The story of the blood-stained crypt of Nina Cragmiles is excerpted from my book, “Forgotten Tales of Tennessee:”
The beautiful and historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is a landmark in Cleveland, Tennessee, that has been the site of many happy events. But its origins lie with one of the city’s most tragic families. The church was a gift to the city from the John Henderson and Myra Adelia Thompson Craigmiles in 1872 in memory of their daughter, Nina.
Nina was born August 5, 1864. Several historic accounts say she enjoyed riding by horse-and-buggy. On October 18, 1871, when Nina was seven years old, she went on a buggy ride with her maternal grandfather Dr. Gideon Blackburn Thompson. It was St. Luke’s Day. Some legends say Dr. Thompson had the reigns that day, while others claim Nina was allowed to drive the buggy and was traveling too fast.
Inexplicably, the buggy crossed railroad tracks in town just as the train approached. Dr. Thompson was thrown clear of the wreckage and survived but little Nina was instantly killed. Nina’s tragic death shocked the town’s residents but it is said no one grieved as deeply as her father, who adored his little girl.
The first request recorded in his will stated: “I wish to very plainly be buried in the lower-hand catacomb in the vault or mausoleum where sleeps the ashes of our darling little Nina.”
The Craigmiles were a prominent Cleveland family who attended the Episcopal church. Before Nina’s death, members of the congregation met under the name St. Alban’s Church and, not having a building of their own, met in the Presbyterian church building. John Craigmiles decided to build an Episcopal church in Nina’s memory. No expense was spared. In the churchyard, the Craigmileses constructed a mausoleum of carrera marble that cost nearly as much as the cost of building the church. It would house Nina’s remains and be available for future Craigmiles family burials.
A legal document record in the 1900-1901 edition of the Southwestern Reporter, which recorded decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court, stated: “That October 18, 1871, Nina Craigmiles, then about seven years of age, the only child and daughter then living of respondent and the testator, was accidentally killed; and in her memory the testator and respondent in 1872 erected a church, to wit, St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church in said town of Cleveland, and two or three years later constructed a marble mausoleum for the purpose of containing the remains of their child and of themselves after their death — said two structure costing between $40,000 and $50,000.”
Upon its completion, the church was named St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church in Nina’s honor. It was consecrated on St. Luke’s Day in 1872.
Historians say the building is one of the few Oxford Movement gothic churches in the world to maintain its integrity. The only additions over the decades have been electricity, air conditioning and heating. The mausoleum also is an architectural prize with its Gothic spires and statues of angels holding lambs and crosses. Above the metal doors is etched: “J.H. Craigmiles.” On the doors themselves are the words: “Nina, October 1871.”
Nina’s remains lie in a marble sarcophagus in the center of the mausoleum. A fringed blanket topped with a crown and cross are carved atop it. Along its side among a carved ivy drape is etched: “Born August 5, 1864. NINA daughter of M. Adelia and John H.E. Cragmiles. Fell asleep October 18, 1871.”
John Craigmiles would join his beloved Nina in Heaven in 1899 after succumbing to blood poisoning from an injury he sustained in a fall on an icy city street. Adelia lived nearly three decades more, but her death, too, would be shocking. At the age of eighty, she was struck by a car while crossing a Cleveland street. Although she had married again to a man named Charles Cross, she, too, is entombed in the Craigmiles mausoleum.
The Craigmiles mausoleum is a tourist attraction in Cleveland today not only for its architectural beauty but for the eerie mystery surrounding it. At some point following Nina’s entombment, red stains appeared on the white marble exterior of the mausoleum.
Efforts to remove the stains failed. According to legend, the stained marble blocks were replaced several times, but the red stains always returned. As is the case with many sites linked to tragic deaths, reports of supernatural sightings at the crypt are common. Some say they have seen a little girl in 1800s attire playing in the area.
Today, the blood-red stains are visible on the mausoleum, another testament to the impact made on local history by a little girl taken too early from this world.
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