According to legend, 15-year-old Elizabeth Royall was scared to death by a prank perpetrated by classmates
In this video and blog post I wanted to share a fascinating story discovered in the Grove Street Cemetery in Danville Virginia. If you haven’t seen my videos before, you may be asking yourself what does this have to do with photography?
Photographs with a backstory
My approach to photography — whether I’m shooting landscapes, abandoned buildings, or historic architecture — is to learn whatever I can about the history of the place. That information gives context to my photographs and allows me to attach backstories, making the images more meaningful.
When I’m in historic towns, it’s not uncommon to find me walking the old cemeteries looking for stories. And here I found a doozie!
The Tomb of Elizabeth Royall at the Grove Street Cemetery in Danville, Virginia
This is the tombstone of Elizabeth Royall, a 15-year-old college student who supposedly died of fright as the result of a prank perpetrated by her classmates way back in 1833!
According to the legend, Elizabeth was a student at one of Danville’s female academies, where she was sick in bed with a case of the measles. While Elizabeth was out of her room, her classmates surreptitiously entered and painted the words “Prepare to meet they God,” in phosphorous on her bedroom walls. When Elizabeth returned to her darkened bedroom, she saw the ominous message glowing on her wall, and became so afraid that she apparently dropped dead from a fear-induced heart attack.
Was this a light-hearted prank gone tragically wrong? Or was this a very early case of Mean Girls? Who knows.
Below is the full inscription from Elizabeth Royall’s tomb:
“In memory of
Eldest Daughter of John B. and
Pamela W. Royall of Halifax County.
She was born on the 11th day of March
in the year of our Lord 1818,
and departed this life on the 30th day
of July 1833, aged fifteen years,
four months, and nineteen days.
When blooming youth is snatched away
By Death’s resistless hand
Our hearts the mournful tributes pay
Which pity must demand
While pity prompts the rising sigh
Oh may this truth impress’t
With awful power ‘I, too must die’
Sink deep in every breast.“
Is the Legend True?
I’d love to know if the story is really true. It’s not mentioned in the tombstone inscription and I haven’t been able to verify it with any contemporaneous sources. I did find some newspaper articles repeating the basics of the legend, but those were published in the 1950s, nearly 120 years after the occurrence.
As we will see below, one published history of Danville doesn’t even mention female academies in the town as early as 1833, when Elizabeth Royall died.
Life in Danville in 1833
Based on the fact that Danville had a female academy (or boarding school) where Elizabeth Royall met her fate, we might assume it was a well-established town in 1833, when Elizabeth died.
The account below, published in A brief history of Danville, Virginia, 1728-1954 (1955) by L. Beatrice W. Hairston seems to contradict that assumption.
The following was taken from the diary of an old resident, Thompson Coleman, who lived in Danville more than a century ago: ‘When I went to Danville to reside there, in 1829, I approached the place, then a straggling village, by way of the country road leading north towards Pittsylvania Court House. This road was a common country road, unimproved by grading or otherwise, narrow and often impassable in winter because of the sticky red mud into which vehicles sank to the hubs.”
The country on the north side of the river was at that time a natural forest of primeval growth, unbroken by any house, settlement or clearing’.”
Oddly, this history of Danville includes a detailed section about schools (starting on page 57) , but includes no mention of female academies as early as the 1830s. It does refer to the Danville Female Academy, established in 1854.
There were a few tobacco warehouses, a toll bridge, two stores, a tavern, a blacksmith shop, a shoemaker’s shop, and two tailor shops (citation). As the town grew, it suffered dozens of fires, many of which were declared as arson.
Other interesting stories from the Grove Street Cemetery
The 1937 Survey Report of the Grove Street Cemetery by Mabel Moses lists other interesting graves in the cemetery.
Major John Hamilton Machenzie was a friend of writer Edgar Allen Poe.
John H. Watson is also buried in the cemetery. He is said to have apprehended a bank cashier who allegedly stole money from a bank, and stashed the stolen money in the tomb of his deceased lover in this same cemetery. Watson observed the man making frequent visits to the gravesite where the money was recovered.
Thanks for reading
A brief history of Danville, Virginia, 1728-1954. L. Beatrice W. Hairston. 1955.
Survey Report, Grove Street Cemetery: 1937 Oct. 1, Research made by Mabel Moses. Library of Virginia Digital Collection.