Sorry, A 19th Century Woman Already Has the Best Tombstone

There’s a reason the Bonaventure Cemetery makes its way into every suggested to-do while in Savannah, Georgia. There is, of course, its immortalization in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There are the grounds, which amount to a maze of ornate architecture, wrought iron fencing, and centuries-old oak trees draped with hanging moss. There are the creepy statues like the “Bird Girl” from Berendt’s book cover, and “Little Gracie,” the memorial of a 19th century fancy-girl who died in childhood and now sits inside her own grief prison. There is the fact that it is known to be incredibly haunted. There is also something that hasn’t been advertised as a selling point, but should. It’s the headstone belonging to Martha A.E. Kirksey, born on February 28, 1824, whose tombstone reads:

Old tombstone that reads: "Martha A. E. Wife of James Kirksey Born February 28, 1821 Died October 1, 1889 She did what she could."

Martha A. E.

Wife of James Kirksey

Born

February 28, 1824

Died

October 1, 1889

She did what she could.

She did what she could.

When I saw this grave I held two equally weighted feelings in my chest. The first was a oneness with the human race — a top to bottom wholeness. The second was fury. Just a bunch of rage that the perfect epitaph was etched over a hundred years ago. I also had questions. Who was responsible for this? Was it her own doing? Was it her successors? Did she have this planned for a long time or was this a fleeting thought after particularly bad day? Was it even a bad day by her standards? Was the person carving this into stone as moved as I was? Was there push back? Were the families of neighboring graves aghast?

Because even though this kind of candidness would transcend any cemetery, this was Bonaventure. It was the final destination for many of Savannah’s then “elites,” and high society in the 19th century South was built on things like status, formality, and presentation — not a drawing back of the curtain. And then there Martha goes, putting out a drunk-aunt-in-a-bathing-suit vibe.

It called to mind a certain brand of comedy on Twitter from women who’ve amassed tens to hundreds of thousands of followers despite their non-celebrity status, and who regularly tweet about things like eating whole rotisserie chickens at a playground full of children while drinking wine out of a carton. Martha embodying this modern energy in a world so far removed from ours with such efficiency had me spinning. So, what in Martha’s life lead to this? I had to find out. Indeed: who is she.

The story of Martha Kirksey is a little like accidentally falling asleep in the afternoon and waking up five hours later. You’re disheveled and confused, you’re sweating, you’ve missed everything you were supposed to go to, it’s too late to get food, and you just have to sit there knowing you’re not going back to sleep any time soon. It’s not the worst thing to ever happen, but it’s not ideal.

Records associated with Martha A.E. Kirksey on Ancestry.com mention a Martha Germany, daughter of W. Germany, in an 1840 US Census. In 1840 she was listed as 17 years old, even though this math makes no sense if she was born in 1824. This was a theme I found that followed Martha for the rest of her life — the men in it wildly oscillating from a year, to two, to as many as four years off Martha’s actual birth date on their census reports, because who has the time, really, to know how old your daughter or wife is.

A year after appearing on a census report for the first time, Martha at 16 or 17 years old married James Kirksey — a man 17 or 18 years her senior — on June 16, 1841, becoming his second wife. Ah, that classic love story involving a 16-17 year old meeting her 33-34 year old prince.

James Kirksey made his living as a merchant and I definitely know what that is! What I also know from estate records is he made a ton of money doing it. It’s how he and Martha — plus both of James’s daughters from his previous marriage, Susan, then 11, and Lafeyette, then 8 — were able to afford to live on the 4th largest estate in the nation. Thrown into marriage as a teen and now responsible for two stepchildren who are themselves budding teens seems like as good a start to one’s life as any!

Nine years after James and Martha’s marriage, an 1850 census includes two new names: James W., 7, and Martha, 2. You would think, given the names and ages, they’re Martha’s children. Oh, but you’d be wrong. The children’s mother is listed as Mary Ivy, James’s first wife. And on that same 1850 census Martha is now listed as…

1850-US-Census

Mary.

“It’s really just easier for me to call you Mary since I’m used to it.” Your husband having children with his ex-wife when you’re newly married is bad, but having your name be taken by one of those children that aren’t yours and then going by said ex-wife’s name as a placeholder is much, much worse.

By 1860 Martha is just listed as M.A.E Kirksey.

1860-US-Census

Why bother, right? Three letters are fine. It’s not a big deal. I’ll just be back here laying on some balled up clothes as a bed.

Fast forward ten years to 1870 and Martha and James are approaching their 30th year of marriage. Thirty years! Hard not to know every single detail about another person ten times over by that point. Except this was the census that James managed to miss Martha’s actual age by a full four years. On the upside, according to that same census there are three new children in the Kirksey household, and Mary Ivy’s death in 1850 means that Martha is probably the mother! Plus, Martha gets her given name back on record and she’s listed as having an occupation for the first time! “Finally, some real recognition from the man that knows me best. I wonder in what descriptive way my husband will at last acknowledge my presence on earth.”

1870-US-Census

Keeps house.

Despite this, 30 years was probably monumental for Martha. She’d stood by her husband for decades, she grew with him, and whether or not their marriage was born out of true love, she probably needed him in more ways than she knew. In 1878 her youngest would turn 18, and with that last child on their own probably came a chance for their marriage to cycle into rebirth. Except her husband died that same year.

Then — in what I can only assume was an homage to her late husband — Martha listed herself as Mary E. Kirksey on an 1880 census. “He did love to call me Mary.” Nine years later, widowed now for eleven long years, Martha Kirksey died.

According to four Chatham County Will and Probate records, Martha left sums of $10,000, $22,500, and $500 (ouch) dollars to her children and their families. I can’t find the remaining 30,000 odd grand that was listed in the assets of her estate. Hopefully in the last years of her life, she spent it entirely on the 19th century equivalent of carton wine.

Even in death, Martha kind of gets the short end of the stick. Her only shout out before this is from a post on TripAdvisor from user Lovingretirement2006 entitled “2 1/2+ hours of wonderment!”

trip-advisor-review

“Monument or inscription.” May Martha rest in peace, because she really did what she could.

Los Angeles based writer. Let's keep it clean out there!

Erin has written 207 articles for us.

96 Comments

  1. #1 feeling: Lovingretirement2006’s overly-deliberate gendering of “Andie.”

    What is LR2006 so afraid of that they need to make a deal out of this?

    Did they instantly fall in love with Andie (who I will go ahead and declare is a lesbian) and was like, “no, no, I can’t possibly be in love with a woman so I’m gonna make it super obvious that she is a F-E-M-A-L-E so no-one will ever suspect my carnal lusts, especially my husband who I namedrop in all my reviews, because after all I am a Peace and Quiet Seeker, as the tag in my user profile clearly states.”

  2. this is my favorite thing! i recently learned that back in the day census data was collected door to door and whoever answered the door — it could’ve been a servant or the kids or even a family member who was visiting and didn’t live there — would be the one to give the information of who lived there. so maybe that’s why there are some discrepancies? but also fuck the patriarchy and it’s probably true martha’s husband didn’t know anything about martha. rip.

  3. So I’m in the job market and just had my first interview this morning. I was looking for a way to describe how I seemed to come across to the hiring committee, and came up empty-handed. Until I read your phrase, “drunk-aunt-in-a-bathing-suit”. Ah, yes; there it is. Thank you! :^D

  4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is totally the reason I want to visit Savannah one day. My mom even has a Bird Girl replica in her garden. Hopefully one day I will visit and get to see the great Martha A.E. Kirksey’s tombstone.

  5. This is excellent. An excellent grave marker, an excellent story of research and census-taking speculation. I love this.

    I spend more time in cemeteries than normal people who still have grandparents, so I’ve seen my share of grave markers, but none so perfect. I do have a bad habit of misreading “God’s finger touched him and he slept” on really old markers as “God’s Anger touched him and he slept,” though. Imagine my disappointment when I found one in good shape and read the REAL quote.

  6. Day-tripping to Savannah tomorrow and now I feel like a visit to pay homage to Martha/Mary and her ??‍♀️ tombstone is my primary objective. Thankfully my interests are already so varied and weird that my family probably won’t even question it when I drag them to a cemetery in the middle of our vacation because the Lesbian Internet™ told me to.

  7. Now this is just making me miss Savannah… 🙁

    I remember in like, third grade when we moved there, my family went on a ghost tour through Bonaventure and it terrified me so much that I didn’t go outside after dark for a couple of weeks.

  8. This is amazing! I love your commentary and that you were inspired to go and hit up archived records.

    Her marriage was similar to my great-great-grandma’s: age 16 married a 41 year-old man who had two daughters from his first marriage, ages 13 and 18!

  9. signed up to say: My nanna has this written on her gravestone! what!?!

    I discovered this while cross-country road tripping with my dad earlier this year on the way back from a wedding.

    All it said was:
    Eileen Surname
    Birthdate- Deathdate
    “She did what she could”

    and I cackled forever and my dad was like “you have no idea” and I was like “I really want to have an idea, please tell me” and he said that she decided before she died that that was what she wanted, and wrote it into her will. When she died it caused a massive to-do with all the extended family who were like “you cannot put that on her gravestone” and the executor went to my dad and his brothers and asked them, and they were like *shrug* “sure, let her be passive-aggressive in death as she was in life” and so he ordered the gravestone before anyone else stopped him.

    also re: “Martha left sums of $10,000, $22,500, and $500 (ouch) dollars to her children and their families” Nanna left all her expensive jewellery etc. to unknown but suitably devout cousins and to my dad she left… a massive statue of the Virgin Mary.

  10. Ok so between Martha Kirksey and ssup’s Nanna above ^, I had to Google to see if this was indeed some kind of tombstone meme going around, and not only did I find another one, it inspired this delightfully cheeky poem:

    Two Feete In The Grave

    A. Ward Foote
    born 1865 died 1925
    “He accomplished what he set out to do”

    WInifred Burt Foote
    born 1866 died 1941
    “She did what she could”

    pride and humility
    eternally they rest
    not side by side
    but as they must
    heade to foote

    footenote:
    she had 16 years to compose
    a modest rejoinder

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