The Disturbing History Of Mississippi's Turning Angel Statue

Founded in 1822, the Natchez City Cemetery overlooks the Mississippi River and is known for its historical significance (via the city of Natchez). According to the Natchez Trace Parkway, the cemetery is located north of downtown Natchez, Mississippi, and has graves that date back to the 1700s. Visit Natchez reports that the cemetery is full of local anecdotes, including one about Florence Irene Ford. Ford was a young girl that died from yellow fever in 1871 when she was only 10 years old. As she was afraid of storms, her grieving mother built a stairway that lead to her coffin to provide her comfort whenever a storm rolled in.

Most notably though, Atlas Obscura reports that the cemetery is home to the "Turning Angel" statue. With a solemn expression that overlooks the cemetery grounds, the statue was named Turning Angel due to the fact that the angel appears to turn whenever a car passes by. Historian Don Estes explained to Country Roads Magazine that "It's an optical illusion, but she really does look like she's turning." The publication states that this phenomenon is due to the angle of the road. Nevertheless, the Turning Angel statue is revered for another reason; it commemorates the lives of several local employees that were killed in a horrific accident.

The deadly Natchez Drug Company explosion

On March 14, 1908, the city of Natchez writes that an explosion occurred at the Natchez Drug Company. The New York Times states that the business was housed in a five-story brick building. Per the Natchez Historic Foundation, the property, which was built in 1891, was a masonic lodge until it was purchased by John H. Chambliss, the president of the Natchez Drug Company. On the day of the explosion, the company's employees complained that the building smelled like gas. In fact, court documents (via the Case Law Access Project) revealed that employees could smell the gas the day before the explosion. Nevertheless, nothing was done.

The documents go on to explain that by March 14, the smell was so bad that a plumber, Sam Burns, was called to the scene. Burns reportedly found the leak and told employees that he had fixed the problem. The smell of gas, however, persisted. Despite this, the company's employees were not sent home. Burns decided to take a second look for the leak using a lighted candle. Unfortunately, Burns triggered the massive explosion at 2:45 pm.

The city of Natchez reports that the building was completely destroyed. According to The New York Times, the explosion occurred in the building's basement. Documents posted by the City of Irving notes that several young women, as well as Burns, died in the explosion. In total, it's believed that a total of 11 people died (via the Natchez Historic Foundation). The youngest was 12 years old.

The statue was recently vandalized

According to the city of Natchez, the owner of the Natchez Drug Company was bereaved by the explosion. As a result, he decided to purchase burial plots at the Natchez City Cemetery for his dead employees. Additionally, he commissioned the Turning Angel statue to honor them. The inscription on the statue reads "Erected by the Natchez Drug Company to the memory of the unfortunate employees who lost their lives in the great disaster that destroyed its building on March 14, 1908" (via The News Star). Although 11 people were killed, the Natchez Historic Foundation writes that only five of them are buried next to the statue.

Per Atlas Obscura, these five graves belong to young women and the gravestones only have their last names on them. In June 2020, the Turning Angel statue made news when it was reported that the monument had been taken off its pedestal and nearly destroyed (per WJTV). Shortly after, WAPT announced that a 20-year-old man had been arrested for the crime. He was charged with malicious mischief for causing $40,000 in damages. A motive behind the vandal's actions was not given. After a series of donations, the Turning Angel statue was restored in New Orleans and promptly returned to the Natchez City Cemetery in September of that year (via WJTV). Per the Natchez Historic Foundation, the lot where the Natchez Drug Company once stood is still empty.