Cemetery of the Week #137: Historic Key West City Cemetery

View of the Key West Cemetery photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Key West Cemetery as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Key West City Cemetery
aka Key West Cemetery
701 Passover Lane
Key West, Florida 33040
Telephone: (305) 292-8177
Founded: 1847
Size: 19 acres
Number of interments: an estimated 100,000
Open: Weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on weekends.

Key West is the last of a string of islands stretching southwest off the tip of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. As such, it forms the southernmost point of the United States.

When a hurricane struck Key West on October 11, 1846, it destroyed the old city cemetery on a sand ridge on the southern part of the island. Port inspector Stephen Mallory reported, “The dead were scattered throughout the forest, many of them lodged in trees.”

The following year, the city purchased a piece of land in the center of town large enough for 100 burial plots. Over time, more land was added, including a separate Catholic Cemetery in 1868 and a Jewish section with its own gate in the southeastern corner of the property.

Capt. James Johnson, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Capt. James Johnson, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

In addition to a spectrum of religions, the graveyard encompasses a variety of grave markers, too. Marble, granite, or zinc monuments were shipped from the mainland. Less expensive markers were made locally of brick, tile, or cement. The people in the cemetery came from Scotland, Cuba, the Bahamas, Prussia, and across mainland America. They were freed slaves and Confederate sympathizers, civil rights leaders and a man tarred and feathered by the KKK for loving a “mulatto” woman. One was a 40-inch-tall “midget” called “General” Abe Sawyer. Several were friends of Ernest Hemingway, including a bootlegger who inspired To Have and Have Not.

Also buried in the cemetery are three Yorkshire terriers and a pet Key deer in the Otto family plot.

The oldest gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Captain James Johnson, who died in 1829. His stone was moved from the earlier graveyard and placed at the back of the Dade Masonic Lodge plot.

The USS Maine Monument, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The USS Maine Monument, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The most famous plot in the cemetery remembers the Maine. In Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, the gunpowder magazines aboard the USS Maine exploded. 268 sailors, nearly three-quarters of her crew, died. William Randolph Hearst used the full power of his media empire to drive the United States into the Spanish-American War.

Of the Maine‘s victims, only 200 bodies were recovered and, of those, only 76 could be identified. Two dozen victims of the explosion are buried in the old Key West Cemetery, alongside other Spanish-American War veterans, Civil War veterans (including African-American sailors), and veterans of other wars.

One of the most amusing monuments remembers 50-year-old B. P. “Pearl” Roberts, a hypochondriac who got the last word. Near her rests Gloria M. Russell, whose stone says, “I’m Just Resting My Eyes.”

Pearl Roberts' marker, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

Pearl Roberts’ marker, as photographed by Kathleen Rhoads.

The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice weekly. For reservations, please call (305) 292-6718.

Useful Notes:

Tourist info about Key West, including a map.

Map and self-guided tour of the Key West Cemetery

Historic Florida Keys Foundation page on the cemetery

The City of Key West offers occasional Cemetery Strolls, although they seem to be over for this year.

The Weird Florida entry on Key West Cemetery

This ghost tour includes the Key West Cemetery

Special thanks to Kathleen Rhoads, my mom, for touring this graveyard in my honor and allowing me to use her photographs.

5 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #137: Historic Key West City Cemetery

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #161: The Old Huguenot Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Your Take-along Guide to Graves & Graveyards Around the World

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