By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Palms Memorial Park, 27100 Old Dixie Highway, Naranja, just off U.S. 1
Before heading north, visit Palms Memorial, the southernmost of Dade's major graveyards. The A-frame office building gives the place the look of a KOA Kampground, but it's actually less commercialized than most cemeteries. In an era when large corporations are buying into the death business across South Florida, Palms Memorial, founded in 1912, remains in private hands, its homey atmosphere enhanced by the fact that the place has become quieter since U.S. 1 replaced Old Dixie Highway as the main traffic artery and the freight trains stopped running past the eastern edge of the cemetery. Grave markers at Palms Memorial bear the names of many of the Homestead area's pioneers - Mowrys, Kings, Campbells, and Birds, to list a few. "We also have a high percentage of young people here," says cemetery manager Ray Fuque sadly. "There's something about Southwest Dade. Lots of suicides, murders, and accidents. I knew a lot of the folks buried here."
Emory Brannen was not a South Dade pioneer, but he was inquisitive. He worked at the Princeton Farm Packing House in Florida City. One rainy morning in 1957, he came to work and found an artillery shell in a warehouse. The 30-year-old Brannen carried the giant bullet out into the rain and proceeded to beat on it with a pipe. "Maybe he was trying to get the shell loose from the casing," suggests Bill Edwards, who runs a military surplus store a few miles north of the graveyard on U.S. 1. "But to beat on the back of an artillery shell would be sheer stupidity." To keep a short story short, the shell blew up and sent a fragment of steel through Brannen's heart. Brannen is buried in an unmarked grave, plot M-99, not far from Stephen King (apparently no relation to the best-selling author of horror fiction). Back-from-the-dead potential: Low. Brannen was a nice guy, possibly poltergeist material, but not likely to engage in full-blown devilment. Embarrassment also figures into the equation.
Charlotte Jane Memorial Cemetery, Douglas Road and Franklin Avenue, Coconut Grove
"You wanna hear a good graveyard tale?" asks Dr. Charles Wetli, Dade's deputy assistant medical examiner. "Come with me." Wetli, an expert in Afro-Caribbean cults, walks to a collection of knickknacks at the back of his office. There he keeps the charred tennis shoes of a burglar who was zapped after breaking into a power plant, as well as a six-inch hunting knife with alternating red, yellow, and black handle.
The knife turned up one full-moon night in April 1983, in the crowded annex of Charlotte Jane Memorial, one of Miami's oldest and most-neglected graveyards. Wetli investigated the scene and wrote a report: "Just inside and to the right of the gate is a brown paper bag with numerous flies swarming about it. Emptying its contents revealed a decapitated chicken with black and white feathers. The gravesite in question is the seventh from the gate. The adjacent vault has markings on it indicative that the vault cover of Louise Cooper has been moved and placed upon it temporarily. The top half of the casket was opened by myself, and inspection of the remains disclosed the head had been stolen. On the floor of the vault was found a hunting knife with a partially rusted blade.
"It is the impression of this observer that the grave robbing is linked to the Santeria religion and most probably the palo mayombe cult," Wetli added. "The symbolism of the decapitated black and white chicken near the gate is that of Eleggua and the colors are that of Oggun. The knife discovered on the floor of the vault is symbolic of Oggun, and the black and red stripes on either end of the handle of the knife are typical of Eleggua. The gravesite chosen was the seventh one in from the gate, and the number seven in the Santeria religion frequently symbolizes the Seven African Powers. The exact reason for stealing the head is obscure." Grave robberies aren't that common in Dade, insists Wetli. Maybe. "From what we can tell, there aren't that many. But look at it this way - if you owned a cemetery, would you report it? It's an easy crime to cover up. Literally."
Louise Cooper, a long-time Coconut Grove resident and mother of nine who in life did her own dentistry and suffered the loss of her legs from diabetes, died in 1977 at the age of 73. Back-from-the-dead potential: High. Only Louise Cooper knows who took her head. And anyone who can raise nine kids and perform oral surgery on herself knows something about will power.
Flagler Memorial Park. 5301 W. Flagler St., just south of Blue Lagoon Lake and State Road 836
In divorcing her husband in 1950, Betty Jane Maxwell noted that Clifton Springmyer "devoted practically every waking moment to the furtherance of his profession." The naturopathic doctor, his brother noted, "worked sixteen or eighteen hours a day. I was always after him to relax a little, but he would never let up." So it was that Springmyer was working late at his clinic the night of June 24, 1952, and became an object lesson for type-A personalities. Why small-time mobster Joseph Albert burst through the door and killed the doctor with a handgun never became clear. Three years later the killer himself was shot to death by Richard Svoboda after Svoboda came home and found Albert making love to his wife, described by then-Miami Herald reporter Al Neuharth as "a pert, saucy brunette."