53 Birch Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Bella Morte Rating: 2 Tombstones
No doubt about it…Thomas Wolfe, initially much-despised in his hometown for his less-than-flattering portrayal of life and the residents there, eventually become one of the city’s favoured sons. Today, his status is reflected throughout Asheville in tours, mementos and memorabilia. Riverside Cemetery, the final resting place for his mortal remains, is no exception. Visitors are greeted at the front gate by a bronze plaque affixed to the fencing which features an angel and the following inscription and quote from Wolfe’s most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel:
In memory of
Oct. 3, 1900 - Sept. 15 1938
“When he came to the gate of the cemetery he found it open….
As he approached the family plot, his pulse quickened a little.”
Look Homeward, Angel
The Thomas Wolf Society
May 14, 1988
Founded in 1885, Riverside Cemetery has been owned and maintained by the City of Asheville’s Department of Parks and Recreation since 1952. In addition to Thomas Wolfe, the grounds contain the gravesites of a number of other famous individuals, including ex-con and famous author Sidney Porter, more commonly known as O. Henry. Of course, our interests at Belle Morte lean to the more obscure, colourful and intriguing, thus, our particular tour of the grounds focused on some of the lesser-known eternal residents.
Case in point…James Bailey and Ben Addison, both victims of the murderous rage of one Will Harris. Having escaped from a chain gang, Harris turned up in Asheville on the 13th of November, 1906, looking for his girlfriend. Unable to locate her and fueled by fury and alcohol, Harris grabbed his rifle and opened fire, walking through the city, shooting indiscriminately. In the course of his rampage, he took the lives of three civilians, two police officers, and one dog. He also left a number of others wounded in the wake of his passing. Two days later and 12 miles away on 15 November, Harris met his fate when he was gunned down by a posse who found him hiding in a rhododendron thicket near the town of Fletcher. The fate of Harris’ bullet-riddled corpse is unknown, though it is rumoured to rest, however uneasily, in an unmarked plot at Riverside Cemetery. The graves of Bailey and Addison, though, are each rightfully adorned with monuments.
Ben Addison, a Black merchant who was shot when stepping out of his store to investigate the commotion in the street outside, is buried in Riverside’s previously racially-designated “Colored” section. His plot features a zinc marker whose upper portion is ornamented with a simple floral design. Beneath, it bears the inscription:
Killed by a
Nov. 13, 1906,
Aged 56 years.
Gone but not forgotten.
Officer James Bailey’s life ended when, in the pursuit of Harris, he took refuge behind a utility pole. Unfortunately, the pole was no match for one of Harris’s bullets which pierced the wood as well as Bailey’s head before ricocheting off the Vance Monument in the town square and finally coming to rest in a brick wall.
Bailey’s grave is marked by a large, square stone column surmounted by a vase-shaped finial. Curiously, the frontispiece is inscribed with a death date of 14 November, when, in fact, the end of Officer Bailey’s final watch actually occurred on the 13th of November. At any rate, his marker reads:
Jan. 9, 1871
Nov. 14, 1906
The side of the stone reads:
Although he sleeps, his memory
and cheering comfort to his
He followed virtue as his truest guide,
lived as a Christian – as a Christian died.
Harris’s remaining victims are interred at other cemeteries.
(A note of interest: Thomas Wolfe’s short story, “The Child by Tiger,” contains a fictionalized version of the story of Will Harris).
Other notable sites at Riverside are closely linked with the nearby Biltmore mansion, the largest private home in America. The craftsmen who labored in the construction of Biltmore created the Green family mausoleum, composed entirely of marble. Fred Miles, the Biltmore estate stone carver, chiseled the limestone angel surmounting the Buchanan family monument. Richard Sharpe Smith, Biltmore’s supervising architect, is interred on Riverside’s grounds beneath a decidedly uninspired plain, gray, rectangular stone.
The grave of Lewis Morse McCormick is marked by a small boulder inlaid with a bronze plate bearing his name, the dates 1863 – 1922 and two words: Scientist – Naturalist. McCormick was a bacteriologist who spearheaded the area’s “Swat That Fly!” campaign designed to reduce the population of disease-spreading insects. Initially ridiculed for his theories and proposals, McCormick eventually convinced Ashevilleans to follow directives to regularly clean stables and sprinkle them with kerosene to kill off flies. (To our minds, it seems this may have posed a risk nearly as high as that of the flies. At any rate, McCormick’s program was widely adopted.) Additionally, children carrying swatters visited homes and businesses, annihilating flies by the thousands. The resultant drop in the incidence of typhoid put Asheville on the map as a healthy city and increased tourism significantly.
Upon McCormack’s death, flags in Asheville flew at half-staff and the fire bell tolled fifty-eight times, commemorating each year of his life. Asheville’s minor league baseball field, constructed in 1924, two years after the doctor’s death, is named in McCormick’s honour.
While on the grounds at Riverside, be certain not to miss the gravesite of internationally known sculptor, painter, teacher and philosopher, Vadim Bora (1954-2011). His final resting place is marked by a human-shaped stone which the artist discovered in Big Ivy Creek near the family home of his wife, Constance Richards, in Dillingham, North Carolina. Describing it as “ready-made sculpture,” Vadim had it removed and delivered to his home. It has since been relocated once again to stand sentinel over his mortal remains. Although not present at the time of our visit (May, 2013) we have read that Vadim’s sculpture, “DNA” – a bust in his own image – may also one day grace his gravesite.
Directly adjacent to Bora’s plot lies the grave of John Winslow “Doc” LedBetter, MD (6 June, 1929 – 3 March, 2011.) Composed of granite, sandstone, bluestone and fieldstone, an eight foot long mosaic deemed “The Hiker,” memorializes the life of this devoted physician, hiker and enthusiastic Boy Scout troop leader. Desiring a monument distinct from more traditional tombstones to honour her husband’s life, LedBetter’s wife, Gwenda, commissioned the piece to memorialize her husband and his love for scouting and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Based on a logo Dr. LedBetter once drew for his Scout troop, the stone depicts “Doc” as a hiker relishing a view of the mountains.
An interesting side-note here: The family of Vadim Bora released the plot now occupied by “Doc” LedBetter’s remains to the LedBetter family so that “Doc” could “join [their] son-in-law, the Russian artist, Vadim Bora.” Evidently, Gwenda LedBetter is a Master Storyteller whose performances captivated Bora’s family who also share “Doc’s” religion (Presbyterian), love of the mountains and devotion to Scouting.
The large sarcophagus-like stone erected in memory of 1st Lieutenant Lawrence B. Loughran, killed in action at age 24 in Wavens, France, is both lovely and fascinating. Each side is inscribed with detailed information about Lawrence, the first soldier from Asheville killed on the French front. The young airman and his compatriots are honoured by the words of Dr. Henry Van Dyke who wrote the following verse for members of what was then known as the U.S. Air Service:
Our Dead Aviators
But ye who fearless flew to meet the foe,
Eagles of freedom, - nevermore, we know,
Shall we behold you floating far away.
Yet clouds and birds and every starry way
Will draw our hearts to where your spirits glow
in the blue heaven.
A final site of interest to which we direct your attention is the Rumbough family mausoleum. It features a pyramidal façade with the vault space behind built into the hillside. James Edwin Rumbough served as the Mayor of the village of Montford from its establishment in 1892 until 1905 at which point the village was annexed by Asheville, thus leaving Rumbough the distinction of being Montford’s one and only mayor. Interestingly, Riverside Cemetery is situated in a district that was once a part of the village of Montford.
Riverside is located in a quiet, residential area of Asheville. The grounds are pleasant and invite peaceful exploration. A walking tour guide and map are available for download at the cemetery’s website. They contain the names of the graveyard’s better-known residents as well as a bit of information and the locations of each of their burial sites. A word of warning, though. The scale of the map is less-than accurate and grave locations are imprecisely marked. Aside from the plots of Wolfe, Porter and Vance, which are clearly marked at the roadside, plan to spend some time locating most of the other sites on the tour.