The city fathers could not have picked a better location for Huguenot Cemetery in St. Augustine. Located just outside the massive city gates at a diagonal from the ancient Castillo de San Marcos, the old burying ground is within view of beautiful Matanzas Bay. Dressed in lacy spanish moss and velvety green lawn, bedecked by weathered headstones, the cemetery is the proud grande dame of Avenida Menendez.
The cemetery came to be out of sheer necessity. Prior to the Huguenot’s inauguration in 1821, there was only one cemetery in St. Augustine, but it was Catholic. In the city’s first couple of centuries, the citizens were mainly Catholic and multi-faith cemeteries were not needed. Once the city was occupied by the British and then the Americans, however, there were more and more Protestants in need of their own burying ground. The Huguenot was introduced just in time. Shortly after the new Protestant graveyard was created, a Yellow Fever epidemic swept the town and business at the Huguenot was off to a roaring start.
Though the cemetery was closed to new inhabitants in 1884, the old inhabitants are still more than happy to shoulder the responsibility of greeting visitors who throng the paths that encircle their resting ground. Ghost tours make regular stops outside the walls of the Huguenot late into the night, each night, since ghosts are big business in St. Augustine and they are well stocked at the Huguenot. Women who visit the site by themselves or with ghost tours have reported having their long hair lifted off their backs by gentle, yet unseen hands as they pause by the cemetery walls. A laughing man has been spied lounging high among the fat branches of the ancient live oaks that provide an almost unbroken canopy inside the walls of the graveyard. Photos taken both by day and by night have been known to turn up this jovial resident peering through the leaves.
By far the most famous ghost of the Huguenot Cemetery is Judge John Stickney. The widowed Judge Stickney passed away in 1882 when his children were still minors, leaving them orphans. His body was planted among the oaks in the Protestant burial ground while family members relocated his grieving children up north to care for them. Years later, as adults, the children decided to have their father’s body exhumed and re-interred in Washington, D.C. where they resided, so they could be closer to him.
Digging up an old grave is exhausting work in the best circumstances. In the hot, humid climate of Florida, it’s no wonder that the gravediggers chose to take a short break after they had finally broken through the earth to the casket below. While the diggers took their breather, two men fresh from one of the local pubs saw the opened grave and took advantage of the momentary privacy to yank the gold teeth from the Judge’s skull. When the gravediggers returned, they saw the desecration of the body, but were so afraid of getting in trouble for leaving the open grave unattended that they said nothing and sealed up the casket for shipping up north. The unscrupulous grave looters were never caught.
Since that day, a tall dark figure has been spotted during daylight and moonlight hours skulking among the graves as if searching for something. The shadow will walk a few paces, then stoop down as if examining the foliage strewn ground, then move on to continue the search just a yard or two away.
Poor Judge Stickney, he was one of the last guests to arrive at the party that is the Huguenot…and certainly he is proving to be one of the last to leave.