I have passed by this one-of-a-kind Magnolia Cemetery monument many times over the years and was never quite sure about the image on it. American Indian? Egyptian pharaoh? Christian angel?
The plot thickened when I really started to look into this mysterious memorial. Enter one of America’s most famous and accomplished artists and designers: Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Louis was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the famous jewelry maker and New York City’s Tiffany & Co. founder. Louis would
strike out on his own artistic path, earning lasting fame for his decorative stained glass windows, lamps and other art forms.
Louis’ diverse Tiffany Studios even created cemetery monuments that included this unsigned creation along Magnolia Cemetery’s front pond for Charles Witte after he lost his wife Charlotte (known as "Lottie") in 1890. "Tiffany had an Ecclesiastical division that did memorial plaques, baptismal founts, stained glass windows, and gravestones were an offshoot," writes photographer John Martine in a Flickr posting about a signed Tiffany monument he found in Chicago’s Forest Home Cemetery.
At that Chicago cemetery can be found a monument, erected in 1922, that is identical to this one in Charleston. On Graveyards.com The Graveyards of Illinois there is a full length photograph of the monument created for Edmund Cummings of Chicago. The accompanying description is as follows: "Edmund Cummings was a veteran of the Civil War and a member of the Grand Army of the Republic. After the war, he made his fortune as a real estate developer in Chicago and began an electric streetcar company.
The Cummings monument is exceptionally beautiful. Designed by Tiffany and Company, it features a bas-relief of an angel surmounted by a Celtic Cross."
Calling the figure an angel is, perhaps, an oversimplication. Some College of Charleston art, history, and religion faculty, when seeing the Witte monument, commented about the figure’s similarities to the ancient pagan depictions of an ancient pagan goddess. Many images of Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, share the large, elaborate wings of the Witte monument figure who is holding a trumpet in her left hand and a palm branch in her right, symbolic "props" also associated with the ancient goddess of victory.
Charles and Charlotte Witte had successful, cosmopolitan lives befitting an expensive, ornate Tiffany touch.
The third of 10 children, Charles was born in Blomberg, Germany of important and wealthy parents and grandparents. His father was a lawyer and a representative in Hanover’s parliament. His grandfather was a wealthy merchant and mayor of Blomberg.
At 22, after completing extensive studies in agriculture, Witte immigrated to America, arriving in New York City in 1846. He determined that farming wasn’t his destiny in his new country, instead he began work imports-exports. A position in this field brought him to Charleston in 1847. He also would change his name from Karl to Charles.
In two years he started his own business, finding a successful niche as an owner of Witte & Goodwin located on East Bay Street, which the 1854 city business directory described as "importers and wholesale dealers in foreign and domestic wines, liquors, segars" (cigars). Witte survived the Civil War, in fact, by 1866 he was well-off enough financially that he contemplated retirement. That year, at 43, he and his 21-year-old bride Lottie set sail for Europe where they would spend a year and half, and have the first of six daughters.
When the family returned to Charleston, Witte was lured out of retirement to be a director, then evenutally president, of the new People’s National Bank, which he would lead until 1899.
Witte would serve his homeland for many years as Germany’s consul in Charleston, a position in which he represented Germany’s commercial interests and he assist the growing number of German immigrants in Charleston. He also held longtime consul positions representing Sweden, Norway and the Austro-Hungarian Empire., and received awards from several of these nations’ rulers for his service.
Profiled in 1907’s "The Men of South Carolina," Witte is described as astute, well informed, and genteel. The book praises his 1816-built house at 172 Rutledge Ave. as "one of the handsome places in Charleston, a mansion of the colonial type a century old, and the grounds being the object of admiring interest to visitors."
The sprawling Witte family lived in the Rutledge Avenue home from 1870-1908. Not long after Charles’ death it would become (and still is) the Ashley Hall School.
Lottie died of cancer in 1890, at age 44. For her husband, the loss had to have been made somewhat easier by the houseful of daughters and grandchildren he would have around him the next 18 years before he passed in 1908 at 85.
He is said to have doted on his wife and six daughters. "Each of his daughters was herself a strong personality and made a good marriage, and each made a name for herself outside the contstrains of wife and mother in the early 20th century," wrote Ted Phillips in "The City of the Silent."
(This copyrighted piece is an excerpt from Patrick Harwood's forthcoming new book, "In the Arms of Angels: The History, Mystery and Artistry of Magnolia Cemetery" expected to be published in 2014)