Monday, June 13, 2011

In the potter's field

I’ve been looking at a list of 98 names, all of people buried in the potter’s field at Chariton Cemetery, transcribed from original records at some point and neatly typed.

The first is “Infant Hass,” cemetery burial No. 3,192, interred on Dec. 5, 1902; the last, Michael Kirkendall, age 11 hours, burial No. 8,831, interred Jan. 8, 1966.

These are by no means all who are buried in this pleasant grassy area at the southwest corner of the cemetery. Those who rest here had in common the fact they were too poor to be buried any place else.

“Potter’s field” is an old designation, taken from the 27th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In vs. 3-8, the writer describes Judas returning the 30 pieces of silver --- blood money. Uncertain what to do with the silver, the chief priests decided to buy “the potter’s field, to be a burying place for strangers.”

It’s not clear when the potter’s field in the Chariton Cemetery was established, most likely during the early 1860s when private investors decided a new cemetery was needed to replace both the Columbus hill burying ground here in my neighborhood and Douglass Cemetery, out along the Blue Grass Road.

They chose the ridge just south then of the city which breaks southward into the Chariton River valley. At that time the potter’s field would have been in the most remote corner of the property, far removed from paying guests.

After nearly 150 years, burials have filled older parts of the cemetery to the north and platted areas have pushed south to crest the long slope down toward the river. One of the most recently opened sections joins potter’s field to the south and east. I wonder how many people, eyeing the apparently open spaces, not knowing they’re occupied, ask if lots are available.

This was not the only place near Chariton where the poor were buried. Douglass Cemetery continued to be used as a potter’s field for many years after the Civil War as families who could afford to do so removed their loved ones to the new burying ground. Those who died at the county home, just north of town, were buried in a small cemetery there.

There are perhaps 20 tombstones in potter’s field, most of them modest, newer and in the most easterly rows of graves.

There is, however, a group of three very old marked graves under a big tree. The stones have fallen.

The largest, badly eroded, belongs to William E. Hollensleben, who died Nov. 18, 1867, “about” 65. He was a native of Germany, according to the inscription.

Nearby are George Evans, who died Aug. 10, 1865, age 3, and Annie Adams, who died May 23, 1875.

Although many of the names of those 98 people on the list are unfamiliar now, few actually were “strangers,” merely poor. Some actually were unknown, however.

An unidentified male infant “found under bridge west of Chariton” was buried here on June 14, 1935. An “unknown tramp,” age about 50, was laid to rest in the potter’s field on July 7, 1909.

On Oct. 30, 1915, the remains of an unknown male, “suicide by hanging,” were brought here for burial. I tracked this burial back to a front page story in The Chariton Leader of Nov. 4, 1915 ---

On last Saturday morning, John C. Elder, who resides a short distance north of this city, went to the back of his place on some duty connected with his work, and was in the vicinity of an abandoned slaughter house when he was attracted by a stench to the place. On entering what was his surprise to find a man hanging from the rack, suspended by a rope around his neck. The authorities were notified and investigation was made. It was found a case of suicide no doubt, and the act has been committed a couple or three weeks previous, to all appearances. He was a young man, not to exceed twenty-five, and had climbed upon a barrel, tied the small rope to the rack and then pushed the barrel to the side, so it would indicate. He still had a light cap on his head, and was dressed in working clothes, with heavy shoes on his feet. He had nothing on his person by which identification could be made. Not even a letter, pocket knife or trinket could be found in his pockets. Mr. Sam Beardsley, the east side undertaker, took charge of the body and deposited it in the potter’s field that afternoon. Some home, somewhere will always have a shadow and wonder what became of this absent member.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Beardsley, the eastside undertaker.

as opposed to a west side undertaker?

Frank D. Myers said...

Actually, that was it. If I'm remembering correctly Sam was affiliated at this time with the Melville furniture/undertaking operation (along with Edith, he later started what was one of Chariton's first funeral "homes" in a house on North Grand), located on the east side of the square, later moved to the Melville home just off the southeast corner of the square. I'm not sure who the west-side undertaker was, but there really wasn't much overhead involved in the funeral trade in those days so many were located in storefronts, some as in the Melville case co-located with furniture stores.