ST. PETERSBURG — The mystery began innocently enough.
Boy Scout Troop No. 305 agreed to help clean up the historic Greenwood Cemetery, the final resting place for many of St. Petersburg's early leaders.
It's been in terrible shape, with weeds as high as toddlers and broken headstones scattered like gravel. But improvements have come in recent years.
Over a week ago, the Boy Scouts — 11 boys ages 12 to 18 — put on their work clothes and started digging, cleaning and traipsing through the tree-covered cemetery.
A few loaded a downed tree.
That's when they spotted the strange objects on a nearby Spanish moss-draped oak.
Three 5-inch-tall voodoo dolls, hung in a vertical line on the tree's bark.
"They looked nothing like dolls," said Bryan McDonough, 12.
"They were kind of like ugly creatures that would eat you alive," added his 10-year-old brother, Kevin, a Webelos Cub Scout.
Nails peeked through their stuffing. Rusty pins stuck in their faceless heads, arms and legs.
"It freaked out a couple of the boys," said scoutmaster Marty Robertson. "Some thought it was kind of cool."
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It didn't take long for word to spread.
It penetrated a few of the classrooms at Lutheran Church of the Cross School, where some of the Scouts attend. E-mails passed among a devoted group of preservationists who have worked for years to restore the cemetery.
One curious adult claimed she touched one of the dolls, and her friend wrecked his scooter that same day.
Was there a connection? Cue spooky music.
Located at Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street and 11th Avenue S, the Greenwood Cemetery buried its first resident more than a century ago. Dozens of Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, are buried on opposite sides.
Ancestors of some of the city's most notable families are there. The first mayor, David Moffett. Local hermit Silas Dent.
So is the body of Almon B. Strowger, inventor of the automatic telephone switch, who was interred in 1902.
A local artist from New Orleans got wind of the dolls and insisted on seeing them, said Chris Kelly, a historical activist and key player in the Greenwood Cemetery restoration.
The artist confirmed it.
The dolls are the real deal, meaning they appear to be the kind used in various African-derived religions like Santeria and Vodun.
"The nails are through the sternum," Kelly said last week, eyeballing the grayish-brown dolls hanging near the grave of a dentist. Their edges look scorched.
"I wonder if somebody got a bad root canal," he said, jokingly.
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The dolls don't appear to be causing anything more than a stir.
The St. Petersburg Police Department has not investigated any voodoo-related incidents at the Greenwood Cemetery recently, according to police spokesman Bill Proffitt. No dead animals. No body parts.
Local lawyer Marian McGrath said the cemetery's groundskeeper noticed the dolls in the winter.
"They've just been there," said McGrath, administrator of the Greenwood Cemetery Association. "We don't know where they came from."
Some of the Scouts theorize the dolls were hung as a prank. Others are not so sure.
Scout Thomas Bulu, 13, did some research after the discovery and learned sometimes the dolls are used to put curses on enemies.
"They can also be used to help people," he said. "Why do people do this? I just started wondering."
University of South Florida religion professor Mozella Mitchell, who studies Caribbean faiths, said the dolls are associated with a whole host of African-derived religions. They're common among people of Haitian, Cuban and Caribbean descent.
She said believers often use the dolls as sacred objects to connect with the supernatural world. Graveyards are ground zero for making that contact, she said.
Typically, the dolls are not used for evil purposes, she said. "I'd say certain sects might work a trick on somebody," Mitchell said. "But that's a very minor aspect of the religion."
As for the Boy Scouts, some will get a merit badge for their cemetery service. For others, the service hours will help them move up a rank.
But all of them left their cemetery adventure with a good story to tell.
Melanie Ave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8813.