What’s now known as Ruth Cofer Memorial Cemetery has a sad past
Potter’s Field, thought to be one of the first, if not the first pauper’s cemetery located in Hill City, currently referred to as North Chattanooga, was a resting place for those who were unclaimed and penniless. “Potter’s field” and “pauper’s cemetery” are interchangeable terms referring to cemeteries used to bury the indigent population. The term “potter’s field” originates in the Bible and refers to a parcel of land where potter’s clay is extracted, making it useless for agricultural purposes.
A great deal of mystery and intrigue surround this particular cemetery. Very few news articles and witness accounts exist detailing all of the drama and abuse the cemetery suffered during the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. The few remaining clues reveal a soap opera-esque story that involved grave-robbing medical students, lying sextons, and naïve family members. But there is a happy ending—sort of.
According to Raymond Evans, author of “Bright Memories: Beck Farm, Camp Contraband, and Hill City,” the Beck family purchased the land in the early 1800s and set aside portions of it for African refugees, as well as a cemetery that was also labeled the first African American cemetery—Beck Knob. A large number of troops who came to the area were members of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and chose to remain in the area as foundry workers once the local military entered into the iron business.
Following the end of the Civil War, Captain Samuel J. A. Frazier would purchase the Hill City property and later be joined by Dr. Richard Colville in 1886. Both veterans of the 19th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, they developed “the Frazier-Colville subdivision that became Hill City.” With a military of black troops and thousands of African-American refugees inhabiting the same locale, it is obvious that the majority of the bodies located in the Hill City Potter’s Field—and those who tended the cemetery—would be primarily African Americans.
The Chattanooga Times printed a series of stories about an ongoing case of theft at the Hill City Potter’s Field in November-December 1894. The first Potter’s Field article begins by explaining that the act of stealing a body is only a misdemeanor according to Tennessee state code and goes on to paint a picture of neglect by local authorities in failing to apprehend the “grave-robbing ghouls” and ultimately points to a disgruntled, former assistant sexton, John Hurst. The underlying tone of disappointment running throughout this series of articles is that the law is not harsh enough; the dead and their living family members deserve more repercussions for grave robbers than time in jail and a fine.
However, the sensational headlines make the reader believe that a gang of criminal physicians and students were running an underground grave-robbing organization to harvest subjects for study. When a “leading member” of the local medical school, was questioned, he did not admit to having knowledge of students stealing bodies and explained there was no need since the school was adequately supplied with all of the bodies required for study. (It seems a body would fetch around $25 at this time, and obviously any valuables buried with the body possessed monetary value.)
Another former assistant sexton, Griffin Jones, was arrested and tried alongside Hurst. The turning point in the case came when Assistant Sexton Mitchell (no first name available) admitted to being instructed by County Sexton P.J. Hale to watch for grave-robbing students. Mitchell explained, “...that he was not to go out of the house if he heard any noise that night, as some parties were coming to bury stillborn infants of prominent people who wished secrecy.” As the case continued and more and more evidence was uncovered, it became apparent that Hale was heading the grave-robbing ring.
When new bodies entered the cemetery, Hurst and Jones waited until nightfall, and while the dirt was still loose, they dug the coffin back up, removed the screws, and took the body. They placed the coffin back into the grave, covered it up, and attempted to make the gravesite appear as it did the day before. But suspicious family members began to come forward and demand that their loved ones be exhumed to see if the bodies were still in their coffins. Hale was caught bribing these family members with, as one headline proclaims, “...Promises to Keep the Grass Green and Flowers in Bloom Over an Empty Coffin.”
Ultimately, Hale was forced to relinquish his title as county sexton, but served no jail time nor paid a fine. Hurst escaped from jail and had not been re-arrested by the conclusion of the existing articles. Nothing is said of Jones’ fate. It was believed that the citizens would demand that all of the graves dug during Hale’s term be opened and checked for bodies.
As for the suspected physicians and students, the bodies were obviously being sold to someone—or there would be no reason for these three men to go to this much trouble. The speculation was that Chattanooga was a distribution center of sorts to other medical facilities located in Atlanta and Nashville, but as for local medical students’ involvement, nothing was ever proven by the conclusion of the existing articles.
Over the next few years, the cemetery was seriously neglected. In 1911, the Times reported on the poor conditions of the potter’s field, telling of exposed human remains. Something had to be done. This resulted in a grand jury indictment of Hale, but the case dragged on so long that Hale died with these charges hanging over him. A recommendation was made the next year to abandon the pauper’s cemetery as the citizen cemetery. The next 15 years seem to be in stasis, in that nothing officially happened until 1927, when a parcel of land was acquired on the hill overlooking what is now Silverdale Detention Facilities.
Then, 1929 saw the crash of the stock market and brought with it a wave of starving and homeless, forcing Hamilton County officially into the cemetery business. “Potter’s Field” traded its name for an official title in 1933 and became known as the Hamilton County Memorial Park. Toward the end of 1935, over 500 “paupers” had been buried there.
The Times remained steadfast in its reporting of the cemetery conditions and continued to tell the stories of those who resided there. It appears the editorial view was that each person deserved his or her last rites, even if it came in the form of a news article. The cemetery deserved to be respected as well, yet was reported to have fallen once more into a state of neglect. At this point the News-Free Press, (the merger of the Chattanooga News and Free Press papers), detailed the unacceptable cemetery conditions, “Judge Moore found the county cemetery—Potter’s field—was in a state of almost total degradation, covered in kudzu and other species of vine and uncontrolled foliage...” In an effort to reclaim the cemetery and start anew, the site would undergo another name change. Ruth Cofer, chairman of the Women’s Auxiliary at the Hamilton County Nursing Home, was dedicated to ensuring that the inhabitants of the nursing home received proper burials, even if that meant she and her husband fronted the bill. Judge Moore felt it was only appropriate to re-name the cemetery in her honor. On October 2, 1974, the resolution making the name change official was passed.
The old potter’s field that was abandoned so many years ago and saw countless burials of those named and unnamed finally found its own resting place and is currently named the Ruth Cofer Memorial Cemetery. The happy ending is that current cemetery caretakers have managed to stay on top of maintenance and have even shown a concerted interest in ensuring the nameplates of the most recent residents remain intact.
The not-so-happy ending is that those who first found their resting place in this place will likely forever suffer the same fate of those in the original pauper’s cemetery in Hill City. Many of the oldest graves remain unmarked, have lost their nameplates, or are simply marked with a number that corresponds to a logbook that no longer exists.