This post is part of the This Town is Myth Project which looks to examine a lost town named Pemberton Ferry, Florida, that history has all but forgotten. Most of the material is my way of wiggling out the different aspects of the unexplained, the deep history, and several conspiracies and theories related to the town. As such, there will be mistakes, misidentifications, and misunderstandings. This has always been a part of Tripping on Legends as we know we are not always getting the best information when it comes to folklore and legends, but it is even more so with this. I am an outsider to the area in many respects, and my information comes from different sources and is the best information I have at the time. Mistakes come from a genuine place and not from a desire to be a poor researcher.
Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…
I’ll be forward about how this story is going to play out. There is no ending. To some degree there is a finality to it, but like most things involving Pemberton Ferry, there is the narrative, forgotten by most, but existing in between the lines of old newspaper clipping that only tell part of the story. Then there is the journey to find out what it is all about, until you reach what you think is the end. The signpost is there, and you reach the out to touch it only to realize the road just split on you. The difficulty in telling a tale like this is where to begin and how to tell it.
Like too many unusual stories, this one seems to begin at a flea market. If it were a story about a haunting, and this is not a story of a haunting exactly, it could start it in the cemetery or the first night in a dark house with the new owners wondering if the unusual objects found in the garage might be the spark of something spooky.
But Sharon Murphy had no interest in the supernatural when she moved into her house on Fern Street in Tampa in early June of 1979. She blew off the potential for there to be ghosts in her house. Even though she had seen some unusual items when she first toured it before buying, there was nothing overly odd. A physical therapist by trade, she thought it might have been a joke or some kind of superstitious leftovers from the previous tenant, maybe even some Halloween props or the makings of a homemade haunted house. It was not until some of the objects were left that things became a bit suspicious, made even more so by the fact that some were now being labelled as genuine. Even so, in an article published by the Tampa Tribune on June 7, 1979, she takes the whole thing in stride, admitting the leftovers might scare some, but making fun of the idea of ghosts or the shadow of voodoo in her new home.
Her bravery might have been a way for her to deal with what was actually there. It was a given that the models of odd hands stacked up among the trash were not real. After all, some of them had six or seven fingers on them. The unexplained yellow liquid left in a jar could really have been anything. The bones could not be identified by glance as being human, really. The plastic flowers, like the ones seen placed on graves, could have come from a cheap centerpiece. Even the voodoo doll, a stake seemingly stuck into its stomach, may have had an explanation that had nothing to do with where her mind went.
But the headstone was undeniable. It was not overly expensive for a marker but worth too much money for a gag or prop. The writing was cruder than a more intentional headstone but was still etched with enough attention and enough detail to be the real thing. It simply read, “Sacred to the memory of Emmie, Wife of A.G. Benton. Born April 14, 1861. Died Jan 7, 1886.”
The casket, which now took a more significant meaning, was missing, taken some time between her first visit and her moving in.
It is unclear whether she knew of the article in the Tampa Tribune which had been published a few days before when she signed the final papers. Just before the sale, C.J. Gurey of Century 21 had paid Moses Knotts and his salvage company, Knotts Salvage and Hauling, to clean the place out, and what Knotts founds spooked him a bit. At first glance the fake flowers and body parts and voodoo doll triggered his superstitions, but a job was a job. Gone by now was the casket, but the headstone was still there. The real estate company assured him everything was on the up and up. It was just left by the previous owner, a woman by the name of Valda Collins who was known for being a bit odd and an antique dealer. There was probably an explanation for everything. Just make sure it was all out to show the house.
In fact, Valda Collins had not even been on Fern street recently, but Judy Collins, her daughter-in-law, had an explanation for everything in the Tribune once the story started to get traction locally. The flowers had been taken off a grave of a loved one when they had recently replaced them with fresh, live ones. The goo was furniture polish, which made complete sense given both she and her husband also had a passion for antiques and restoration. That is also where the coffin, which had never actually held a body and had been picked up by a friend, came from. They had bought it, unused, to go with an old fashion horse-drawn hearse they had recently purchased. She had no explanation for the bones and deformed hands, but the headstone was picked up at the infamous flea market in Webster for five dollars, no questions asked.
Case closed. Nothing unusual here; just a case of things in the wrong place at the wrong time and the overactive imagination of a salvager and a reporter looking to fill column inches.
This story, however, is more about the headstone. It should have immediately gone back and been carefully placed on the plot. The story should just have taken on the quality of a weird half-joke told by the people who experienced it and anyone connected to the paper who happened to remember it.
Nothing is that simple when it is connected to Pemberton Ferry.
Moses Knotts was not so willing to give up Emmie’s stone. As the man who had found it when he had been hired to clean the house, he and his salvage company claimed rights to anything they had discovered, regardless of how the material had gotten there in the first place. He told papers and the sheriff that he had people who were interested in buying it, more so now that the story was starting to make it to other Florida papers and had been picked up by several national ones. Eventually Bill Booth, who owned the land at the time, came forth saying no one had been cleared to remove the stone, and several residents signed affidavits saying they had seen it in Wild Cow Prairie. Knotts was forced to surrender the marker and it was returned in September of 1980, more than a year after it had originally been found. It finally made its way home, at least for a while, thanks to a reader of the paper who identified it and the sheriff, Jerry Adler.
But who had it belonged to?
The journey of Emmie Pemberton Benton’s headstone begins in Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery in 1886. The little sister of James T. Pemberton, the founder of Pemberton Ferry, she would have been important to the establishment of the town even though she had died at twenty-four. Ashbury, her husband, was a successful business owner of the town’s grocery store. She should have been a big deal. Yet the quality of her headstone seems to marker her as unimportant, almost unthought of or unloved. The lettering is crude and uneven, with more emphasis on who her husband was than the life she lived. Ashbury Green Benton moved away shortly after his wife’s death, establishing a new family before being buried in Fitzgerald Cemetery in Paco County 30 years later. Why would someone of such importance be given such a hasty burial?
Then there is the baby. Emmie died in childbirth, and her newborn was buried at her feet. According to Della Daughtry who has dedicated herself to maintaining the cemetery and the history of Sumter County, this fact was almost lost. “Most people thought it was a foot stone for Emmie, it wasn’t until the GPR (ground penetrating radar) was done (in 2020) that we discovered there is a tiny little coffin at her feet.”
The child’s marker remains a mystery. It simply reads HWM, although no one is quite sure what that is supposed to mean. Some cemeteries have stones in them with the initials HWM marking what might be the High-Water Mark for the area. Daughtry refutes this as an explanation, saying there are such markers for the water levels nearby, but they do not match that description. “While we do have concrete high-water mark post near the river, many of which date back to the 1880s, none are that shape or have a tombstone look to them. They are all round and cylinder in shape.” Even before she knew of the actual placement of the baby, they had always claimed it stood for Here with Mother. Other explanations have a similar feel to them. Some cemeteries have stones where the initials might mean Heaven with Mother or He’s with Mother. Another theory might be that the stone itself shifted over the years and may be have originally been a memorial for someone else nearby, or even that the stone was used to mark the grave of Emmie, child notwithstanding, when it was stolen. A caretaker simply used the foot stone of someone else with the intention of returning it when hers was found. Daughtry dismisses this as her family remembers it being there for as long as they can remember, including when her grandmother used to walk the grounds before the theft. There is also no one with those initials known to be buried there.
It is not unheard of for headstones to be taken and sold. The stone itself is worth quite a bit, especially if it can be sandblasted and resold to someone looking to save some money on one. In fact, at the time of Emmie’s theft, two others had been taken from Wild Cow Prairie, although hers was the only one to make it back safely. Sheriff Adler was quick to mention none of the thefts had involved disturbing of the graves or the stealing of coffins. The question is why hers ended up at the flea market for sale so cheap when they are generally worth much more. In fact, it was even noted when the Orlando Sentinel Sun picked up the story on June 9, 1979, that it was not good enough quality to be used as a coffee table. It is also hard to determine when it was stolen, mainly because Wild Cow Prairie had been all but forgotten by the mid-Seventies.
Yet there are darker, more sinister reasons to desire a headstone taken from an active grave. Alan Alves, who spent the better part of two decades tracking down occult related crimes as a detective in Freetown, Massachusetts, says there isn’t much need for the stones in religious or cult rituals. This is echoed by Jackie Barrett, witch and occult expert, who says there are few groups or practices that might engage this kind of artifact in what they do. According to her, there are some who use these memorials as a way to mock the grave, mainly for the use of necromancy, the practice of raising and speaking to the dead with the intent of gaining some knowledge of the future or using them as spies against your enemies. She says there is also a ritual involving raising the spirit of Cain, the biblical first killer, that uses gravestones.
The reasoning as to why Benton’s gravestone was taken will never be answered. It does not have any significance historically, or at least not more than other stones nearby. It is not one of the war heroes that are scattered throughout the small plot of land or even a Confederate headstone, which have been targets of vandals and thieves over the years. Emmie’s memorial is not of the best quality stone, not even worth a coffee table. Again, there are more valuable ones close by if that had been the sole intention of the robber. It was not beautiful or remarkable in any way. Instead, it seems to have been targeted, taken for some specific reason.
In case that might seem a bit too conspiracy theory, the story does not end there. After being returned, Emmie should have found her peace, the mother and child reunited. Sometime in 2012 or 2013 the headstone may have been taken again. Unreadable today with a few scratches and deep grooves, the top half of the headstone has been broken off. It now sits with a straight top, although fairly smooth and even, unlike if it were to have fallen and shattered and been replaced. It is noticeably smaller than it once was. One theory is that someone tried to take the stone again and broke it in the process. Daughtry is a fan of this theory.
“I think someone went out there with the intention to once again steal Emmie’s Headstone, and in the process of trying to pull it up, part of the bottom broke off. I think the person then kept the top half with the writing. I think that they finished pulling up the broken part of the lower half, turned it upside down and placed it to try and keep people noticing the headstone had been taken.” She recently conducted a few experiments on the plot and discovered there is no curve on the end buried in the ground.
There is another reason why she believes the it has been buried upside down. “The thing is there is an F on the stone in the front now. That is typically a sort of makers mark and that is normally on the back of the stone and is typically never seen because it is below the ground.” It is unclear, however, if this signature would have been chiseled upside down by the creator so it now appears right-side up with buried upside down.
The flipping of the stone would also be in line with Barrett’s theory. Many of the rituals used by necromancers, especially those who are genuine worshippers of Satan (as opposed to Satanists or the Church of Satan) involve inverting traditions. Often their symbols and ceremonies involve corrupting other religions by turning things upside down in a form of mockery and distortion.
With the recent saving of Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. Emmie might have finally been put to rest. It is now well patrolled and looked after and is now considered to be a historical location. She is without her husband still but buried among her siblings and parents and important members of a lost town. She has her child at her feet and an occasional visitor looking to honor those who are buried there. Her story may have come to an end finally, or at least until someone else opens the garage of their new home to find Mrs. Benton just can’t stay in one place for too long.
This story would not have been possible without the help of Della Daughtry, Alan Alves, and Jackie Barrett. It also included information and pictures gathered from The Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel Sun.
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