Historic cemetery desecrated

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Vandals rip up, knock over 13 tombstones

By Greg Summers

Vandals damaged 13 gravestones in the Olde Presbyterian Church cemetery on West Arch Street last week, wrenching them from bases and smashing some of the historic markers beyond repair.
The devastation had local historian Lindsay Pettus almost in tears Monday morning as he walked through the cemetery surveying the damage. Some of the markers date back to 1836.
Pettus, president of the Lancaster County Society for Historical Preservation, said the vandals struck the cemetery sometime between Aug. 15 and noon Saturday.
The damage is estimated at about $6,500, but the financial loss isn’t what has Pettus so deeply troubled.
Nobody, he said, should desecrate a cemetery.   
“Every one of these tombstones had an individual story,” Pettus said, shaking his head in dejection. “These people deserve respect, and this isn’t respectful. This hurts.”
Brent Burgin, University of South Carolina Lancaster archives director, discovered the damage at lunchtime Saturday while visiting the cemetery with his nephew, who was here from out of town.
“This isn’t the Lancaster I wanted him to see,” said Burgin. “I wanted to show him some of the local history and teach him about the town. As soon as we got back here, I saw one of the tombstones had been knocked over and then found several more. I just don’t get it.”


Slice of our history
The cemetery is beside the Olde Lancaster Presbyterian Church, which was used until 1926, when a new church was built at the corner of North Main and Meeting streets.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, the church is the second-oldest brick building in Lancaster County and was finished in mid-1865.
After $200,000 in renovations in 2010-11, funded with hospitality-tax proceeds and private grants, the old church has been transformed into a successful cultural arts center.
Pettus said the this historical society also received a combined $25,000 from a city grant, a corporate sponsorship and an individual donation to restore many of the gravestones.
“There are 350 known graves and many unknown graves at the church, and old Lancaster is buried here,” he said. “Olde Presbyterian was a community graveyard for Lancasterville until Westside Cemetery was opened in the 1890s.”
Daniel Gaulden of Gaulden Monuments in Rock Hill was at the cemetery Monday trying to help put a dollar amount on the vandalism. While walking the property to flag the broken grave markers, Gaulden noticed an almost straight line of damage that ran from the back of the church to the southeast corner of the property.
“It’s a pretty definitive path,” Gaulden said. “I’d say from the extent of the damage and the size of the markers that it took somewhere between two and four people to do this. I don’t believe one person could’ve done this.”
Gaulden said that at least two of the monuments “won’t be able to stand again” which means other measures will have to be used to secure them.
“They’ll have to be stabilized flat,” he said. “There would be a safety risk if they are stood back up.”     

Irvin Clinton grave
One of the most heavily damaged tombstones is that of planter and lawyer Irvin Clinton. The marker was pushed over and broken into four pieces.
Clinton disobeyed state law by teaching the brightest of his slaves to read and write, including brothers Frederick Albert Clinton and Isom Caleb Clinton.
Frederick became Irvin Clinton’s plantation overseer after the Civil War, as well as a successful farmer and state representative.
Isom Clinton became the presiding S.C. bishop for the AME Zion Church  and helped found more than 150 churches. Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill is named for him.
According to “Lancaster County Tours” by Viola Floyd, Isom Clinton took care of his former master just before his death and persuaded him to make a profession of faith in his latter years.
“The inscription of the stone is purported to be the last words of a dying man,” Floyd wrote. “They are ‘Farewell Isom, if I am lost, I am pleading for mercy. You can’t be lost pleading for mercy.’”
Pettus said Irvin and Isom were the closest of friends, which didn’t sit well with many people.
“The two were so close that Bishop Clinton paid for his marker,” Pettus said. “We’ve worked very hard to restore the cemetery and church, which is why it hurts. For the life of me, I just can’t understand why someone would do it. There’s no gain in it. The human race is better than this.”
Pettus said desecrating any cemetery makes no sense.
“Is it caused by meanness, insecurity, hate or retaliation? I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer that. The question that needs to be asked is, what good can come from it? Senseless acts like this reflect on an individual and his upbringing.”

More security
While the church has an alarm system, the cemetery is illuminated by ground-level spotlights including two that had been shattered by a stone from the side of building.
The broken lights, Burgin said, are proof of an premeditated act.
“That was the first thing they did,” he said. “That was intentional.”
Burgin said the local historical preservation society will hold an emergency meeting to discuss upgrading the security system at the cemetery by adding security cameras and additional lighting.
Three sides of the property are fenced in, but there is unfettered access from the French Street side.
“I don’t think additional fencing is the answer,” Pettus said. “Somebody who wants to do something like this, a fence isn’t going to keep them out. They’ve got their minds made up.
“But we have to do something,” he said.  
The Lancaster Police Department is investigating the incident.
If you know anything about the vandalism, call the LPD at (803) 283-1171, (803) 283-3313, or the department’s anonymous tip line at (803) 289-6040.

Contact Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156