” he jokes, motioning to the signpost bearing his name, “will you take it down?”
A few people will want to arm-wrestle me over this, I’m sure, but I’ll wager that nobody knows more about historic Oakwood the neighborhood or the cemetery that houses so many of its past notables. Miller’s new book, “Oakwood to Oakwood,” is full of these quick biographies.
But most people know him for the tours he leads every first Friday of the month. Let me share a few of the things I’ve learned on these graveyard jaunts, which always come stocked with historical bonuses:
▪ The initial E in Fannie E. S. Heck stands for “Exile,” which embarrassed the noted mission leader to no end.
▪ Thad Eure, longtime N.C. secretary of state, was one of the best customers for Jesse Broyles, the shellshocked downtown vendor known as “The Peanut Man.” Now they are buried near each other.
▪ Samuel Fox Mordecai, first dean of Duke University law school, wrote humorous verses such as this one from 1921:
“Christmas comes but once a year
And lasts but a single day
Prohibition comes every day of the year
And, dammit! has come to stay.”
Miller moved to Oakwood in 1978, when both the neighborhood and its cemetery had rougher edges. But he raised two children among its stones.
“We would fly kites here,” he said. “We would have picnics here.”
Once Miller retired in 2002 as a history and economics teacher at Ravenscroft School, the graveyard’s residents consumed his hours, and he began sharing what he learned. Oakwood is, as Miller describes it, a living cemetery, less a place of skulls and ominous mists than a library full of Raleigh’s past where the quick and the dead can mingle. Plays get performed there. Marathoners get trained there. One day, I watched a zombie movie being made there.
Be respectful, keep your hands off the markers, and Miller will show you how to find Jim Valvano and Elizabeth Edwards.
But he specializes in turning up obscure details, bringing to life a cast of eccentric and wide-ranging souls:
▪ Fred Habel the traveling candy salesman, who found business success and political notoriety, then killed himself by drinking carbolic acid.
▪ Vermont Connecticut Royster, who won two Pulitzer prizes, edited The Wall Street Journal and was named, like many members of his candy-selling family, for a pair of states.
▪ John McKee, a much-loved doctor who served as Raleigh’s “city physician,” and who was so fond of Model T Fords that, when Ford ceased making them, he refused to drive his city-issued Buick and had to be ferried about by police.
Following Miller on his backward-walking tour, you get the feeling he loves all these characters and wants their stories preserved as much as the houses where he’s long made his home.
One day, ages from now, I imagine someone else will walk those same cemetery hills, leading a hover board tour with a copy of “Oakwood to Oakwood” uploaded into his forehead drive, bringing Miller’s name into the 22nd century.
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The cemetery offers flashlight tours of its historic grounds on every first Friday of the month. Check historicoakwoodcemetery.org for these and other events. Bruce Miller’s book “Oakwood to Oakwood” is available at the City of Raleigh Museum, Quail Ridge Books and at Oakwood events. Proceeds benefit various preservation groups.