Several years ago, on a busy summer day, a customer stepped up to the counter at Village Craftsmen with an unusual question. “Can you tell me the significance of the coins on the tombstones across the lane?” the customer asked.

As most of our readers are aware, Village Craftsmen is located on historic Howard Street, a one-lane, unpaved road on Ocracoke Island. A number of family cemeteries lie beside the lane, and some of the graves date to the early 1800s. Visitors to the island often walk through the cemeteries to read the epitaphs in order to glean a bit of island history.

I had no idea what he was referring to. “What coins?” I said.

The customer proceeded to explain that some of the tombstones had pennies, nickels, dimes and/or quarters placed on them.  I walked across Howard Street to investigate. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, as well as other more distant relatives, are buried there, but it had been several weeks since I had visited the cemeteries. Sure enough, several markers had a few coins resting on them. I told the customer that I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I assured him that placing coins on tombstones was not a traditional local custom.

Solomon Howard (1807-1853)
Solomon Howard (1807-1853)

Over the next several years I noticed more and more coins laid on local tombstones and monuments. One visit to the British Cemetery revealed many dollars-worth of coins (and even a few one- and five-dollar bills) placed on the markers. A neighbor and I gathered the money in a basket (it totaled more than $200) and passed it on to a representative of the annual British Cemetery Memorial committee.

For millennia, humans have decorated graves with flowers, shells, stones, feathers, candles, and other items. In some cultures, coins, bowls of food, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and other gifts are placed on graves, or even inside caskets as ways to honor the dead, to bring good luck to the deceased, or to ease the departed into the afterlife.

The modern practice of leaving coins on tombstones apparently has its origin with the military. According to posts shared on social media, different coins convey different messages.

  • Penny – A penny left at a gravesite means you visited there. It is simply a way to honor a departed service member.
  • Nickel – A nickel indicates you trained with the deceased.
  • Dime – A dime left on a tombstone means you served with the deceased person in his or her unit, company, ship, etc.
  • Quarter – A quarter indicates you were with the deceased when he or she died.

There is speculation that the ritual of placing coins on gravestones dates back to Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) who famously said, “a penny saved, is a penny earned.” According to the Christ Church Preservation Trust in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of coins are thrown onto Benjamin Franklin’s marker each year. The practice has been blamed for causing a significant crack on his marble ledger tablet.

Of course, there is no official protocol for leaving coins on tombstones, and the practice has clearly extended beyond honoring just military members. In recent years family members in some locations have begun honoring their loved ones by placing coins on graves. For many years Ocracoke islanders have decorated graves with flowers and shells, but, as mentioned, placing coins on tombstones is not a time-honored Ocracoke Island tradition.  As this custom grows, surely different people will have different understandings of the symbolism.

Most of the people buried on Howard Street did not serve in the military. Even those who did (including members of the US Life Saving Service and US Coast Guard) may not have military markers. And most, if not all, of the coins seem to have been left by island visitors, not by local family members. Perhaps visitors to Ocracoke simply wish to honor the many generations of sturdy islanders who have lived on this beautiful barrier island and endured storms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and isolation from the mainland.

Edgar Howard (1904-1990)
Edgar Howard (1904-1990)

As mentioned, the coins left at the British Cemetery are periodically collected and used to fund the annual memorial ceremony. Coins on Howard Street family cemeteries are used to help clean and maintain the graves.


Carl Goerch, in his 1956 book, Ocracoke, has a chapter titled “Died Before He Was Born.” In his book Goerch relates the story of visiting the old George Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road to take a look at the grave of Warren O. Wahab. Right there on the tombstone he reads the inscription: Born Sept. 10, 1855; Died September 14, 1842.

According to his grave stone, Warren Wahab died almost thirteen years before he was born!

According to Goerch’s way of thinking, the mainland stonecutter was probably careless and cut the stone wrong. Even though Warren’s family surely noticed the mistake, he muses, it would have been costly and inconvenient to return the marker to Washington or New Bern. As weeks, then months, and finally years, passed the family never got around to replacing the stone. A century and a half later the “mistake” still intrigues islanders and visitors. In fact Warren O. Wahab’s grave has become something of a tourist attraction on Ocracoke Island.

More than thirty years ago I went to the cemetery to look carefully at the graves. Warren’s parents, Job (1802-1860) and Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab (1808-1870), are buried there. Eliza was the great-granddaughter of William Howard, Sr., colonial owner of Ocracoke Island. Job and Eliza were the parents of fifteen children.

Job & Eliza Wahab Graves:

Three of the Wahab children died within days of each other. No one alive knows why they died, though the cause of death was probably a childhood disease, maybe whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, or some equally terrible scourge of the nineteenth century. How tragic for Eliza and Job to loose three children within the span of less than two weeks.

The children are buried close to the lane, beside their parents. Of course, none of the children died before they were born, and their tombstones do not indicate such. Job (March 3, 1835 — September 4, 1842) was seven and a half years old when he died. Jonathan (born July 14, 1826) was 16 years old. He died seven days after Job, on September 11, 1842. Warren died on September 14,  just a few days after his ninth birthday. He was born September 10, 1833 (not 1855).

Carl Goerch and numerous others have been misled. The stonecutter made no mistake. The confusion arises simply because the “3s” on Warren’s grave stone have weathered to look like “5s.” Careful inspection of Job’s marker reveals the similarities, and differences, between the 3 and the 5. Perusal of the family Bible and comparison to the birth date (1833) on Warren’s marker confirms the correct birth date.

A Page from the Wahab Family Bible:

(Photo courtesy of Neilson W. Wahab.  Wahab information is in lower right hand corner.)

Jonathan Wahab Grave:

Sacred to the Memory of
Jonathan Wahab
July 14, 1826 – Sept. 11, 1842
Why mourning parents grieve for me
Who made with you so short a stay.
Perhaps our heavenly Father saw
Some threatning evil on the way.

Job B. Wahab Grave:

Sacred to the Memory of
Job B. Wahab
March 3, 1835 – Sept. 4, 1842
This tender bud so young and fair
Call’d hence by early doom.
Just came to show how sweet a flower
In Paradise would bloom.

Warren O. Wahab Grave:

Sacred to the Memory of
Warren O. Wahab
Sept. 10, 1833 – Sept. 14, 1842
These ashes poor
This little dust,
Our Father’s care shall keep;
Till the last angel rise and break
The long and dreary sleep.

Jonathan, Job, and Warren Wahab were only three of many Ocracoke Island children and infants who died in the nineteenth century. Ocracoke, like many rural communities of the time, was often without professional medical care. Retired country doctors occasionally settled on the island “for a time,” but their skills, medicines, and remedies were limited. When no doctor was in residence (and that was most of the time) midwives tended to the sick and injured as they were able. Health care, for the most part however, fell to parents. Home remedies were the norm, and they were often inadequate to combat many childhood diseases including pneumonia, croup, congestion, consumption (tuberculosis), paralysis (polio), infections, diphteria, whooping cough, measles, and mumps.

For example, tragedy struck the home of Joseph (1834-1907) and Elizabeth (1838-1883) O’Neal in 1860. On the same day of that year three year old Alexander O’Neal and his one year old sister Josephine both died of typhoid fever.

Zilphia (1841-1919) and James (1839-1904) Howard had twelve children. Eight died in infancy. Although there are only four headstones in their Howard Street cemetery (see  photo below), close examination of the graves reveals different inscriptions on each side of the markers. Two footstones accompany each headstone. All eight children died between 1865 and 1884. The youngest was one month old; the oldest, six years. The parents’ grief must have been unspeakable.

Zilphia & James Howard Children’s Graves:

Florence Howard
Jan. 25, 1864 – Sept. 10, 1865
“Asleep in Jesus”

William W. Howard
Mar. 26, 1862 – July 14, 1868
“Asleep in Jesus”

Edith Howard
Oct. 30, 1872 – July 16, 1873
“Asleep in Jesus”

Cordelia Howard
July 16, 1876 – Aug. 16, 1876
“Asleep in Jesus

Stacey W. Howard
Aug. 13, 1877 – Dec. 18, 1878
“Asleep in Jesus”

Annie G. Howard
Jan. 25, 1879 – Dec. 22, 1880
“Asleep in Jesus”

Thomas R. Howard
Jan 18, 1882 – Oct. 3, 1882
“Asleep in Jesus”

Elsie M. Howard
July 21, 1883 – Dec. 25, 1884
“Asleep in Jesus”

In the far corner of the graveyard lies one more child who succumbed to an early death:

Elsie Simpson Grave:

Elsie W. Simpson
Nov. 7, 1910 – Jan 15, 1911
“Safe in the Arms of Jesus”

James and Zilphia had four children who survived to adulthood:

Lorena (b. 1866) and her husband Rev. Lawrence Olin Wyche (b. 1852) had three children, all of whom survived.
Homer (b. 1868) and his wife Aliph (b. 1876) had thirteen children, but only seven lived past the age of twenty-one.
Sabra (b. 1870) and her husband Daniel Tolson (b. 1867) had six children; one died young..
James Wheeler (b. 1874) and his wife Tressie (b. 1876) had seven children; five lived to see their twenty-first birthday.

Walk through various Howard Street cemeteries and you will see the following graves, among others:

Evans Howard Grave:

Evans Howard
Oct. 26, 1905 – Jan. 21, 1923
“Beloved One Farewell”

Failing Howard Grave:

Failing H. [Howard]
Son of H[omer] & Aliph Howard
Nov. 4, 1899 – July 14, 1900
“Budded on Earth to Bloom in Heaven”

Everette & Elcia Howard Graves:

Everette R. Howard
Dec. 18, 1916 – Apr. 24, 1924
“From Mother’s Arms to the Arms of Jesus”

Elcia O. Howard
Jan. 16, 1919 – Jan. 19, 1919
“From Mother’s Arms to the Arms of Jesus”

James and Zilphia Howard were my great grandparents. Homer and Aliph Howard were my grandparents. Neighbors on Howard Street remembered hearing my grandfather singing and/or playing his fiddle as he walked or rode his horse down the sandy lane, often late in the afternoon. Sometimes he sang happy, uplifting songs; at other times sad and mournful tunes suited his mood. Having confronted so many family childhood deaths, there is little wonder at his sometimes melancholy feelings.

One melody, typical of the sentimental Victorian parlor ballads that were popular in his day, that my grandfather often sang was “Put My Little Shoes Away” (written in 1873 by Samuel Mitchell and Charles E. Pratt).

Put My Little Shoes Away

Mother dear, come bathe my forehead
For I’m growing very weak
Let one drop of water, Mother
Fall upon my burning cheek
Tell my loving little Schoolmates

That I never more will play
Give them all my toys, Mother
Put my little shoes away!
I am going to leave you, Mother

So remember what I say
Do it, won’t you please, dear Mother?
Put my little shoes away!
Santa Claus, he gave them to me
With a lot of other things

And I think he brought an angel
With a pair of golden wings
Then I, too, shall be an angel
By, perhaps, another day
So will you, then, dear Mother

Put my little shoes away?
Soon the baby will grow larger
And they will fit his little feet
And he will be nice and cunning
As he walks upon the street!

I am tired now, dear Mother
So remember what I say
Do it, won’t you please, dear Mother?
Put my little shoes away!


Visitors to Ocracoke Island are often fascinated by the many family graveyards scattered throughout the village. In fact, at least 82 small cemeteries can be found on small tussocks, along winding footpaths, and in numerous back yards. As many readers of these newsletters know, nearly a dozen and a half family cemeteries line historic Howard Street. Many times the graves reveal more than birth dates and death dates, however.

Combined with local history, legend, and folklore they can be the beginnings of stories about sailing, shipwrecks, murders, military excellence, family tragedy, even geology. I have told some of these stories in past articles. Today I will share two more.

Directly across the lane from Village Craftsmen is the grave of Elnora Ballance. Born April 14, 1882, Miss Elnora died July 11, 1969. Her tomb (Ocracokers routinely use this term for a grave marker) is one that visitors often remark about because of the beautiful sentiment in the epitaph. It reads:

“She was as good as goodness is. Her acts and all her words were kind. And high above the memories I hold the beauty of her mind.”

Grave of Elnora Ballance:


Elnora was born Elnora O’Neal, and was a sister to my great-aunt Tressie O’Neal Howard. Village Craftsmen is built where Aunt Tressie’s garden was located. Elnora was married to William Dexter Ballance. William Dexter was the son of William Ballance, who in 1861 was involved in retribution for one of Ocracoke’s few murders.

In April of 1861 a sailor named Jim Devine found himself on Ocracoke Island when the brig he was sailing on, the “Black Squall,” wrecked on Ocracoke Beach. While he was stranded on the island Jim Devine got into a squabble with a young man, Bob Salter, “over a girl named Polly”. Jim Devine pulled a gun on Salter and shot and killed him.

At the time, Ocracoke was without law enforcement. William Ballance was among a group of men who retaliated by seizing Jim Devine and “riding him on a rail.” There is reason to suspect that they may also have tarred and feathered him. The next morning Jim Devine hid behind the large live oak tree on Howard Street that stands across from the present-day Irvin and Elsie Garrish home. He shot at William Ballance as he walked into his yard, but missed his target. Jim Devine ran away and hid as the island men formed a posse and searched for him. Eventually they learned that he had escaped by boarding a schooner that was anchored in Pamlico Sound. He was never apprehended.

The “Jim Devine” Tree on Howard Street:

jim devine tree

Elnora lived in her family home, now torn down, just on the left as you enter Howard Street from Highway 12. This house was also known as the Simon B. Howard and Eliza Gaskill home. The Westervelt family lives in a newer house situated there now.

Along with my Aunt Tressie and other island women Elnora Ballance often constructed beautiful hand-made quilts.

Quilting squares in the traditional Ocracoke “Cracker” Pattern:

Cracker Quilt Pattern

Elnora was not known to be very talkative, but she was a devoted mother and wife. She and William only had one daughter, and one granddaughter. Her granddaughter, Patsy, lives off the island. Islanders remember Elnora as a wonderful cook, and “a good person.”

I suppose the epitaph says it all.

Not far from Elnora Ballance’s grave site is the small family plot of James (March 26, 1839 – September 09, 1904) and Zilphia (February 08, 1841 – June 01, 1919) Howard, my great grandparents.

Zilphia & James Howard:

Zilphia & James Howard

Visitors often remark on the four small tombstones there, and the tragedy of losing so many children. Actually, my great grandparents had twelve children, eight of whom died between one month old and just over six years old.

Graves of 8 of Zilphia & James Howard’s Children:


If you look carefully on your next visit to the island you will notice that each small marker has inscriptions on both sides. Two smaller foot stones are situated between the pairs of graves. It is difficult to imagine the sorrow and pain of losing so many children to childhood diseases.  The eight children all died in a twenty year period between 1865 and 1885.

James and Zilphia’s twelve children (those who lived to adulthood are in bold font):

1 William M 03/26/1862 – 07/14/1868 6 yrs, 3 1/2 mths
2 Florence F 01/25/1864 – 09/10/1865 1 yr, 7 1/2 mths
3 Lorena F 03/02/1866 – 03/14/1897 31 yrs
4 Homer M 06/21/1868 – 05/15/1947 78 yrs, 10 1/2 mths
5 Sabra F 07/21/1870 – 11/27/1951 81 yrs, 4 mths
6 Edith F 10/30/1872 – 07/16/1875 2 yrs, 8 1/2 mths
7 Wheeler M 12/04/1874 – 11/02/1940 65 yrs, 1 month
8 Cordelia F 07/16/1876 – 08/16/1876 1 month
9 Stacy M 08/13/1877 – 12/18/1878 1 yr, 4 mths
10 Annie F 01/25/1879 – 12/22/1880 1 yr, 11 mths
11 Thomas M 01/18/1882 – 10/03/1882 8 1/2 mths
12 Elsie F 07/21/1883 – 12/25/1884 1 yr, 5 mths

In 1861, when my great grandparents were in their early 20’s, and as the threat of invasion by Union troops seemed imminent, the pastor of the Ocracoke Methodist Church, Rev. A.R. Raven, abandoned his island charge.  The parish was without clerical leadership for eight years.  In 1869 Rev. George E. Wyche was appointed to the Ocracoke church.

About fifteen years later the Rev. Lawrence O. Wyche, presumably Rev. George Wyche’s son, and a young man, was appointed to the Ocracoke Methodist Church.  He promptly fell in love with James and Zilphia’s daughter, Lorena Howard.  They married and continued to live on the island.

On October 16, 1887 Lorena H. and Lawrence O. Wyche had a son, Ira Thomas Wyche.  Ira, who was born and raised on Ocracoke, graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1911.  He went on to serve in France during World War II, was eventually promoted to Major General, and held many important leadership positions, including Inspector General of the U.S. Army under President Harry S Truman.

Ira Wyche’s distinguished military career often put him in contact with leaders such as Field Marshall Montgomery, Winston Churchill, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ira Wyche with Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Ira Wyche & Dwight Eisenhower

Ira Wyche’s Ocracoke ancestors are buried along Howard Street, across from the Village Craftsmen.

Graves of Zilphia Williams Howard, James W. Howard, Rev. L.O. Wyche, and Lorena Howard Wyche:

howard cemitary

Look for more tales and history in the months to come.  Ocracoke cemeteries can lead to so many interesting stories.

As I write Ocracoke is preparing for the annual OcraFolk festival of story and song, June 7 & 8.  We hope to see many of you on the island this weekend.

Until next time, all the best to you from your friends on Ocracoke Island!