1001 4th Avenue South Nashville, TN 37203
Nashville City Cemetery is the oldest public cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. Home to many historical figures and musicians, this Music City burying ground houses over 22,000 burials. A calm historic site by day, buzzing with spirits by night, the Old City Cemetery (as it’s often called) has been around since the 1800s, delivering a hair-raising show to those who dare walk by after sundown. Unexplained voices and ghostly lit lanterns are some of the eerie occurrences you can expect when visiting this popular haunted location after hours.
Short answer: of course! But not as much as you may think. In the paranormal world, it is a common belief that what causes a spirit to haunt an area is any form of traumatic event surrounding their death. This graveyard, surprisingly, seems to fall short on disturbing tales to explain ghostly phenomena. There is one story; however, that highlighted this cemetery as a haunted location, the death of Ann Rawlins Sanders.
The easy-to-spot boulder headstone sits towards the front of the City Cemetery, marking the final resting place of Ann Rawlins Sanders (1815-1836).
According to Donna Marsh and Jeff Morris, authors of Nashville Haunted Handbook, Ann’s story, much like any ghost story, is likely a mix of fact and fiction, so it’s hard to say what really happened. Let’s start with the facts. We know that she died young at 21 years old, that she had been married for four years to a man named Charles Sanders, and that she died at midnight on March 30, 1836. As for the rest, the details might be merely a product of local lore, but we will dive into them nonetheless.
As the story goes, the night she died, Ann and Charles had a massive argument. The confrontation got so heated that she decided to leave her home, running as far away from her life as possible, but sadly, she had nowhere else to go. Ann wondered around town for a few hours, likely trying to figure out her next move. Eventually, she stumbled upon a cliff that towered over the Cumberland River. At that moment, exhausted and confused, she plunged into the river and drowned.
What she didn’t know was that her husband was out searching for her, but he found out what happened soon enough. For her burial, he had a piece of the cliff cut and placed on top of her grave as a marker. And because she was afraid of the dark, he installed a lantern above the boulder to make sure she was comfortable in the afterlife. Gut-wrenching, isn’t it?
The boulder headstone - likely because of its peculiarity - has been linked to some sad hauntings. At “suicide rock,” people often hear sobbing and loud arguing, despite no one being around. Add to that the apparition of Ann sitting on the boulder with her head in her hands, vanishing as soon as someone approaches her. There is no doubt that this headstone has a dark history behind it and the general doom and gloom surrounding it has made it a hotbed for paranormal activity.
According to legend, the rock is frequented by other ghosts in the cemetery, who light the lantern for Ann every night. Some say they have witnessed the clear-as-day apparition of a man dressed in old-fashioned clothing, walking over and lighting it.
But ghosts coming alive after midnight in a cemetery is not surprising, especially in one as old as this one.
Constructed by notable architect William Strickland, the city cemetery has been the final resting place for local notables since 1822. Strickland designed the grounds in a traditional Victorian style, with plenty of pathways and greenery to enjoy. By 1850, the park-like cemetery was halfway through capacity with approximately 11,000 remains buried in the location. The regular burials, however, didn’t stop the area from falling into disarray.
It wasn’t until the late-1950s, with a preservation movement led by then-mayor Ben West, that the old cemetery began to be restored. Ten years later, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Among the many residents of this old graveyard, we find two of Nashville’s founders, James and Charlotte Robertson, Confederate Army generals and influential politicians.
Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of this cemetery’s history is the fact that, despite being centuries old, the area was not segregated. Over 22,00 Nashvillians from all walks of life are buried here, with 6,000 being African-American. In recent years, the city has made an effort to highlight and acknowledge the enslaved people buried in the graveyard by replacing their small headstones with significant memorials.
A large boulder in the middle of the graveyard? This unique marker attracts plenty of visitors, especially with the ghost story that is tied to it. When stopping by “suicide rock” lookout for the apparitions that like to manifest in the area, as well as the unexplainably lit lantern.
Famous duelist and attorney, Charles Dickinson, was laid to rest in his family’s plantation but reinterred in the city cemetery in 2010 after his grave was discovered. Dickinson bled to death after a duel with Andrew Jackson, who went on to become president of the U.S. Apparently, Dickinson shot to kill, aiming for the chest, so Jackson did the same. Of course, Jackson won the duel, but his reputation suffered immensely. This didn’t stop him from becoming president, though.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1806, sea captain William Driver began his maritime career as a cabin boy on a ship. After he was appointed master mariner, his mother sewed him a flag to fly on his ship, a symbol they named “Old Glory.” Little did they know, it would eventually become the U.S. flag. When Union soldiers occupied Nashville in 1862, “Old Glory” was placed atop the Tennessee State Capitol Building, and the rest was history.
Captain William Driver’s ornate grave marker was made in the shape of a tree branch with a large anchor representing his life at sea. It also includes three different epitaphs that recount his travels and the history of “Old Glory.”
The Nashville City Cemetery is managed by an association of the same name and open to the public from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. When visiting the cemetery after closing time, please remain on the road or sidewalk as entering the cemetery after hours constitutes trespassing.