Marion’s Oldest Cemetery and the Cholera Epidemic of 1854

Please note: A significantly expanded version of this story, including the origin of a rumor that people were buried alive in the Quarry Street Cemetery, appears in our book Haunted Marion, Ohio.

If asked to name Marion’s oldest cemetery, most people around town would probably guess the Marion Cemetery, home of the famous Merchant Ball. However, Marion ‘s oldest cemetery, laid out by Eber Baker himself in 1822, is actually situated on a two-and-a-half acre piece of land on Quarry Street.

One of the few remaining upright grave markers in the Quarry Street Cemetery.

Paul J. Midlam did a survey of Marion County cemeteries back in the 1970s and 80s and published them in his book, Cemetery Inscriptions of Marion County, Ohio. He writes that the cemetery has gone by a few different names: the Old Marion Cemetery, Pioneer Cemetery and the Quarry Street Cemetery. As the city’s oldest graveyard, it’s also the final resting place of a number of historically significant people, including members of Eber Baker’s family as well as David Potts, a Revolutionary War veteran.

Most of the remaining tombstones are simply lying helter skelter in a small enclosure in the middle of the cemetery.

At first glance, the plot of land doesn’t look much like a cemetery. In fact, with its trees, the flag in the middle and its frequent use as a playground by neighborhood children, the cemetery almost resembles a park (albeit a boring one). Midlam offers a few reasons why the graveyard looks so un-graveyard like. First, the iron fence that once surrounded the property is long gone, and, more significantly, many of the tombstones are missing. (An interesting but unsubstantiated story around town is that the city removed many of the upright tombstones to make mowing the land easier. Supposedly, many of the stones are now buried beneath the hill in Lincoln Park, though why they should be there is anyone’s guess.) According to Midlam, vandals have destroyed a good number of the tombstones as well.

Marion founder Eber Baker. His wife, Lydia, died in 1843 and was buried in the Old Cemetery. However, her remains were later moved to the Marion Cemetery.

Perhaps the most macabre bit of history concerning the Old Cemetery is its role as the final resting place for many of the victims of a cholera epidemic that struck with terrifying swiftness during the summer of 1854.

Cholera, a bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated water and causes diarrhea, vomiting and cramps, was a serious public health concern during the 19th century. Today, thanks to antibiotics and modern water treatment systems, it has been virtually eliminated in the United States.

The Buckeye Eagle, one of Marion’s first newspapers, ran a story on July 20th, 1854, marking the appearance of cholera in Marion and calling it the “full scourge of mankind.” However, the paper was still relatively optimistic, as there had been, up till then, “but two or three cases, and these amongst the foreign (i.e. out of town) population.” Unfortunately for the residents of Marion, the epidemic was just the beginning.

A book titled The History of Marion County, Ohio states that after the epidemic began, “All business was suspended, and the streets were…desolate.” According to a book published in 1950 with the long-winded title Biographies of Many Residents of Marion County, Ohio and Review of the History of Marion County, “The plague lasted about six weeks, forcing terrorized residents to flee the village and killing sixty-five citizens. The bodies of the victims…are buried in the Old Cemetery.”

This old postcard, courtesy of Mike Crane, shows how the cemetery looked just after the turn of the century. To see more old Marion postcards, check out Mike’s website.

Bear in mind that the population of Marion at the time was just over 1300. That means that the epidemic killed one out of every twenty people in town and did so within the span of a few weeks. If a similarly deadly epidemic were to strike Marion today, it would kill approximately 1750 people.

After the epidemic many of the Quarry Street Cemetery’s vacant plots were suddenly occupied and this (along with noisy new rail lines across the street) hastened both the creation of the much larger Marion Cemetery a few years later and the subsequent decline, in both importance and upkeep, of the Quarry Street Cemetery.

Shoe String Jack and the Old City Hall

This photo, courtesy of Randy and Sandy Winland, shows the original Marion city hall, jail and fire station shortly before it was razed in 1920. It was situated on the northeast corner of Church Street and Prospect Street. This photo was taken from the west side of Prospect Street.

Constructed in 1857, the old city hall was never one of Marion’s more distinguished-looking buildings. According to the book History of Marion County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens, “[T]he lower story [was] used as the Central Station of the Fire Department and as the city prison. The upper part [was] used for the mayor’s office, municipal court, police headquarters and sleeping quarters for the firemen.” It wasn’t a particularly beloved building, either. History of Marion County, Ohio goes on to say that “[t]he building will next year be half a century old and is a standing disgrace and eyesore to a city which in all other respects outclasses her sister cities.”

In any case, in 1909 articles began appearing in the Marion Daily Star detailing some of the strange events that were happening there. There were rumors of the ghosts of men who had killed themselves in the jail cells there and reports of and “black snaky objects” hovering over the beds of sleeping firemen.

To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of Haunted Marion, Ohio!