Author Ted Phillips spent years researching the lives of the inhabitants of Magnolia Cemetery, digging up as many biographical details as he could for people who were often only known as a name carved on a gravestone. Sadly, Phillips did not live to see his labor of love get published.
The cemetery is a large-scale monument to man’s ability to give the murky subject of death an elegant, poetic façade. Consecrated in 1850, it lies on the banks of the Cooper River, surrounded by oak trees and shrouded with Spanish moss. It’s filled with statues, sarcophagi, mausoleums, and unmarked graves.
Phillips wrote short biographies for over 200 of its occupants, working from history books, registers, and Library Society obits. Some only warrant three quarters of a page, others a page and a half. All are concisely written, highly readable, and give just enough information to create a sense of what the person was like. If that person has been mentioned in another book or other major source, Phillips lists it. He often expounds on parents or children, and maps out their resting place at the end of the book. This is more than an encyclopedia of the dead — it’s a walking tour, a collection of human interest stories, and a love letter to a cemetery all wrapped up in a tight 200 pages.
Phillips’ love for Magnolia was kindled when he worked there as a teenager, digging graves and tending the grounds. Between burials he was able to explore the cemetery and read the names on the tombstones. He began wondering who these people were. Twenty years later he decided to answer that question in City of the Silent.
What really makes the book work is its alphabetical structure. Because the biographies are laid out by name rather than era or social status, politicians share pages with paupers, merchants with thieves, generals with carpetbaggers. By doing this, the author acknowledges that death is a great leveler. No matter who or what we are, we all end up the same way.
Some have downtown streets named after them, while others, like murderer Thomas Ballard McDow, the city would prefer to forget. With deaths spanning the cemetery’s entire history, Phillips captures Charleston’s changing society in an intriguingly morbid manner.
Phillips was a Harvard and USC School of Law grad and a member of the state Bar Association. He later became a member of the Brown Fellowship Cemetery Committee, a trustee of Magnolia Cemetery, and, for a time, a tour guide. For the last 11 years of his life he battled with the onset of AIDS. Eventually he had to retire from his work as a public defender and his beloved personal tours of East Coast historic sites. But by the time he passed away in 2005, he’d found the strength to complete most of the manuscript.
Thomas J. Brown stepped in to complete and edit City of the Silent, with Ted’s mother LaVonne Phillips as the uncredited transcriber, coauthor, and co-editor. The two collaborators will be joined by Ted’s brother Al to sign copies of the finished product at The Preservation Society’s Book & Gift Shop this week. Phillips had a longstanding relationship with the nonprofit group, working his way up from board member to vice president and secretary, so all proceeds from the book sales will go to preserving old buildings.
“I think it’s wonderful that Magnolia Cemetery’s being preserved,” says Cynthia Setnicka, manager of the shop. “It’s worth a lot of money to developers. I’m glad it’s still here — in fact it’s expanded.” She urges anyone who wants to help preserve historic Charleston to “buy the book and get the word out that it’s there. It’s a treasure.” She hopes that the information in City of the Silent will be used as the basis for an official tour.
Ted Phillips is buried in Magnolia alongside the people who inspired his book. Although they’re silent, they speak through Ted’s stories, celebrating their achievements beyond the grave.