Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Cemetery Tour No. 4: Two Strangers Among Us

This is the fourth of five posts that consist largely of the scripts used on Sunday, Sept. 25, during the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission's 13th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour, "Stories from Potter's Field."

Dennis Smith (left) as Stranger No. 2 and Steve Laing (right) as Stranger No. 1 portrayed two "tramps" whose remains were found near railroad tracks not far from Chariton during the early 20th century, but never identified. They were buried at county expense in Potter's Field and remain there among the "unknowns."


Tramp No. 1: You’ve never known our names, though we’ve been here under your feet for more than 100 years. And we’re not going to tell you those names now. 

But you called us tramps, bums, hobos, good-for-nothings and worse. We’ve been passing through Chariton on foot, riding the rails and hitchhiking for more than 150 years. Most of us just kept moving along, but a few of us stayed --- not because we wanted to. 

Tramp No. 2: Some of us were vagabonds, who loved the open road. Others were sick, mentally or physically or drank too much. But most of us had just fallen on hard times and once knocked off our feet, couldn’t manage to get back up. Some of us had families who never knew what became of us. 

My friend and I were buried here nameless in Potter’s Field six years apart, he in 1909 and me in 1915. But there were others before --- buried out at Douglass Pioneer Cemetery when it was called Potter’s Field, too. And some since --- Fred Sanders fell off a Rock Island car south of town in 1966. He was carrying identification, but his family didn't want him. So he’s buried over there by the highway with the veterans. 

Tramp. No. 1: I got off a west-bound freight near the railyards in northwest Chariton on Saturday, July 3, 1909, and spent the day in town --- looking for odd jobs and a meal. Several saw me --- a small man, 45-50 years old, dark complected. 

After it got dark that night, I jumped aboard west-bound No. 5, but got careless at the top of the Whitebreast Hill within sight of Lucas. As I fell between the cars, I was banged up pretty bad then tossed in a heap right beside the tracks. My neck and a leg were broken, all the ribs on one side of my body crushed. I died instantly. But at least I didn’t fall under the wheels. 

Early the next morning, just after dawn, the crew of Fast Mail No. 15 spotted my body along the tracks, then telegraphed Chariton after reaching Osceola. An engine and a car were sent out to retrieve my body and bring it into town, where it was taken to the Melville Undertaking Parlors. I was buried here in Potter’s Field with little ceremony the following Tuesday when it became clear no one would be found to identify or claim me. 

Tramp No. 2: I spent a day in Chariton, too, but six years later --- during early October, 1915 --- hiding out from the bull (we called the railroad police that). Then late in the evening I started walking northeast along the Rock Island tracks, planning to hop a northbound freight before it hit top speed. 

But it was cold and rainy, I was tired and hungry --- and sick at heart. So I took shelter in an old ramshackle building not far from the tracks. There I found an old rope --- and a barrel. I fashioned a noose, pushed the barrel under a rafter, tied the noose to the rafter, climbed on the barrel, put the rope around my neck, then kicked the barrel away. And that was that. 

John Elder and Elisha Millen found my body in that old building, still hanging, a month later, on Saturday, Oct. 30. By that time, I could not be identified although as nearly as they could tell I was about 5-feet, six-inches tall with a missing forefinger on my right hand. A box was brought to the old shed and I was carried in it here to Potter’s Field that afternoon and buried. 

Tramp No. 1: All I had on me when I was killed that night in 1909 was a dime, a spool of thread and a needle stuck into a copy of Saturday Evening Post. 

Tramp No. 2: All I had in my pockets when they found me in that old shed was a page torn from a song book with “Lead Kindly Light” printed on one side and “Yankee Doodle” on the other.

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