Written by: Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. | Photography by: Mark Steelman
One of Wilmington’s most famous and enduring legends concerns a young man named Samuel Russell Jocelyn, Jr., allegedly buried alive in St. James Episcopal Church’s graveyard in the historic downtown district. The macabre story has been told and retold for more than 200 years, especially around Halloween when the dead are said to revisit the places they once lived and roamed. While few people today believe in ghosts, most would probably admit to being intrigued by tales of the supernatural, especially one in which a dead man returns to question why his family and friends had laid him to rest before he was deceased.
Samuel Jocelyn and Alexander Hostler were the best of friends, the kind with whom you confide, discuss the meaning of life. . .and death. What does death mean? What exactly happens when you die?
Where does your spirit, your life’s energy, go when you are no longer here? Like most people, Jocelyn and Hostler believed, or hoped, that life continued on in another and perhaps even better place. So they made a pact, as the story goes, that whoever went first would make a determined effort to make contact from the other side, with faith that there was one.
Both Jocelyn and Hostler lived in Wilmington, second only to New Bern as North Carolina’s busiest seaport and most populated town at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Founded in 1733, it boasted almost 1,700 residents in 1800, many of them associated with the maritime trade as shippers, shipbuilders, commission merchants, and dock workers. Among the merchant class was Samuel Russell Jocelyn Jr.
His father, Samuel Russell Jocelyn, a graduate of Yale University, moved with his wife, Almira Howell Jocelyn, and their children from New Haven, Connecticut to Wilmington in 1790, soon after he passed the bar exam. Samuel Jr. was about five years old at the time. Jocelyn established a law practice and, according to one admirer, soon gained a reputation as one of the state’s most reputable equity attorneys. In 1808, the Bank of Cape Fear appointed him one of its directors.
His father, Amasiah Jocelyn, also lived in Wilmington. A Connecticut native, he had settled in Wilmington in the late eighteenth century and became a commission merchant, selling and auctioning ships, boats, cargoes, merchandise, and commodities. In 1801, he partnered with Thomas N. Gautier to open a liquor and grocery store.
Samuel R. Jocelyn Jr. enjoyed a privileged childhood, and grew to become, so it was said, a very capable and promising young man. In 1805, soon after his grandfather had passed away, Jocelyn assumed his business interests. A few years later, when he was about twenty-four years of age, Jocelyn met and fell in love with Mary Ann Sampson, daughter of Michael and Jane Sampson of Sampson County, North Carolina. An attorney and planter, Michael Sampson owned land in both Sampson and New
Hanover Counties, including an 850 acre corn and stock plantation in Holly Shelter Swamp, northeast of Wilmington. Samuel Jocelyn Sr. represented Sampson’s interest in the sale of a tract of land along Morgan’s Creek in New Hanover County in December 1805. Samuel Jocelyn Jr. and Mary Ann Sampson probably met as a result of their fathers’ business connections, and they married on June 27, 1809.
As a commission merchant, Samuel R. Jocelyn Jr. may have had business dealings with Alexander Hostler, co-owner with Richard Bradley of a wharf along the Cape Fear River near the foot of Princess Street. Even if that was not the case, Wilmington was a small town by modern day standards where most residents knew just about everyone, and the two soon became fast friends.
Whatever prompted Jocelyn and Hostler to make that unusual agreement is unclear. Perhaps a destructive fire in early February 1806 that consumed some seventy businesses and homes between Market and Princess Streets and down to the Cape Fear River reinforced in their minds how quickly life, like property, can be ended. And so it did for young Jocelyn, in the late winter of 1810. The details of his death have been lost to the mists of time, but the legend of it lives on.
The story gained widespread public attention when Colonel James G. Burr related it to a “good audience” at the Wilmington Opera House (present day Thalian Hall) on the evening of February 3, 1890. Burr was a seventy-two year old Wilmington native, former commander of a Confederate Home Guard unit, cashier at the Bank of Cape Fear, and early chronicler of the Tar Heel town’s history. He had been invited by the Ladies’ Memorial Association to speak on a topic of local interest to help raise funds for a bronze medallion of the recently deceased ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for the Confederate memorial at Oakdale Cemetery. Burr titled his address “The Old Churchyard of St. James and a Psychological Study.”
“As is usual in Wilmington, when the entertainment is a lecture, the attendance was not so large as it should have been, but the audience was attentive and appreciative,” reported the Wilmington Morning Star. Burr presented facts and reminiscences about St. James Episcopal Church’s graveyard, the site of Wilmington’s oldest public burial grounds that still covers a substantial section of the block along the west side of Fourth Street between Market and Dock Streets. He mentioned Cornelius Harnett, one of the Cape Fear’s leading Patriots during the American Revolution, whose sandstone grave marker still stands near the corner of Fourth and Market Streets. He also spoke of Thomas Godfrey Jr., Philadelphia-born poet and playwright who lived in Wilmington for several years beginning in 1759. While in the area, he finished writing “The Prince of Parthia,” the first play by an American-born author performed on stage by professional actors. Upon Godfrey’s death in 1763, he was buried in the St. James graveyard.
According to one journalist who attended Burr’s presentation, “the incident he cited of a citizen who disinterred the body of his friend at the seeming importunate requests of the spirit of the latter for him to do so and the psychological problems he spoke of formed the most interesting feature of his lecture, and gave much food for thought.” Although Jocelyn’s untimely death and reported return from the afterlife had undoubtedly elicited whispers among Jocelyn’s family and friends at the time it occurred, Burr’s address gave it new life. What Burr said specifically went unrecorded in local newspapers, including the Wilmington Morning Star, which carried the most complete report of his lecture in its February 4, 1890 edition. The strange story has since become the stuff of legends, but with few facts known, tall tales abound.
The earliest extensive published account of the incident appeared in Alfred Moore Waddell’s A History of New Hanover County and the Lower Cape Fear Region in 1909. A contemporary of Burr, Waddell noted that “not long after conversing with his friend Alexander Hostler and others about the possibility of a man’s returning to earth after death and making his presence known, and after making an agreement with Hostler that the first of the two who died should, if possible, reveal himself to the survivor—was killed by accident, and buried in St. James’s churchyard.” Jocelyn’s death deeply affected Hostler who, according to Waddell, was alone in his room a day or two after the funeral, when the apparition of his deceased friend suddenly appeared. “’How could you let me be buried when I was not dead?” Jocelyn wanted to know. “Not dead!’” exclaimed Hostler. “No, I was not,” replied the specter. “Open the coffin and you will see I am not lying in the position in which you placed me,” and then he vanished. Hostler initially believed that, in his state of grief over the loss of his dear friend, he had experienced a delusion or a hallucination. The following evening, however, and again on the third night, Jocelyn’s wayward spirit confronted him with the same mournful query.
Haunted by the visitations, Hostler determined to exhume Jocelyn’s remains to see if his friend’s ghost was telling the truth. He shared the inexplicable encounters with Louis Toomer, who had also been a friend of Jocelyn, and asked for his assistance. Perhaps incredulous at first, Toomer finally agreed to help. The two then called on Jocelyn’s bereaved parents, seeking permission to undertake their bizarre task. Although there is no record of the Jocelyn’s reaction to Hostler’s tale and request they likely grudgingly consented to the disinterment so long as their son’s friends made every effort to avoid detection.
Hostler and Toomer decided to exhume Jocelyn’s remains at about midnight a day or two later. After digging down four feet, their shovels hit the coffin. Upon exposing and then removing its lid, they shined a lantern inside. Much to their horror, they discovered that Jocelyn’s body was lying face downward. He had apparently turned over as he attempted to escape the dark, confined space of the casket, only to suffocate.
Hostler shared his paranormal experiences and account of the disinterment with James G. Burr’s mother, Emily Bernard Burr, a near relative with whom he was very close. Burr was not born until 1817. Louis Toomer informed Catherine Gabriella DeRosset (Kennedy), who wrote down the story for Burr many years later, although it seems likely that he would have heard his mother speak of the incident long before her death in 1874. A variation of the story subsequently appeared in The Book of Wilmington, published in 1930, by Reverend Andrew J. Howell Jr., a Presbyterian minister, protégé of Burr, and local amateur historian. Howell claimed that Jocelyn died after being “thrown from horseback and was found dead on a road side.”
Howell’s friend and fellow Wilmingtonian Louis Toomer Moore, a paternal great-grandson of Louis Toomer, offered the fullest account of the extraordinary story, titled “Was Young Samuel Jocelyn Buried Alive?” in his popular book, Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region, first published in 1956. According to Moore’s version, Jocelyn was severely injured in a horseback riding accident, and found lying unconscious by the side of the road in the eastern part of the county. “The supposition was that Jocelyn was thrown from the saddle when the animal was frightened by some nearby object.”
Taken to Wilmington, he passed away “after lingering in a comatose state for some hours.” Family and “many sorrowing friends” attended the funeral, probably conducted in the home of Jocelyn’s parents, and the subsequent burial in St. James’s graveyard.
While Alexander Hostler’s claim of nocturnal visits by the apparition of Samuel R. Jocelyn Jr., cannot be substantiated, the assertion that his friend was buried alive may well be true. Major Joseph Gardner Swift, the first graduate of the United State Military Academy at West Point, New York, was working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Lower Cape Fear when young Jocelyn went missing in mid-March 1810. Swift recorded in his journal that, on “March 18, in company with many gentlemen from Wilmington on a search for the son of our friend, Samuel R. Jocelyn, on the second day the body was found in Holly Shelter Swamp, he having wandered thither in a demented state, and was chilled to death lying in some four inches of water. His name, Samuel, and recently married to a daughter of Counsellor Sampson, of the county of that name.”
How did Jocelyn end up in Holly Shelter Swamp, a dense pocosin comprising some 64,000 acres, thirty-five miles northeast of Wilmington in New Hanover County? It seems plausible that he and his wife, Mary Ann, were visiting her father’s plantation. One rumor claimed that the couple had a spat, provoking Samuel to gallop away on horseback from the house, or maybe he simply went out for a ride. When he did not return, his wife, or perhaps Michael Sampson, alerted authorities who quickly assembled a volunteer search party. They would, after all, be looking for the missing son of one of the most respected men in the state. If Joseph Gardner Swift’s journal entry is accurate, perhaps Jocelyn had lapsed into a coma brought on by hypothermia or a bad fall from his horse when the searchers finally found him. Unable to detect a pulse and believing he was dead, they took his body back to Wilmington and he was inadvertently buried alive. The details of Jocelyn’s curious death, except that he was only twenty-five years old, and his final resting place in St. James Episcopal Church’s graveyard have been lost with the passage of time. An old adage claims that in every folk tale and urban legend there is a kernel of truth. But it is also true that the truth should never get in the way of a good story.
Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., is an associate professor in the Department of History at UNC Wilmington.