The Cemetery Chickens of Key West
Quirky Key West is an eclectic mix of the cultural (Ernest Hemingway’s home) and the quaint (Sloppy Joe’s saloon). It’s also the home of gypsy chickens — feral fowl that wander the town at will. These raucous birds are the descendants of escapee backyard hens and former cock-fighting roosters released into the streets. Residents have a love-hate relationship with them. But visitors find them charming.
One unusual place to capture a gypsy chicken photo is in the Key West Cemetery. Like the town, the cemetery is fascinating, colorful and well worth an hour-long stroll. In many ways, it’s a time capsule of Key West’s tragedies and whimsies. Slaves, murderers, Civil War soldiers, politicians and ordinary citizens rest side-by-side. And their tombstones are now patrolled by free-roaming roosters.
Occupied since 1847, the Key West Cemetery is at the highest point in Old Town. Because the island’s high water table requires burying bodies above ground, the cemetery resembles a small village, with white-washed vaults separated by meandering walkways. The tombs are built with tile, stone and metal that reflect the Key West culture. And they range from a sculpture of a naked, bound woman who mystifies visitors to vaults that are intricate works of art, showcasing the Art Deco or the Gothic Revival eras. Regardless of appearance, all are now the favorite perching places for gypsy chickens.
Even more fascinating than the birds, the stories of the occupants mesmerize visitors. There’s Caroline Lowe, who defiantly flew the Confederate flag from her Duval Street home over the heads of marching Union troops. Willard Antonio Gomez was a bootlegger and the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not. Perhaps most noteworthy, Austin Griffin killed his wife while eating breakfast, before taking his own life by drinking carbolic acid.
For a self-guided tour of the cemetery, start at the entrance in the northwest corner at Passover Lane and Angela Street. You can pick up a helpful map with historical information and details of the occupants. It’s a fun way to spend some of your free time during your next visit to Key West, Perhaps you’d like to try our upcoming tour that also features Miami and the Everglades. Contact us for more information. Happy chicken hunting!
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