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Why do they call it that? Halloween at the cemetery | News

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Why do they call it that? Halloween at the cemetery

Halloween is almost here -- so come to Tampa's oldest public cemetery, where politicians and pirates rest side by side, and you won't believe where some of these folks are buried!

Why do they call it Oaklawn Cemetery?

The markers say Rest in Peace, but some of the souls in this cemetery on Downtown Tampa's northern edge are bound to be... restless.

"There's all kinds of people buried there, from pirates, slaves, crooks, criminals -- to mayors and governors," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

He'll be our guide to some of Oaklawn Cemetery's most notable graves.

Maybe it's not surprising -- we don't know much about the pirates buried in the cemetery.

But one grave marker does tell a haunting story. It reads:
Mr. Hubbard
A Cuban Pirate
Found Dead in Woods
June 18, 1850

The cemetery opened, for rich and poor, black and white, in 1850.

That was just in time to receive the remains of Joseph Lancaster, Tampa's first mayor. Or not.

This mayor's a maybe.

Apparently, there's also a stone marker for Joseph Lancaster in a Jacksonville cemetery, where Lancaster was also mayor. It's not clear which stone really sits above his remains.

One former governor, Henry Lawrence Mitchell, is definitely here.

And in the Catholic cemetery next door is the founder of a city and much of Tampa's identity, super cigar man Vicente Martinez y Ybor.

A square marker commemorates poor Charles Owen. Below "Charles Owen" is the word "Hanged." That's not his last name -- that describes how he got here.

Another Charlie buried at Oaklawn also met a gruesome end. Charlie Wall "was the kingpin of bolita and organized crime in the 1920's and 30's here in Tampa," Kite-Powell said.

But decades later, as an old man, Wall decided to testify against the mob. That decision led him to this grave.

"He survived several assassination attempts when he was active in organized crime. He'd basically retired," Kite-Powell said. But Wall "was murdered in his home when he was in his 70's" after telling his mobster stories to Congress.

Many of the people buried at Oaklawn do not have headstones. There was a time when folks who didn't have enough money to buy a plot would sneak in, in the middle of the night, and bury their loved ones under the cemetery's two paths.

The meaning of the name "Oak-lawn" is illustrated in every direction, with mossy oak trees hanging over grassy gravesites.

It was part of a new trend in 1850 -- away from cramped church graveyards and toward more peaceful, rural resting places.

And what could be more peaceful than true, timeless love?

"William Ashley was the first city clerk for Tampa, and Nancy was his slave, but also his common-law wife... And the people of Tampa were very tolerant of that, which is a little unusual, given the time," Kite-Powell said.

When they died, William and Nancy Ashley were buried in Oaklawn, together.

Their headstone still shares this message in the shadow of these old oaks:

"Stranger, consider and be wiser: In the Grave, all human distinction, of race or caste, mingle together in one common dust."

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.


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