Historians use divining rods to find forgotten cemeteries

By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean

Jan 4, 2012

EAGLEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — John Lodl often heard Rutherford County’s old-timers talk of the divining rods, swearing by their eerie movements as proof positive of bodies buried below.

No headstone, no matter, they said. In the hands of the right person, the wavering of the rods could say more about a cemetery than the aged records that Lodl, bearded and bespectacled but youthful at 37, oversees in the local archives.

One day last winter, Lodl went from skeptical to startled.

In a secluded cemetery in Eagleville, he watched a woman balance a pair of plain old coat hangers on her fingers and walk the field.

“Sure enough, when you cross over a grave, those things cross,” Lodl said. “I can’t explain it. But it works.”

He’s not the only county staffer believing.

Dowsing — also known as witching or doodlebugging — has gained an unlikely following in the technology wing of the county’s historic courthouse. There, a crew better known for digital mapping and laser-guided land surveys finds itself blending those high-tech tools with folkways to find and document the county’s lost cemeteries.

It’s been two years since Lodl and the county’s digital mappers discovered hundreds of cemeteries that never made the leap from history books to online maps used by property assessors and developers.

Fearful that construction would disturb the unmarked resting places of the dead, Lodl and company went to work to ward off the bad karma (and fines and felony charges for those who violate graves) with tools both old and new.

But those who feel the need to hang on to a piece of the past must move quickly. The pace of progress has been rapid around here, and its purveyors can’t slow the churning of bulldozers to accommodate the dead unless they know they’re there.

“We’re getting a little bit here and a little bit there,” Lodl said. “Everything that we collect goes to our planning department. They need to know where these places are because it keeps an eye out for our heritage and culture.”

Out in the field

Recent research into the county’s cemeteries builds on an effort that started in the 1970s, when the Rutherford County Historical Society sought out the county’s graves and published a book detailing how to find each one and who rested there.

The archives staff rarely goes a day without turning to the book’s listings of more than 800 cemeteries, from “little bitty family cemeteries all the way to the big city cemeteries,” Lodl said.

Yet the book offers scant information on the county’s African-American burying grounds, of which there are many. Only about a dozen were mentioned, spurring Lodl to take up the cause of trying to fill in the record.

As he started, county staff realized their property maps — race aside — noted just 320 cemeteries. Now, thanks to the methodical effort, the number has grown to 560.

Over time, Lodl has settled into a pattern that blurs the transition from the old way of doing things to the new, then back again.

He begins with death records listing burials and court records detailing when cemeteries were moved. Landowners and hobby genealogists help.

Out in the field, he often works side by side with Bethany Hall, a county geographic information system (GIS) analyst, who carries a mobile GPS.

“She’s putting the point on the (digital) map as I’m doing the old-school transcribing gravestones,” Lodl said.

Hall also uses laser radar technology that shows slight changes in the lay of the land, revealing potential grave sites. An airplane captures the topography from above, and software produces a color-coded map showing the terrain and indentations.

Basically, the approach is “whatever works.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of luck, like noticing a limestone rock “that just seems out of place,” Hall said. Other times it depends on a keen eye for the kind of vegetation known to grow over graves.

And then there are the rods.

“I thought they were blowing smoke,” Hall said. “I was very skeptical. I didn’t believe it would work.”

It took a man from Murfreesboro, but not one short on credentials, to change the skeptics’ minds.

Cross-trained in history, archaeology and preservation, Dan Allen has become one of the state’s leading cemetery experts by writing field reports, restoring hundreds of headstones and tombs, and relocating thousands of graves.

In short, he moves dead people.

He’s also, as Lodl says, “the expert” when it comes to divining rods.

Allen, whose beard is speckled gray atop weathered features, acknowledges being one of the “better witchers around.”

But working earlier this month in matching brown hat and overalls in Murfree Cemetery in Williamson County, he was just as happy siding with skeptics.

“I can dowse, but I do not trust this method,” he said. “It can’t be explained why it works.”

His devotion to science sounds less steadfast when he adds, “I use these for a starting place.”

With that, Allen flipped open his chrome toolbox, grabbed two surveyor’s markers, stripped off their orange flags and bent the metal into L-shaped rods.

Elbows at his sides, arms out front, Allen held the short ends and walked into the family cemetery, where 11 people were buried from 1809 to 1841.

Staring ahead, he walked with short, deliberate steps, like a member of a marching band. Arriving at the tomb of Col. Hardy Murfree, for whom Murfreesboro is named, the rods swung to a crossed position.

“It’s like a screwdriver to me,” he said. “It’s a tool; a poor man’s metal detector.”

Allen has used radar and excavations to verify dozens of his dowsing discoveries.

But like the legion of Internet speculators, he can only offer theories about what sets the rods into motion. It might have to do with magnetic fields, he ventured. Or perhaps the rods amplify his intuitions.

Allen — and Lodl and Hall, for that matter — don’t worry about the scientists who debunk dowsing. Allen even plays along with the detractors. To demonstrate, he stuck a leg out beneath the rods he was holding.

They crossed, which Allen seemed to believe suggested a connection to meat.

“A Big Mac will dowse. A piece of bacon will dowse,” he said, adding water and metal to the list of things that seem to excite the rods.

“It just gives me a reference point,” he said, veering back once more toward the solid ground of science. “I tend to stack several layers of evidence.”

Allen’s faith in dowsing stops short of a willingness to take the rods into a courtroom, so he uses records, historical burial patterns, ground probing and radar.

“Some people won’t believe that, either, and I’ll take them down to show them human bones,” he said. “I’ve had to do that.”

Arming developers with better information

In the spring, old and new methods converged on a project at the privately owned Evergreen Graveyard, an African-American cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Middle Tennessee State University’s Zada Law, director of the Fullerton Laboratory for Spatial Technology, used computers to overlay historical maps with modern aerial photos. That narrowed down the location of the graveyard.

Then the county’s GIS department focused there with laser radar images showing depressions in the ground, leading finally to Allen’s pinpointing of unmarked graves with rods.

The project went deep in the name of history, Law said, but the research is not just for historians and genealogists. The people making choices about development need it, too.

“It helps us make better decisions,” she said.

At the archives, Lodl has already used information from that project to help researchers, local and otherwise, in search of their ancestors.

Genealogy has experienced its own technological revolution with the help of the Internet, where more and more records keep cropping up, helping to broaden family trees.

“We get that every day,” Lodl said. “People always want to know where their ancestors are buried.”

For African-Americans in Rutherford County, finding those places has become easier.

Mary Watkins of Walterhill began writing her family history the old-fashioned way, by spending four summers combing through microfilm at the library.

She also sought out the oldest neighbors she could find and spent hours upon hours on Ancestry.com.

Armed with new information, she took to the fields and backyards that served as cemeteries in centuries past. She found wood and stone markers with the names of people who lived and died washed away, often eluding the old technique of gravestone rubbing.

Watkins, 65, pursued every shred of information she encountered.

“People sort of laughed at me,” she said.

Over time, Watkins made her way back through eight generations of her family, to ancestors who were slaves. She has put her findings in a book she’ll pass on to her children.

Once she realized that she had a knack for this, she began taking on projects for others — members of her church, friends, or people who just happened to hear about her efforts — with an interest in reaching back into their past.

That has led to some interesting searches. Lately, Watkins has been consumed with trying to track down a mysterious local figure known by the name “Apple John.” No last name, and only fragments of information.

With a search that challenging, Watkins can’t afford to be choosy about how she searches. Whether rods or radar, again, she welcomes whatever works.

Somewhere out there, she knows, Apple John lies waiting.