Saturday, March 30, 2013

Enigmatic tombstones: S. B. St. John & Family

A tombstone inscribed like this one, standing alone on a jumbo lot not far from the Chariton Cemetery's front gate, is a little like a red flag waving in front of a bull. You want to know more, like who S.B. St. John was, how many people are buried here, what were they like and what happened to them, how long ago did they live?

My family has a similar lot out there into which 12 have been shoe-horned without benefit of a single cremation, all clearly marked. I doubt there are quite that many on the St. John lot, but it's hard to tell..

Ruth and I spent a little time in the vault at City Hall Friday morning looking for the map of this lot (No. 1 in Block 29, Old Section), but it didn't turn up. Until then, we'll not know for sure. In the meantime, here's what I know now.


S.B. St. John is Samuel B. St. John --- and St. John once (like 120 years ago and more) was a familiar name in Chariton.

Sam's father, Bartholomew R. St. John (known most of the time as B.R. --- the "R." stood for "Royal") brought part of the family to town just prior to Nov. 5, 1855, when he purchased a hotel on the south side of the square and rechristened it "St. John House." This was a large (for that time) two-story frame building completed during 1853 by Edwin Culbertson and located on ground now under the west three-fourths of Hammer Medical Supply.

B.R. had been born June 20, 1807, in New York, and married there ca. 1830 his first wife, Mary. They were living in Genesee County when their eldest son, Samuel B., was born on March 30, 1831, and in Geauga County, Ohio, when the three younger children arrived, Elnora ca. 1832, James ca. 1833 and Harmon ca. 1839.

B.R. and Mary seem always to have been on the move. According to Sam's 1905 obituary, they had lived in both Wisconsin and Missouri after leaving Ohio and before arriving in Iowa. B.R. would have one more stop to make after leaving Chariton --- before death settled him down permanently.

By 1850, Mary was dead and B.R., his four children and his second wife, Emily, were living in Liberty Township, Jefferson County, Iowa, when the federal census was taken.  Bartholomew, age 42, had married 19-year-old Emily Prather at Libertyville on Sept. 16, 1849. They went on to have eight children of their own.

The B.R. St. John family was enumerated in both the 1856 and the 1860 census of Chariton, but by 1870 had moved on to Madison County, where he died on March 6, 1884. He is buried in the Hamblin Cemetery at Macksburg. That's his tombstone at left, courtesy of Find-A-Grave. Of the other children from his first marriage, Elnora died "in the early sixties" according to Sam's obituary, James moved to California and died there during 1912 and Harmon enlisted for Civil War service in Lucas County and after the war located permanently in Cedar Rapids.


Meanwhile, Sam St. John had married Mary Wilson on Dec. 13, 1853, at Libertyville, and their two eldest children were born there, Alice Mary on April 1, 1855, and Emily, during August of 1858. Sam and Mary brought their young family to Chariton when Emily was a few weeks old, during the fall of 1858, and his first job seems to have been managing the St. John House, which remained in the family in a haphazard kind of way until the late 1860s.

Children born to Mary and Sam in Lucas County included Frank R., born August 11, 1859; Jessie L., born June 4, 1860; and Lounette, born during June of 1867. According to Sam's obituary, there were two other children, both boys, who apparently died young. If either or both died in Lucas County, then their graves probably were the first in that big lot at the Chariton Cemetery.

Samuel followed a variety of trades in Chariton, but he was principally a drayman --- hauling freight from the depot to its destination and moving merchandise, household goods and other items from place to place in town. Although he left the St. John House in the 1860s, he tried his hand at hotel management again during the late 1870s and early 1880s --- this time at the Hatcher House on the southwest corner of the square.

Mary St. John's burial on the St. John lot is the first that can be documented. She died after an apparent stroke on Wednesday, April 27, 1882. The account of her death from The Chariton Leader of that date reads as follows:

"The wife of Mr. S.B. St. John was stricken with total paralysis on last Saturday morning, and never retained consciousness. She died this (Wednesday) morning at 4 o'clock, and will be buried tomorrow at 2 o'clock P.M. She has been ailing for several months, and suffering from what was supposed to be rheumatism, but it now seems that it was only the forerunner of the disease which resulted in her death. Mrs. St. John was in her 54th year, and highly esteemed by all who knew her."

Another calamity befell the family during 1886, when Frank R. St. John suffered an apparent stroke at age 27 while on the job as a messenger on the main line of the C.B.&Q., which passed through Chariton. He would spend the next eight years as an invalid, cared for by his sisters and father.

During early 1887, facing challenges, the St. John family benefitted from an act of kindness on the part of the Chariton business community that was reported upon in the Democrat of Jan. 27:

"S.B. St. John is an industrious man who makes an honest living teaming around town. Misfortune has struck him this winter. His son Frank, an express messenger, was stricken with paralysis, making a great outlay where a former income had been. And then one of the horses died, breaking up the team, and S.B. replaced him with a miserable old plug that he almost had to carry.

"Yesterday Gene Nafus started out from the Democrat office with a subscription list, and called on the business men around the square. In the evening he bought a good serviceable dray horse and presented it to S.B. It was a graceful act, a kindly effort to help one who is trying to help himself."


The year 1894 was a dreadful one for the St. John family. Daughter Jessie, who had married William C. Meyrick during December of 1881 and moved with him to Decorah, died there on Jan. 26, age 33.

Frank St. John died at age 34 four months later --- on Friday, June 22, after eight years as an invalid. His funeral was held at the home early Sunday morning and burial followed near his mother's grave in the Chariton Cemetery.

"About sixteen years ago," The Democrat of June 29 reported, "he accepted a position as an express messenger on the main line of the Q and railroad officials have been heard to say that he was the best messenger they ever had, and that they had never found anyone who filled the position as acceptable as he did. In the fall of 1886 while in the service of the company he was stricken with paralysis, probably caused by over-work. For eight long years he has suffered untold agony, yet during that time he has borne his misfortune with wonderful patience and fortitude, not a word of complaint having passed his lips for several years. Kind hands have ministered to his wants and everything possible for his comfort has been done."

Two months later, Mary Alice St. John, one of the sisters who had cared for Frank, died at home on Saturday, Aug. 25, reportedly of heart trouble. Her funeral services were conducted from the house at 5 p.m. the Sunday following. The Woman's Relief Corpos, "of which order she was a faithful member paid their last tribute of respect by attending the funeral in a body."

According to her obituary, in The Herald of Aug. 30, Mary Allice had been the home-maker since her mother's death. She had grown up in Chariton, "making for herself a noble, christian character, and gaining the well merited respect of all who knew her. In the home she was gentle, kind and loving, always ministering cheerfully to the wants of the family."


Three years later, during 1897, Samuel and his two surviving daughters, Emily and Lounette (Nettie) left Chariton and moved to Des Moines, where Nettie had a good job as a school teacher and Emily continued to work as a dress-maker.

Sam died at home in Des Moines, 1206 Buchanan Street, on Feb. 8, 1905, nearly 74, nodding off in his chair while reading and not awakening. Funeral services were held on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Methodist Church in Chariton before burial with Mary and their children. He was, according to his obituary, "a kind and generous friend, a loyal and law-abiding citizen, a faithful and consistent Christian."

Nearly 20 years later, Emily St. John died at the family home in Des Moines on April 19, 1923, age 64, of "heart trouble." Miss Emily had, according to her obituary, "surrounded herself with a host of warm friends, won by her high and noble qualities. She had a kind word and smile for all and even the children in her neighborhood loved her because of her kindness and pleasant, sunny temperment."

Emily's remains were brought by train to Chariton for burial on the Saturday following her death.

Lounette St. John, the last family member standing, lived in Des Moines for 31 more years before dying at Broadlawns Hospital on Friday, July 9, 1954. According to a brief notice published in The Leader of July 13, she had been an invalid since breaking a hip in a fall 10 years earlier. She was 87. Her burial in Chariton in the late afternoon of the Sunday following was the last on the St. John lot.

So there you have a something about those buried beneath that enigmatic tombstone on Lot 1, Block 29 --- Sam and Mary St. John, their adult children Frank, Alice Mary, Emily and Lounette and most likely at least one and perhaps two little boys.

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