Fort George Island Crypts

by Tim Gilmore, 12/8/2016

The crypts rise from the earth in lichen and mosses, guarded by stalks of dried spiderwort with shriveled violet heads.

Shouldn’t we see crypts as natural outcroppings of the earth? If we give our dead to the earth to take their bones back down and disperse their flesh throughout the root systems underground, surely it also makes sense to see tombs as growths from the planet.

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courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

The crypts are made of tabby, that native North Florida concrete of lime from burnt saltmarsh oyster shell, mixed with ash and sand and water. In 1894, a Niagara Falls photographer named George Barker photographed the crypts.

Perhaps Barker was revisiting the Jacksonville area after having stayed at the Fort George Hotel before it burnt in 1888. After all, John Rollins first spoke publicly about the crypts when he owned all of Fort George Island and built the hotel’s first wing in 1875. Initially, the hotel offered rooms for 60 guests, but Rollins expanded it to 200 in 1886. He’d moved to Florida from New Hampshire to capitalize on the state’s growth as a tourist destination.

fort-george-island-hotel

courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Two years after the Fort George Hotel’s grand expansion with its several turrets and long wooden multi-story porches, however, the swamp struck back. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1888 was Jacksonville’s worst of several such plagues. Within months of the disease emptying the Fort George Hotel, the nearby Beach House resort, and downtown Jacksonville’s grand Victorian wooden hotels, Rollins’s mosquito-ridden hotel palace flamed high above the trees and across the marsh until it scorched the swamps and the sand.

Whether the crypts have risen from the earth in these dells and hills for 150 years, or for 208 years, they’ve lain lost all their lives in the choke of these thick woods. Whether the girls of the Houston and McIntosh families lie nearly disintegrated into the earth in these crypts, or the soldiers of British General James Oglethorpe, who built a fort on nearby Mount Cornelia in 1736, the remains in these tombs have long called home this earth of rattlesnakes and yellow flies and live oaks and the prickly bark of Devil’s Walking Stick trees.

fort-george-island-grove

The history of the crypts’ vandalism is long. In The Memoirs of Mrs. Millar Wilson, a 1952 typescript by Rollins’s 79 year old daughter, Gertrude Rollins Wilson writes of “a man named McIntosh and his daughter” who visited the Fort George Hotel in 1880. Wilson says these strangers “had heard about two graves lost in the forest,” and certain the vegetation-covered mounds were those of two McIntosh daughters who died in 1808, placed upon the tombs the now-stolen marble markers inscribed:

Mary, Daughter of John Houstoun & Eliza Bayard McIntosh Died 1808        

Mrs Ann Bayard Houstoun, Daughter of Nicholas Bayard of New York Sister of Mrs Eliza Bayard McIntosh Died 1808

Not only did Wilson believe her father was wrong to let the McIntoshes place markers on what Rollins himself believed were Oglethorpe’s soldiers’ crypts, but he’d allowed a trail through the dense, thorned, and thicketed forest to the graves, which she and her father fenced with barbed wire.

Tourists who visited exotic Jacksonville and Fort George Island from New England made pilgrimages to the graves and vandals broke into the crypts in search of treasure.

Rollins’s daughter, roaming the vast wooden windings of the magnificent saltmarsh hotel in her earliest years, frequently found bones scattered from the crypts and “broken into pieces.”

She was 10 years old when she wandered the long porches in the early morning fog and climbed the stairs up the central and off-wing towers. The way the sunlight caught the dust and winged creatures in the curves of heartwood corridors inflamed her imagination. Such a sunbeam froze time in the light and registered the whole world as hers and her childhood’s.

More than 70 years later, she remembered how she and her brother gathered dispersed bones in the palmettos and carpets of pine straw, placing femurs and fingers back into the graves, “only to [find] them promptly broken open again.”

The bones, she believed, were too big to be the bones of women. She was 10 years old, however, and her most expert diagnoses echoed her father’s opinions.

In a recent paper called “The Mysterious Crypts on Fort George Island and the John Houston McIntosh Family,” English Professor Mark Taylor of Berry College in Georgia notes that:

“[P]ast historians have understood that [the markers’] possibly erroneous placement on the crypts does not mar [the crypts’] value, [but] few have been aware that the name on the second epitaph is incorrect—Mrs. McIntosh’s sister was named Mary, not Ann—and this then raises doubts about the name on the other stone, ‘Mary,’ the McIntosh daughter.”

Clear inaccuracies in the epitaphs would call into question the whole reliability of the narratives of the crypts.

Taylor surmises that the mysterious McIntosh descendants who visited the Fort George Hotel may’ve read of their forebears’ time on the island in late Victorian travel literature that praised Northeast Florida, ironically, given its subtropical mosquito-borne plagues, as a healthy retreat from Tuberculosis in colder climates.

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“The Forest Graves,” published in Harper’s Magazine

Even in the 1870s, as Taylor notes, several references to the crypts pointed to an earlier oral history of young girls who had died on Fort George Island in 1808. The earliest printed connection of the crypts to the girls occurred in a typical Florida travel piece called “Fort George Island” by Maine poet W.G. Crosby in 1873. Crosby wrote such saccharine late-19th century American verse as the poem “To a Lady, With a Withered Leaf,” which drips:

“My heart!—but that has long been thine— / ’T were but a worthless offering; / The ruin of a rifled shrine, / A flower that fast is withering.”

At Fort George Island, Crosby found “two tombs, deep in the forest, reputed to be those of a McIntosh and his wife, covered with dense, green mantle of lichens.” He refers to oral traditions of “many years ago” that told of “gems and jewels” buried within, stories which led to desecrations and grave robbing in earlier 1800s.

Taylor quotes an 1877 Scribner’s Monthly article:

“The stranger treading the drives and foot-paths of these lonely woods is startled at coming suddenly near the northern shore upon two tombs, low structures shaped somewhat like sarcophagi and green with a thick growth of moss and tiny ferns. No names show what mortals found their last resting-place in this secluded spot, no date tells us how many years have bloomed and faded over their lonely sepulchers; but the records of the island show that, whoever they were, there they have lain for nearly four score years.”

Though doubtful of the earlier writer’s math, Taylor dates the tombs of the Scribner’s story to the 1790s, when an American Revolutionary officer named John McQueen purchased Fort George Island as a Spanish land grant, planting the fields with cotton and building the Kingsley Plantation House, the oldest house in Duval County, but selling his island to pay off his debt in 1804 to none other than John Houston McIntosh.

Historians call the plantation house John McQueen built on Fort George Island the oldest residential structure in Duval County, but the poet W.G. Crosby declares the historians just might be wrong.

If Crosby is right, these crypts date to the 1730s, and his fellow poet Emily Dickinson defines graves as residential. When she rode with Death in a horse-drawn carriage, she spied “a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.”

Who’m I to say? Sure, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in his 1821 essay, “A Defence of Poetry,” only published posthumously, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and so these tombs might be older than anyone named who might otherwise therein belong.

Maybe, anyway, burial mounds best bloom anonymously up from rock and sand and wild rosemary and thorn.

Did any Mary Godwin, daughter of a novelist father and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in 1792 that principal feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Women and died 11 days after giving birth to Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft Shelley, who at age 19 finished writing Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Promethius, instead argue, even incipiently, that all the living writers of the 1870s and 1920s and 1990s, paradoxically, gave birth backward to the early daughters and fathers who struggled and farmed and whipped slaves in fields of cotton where now great trees ripen from the sand and soil?

Just how much is gone?

Everything, always. It always was.

Still I cannot share the exact location of the crypts, since some eternally inchoate urge in the callow backward prehistory of this, as any, landscape lends dumb-eyed young men to pull the bricks from the crypts, as they have for 20 decades, and spraypaint, in recent days, swastikas, “White Power,” and “Trump 2016,” such graffiti so quickly erased, as though Mary and Ann could care any less about today’s retrogressions.

And Crosby’s sentimentalism continues:

My Song!—’tis but a mournful strain, / So deep in sorrow’s mantle clad, / E’en echo will not wake again / The music of a strain so sad.”

I wander down the island’s highest peak, drenched in December mosquitoes, emerging at steep and lopsided coasts, ready to sleep once again not at all tonight, and find, reaching up from the earth, two graves whose lives I cannot chronicle.