‘Unknown Boy’ and Charlotte’s other celebrity dead returning to life for a day

From The Charlotte Observer of Oct. 6, 1932. Despite publicity, the identity of The Unknown Boy was never determined.
From The Charlotte Observer of Oct. 6, 1932. Despite publicity, the identity of The Unknown Boy was never determined.

For a day, anyway, the story of the “The Unknown Boy” shall be told:

Somewhere he climbed aboard a boxcar carrying steel beams and somewhere, while he slept, the load shifted, crushing his skull.

His body was found when the freight pulled into Charlotte on Sept. 25, 1932, and, forever silent, he became one of the city’s most enduring mysteries, now eight decades long.

He carried no identification. His age was estimated at 15. On his death certificate, still on file, his profession is listed as “hobo.” A tag on his shirt was traced to a store in Norfolk, Va.

Charlotte collectively mourned the youth the newspapers called “The Unknown Boy.” Widespread inquiries were made to find out who he was. Coroner Frank Covis asked the Observer to publish a death portrait of the boy and to share it with other newspapers in the Southeast in hopes someone would recognize him.

No one did, and he lies nameless – in a donated suit and a casket paid for by Charlotte citizens – in Elmwood Cemetery.

Entertaining history

On Saturday, Wyatt Leekley, 13, will take on the persona of the boy as part of a free history day at Elmwood and nearby Settlers’ cemeteries.

Characters buried in the shady, storied boneyards will regain their voices through re-enactors sharing some of the city’s little-known stories. In all, about 50 people will be resurrected by actors standing at the graves.

John King, crushed dead in uptown by a circus elephant Sept. 27, 1880, will be remembered. Francis Marion Redd, mayor of Charlotte in the Roaring Twenties, will have some yarns to spin, too. Romare Bearden’s great-grandmother will talk about her artistic descendant. At Settlers’ Cemetery, founders of the city will talk about the days of Revolution.

“We’re trying to make it two-thirds entertainment and one-third history,” said Lynn Mintzer of the Mecklenburg Historical Association Docents, who organized the “Voices From the Past” program. “We want people to come away with the ‘Wow.’ 

Mintzer got the idea for the cemetery day while visiting Gadsden, Ala., last year. They sponsored a cemetery tour called “A Walk Through Time” that told the city’s history through volunteer spirits.

Among those featured at Elmwood are:

▪ Randolph Scott, the cowboy actor from Charlotte who died in 1989. His grave is still the most visited of all at Elmwood.

▪ Francis Marion Redd, Charlotte mayor 1927 to 1929. He outlawed double parking, ordered that no sexually graphic films could be shown before 9 p.m. and made Charlotte the state’s largest city by ordering an independent census in 1928 that showed the city was larger than Winston-Salem. Ford built Model T’s in the city during his term, and Redd posed with the first ones off the line.

▪ Julia McGehee Alexander, admitted to the N.C. Bar in 1914, was the first woman to practice law independently in the state and the first woman to in the N.C. House of Representatives.

▪ John King, the unfortunate elephant trainer, will be memorialized by Chris Kite, portraying the ringmaster of the Robinson Circus.

Among those featured at Settlers’ Cemetery:

▪ Thomas Polk, who helped draft the Mecklenburg Resolves and who wintered with George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge.

▪ William Strange, the first clerk at the Charlotte Mint, whose job was to weigh the gold from the 60 mines in the region.

▪ Cherry and Agnes, who were slaves at Rosedale Plantation. They were buried in the quarter of the cemetery reserved for “our servants” – the euphemism for slaves – where no permanent grave markers were placed, says Ann Williams of the Mecklenburg Historical Association.

Because the soil is so compacted in that corner of the cemetery, Williams said, ground-penetrating radar cannot discern individual graves so exact locations are not known.

Two cemetery eras

Settlers’ Cemetery is the resting place of the city’s founders and was active with burials from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. Elmwood – and its adjacent Pinewood Cemetery for African-Americans – was opened in 1853 as “New Cemetery.”

Up to 15,000 graves are at Settlers’ Cemetery and about 30,000 are at Elmwood/Pinewood, said Bill Bibby, who oversees seven city cemeteries. He ordered a census of the historic cemeteries when he took his job as superintendent two years ago and it is still ongoing, he said.

In the 19th century, Elmwood/Pinewood was a popular relaxation spot for Fourth Ward residents who rode over in carriages on the weekend to picnic or bathe in the swimming holes, Mintzer said.

Sponsors have been lined up to help support the day – two of the most notable are Harry & Bryant Funeral Home, which has been settling new residents into Elmwood since 1883, and the Unknown Brewery, appropriately sponsoring “The Unknown Boy.”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

‘Voices From the Past’

What: Re-enactors talk about famous characters interred in Charlotte’s oldest cemeteries. Free.

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery, 700 West Sixth St., and Settlers’ Cemetery, 200 West Fifth St. They are about a 10-minute walk apart. Free parking at Elmwood at the Cedar Street entrance. At Settlers’, on-street metered parking is free on Saturdays and there is free parking at the E-Z Park lot nearby on Sixth Street.

Information: www.meckdec.org/about/upcoming-events.