The Funkiest Graveyards in America

Revised from my blog at

Boot Hill grave
Boot Hill in Ogallala, Nebraska (Photo by Steve Winston)

One of the places I often seek out when I travel is the local cemetery. Why? Because there, believe it or not, you can learn a lot about the place you’re visiting — about its people, its past, and its colorful characters and legends. And here, you may also find yourself laughing out loud at the poetic or funky or outrageous or angry remembrances etched into tombstones.

Anyone who’s ever been to the colorful old town of Key West, the last island in the Florida Keys, would probably use the word “funky” to describe it. In fact, it’s just about the funkiest town in America. Which is not all that surprising in an island chain that farcically “seceded” from the U.S. in 1982. In fact, some  independent-minded locals still like to call the Keys “The Conch Republic,” for the sea snails found in local waters.

Separated from the mainland by 160 miles of keys (little coral islands) and water, Key West is, literally, the last stop. (And it’s closer to Cuba than to Miami.). It’s always attracted folks who move to the beat of a different drum…the wild, the weird, the artsy,  the bikers, the treasure-hunters, the rum-runners, the speculators, the writers, etc.

Small wonder, then, that many visitors find their way to the Key West Cemetery. Here, they find a “city” of some 70,000 inhabitants — twice as much as the population above ground.

They’ll find gravestone inscriptions such as the one etched by a woman scorned, on the grave of her scoundrel — “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight.”

Here, they’ll find the grave of B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, apparently the town’s resident hypochondriac, upon which is inscribed, “I told you I was sick!”

Boot Hill grave for Sarah Miller
Boot Hill, Ogallala, Nebraska (Photo by Steve Winston)

They’ll also find the grave of “General” Abe Sawyer, a 40-inch little person who demanded  he be buried in a full-sized grave. Then there’s the eternal resting place of “Sloppy Joe” Russell, who owned the legendary Key West bar that’s today named for him (Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunt when he lived here in the ’30s). Also buried here is Hemingway’s chief source of material for the novel “To Have and Have Not,” a Prohibition-era bootlegger named Willard Antonio Gomez.

The inscription on the Key West grave of one Gloria Russell simply says, “I’m just resting my eyes.”

Boot Hill grave for Ava Hughes
Boot Hill in Ogallala, Nebraska (Photo by Steve Winston)

Another favorite cemetery for me is the one at Boot Hill, in Tombstone, Ariz., site of the Gunfight at OK Corral on October 26, 1881. Here, most of the markers are plain wooden crosses, and many are hilarious. For example: “Here Lies Lester Moore/Took six shots from a .44/ No Les/No more.”

And it’s hard not to feel badly for this poor soul who felt the sting of vigilante frontier justice: “He was right/We was wrong./But we strung him up/And now he’s gone.”

Or how about this one? “He was young/He was fair/But the Injuns/Raised his hair.”

Boot Hill grave from 1884
Boot Hill, Ogallala, Nebraska (Photo by Steve Winston)

Or this Tombstone original: “Here lies Butch/We planted him raw/He was quick on the trigger/But slow on the draw.”

Tombstone’s not the only town in the Old West with some great gravesites, though. Try these on for size:

In Colorado, “Bill Blake. Was hanged by mistake.”

Silver City, Nev. “Toothless Nell. Killed 1876 in a dance hall brawl. Her last words: ‘Circumstances led me to this end.’

And in Dodge City, Kans.: “Here lies Arkansas Jim. We made the mistake. But the joke’s on him.”

Ruidoso, New Mexico: “Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not getting up.”

Girard, Penn., the grave of Ellen Shannon: “Who was fatally burned March 21, 1870, by the explosion of a lamp filled with R.E. Danforth’s non-explosive burning fluid.”

Atlanta, Ga., on the grave of an adulterous husband: “Gone, but not forgiven.”

Stowe, Vt.: “I was somebody. Who, is no business of yours.”

Unknown cowboy grave
Guess where???? (Photo by Steve Winston)

Cemeteries can serve not only as a mirror on a person’s past, but also on the region in which they lived. And the times in which they lived.

One of my personal favorites is in the old town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Here, the local sheriff looked like he stepped out of the past, from boots to badge, from burly stature to beard, and from big shiny belt buckle to cowboy hat. In Cripple Creek, apparently, the Wild West was very wild.

Sheriff of Cripple Creek, Colorado
The Sheriff of Cripple Creek, Colorado (Photo by Steve Winston)

In the old cemetery here, there’s an 1880’s grave with this inscription: “Here lies a man named Zeke. Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.”

Boot Hill grave for Amos Black
Boot Hill, Ogallala, Nebraska (Photo by Steve Winston)

It’s only fitting, really, that I end this blog, with a note about…Ogallala, Nebraska!

When showing me around this tiny town’s “Boot Hill,” a young Native-American guide  told me an interesting story. Apparently, Ogallala had a wild reputation…which lured all sorts of violent people here. Even so, at one point in the 1870s, the permanent population numbered only 17 hardy souls.

And one year later…Boot Hill had 17 additional graves.