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Grave Stories

Being from New Orleans, where cemeteries are genuine tourist attractions, doesn’t make me appreciate our western variety any less. Our sometimes ornate gates and occasional elaborate headstones make up for the more plentiful slabs half buried in dead grass. Although each one represents a life lived, the chiseled facts are few. They were born and they died. But what happened in between? For that one can only surmise.

Unless, of course, you drive past the oldest cemetery in town on the very day they hang a sign advertising the first Historic Citizens’ Cemetery Walk.

Luckily, it doesn’t take much cajoling to get Mr. Lee to go along with just about anything on an unseasonably warm October afternoon. As we climbed over the three-foot rock wall at the far back of the old graveyard, I was reminded that it wasn’t the first time we’d hopped this wall. Nobody knows for sure why teenagers hang around dilapidated cemeteries, but I’m betting that anyone who grew up in a small town has wandered into an old cemetery for one reason or another. Back then this one was littered with garbage, broken grave markers, and thigh-high weeds. Today, it is quite the opposite. Besides the refurbished headstones and neatly maintained grounds, there are a number of dead people milling around their own graves.

We were immediately drawn to a woman in mourning dress and a wind-whipped black veil, who sat atop the grave of Charles Baldwin Genung. She’s his widow, Ida. And she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen his story—that he was the first white man to settle in Yavapai County, to own the first cattle ranch here, and to build the first road to Wickenburg, that she bore him ten children, and that he woke up one day and shot himself. It wasn’t clear if the pistol laid out on the table next to her was the one Charles used to end his life or the one she received as a wedding present when they married in 1869. Ida had a hard life and, in the end, isn’t even buried next to her beloved Charles. She resides in Mountain View, the newer cemetery across town.

Judging from the lack of headstones in Citizens’ Cemetery one might wonder why they built a new one at all. I’m prone to asking a lot of questions (the usual reason Mr. Lee ditches me, which he had by this time).

Although mostly unmarked, there are believed to be more than 3,500 graves in Citizens’ Cemetery. The first burial took place in 1864. Then, somewhere in the 1930s, the town mortician, Lester Ruffner, complained about unearthing unexpected remains every time they dug a new grave. Shortly thereafter, the cemetery was officially closed.

Bessie May Caldwell, whose husband slashed her throat from ear to ear because he thought she poisoned his dinner, was one of the last buried in Citizens’ Cemetery. She died in 1933, and couldn’t have been more pleasant when we met her this past October. She told us that her husband, Fulton, was declared insane and lived out his paranoid schizophrenic life in the State Hospital. Bessie May was a seamstress, just like my grandmother, who was also called Bessie May.

Juan Moreno sang and played the ukulele while telling his tale of walking all the way from Mexico to Prescott, Arizona in the early 1900s. He sounded pretty good, considering he’s been dead for more than eighty years.

I learned a bit of trivia too. In potter’s field the good folk are buried with their feet facing east, while the bad guys’ feet face west. And the fences bordering individual graves weren’t just for decoration. They were erected to keep the cattle out—presumably to prevent them from grazing on the gourmet grass fertilized by our dearly departed. Hey, this is the Wild West.

Gussie Palmer was only eleven when, in 1891, his own mother shot and killed him. It was an accident. She’d been cleaning her gun when it went off, killing him instantly. Poor Mrs. Palmer suffered terrible heartache over the incident, until she was finally able to arrange her own demise two and a half years later. Her husband owned a mine and, when he wasn’t paying attention, she stole off with a bottle of Carbolic Acid. Back in her hotel room she swallowed a cup of the cocktail. A weepy Eleanor described her ordeal as being slow and horribly painful, while the ingested acid took several minutes to burn her to death. Eleanor and Gussie are buried side-by-side.

At the end of the tour, I paid my $10 admission (remember I hopped the back wall), in hopes that the Yavapai Cemetery Association will make this an annual event. The actors did an amazing job of bringing these and a few other stories of ‘what happened in between’ to life.

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