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The Mystery of Emily Johnson’s Headstone

Close-Up of Emily Johnson's HeadstoneAccording to oral tradition, Emily Johnson’s headstone was discovered in the 1960s at the construction site of the Divinity School addition.  It remained in a closet there until 1993, when it was transferred to the custody of the Duke University Archives.   How the headstone ended up on campus and where it originally resided remain a mystery to this day.

Over the years, several attempts were made by William King, University Archivist Emeritus, to locate information about Johnson and or her descendants in an effort to relocate the headstone to its appropriate resting place.   He found no record of any real estate transaction between the University and the Johnson family, indicating that it’s likely the headstone did not originally reside on West Campus land, most of which had been family farmsteads.

There are also no listings for Emily Johnson in nearby Durham cemeteries, such as Maplewood.  While death certificates usually provide burial location for the decedent, they were not regularly issued in North Carolina until 1913, eighteen years after Johnson’s death.

Duke University Archives staff would love to know where Emily Johnson’s headstone belongs.  If any blog readers would like to help take up the cause, your efforts would be most appreciated (contact us!).  Until such time as the headstone can be returned to its rightful place, Duke University Archives will continue to serve as its custodian.

Emily Johnson's Headstone in its Box

Special thanks to Jennifer Blomberg, Senior Conservation Technician in the Conservation Services Department, for making a custom box for the headstone.  To read more about the construction of the box, please check out Preservation Underground’s related blog post.

Post contributed by Kim Sims, Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives.

5 thoughts on “The Mystery of Emily Johnson’s Headstone”

  1. It was just “discovered” at the Divinity School construction site? Could Emily Johnson be burried underneath or close by? Maybe that is why there are no listings for Emily Johnson in nearby Durham cemeteries. I think if you find her bones the DNA would help solve the mystery? There had to have been something special about Emily Johnson back in 1895 also.
    The article reads as if we don’t know who Emily Johnson is. Or do we know who she is…(no record of any real estate transaction between the University and the Johnson family) but just not exactly where she is…at the moment.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your comment, and for reading! Unfortunately, the documentation that we have about the headstone (and that we received when it was transferred to us) suggests nothing more concrete than that it was “discovered” at that construction site. We have examined plats and maps of Duke land, and haven’t been able to discover a cemetery near that area, or that might have been connected to an Emily Johnson.

      Since the name is so common, we haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly who Emily Johnson was. We’ve discovered one possible Emily Johnson in Wake County–how the stone would have made it to Duke is another matter! We’ll keep looking, and we’ll definitely use every means available to make a match and reunite Emily Johnson with her headstone!

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