1103-1149 Verde Road
Half Moon Bay, California 94019 Founded: 1868 Size: 5.5 acres Number of interments: more than 60
Just south of Spanishtown (now called Half Moon Bay), the Northern California town of Purissima was established in the 1860s. According to a monument placed by E Clampus Vitus, “The town, with store, school, hotel, saloon, dance hall, harness shop, and blacksmith shop, flourished from the early 1860s to the age of the motor car.”
Purissima’s population was mostly German, Scottish, and British immigrants, judging from the names on the cemetery’s tombstones. They were primarily dairy farmers who ranched the grasslands between the Coastal Range and the sea.
At one point, Purissima was expected to become the most important town on the San Mateo County coast. Instead, it could not compete commercially with Spanishtown, which was situated in an easier-to-reach location. Half Moon Bay — renamed in 1874 — now lies at the confluence of Highway 92, which crosses the mountains from San Mateo, and coastal Highway 1. In contrast, Purissima stood down Highway 1, miles inland from the sea. Even the stagecoach had to pass through Half Moon Bay before it reached Purissima.
By 1930, after the death of some of its founders, Purissima was all but abandoned. The cemetery and remnants of a schoolhouse are all that remains of the ghost town.
About five miles south of Half Moon Bay, the Purissima Cemetery stood on a little knoll on the south side of Verde Road. John Purcell deeded the cemetery, with its lovely ocean views, to the town in 1868. I went looking for it in the summer of 2011, despite warnings that poison oak blanketed the site. Directions on the internet suggested that visitors leap over the drainage ditch alongside Verde Road. I found the right section of Verde Road, all right, but the cemetery had no sign, no driveway, no address, and there seemed to be no indication it had ever existed. Purissima Cemetery had become a ghost graveyard, as lost as the ghost town for which it was named.
In 2013, the Coastside Land Trust acquired the Purissima Old Town site. They pursued a clear title to the cemetery land, planning to revitalize the old cemetery by using it as a green burial ground: no embalming, biodegradable caskets, no vaults or grave liners. It took years to clarify the permitting.
I made a second attempt to visit the cemetery last weekend. There’s still no driveway, but there is a place to pull over on the opposite side of Verde Road. Paths have been mowed through the underbrush, trees trimmed back, and signs made the place welcoming.
Approximately sixty historical graves are recorded in the cemetery. Most are unmarked now, due to time, weather, nature, and vandalism. Some have gravestones that date to the 1870s. Others are marked with relatively modern headstones. It appears that people who lived in the town of Purissima are welcome to be buried in their family plots. Some gravemarkers “bear familiar Coastside names,” according to Half Moon Bay magazine.
Even on a gray March day, the place was charming. Birds were singing. The cemetery looks toward the sea in two directions. Flags of Spanish moss, festooning the old pines, waved in the breeze. At the top of the rise, masses of daffodils bloomed.
The new owners have reset the antique stones, although some are still discolored from the years they laid in the dirt. There’s still work to do, as evidenced by the obelisk remembering young James Henry and Samuel Miller, which has a dangerous slant to it.
Still, I’m glad that the cemetery has been rescued and that the grounds are open to receive new burials once again. I’m always thrilled when history can be retrieved from the brink of destruction.
All photos of Sacramento’s East Lawn Cemetery provided by the author.
by J’aime Rubio
Okay, so that title probably caught your eye, right? Well, it’s true. I literally found the man of my dreams via Find-a-grave, but the story didn’t start there. In fact, both my story and his were literally running parallel to one another for many years; we just hadn’t crossed paths yet. You see, I have been wandering cemeteries for years, researching and writing about the stories of the forgotten ones who have already passed on. He also was wandering cemeteries for many years, photographing and researching the vital records of the buried dead to contribute on Find-a-Grave, a website database for burial memorials worldwide.
At that point in time, I had been researching the life of Dorothy Millette Bern, once common-law wife of MGM producer Paul Bern. For far too long, Dorothy’s earlier life had been shrouded in mystery, but her reputation and character became overtly slandered after the unexplainable death of Paul, which has always been the cause of controversy. Was he murdered? Was it suicide? Several authors and journalists have tried to blame Dorothy for the death of Paul Bern, regardless of the fact there is little evidence to prove such a theory. It didn’t help matters that Dorothy herself was nowhere to be found when Paul’s body was discovered. To add to the mystery, weeks later Dorothy’s lifeless body was pulled from the Delta waters in the Georgiana Slough. She had been reported missing from her cabin on the Delta King steamboat, on its way to Sacramento from San Francisco. To put a long story short, I was determined to solve the mystery behind her strange demise and clear her name of the defamation. I spent a lot of time visiting her grave at East Lawn Cemetery in Sacramento, California. In fact, this cemetery became a sort of get-away for me to escape the everyday stress of life among the solace of the dead.
The cemetery itself is tucked away within a quiet neighborhood in East Sacramento. It was established in 1904, but the grand mausoleum that holds the main offices and funeral halls was constructed in the mid-1920s. I had been coming to East Lawn for quite some time, after I began researching the story of Anna Corbin, victim of a horrendous murder that took place in 1950, at the Preston School of Industry in Ione, California. The young man accused of murdering Anna was tried three times, since the first two trials ended in hung juries. The third time, with the trial moved to Sacramento, the defense was able to convince a jury of his alleged innocence and Eugene Monroe walked. Little did they know that he had been the prime suspect in another woman’s murder in Los Angeles in 1947, with the same exact MO. After being released from custody and moving to Oklahoma to live with relatives, Monroe committed another murder. This time, the victim was an expectant mother in Tulsa. He eventually confessed and was sentenced to life in prison, although he only spent 29 years in jail.
Both Anna and Dorothy’s stories became so near and dear to me that I would visit them at least once a week. During my time wandering the grounds of East Lawn, I discovered so many more stories of those interred there. From the older and lesser known brother of famous law man Wyatt Earp to the wife of mobster Walter “Big Bill” Pechart, the cemetery is full of some pretty amazing stories. Famed Big Band leader Dick Jurgens is interred in a small ground niche with a music note to mark his spot. Even one of the first doctors to help start Sutter Hospital, Dr. Aden C. Hart, is buried there in a very humble grave. Little did I know that a new chapter of my own story would soon start here, as well.
While researching Dorothy Millette Bern’s case, I noticed the photograph of her on Find-a-Grave. I messaged the contributor, asking if he was a relative. Mind you, just the day before I had sat at her grave, pondering life and death, literally in tears because I had come to the realization I was alone and so very different from everyone else I knew. I had faced a failed marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband for nearly 10 years. It felt like there was no way out of my situation. The only consolation I felt was during time spent at the cemetery, amongst the dead. As I sat there in front of Dorothy’s grave, crying, feeling the breeze of the cool autumn air, watching the winds sway the branches of the trees ever so gently, I said, “If only I could find someone who loves cemeteries as much as I do, who loves to do the same things. If only I wasn’t so alone.” I wiped the tears from my eyes and gave no more thought to the plea I had just thrown out into the universe.
A couple of hours after I sent that message on Find-a-Grave, I received a reply back. No, he wasn’t related to Dorothy, but just someone who had read about her in a book about old Hollywood. It intrigued him to know more about her story. He complimented my profile photo and the fact that it reminded him of an old Hollywood glamour shot. We had an instant connection and certainly a lot of common ground. We started writing each other more. That led to phone calls. It was at East Lawn that we decided to play a little game, I would leave him a present at Dorothy’s grave and he would leave one for me. I left him a stone engraved with “Surround yourself with positive people.” The next day, he left me an antique edition of the complete poetic works of James Whitcomb Riley.
Unfortunately the day he came to drop it off, the ground was wet from rain. He convinced the staff in the main building that he had to leave something for me. Thankfully, the girl at the front desk was enough of a romantic to oblige his request. When I showed up, I didn’t know how to ask the front desk attendant about a mystery gift left for me, but the lady at the counter was very nice. She even told me she was jealous as she handed me the book. “I wish someone would do something romantic like that for me.”
It’s been five years that we have been together now and another fifty cemeteries we have visited together since then. I no longer feel alone in the world. We make a great team in everything we do. I am certain that there was an angel up there who heard my plea that day at Dorothy Millette Bern’s grave and knew that there was someone out there for me. We just hadn’t found each other yet, so we were given that little nudge in the same direction. Yes, I found love on Find-a-Grave. The key to happiness was waiting for me right there at East Lawn Cemetery all along.
J’aime Rubio, author of Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered and Behind The Walls: A Historical Exposé of the Preston School of Industry, was born and raised in California. Besides being a mother of two, a published poet and author, she is also a journalist who has contributed her historical knowledge and investigative research to various newspapers and magazines in both California and Arizona.
Although she spends most of her free time roaming cemeteries and researching the past, she also maintains www.jaimerubiowriter.com which links to all six of her historical blogs. These blogs focus on people and places in history, with the hope to give a voice to the voiceless so that the forgotten will be forgotten no more.
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 submissions guidelines are here.
May Woolsey’s gravestone, Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California
by M. Parfitt
“You have the same hair as May Woolsey.” That comment from the volunteer coordinator at the Discovery Museum was my introduction to the twelve‑year‑old girl who would virtually take over my life during the Fall of 1996.
I was an occasional volunteer for the museum. When I originally volunteered, I offered myself as an artist. Occasionally they gave me interesting sign-making projects, and once they let me set up a small display, but to my disappointment, they just loved my speed and accuracy at the cash register. They stuck me in the gift shop for hours and hours and hours.
Many times, I’d walked past May’s hundred‑year‑old trunk full of Victorian goodies. May herself never reached across the decades and spoke to me until that day, when I peered closely into the jumbled collection of relics and saw her thick, two‑foot‑long auburn braid. It was, indeed, just like mine.
The story of May’s life and death is mundane — an ordinary childhood cut short byencephalitis, a common 19th‑century disease. She was born in 1866 to Luther and Mary Woolsey of Sacramento, California, attended Primary School No. 3, belonged to the First Congregational Church, and died suddenly on September 21, 1879. Her brief existence would’ve faded from memory as her family grew old and died off, were it not for an act of her distraught parents: they packed all of May’s personal belongings into a trunk and, in keeping with the melodramatic customs of the time, sealed the trunk into a secret compartment below the stairway of the Woolsey home.
Toys, dolls, clothing, shoes. Schoolbooks, calling cards, newspaper clippings, party invitations. A sepia‑toned studio portrait of May herself, her long wavy hair gracefully arranged over her shoulder. All these ephemeral remains, the tangible evidence of an obscure, brief life, remained carefully hidden away until 1979, when the new owner of the Victorian house in the Alkali Flat neighborhood fortuitously happened upon the hatch cut into the second-floor landing.
I wasn’t living in Sacramento in 1979, so I missed the media attention May achieved that spring. Her time capsule, discovered exactly one hundred years after it had been so carefully concealed, was studied by local historians and put on display in the museum. May Woolsey had earned her fifteen minutes of fame.
“Where are You Going and What Will You Do When You Get There?” collage by M. Parfitt
Fast forward to 1996: My tenuous connection to May, via our matching hairstyles, was about to intensify. I was soon to become May Woolsey.
The volunteer coordinator brought it up casually. “The Old City Cemetery is planning a Halloween Moonlight Tour as a fundraiser,” he explained. “They need volunteers to portray interesting people who are buried in the cemetery. You know, with that hair, you could be May Woolsey.”
I cut him short with a reminder that it had been a long, long time since I’d been a twelve‑year‑old.
“It’ll be dark, you’ll be in a costume, and the audience will be pretty far away. C’mon, you like cemeteries. It’ll be fun.”
I couldn’t come up with an argument. The thought of hanging out in a cemetery at night — and not getting kicked out — was intriguing. He had me by my two‑foot‑long braid.
My transformation into May Woolsey required research. I stared at her belongings through the glass display case, taking in the details of her fancy Victorian gloves, beaded purse, and satin slippers. I imagined what it was like for her to play with the archaic games and toys found in the trunk, their rules and instructions guided by the straitlaced etiquette of her day. She had quaint things like small patchwork quilt fragments, dolls, bits of knitting, and some very serious-looking little textbooks.
My portrayal would involve reading excerpts from May Woolsey’s diary — and May, it seemed, was obsessed with fashion. Her diary entries described a “lovely fan,” pink silk “stockens,” and a new party dress of black silk trimmed with velvet. She also listed the colors and styles of the dresses worn by her friends. She was a hip twelve‑year‑old, by 1879 standards.
May’s tale featured a postscript straight from a Victorian ghost story. Mrs. Woolsey, disconsolate in her loss, had hired a spiritualist to communicate with May from beyond the grave. And sure enough, tucked in the trunk among May’s possessions was a letter seemingly written by the late, lamented daughter: “Dear Mama, I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now, Mama dear, do not weep for me….”
The letter offered hope of a reunion and, no doubt, gave Mrs. Woolsey a bit of solace. However, the lower edge of the letter had been torn off before it was placed in the trunk. The last words, and the signature, were missing. This enigma lay at the heart of May Woolsey’s story: Had she communicated from beyond the grave?
My job was to look and sound like May Woolsey: stand at her grave, read her words, recite that mysterious unsigned letter. I thought back to my own pre‑teen years: my passion for the New York Yankees, my appetite for Mad magazine, those knockdown-dragout battles with my brothers. I had nothing in common with this 19th‑century girl. How could I possibly pull this off?
I also had absolutely no acting experience. Four other volunteers, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey and two incidental characters, would round out the plot of our little drama, but May was the central character. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the idea of a captive audience. I wanted to be seen and heard — but being seen and heard as this Victorian maiden that didn’t thrill me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, May had her own plans. She, too, wanted to be seen and heard.
The final rehearsal went off without a hitch. The logistics of setting up a theatrical lighting system in a cemetery proved to be a nightmare, but we had an experienced technical staff and, after some fine‑tuning, it did work. Plenty of sound checks assured us that the wireless mikes were functional. We would give our performance for an early audience, relax for an hour, then do it again for a late audience.
The sun went down. The first audience filed in.
From our hiding places behind nearby headstones, we watched the other actors play out their scenarios of sad and mysterious deaths. There might’ve been forty or more volunteers for the Moonlight Tour. Our story was fourth on the route through the cemetery, so we had plenty of time to get ready. It should’ve gone off without a hitch, but May Woolsey had other plans.
The audience approached our site and settled into place on the benches and bleachers set up for the occasion. The lights went up and we started our performance. Suddenly, all the lights went off — all, that is, except the one that was aimed directly at little May Woolsey, the star of the show. The support staff scrambled to illuminate my cohorts with flashlights, but our seven‑minute skit was performed almost entirely in shadow.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. We bowed to their polite applause, stood at our positions until they trudged off to the next grave, then shook off our panic with a bout of frantic equipment checks. The next performance would be perfect.
A strange wave of mischievous energy washed over me. I felt like giggling, like dancing. My high‑collared lace blouse, recently picked up at a thrift store for 99 cents, suddenly looked pretty and feminine. (I forgot I was wearing an old sweatshirt underneath it for warmth.) My stockinged legs were warm. My tall lace‑up boots were sturdy. My petticoats and layered skirts rustled and spun around me. I wore a slip, a two-layer crinoline, and a calf-length skirt with three flounces. Not historically accurate, but it was the best I could do with very little money. In the dark, it looked fine. It gave the effect of Victorian opulence, and that was all that mattered.
The big satin bow in my flowing auburn curls fluttered in the wind. I wanted — needed — to be free and silly and ridiculous.
I ran to the chainlink fence that separated the cemetery from Riverside Boulevard. Finding a spot illuminated by the full moon and a conveniently placed streetlight, I jumped out of the shadows, into view of the passing cars. Horns honked, fingers pointed — the sight of a Victorian girl dancing in a cemetery on Halloween night nearly caused a five‑car pileup. A pirouette and a curtsy, and back I went into the shadows. I ran gleefully back to my grave. I mean, May’s grave.
The late audience arrived on schedule and we took our places in the dark. The lights went up. No problem. The first actor started speaking. Without warning, his microphone died. He was forced to shout his lines. The next actor took his cue and, within seconds, his microphone crackled and fell silent. On it went, each actor hollering lines meant to be spoken softly and reverently. My cue approached. I spoke. My mike worked. May’s mike worked.
The evening belonged to May Woolsey. Her lights, her microphone. No one could overshadow her this night. Afterward, the actor who played Mrs. Woolsey swore the spirit of May had been angry about the scene enacted on her gravesite. However, I knew better. I was May Woolsey for a few minutes. I knew she simply wanted to show off and dance and be a kid again, after all those silent years.
May didn’t mind the scene. She just wanted to steal it.
This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Check out M. Parfitt’s other essay about the Old City Cemetery here.
M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse. Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.
Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Founded in 1854, the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery is the final home of whalers, brewers, cattlemen, a survivor of the Centralia Missouri Massacre, and the brother-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo. Veterans from the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and World War I rest here.
Although the cemetery doesn’t boast any big names, it does contain some interesting stories – and the docents promise more, tailored to Obscura sensibilities:
John Richards, a very popular black barber, helped resettle slaves freed prior to the Civil War.
A monument remembers the 75 Santa Rosa victims of the 1906 earthquake.
“Doctor Dear,” Santa Rosa’s first female physician, was buried here in 1914.
Docents from the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association will be joining us as guides on this special walk organized for the Society by our resident Bay Area tombstone historian, Loren Rhoads, author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
A portion of ticket proceeds from this walk will be donated to the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association to help them continue their work with this historic cemetery.
Date: Saturday May 24, noon to 2 p.m.
Meet at the gate at Franklin and Monroe, 1600 Franklin Avenue, Santa Rosa.
Tour starts promptly at noon. Please allow time for parking.
Wear comfortable shoes for walking and dress in layers suitable for the potentially warm weather.
Space is limited. Advance tickets suggested. Walk-up tickets may not be available.
Yes, that’s the cemetery, way up there on the hill beneath the cypress trees.
Last month, Annetta Black asked if I’d be interested in arranging tours of local cemeteries for the San Francisco branch of the Obscura Society. Anything that gets people into graveyards is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. I was glad to do my part.
We had our first cemetery excursion on Sunday. Eleven of us went to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, which is across the bay, beyond Walnut Creek, and around the back of Mount Diablo. I’d forgotten what a hike it was to get there.
The mining car that became a cattle trough.
Our guide was Mickey, a ranger for the park. Even though I’d been to Black Diamond twice before (once on a private tour with the park supervisor), Mickey pointed out all kinds of things I hadn’t seen before, from steel rods bent by a boiler explosion to a mining car cut in half and used as a cattle trough. He knew where to find the bolts from which school kids hung a swing more than a century ago and where the old buildings used to stand. Here I thought not a stick remained of the old ghost towns, but much more survives than I expected.
Mickey told us stories of the characters who’d lived in the towns and the bobcats and gray foxes who live there now. He had a sheaf of laminated photos to help illustrate his points, which turned out to be very useful, especially as we stood in the old graveyard. I always like to see whose grave I’m standing over.
Sarah Norton’s gravestone, before it was repaired.
Since I visited the graveyard last, the park staff has repaired even more headstones. One of the ones I was most glad to see standing proud again belonged to Sarah Norton, the wife of the founder of Nortonville who had helped at the births of an estimated 600 babies. When I visited in 2002, her stone lay in a bed of concrete. Now it is upright once more, although someone had smeared mud or something worse across it.
In general, the headstones were bright white in the spring sunshine, which made it tricky to photograph them. I’m a little concerned that someone has been too energetic in their cleaning and will damage the delicate old stones. They’ve already been through so much.
Clearly there’s a lot more outreach to be done, too, to get people to care about — and care for — old graveyards. My goal is to set up a tour of a different historic Bay Area cemetery every month this year.
Next month’s tour will take us to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, home of the oldest naval cemetery on the West Coast. The tour, which will include the museum and the Admiral’s Mansion, is scheduled for Saturday, April 19, at 10 a.m. Tickets haven’t gone on sale yet, but when they do, they’ll be here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/events.
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