Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Questions remain over Reaves Chapel 'mystery grave' in Wilcox County

Reaves Chapel in Wilcox County, Alabama.
Who is buried in the “mystery grave” at Reaves Chapel?

This is the question that ran through my mind as my son and I visited the Reaves Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery a few days ago. We’d been there twice before, but this was our first trip to the cemetery after hearing about its so-called mystery grave.

Many readers will know that Reaves Chapel is located on Reaves Church Road, off County Road 13, in the southern part of Wilcox County, almost due north of Vredenburgh. Sources say that the church was founded in 1859 and that its cemetery got its start in 1870 when E.A. Tucker was buried on the church grounds.

Today, the cemetery includes nearly 300 graves, including at least 13 unidentified and unmarked graves. Among those unidentified graves is the Reaves Chapel “mystery grave,” which, to my knowledge, has never been fully explained.

The best source of information that I’ve found on this unusual grave is the 2002 book, “The Heritage of Wilcox County, Alabama.” According that book, “each cemetery has its mystery or ghost grave, and Reaves Chapel is no exception.” From there, the book goes on to relate the story as told by J.J. “Bill” Knight, who was a student at the Reaves Chapel School when the mystery grave incident occurred in 1918.

“One morning on arrival at school, we discovered a new grave in the far left corner of the cemetery, where none had been the afternoon before,” Knight said. “The red clay soil was carefully mounded over the grave and hanging on the fence at the head of the grave was a pair of mud-spattered, cracked brogan shoes with rundown heels, tied together by the laces. This discovery caused great excitement among the students and grave concern in the community, and several opinions were expressed concerning it.”

People in the community came up with all sorts of theories about the grave, Knight said.

“One was that the grave could contain the body of a member of an outlaw gang, which was reported to have passed through the community during that time. Another was that a convict had been killed, whether by fair or foul means at a sawmill camp located nearby, which used white convict labor, and was buried there during the night.”

As far as I can tell, no one has ever fully unraveled the story behind who is buried in the Reaves Chapel mystery grave. However, when I researched the significance of boots and shoes left at gravesites, I learned that, in the old days, shoes were seen as good luck charms in many European traditions, and that throughout Europe shoes were left at graves to aid the dead on their new journey into the afterlife.

During our trip to Reaves Chapel a few days ago, my son and I searched for the mystery grave and eventually found a number of unidentified graves. We located two in particular that we thought fit the bill, but in the end, we couldn’t be sure that we’d actually found it. With that said, one thing can be said for certain: As long as the tale of the Reaves Chapel mystery grave remains alive, the unknown person buried there will not be forgotten by those of us interested in a good, local mystery.

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