A Walk Through the Past

A Walk through the Past: San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial ParkA Walk through the Past: San Jose’s Oak Hill Memorial Park by Patricia Loomis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

California’s oldest secular cemetery is the pioneer burial ground of Northern California’s largest city. The huge cemetery is a lively place on a weekend, but has been heavily vandalized in the past. Buried here are George Donner, who was 10 when he survived the harrowing winter in the Sierras but went on to raise a family of his own. Also here is Mountain Charley, a mountain man who survived being mauled by a mama grizzly in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He lost an eye, but lived 30-some more years. More recently, George Merino, proclaimed king of the West Coast gypsies, was buried here in 1975.

This is the perfect cemetery guidebook. It has a map, short biographies of the permanent residents, photos of them, their graves, and often their property or other historical ephemera that illustrates their lives and contributions.

The only issue I have is that its organization is confusing. Rather than starting with the oldest graves in the pioneer section, that section comes last. I think the sections are arranged in order from closest to the gate on back to the fence, but it means you have to wait to get to the most interesting stories. That’s minor, though, considering how fascinating everything else is.

You can get your own copy of the book at Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Local Cemetery Travel

Rhoads SF NationalI haven’t updated this blog in much too long.  I ended up being much busier than I expected in October. It’s always my busiest month, but this year was nuts. At this point, I have an essay I need to turn in and a couple of podcasts I’ve trying to lock down for next year. Then the 199 Cemeteries promotion is done until 2018.

Of course, I am taking the National Novel Writing Challenge again, trying to finish a book (in my case, a nonfiction book) in the month of November.  I tend to get depressed when I finish a book — naturally, I think, after the excitement of getting something into print passes.   I decided the cure for moping over 199 Cemeteries was to dive straight into a new book.

In this case, it’s actually an old book idea, one that I’ve been toying with for more than 15 years. By the end of this month, I would like to finally have the first full draft of The Pioneer Cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Obviously, this book will have a much smaller focus in geographic area than 199 Cemeteries, but I’m visiting and photographing each of these cemeteries myself: from Cloverdale in the north to Gilroy in the south.  I think there will be 80 cemeteries in the final book, although I expect there will be something closer to 100 in the first draft.  That’s not even all of the Bay Area cemeteries by any stretch (there are rumored to be 90 in Sonoma County alone), but it’s as many cemeteries as any sane person might be likely to visit.  It’s taken me twenty years to cover my first 100 local cemeteries and I’m not done yet.

The book will include some of the cemeteries I’ve written about for Cemetery Travel: Woodlawn, Lick Observatory, Mission Dolores, Mare Island, Hills of Eternity, the Stanford Mausoleum, etc. It will also have a bunch that I haven’t written about here but should: Tulocay (where Mary Ellen Pleasant is buried), Watsonville Pioneer (where transgender stage driver Charley Parkhurst rests), along with the final resting places of the survivors of the Donner Party, survivors of grizzly bear attacks, Forty Niners, Comstock silver barons, Native Americans, Portuguese fishermen, Mexican rancheros, and America’s first black millionaire.

It seems particularly important to finish this project now, since the firestorms this year threatened some of the historic cemeteries I want to include. I watched in horror last month as the town of Calistoga was evacuated, knowing that the emphasis would rightly be on saving homes and businesses from the flames, not on the fragile old cemetery that lies just outside of town.  As this writing, I haven’t heard if the Rural Cemetery in Santa Rosa survived the conflagration. Once that history is erased, whether by wildfire or earthquakes or vandalism, it won’t be replaced. Land is too valuable here.

I hope to get back to putting up a Cemetery of the Week every Wednesday soon.  I’d love to publish more Death’s Garden essays.  I’ll announce my 2018 speaking events as soon as I get them settled. I plan to organize some field trips to local cemeteries, for those who might like to join me. And I’ve got 20-some more cemeteries to research for this book.

There’s no rest for the morbid, baby.  I’ve got a lot of work to do.

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Win a Copy of Wish You Were Here

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Wish You Were Here by Loren Rhoads

Wish You Were Here

by Loren Rhoads

Giveaway ends October 23, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

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Death’s Garden: Paris’s Secret Cemetery

Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix,_Paris

Photo of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix by LPLT, Wikimedia Commons

by Erika Mailman

I’m not sure when it first dawned on me to wonder what happened to the corpses of all the people guillotined during the French Revolution. It seemed unlikely authorities would permit families to take the bodies home for a burial ritual…so where’d they go?

I started googling and learned a partial answer: there are two mass graves at Picpus Cemetery in Paris. The nuns at the associated chapel have carried on a perpetual prayer for over 200 years for the victims of the Terror. There’s even a historical celebrity buried there: the Marquis de Lafayette. His wife’s family was guillotined while he was helping Americans with our own revolution.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 6.11.12 PM

The grave of the Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, photographed by Tangopaso.

Not far from Picpus is the Place de la Nation, where the guillotine stood. Carriages brought the bodies from there to Picpus under cover of night.

In 2006, I went to Paris and, among other things (sewer museum, anyone?), went to visit Picpus. I was alone and relying on instructions from a somewhat unclear website. I ended up taking the wrong exit out of the Métro and wandering around aimlessly. I stopped and asked a few people where the “cemetiére de Picpus” was, but no one seemed to know. It’s in a very residential area, so this surprised me. The people I saw were just out doing their marketing. Somehow the double mass grave in their neighborhood had escaped their notice.

I finally found my way there and entered a very quiet space. Gravel walkways lead to the visually unassuming place where 1,300 people lie headless, massed together.

It is said that we only know of these pit graves because of the bravery of a little girl. Her father and brother had been guillotined. When the carts took their bodies away, she followed. We know nothing of her mother and are just left with the sad visual of an orphan who didn’t know what else to do except stay with the bodies. That story further darkened an already overcast day. I went into the chapel (it dates only to 1814 and replaces a convent on the grounds which actually predated the Revolution) and paid my respects.

A large plaque in the chapel lists all the names of the people in the pits outside. The plaque was also my first introduction to the fact that the revolutionaries renamed months and years, repudiating all that came before them. Lobster Thermidor? It is named for the eleventh month of their calendar (which doesn’t correspond to our eleventh month: more like mid-July, says one source).

At the time I visited Picpus, I was under the impression that the heads were elsewhere. Subsequent research unearthed the information that the heads were separately clumped in red barrels at the time of execution and the barrels were also emptied into the pits. An X-ray would reveal a chaotic mishmash of bodies and heads. Sad and disturbing.

There are more tales to be told about Picpus, like the Carmelite nuns who sang together in line for the scaffold until one by one their lives were extinguished. Imagine being the last woman singing. The crowd’s ferocity and bloodthirsty glee was at such a level that if I think too hard about it, it takes my breath away.

***

Erika Mailman smallErika Mailman is the author of The Murderer’s Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel. See www.erikamailman.com/events for readings and signings this month in northern California.

(Loren’s note:  Erika will be joining me and Dana Fredsti at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco on Sunday, October 29 at 6:30 PM for a special Women in Horror edition of SFinSF.)

Erika also recommends Lynn Carthage’s novel Betrayed, in which characters visit Picpus in the present day—and then timeslip to the French Revolution when it was an active burial site.

Photo of Erika by Petra Hoette.

***

Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am starting up the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submission guidelines are here.

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Cemetery of the Week #162: Oakland Cemetery

Black Angel damage

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa 52245
Founded: 1843
Size: 40 acres
Number of interments: at least 13500

In February 1843, the Iowa territorial legislature deeded one square block of land to the people of Iowa City for a public cemetery. Iowa itself didn’t attain statehood until December 28, 1846.

Since that initial city block, the cemetery has grown to forty acres. Unlike most modern cemeteries, which rely on the dividends from their perpetual care fund to pay for maintenance, Oakland Cemetery is a non-perpetual care cemetery, supported by city taxes. It’s overseen by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Among the people buried beneath the oak trees are Robert E. Lucas, first governor of the Iowa territory, who served from 1838-1841; Samuel J. Kirkwood, Iowa’s two-time governor who served during the Civil War before going on to become a US senator, secretary of the interior, and then minister to Spain; several presidents of the Univerity of Iowa; and Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine-born artist and printmaker.

Oakland Cemetery is most widely known for the supposedly cursed eight-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze angel standing over the Feldevert grave.

Born in 1836, Teresa Dolezal worked as a physician in Bohemia. After she immigrated to Iowa City with her son Eddie, she wasn’t allowed to work as a doctor, so she became a midwife.

In 1891, meningitis (an infection of the membrane around the brain) killed 18-year-old Eddie. Teresa buried him in Oakland Cemetery. To mark his grave, she chose a tree stump monument, to symbolize life cut off in its prime.

Teresa moved to Oregon and married Nicholas Feldevert. When he died in 1911, she returned to Iowa City so she could bury her husband’s ashes near her son. Teresa purchased a larger plot in Oakland Cemetery, buried her husband’s ashes there, then had her son’s remains transferred to it. Eddie’s tree stump monument was also moved to the new plot.

Teresa hired Mario Korbel, a Bohemian artist in Chicago, to mark their graves. His remarkable bronze angel arrived via the railroad in November 1912.

Twelve years later, Teresa succumbed to cancer in November 1924. Her ashes were buried in the family plot.

The bronze angel began to oxidize. Instead of taking on a green patina, as one might expect, the angel turned black. At that point, urban legends grew up around the angel.

Some say the angel was struck by lightning the night after Teresa’s funeral. Some say Teresa had vowed to remain faithful to her husband and the angel’s color revealed her infidelity. Others claim the blackened angel was evidence that Teresa had been a witch.

Urban legends swirl surround the Black Angel: if you kiss it, you could be struck dead. Pregnant women had to avoid its shadow or risk miscarriage. Only if a virgin was ever kissed in front of the statue could the curse be broken.

It’s harder to test that theory these days. Vandals have broken the angel’s fingers, so cemetery security watches visitors closely.

To be honest, the weather in Iowa is hard on bronze angels. In Council Bluffs, almost 250 miles away, a second black angel marks the grave of Ruth Ann Dodge, spiritualist wife of General Grenville M. Dodge, a Civil War veteran who became the chief engineer of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Black Angel 2

Vintage postcard from the author’s collection.

 

That angel, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, was created as a fountain, spilling the water of life from a basin in her hand. The figure was inspired by a dream Ruth had: a woman in a shining white gown appeared to her three times, urging her to drink from the vessel she carried. During the third time, Ruth drank — and she died a few days later. She was buried in Fairview Cemetery in 1916.

Oakland Cemetery is included in 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.

Useful links:
Oakland Cemetery’s homepage: https://www.icgov.org/city-government/departments-and-divisions/oakland-cemetery

Prairie Ghosts report on the Black Angels

A more sensational report on the legends, which some pretty photos of the cemetery

A paranormal team’s investigation in the Press-Citizen

Findagrave listing for Ruth Ann Dodge

 

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