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Historic Key West cemetery: A scenic stop that is full of stories

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Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 10:38 am

The Key West cemetery is a lot like the city itself: quirky, crowded, colorful and full of history.

It’s free, of course, and makes a great stop on an off-the-beaten-path tour of Key West.

The Key West Cemetery is at the center of Old Town – halfway between the Historic Key West Seaport and West Martello Tower.  It has several entrances, but you should make a point to start at the northwest corner at Passover Lane and Angela Street because a small office there has excellent free walking tour guides.

With a walking tour guide in hand, the Key West cemetery reveals fascinating stories of Key West and its people.

Key West Cemetery: Above-ground graves and historic statues. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key West Cemetery: The high water table results in many choosing above-ground graves. In addition, they save space. The Key West Cemetery can have two vaults underground and three above ground in any 4 by 8 foot space. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The cemetery was founded in 1847 after a terrible hurricane in October 1846 washed away the old cemetery, scattering the dead throughout a forest.  As a result, the oldest gravestones in this cemetery — built on the highest point in Key West — are actually older than the cemetery itself. They date to 1829 and 1843 and were moved here after the hurricane.

Key West Cemetery historic marker. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key West Cemetery historic marker. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are few trees in the cemetery and most graves are in above-ground vaults like in New Orleans, and for the same reason — the high water table.

The cemetery is like a town of narrow streets: Instead of houses there are rows of whitewashed rectangular boxes; instead of people there are chickens and iguanas. It is weedy and overgrown with a forlorn air of a forgotten place.

The historic Key West Cemetery is home to a monument to the U.S. Navy sailors who were killed in 1898 after the explosion on the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, an incident which triggered the Spanish-American War. As everywhere, Key West chickens wander between the graves. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The historic Key West Cemetery is home to a monument to the U.S. Navy sailors who were killed in 1898 after the explosion on the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, an incident which triggered the Spanish-American War. As everywhere, Key West chickens wander between the graves. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Amid the sun-washed vaults, there are lovely statues of angels and lambs and an odd one of a naked, bound woman.

A prominent monument is to the U.S.S. Maine, which was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898 killing 260 American sailors.  Two dozen of those dead are buried here along with other veterans of the Spanish-American war. An iron fence and gate brought from Washington D.C. protects a neat grassy yard.

Angel statue at Key West Cemetery
Angel statue in Key West Cemetery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A poignant story that reminds us of Key West’s Southern history is represented in the grave for Manual Cabeza, who died in 1921. The World War I vet had a relationship with a mixed-race woman and was tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan for it. In retaliation, he shot and killed one of his persecutors on Duval Street on Christmas Eve 1921. The next day, a posse removed Cabeza from jail and lynched and shot him.

Key West’s Cuban heritage is strongly evident, with a section devoted to those who fought and died in the 1868 Cuban revolution.

Key West cemetery: A jumble of graves and statues suggests the age and demand for space on the island. (Photo: via Flickr Falling Angel)
Key West cemetery: A jumble of graves and statues suggests the age and demand for space on the island. (Photo: via Flickr Falling Angel)

There are graves with familiar names that now mark key sites in Key West — Ellen Mallory (Mallory Square is named for her son, Secretary of the Confederate Navy) and Willam Curry (the family’s Curry Mansions is a popular historic B&B.)

There’s the grave of the real Sloppy Joe – “Sloppy” Joe Russell (1889-1941) who was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide and a famous Key West bartender.

Not all the interesting graves are old.

  • Edwina Larez (1923-1986) has her gravestone forever marked “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.”
  • Welhelmina Harvey (1912-2005) was the first woman juror in Key West and a local elected official whose grave gives her the title “Admiral, Conch Republic Navy.”
  • A popular stop is B.P. “Pearl” Roberts (1929-1979)  who famously had inscribed “I told you I was sick.”
  • Nearby, Gloria M. Russell (1926-2000) notes: “I’m just resting my eyes.”

The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice a week for a fee.  For further information and reservations, call 1-305-292-6718 or email hfkf@bellsouth.net.

Grave of a sailor who died on the USS Maine at Key West Cemetery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Grave of a sailor who died on the USS Maine at Key West Cemetery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Do people see ghosts in the Key West Cemetery?

Of course, they do. Or they think they do. Or they say they do. The most commonly sighted ghost is a Bahamian woman who approaches visitors who sit on graves or behave disrespectfully.

Are people still being buried here?

Yes. The cemetery, owned by the City of Key West, has about 100 burials a year and there are above-ground vaults and cremation niches available. 

Why are some graves in disrepair?

According to the City of Key West: The graves are private property owned by families.  The family is responsible for maintaining the graves and some families have left town or died out. Sometimes historically, significant gravesites are renovated when grants become available. 

How many people are buried in the Key West Cemetery?

An estimated 70,000 people, according to the city.

Historic Key West Cemetery

  • Passover Lane and Angela Street, Key West, 1-305-292-6718
  • A cemetery guide is generally available at the cemetery office in a handy printed format.
  • Hours for the cemetery office are 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays.

Florida Rambler resources for a Florida Keys trip

Special places in Key West from Florida Rambler

Florida Rambler guide to visiting the Lower Keys

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  • Brenda Johnston says:

    Are any Johnston listed in the history or buried there?

  • Georgia and Joseph Otto, IV says:

    You have forgotten to comment on an historical family who have the largest family plot #43 – The Otto Family. Not only did the first Dr Joseph Otto arrive in Key West as a contract surgeon to attend the Army Barracks patients in 1862, but he also served at Fort Jefferson and assisted in helping to save personnel there and also in Key West during several Yellow Fever epidemics. The Otto family is the only one in KW to have 3 medical doctors and 3 military officers serving their country in its lineage. In addition, there is Robert Eugene Otto for whom Robert The Doll is named and The Artist House where both Robert’s lived before the Artist died and the Doll was moved to the East Martello Museum. The family also has their 3 Yorkies and pet Key Deer, Elfina, buried next to the family members.
    This is a family well worth mentioning in your Key West Rambler

    • ImATurtle says:

      @Georgia and Joseph Otto, IV,

      Dear Miss Georgia,

      I’m a hobby historian of Key West — hundreds of hours reading and researching. I “re discovered” a great deal of info regarding Eugene that has been lost to time and further blurred by folklore.

      I wonder maybe you could help further sort fact from fiction?

      For example: Robert Eugene became an artist. Was his father disappointed Gene didn’t pursue becoming a surgeon too. I get a sense it wasn’t a particularly important thing with his mother. Anne and Gene never had children. I cant’ find info on this. Where’s Anne? shes not next to Gene. Gene has been gone almost 50 years. I may have pictures of things he painted, but again can’t be sure. Gene helped form the Key West Arts and Historical Society ~ shouldn’t they be more aware of his significance as a historic figure? The real Myrtle Reuter.

      The Otto plot seems to be well looked after. Is it family who does this? I’ve visited the Ottos for many many years. I visited nearly every day during my 3 month stay earlier this year.

      Where has the true family history gone? Is anyone left who remembers? This is a tiny crumb of what I’ve been able to figure out… So many questions about Gene — Chicago Art Institute? Paris — Annette — Why Gene’s sibling didn’t want the house, the death of Gene’s parents and why he returned to Eaton St. I cleaned Gene’s final resting place the morning of April 27th, 2022, before leaving KW and spoke to him. I thanked him for what I was able to learn and told him I’d see him again when time allows. I want to make his story right.

      Sincerely,

      BeAGoodTurtle @ gmail

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      Such interesting questions! I hope readers have information to contribute.

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      What a wonderful saga. I did not know the history of this family, so thank you for adding this comment! There are so many remarkable stories at the Key West Cemetery. I know I have just scratched the surface.

  • Maggie says:

    I am interest in a particulr statue in Key West cemetery of a woman on her knees in chains. Anyone?

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