Sunday, September 24, 2017

Grinnell's Potters' Field: Who's Buried There?

When I began this blog a couple of years ago, I asked the rhetorical question, "Whose stories deserve to be told?" My point was that narratives of our past commonly exclude large swaths of the population: women; members of religious, racial or ethnic minorities; the disabled; and the poor. The resulting stories, therefore, omit a great deal, and often overlook the unhappy and unsuccessful lives that also belong to our past.

Perhaps nothing illustrates so well the difference between stories told and lives forgotten as potter's fields. A term whose precise origins remain obscure, potter's fields have existed since at least biblical times when, according to Christian scriptures, the chief priests took the money returned by Judas Iscariot, and used it to purchase a "potter's field in which to bury strangers." Already excavated for the clay potters used in their craft, potter's fields made for inexpensive burial of the unknown (strangers) and those too poor to acquire their own burial sites. Like many other places, New York City continues to maintain its own potters' field on Hart Island where the unclaimed bodies of the indigent, criminal, and the unidentified continue to take their final resting place. As in most potter's fields, there the dead sleep unidentified, with no markers or gravestones to testify to their once having been part of the human story.
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery (2017 photo)
It might surprise some to learn that Grinnell's Hazelwood Cemetery also includes a potter's field. Occupying a strip across the southeastern edge of the original cemetery, Grinnell' potter's field provides burial for transients, the poor, and others for whom no one spoke when death claimed them. Seen from the nearby roadway, Hazelwood's potter's field gives the appearance of uninterrupted lawn, a sharp contrast to the rest of the cemetery where stone markers stubbornly poke skyward, announcing the identities of those buried there. In fact, however, Hazelwood's potter's field, for all its apparent anonymity, includes some grave markers—small, modest slabs of cement into which the barest information was inscribed before the cement hardened. This post uses these slabs and other resources to resurrect the stories of some of the people who died in Grinnell and, for lack of means or identity, were buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.

Additional evidence with which to untangle the history of potter's field comes from old cemetery records recently transferred to the Drake Community Library local history room. Among the papers transferred from city provenance is a single page that reported on those—or at least some of those—buried in Hazelwood's potter's field.
Plats, Hazelwood Cemetery, Drake Community Library, Local History Room, Box #6
This single page identifies almost 90 persons, whose deaths stretched from 1885 to 1963. Some names appear with an attempt at localizing the grave ("two feet southeast of tree"), and some appear with numbers whose meaning is unclear. Otherwise, the descriptions are spare (not to mention difficult to make out), and follow no obvious order. Nevertheless, this page provides an introduction to some whose destiny took them to this isolated corner of Hazelwood cemetery. With the help of the occasional grave marker, the potter's field list helps us learn who were the people who ended up there, and perhaps discover what brought them to this destination.
Part-way down the first column of the cemetery's list of potter's field burials one finds the following entry: "Anna Coply [sic] April 12, 1920 Strangers Rest." We know little about this woman, except for a brief report published in the Grinnell Herald's listing of local news (April 9, 1920): 
Mrs. Anna Copley died at the Community hospital last night [=8 April]. The body was taken to the Snyder Brothers undertaking parlors this morning to await funeral arrangements. The deceased was about 35 years old.
How or why Copley came to Grinnell remains unknown, but clearly the newspaper did not know her, having misidentified Allie Stepp Copley (1882-1920) as Anna, and able only to guess her age. Apparently no more news arrived before her body was consigned to potter's field, gently titled here as "stranger's rest."

In fact, strangers who died suddenly in town with no kin to help or claim them often found their final rest in Hazelwood's potter's field. I wrote earlier about two Mexicans who came to Grinnell in the 1940s on temporary jobs, and died here suddenly. Both joined Mrs. Copley in "stranger's rest." Manuel Rodriguez Ramos drowned in Arbor Lake in July, 1944, and the following year Melchior Hernandez died in a Grinnell hospital. Local officials were uncertain about exactly where the two men came from, and had no way to contact relatives, no doubt explaining how the Mexicans ended up permanently at rest in Grinnell's potter's field.
Melchior Hernandez, August 17, 1945 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery

Manuel R. Ramos, [July] 20, 194[4] (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemeteery
Another Grinnell transient who ended up in potter's field came from a different continent. In June, 1932, Arthur Borowski, an itinerant interior painter, fell ill in Grinnell, and was admitted to St. Francis Hospital. For almost two months, Borowski remained in hospital, but the hospital register indicated no diagnosis nor treatment. August 5th, Borowski died. When admitted to St. Francis, Borowski had evidently told officials that he had come to town from Omaha, but the published notice of his death observed that the "only known living relative is a sister who lives in Poland," a fact that guaranteed that Borowski would be buried in potter's field.
Grinnell Herald, August 5, 1932
Even those who were familiar to Grinnellians might end up in potter's field. Take the case of "Rusty" Taylor, whom the newspaper described as an "eccentric recluse," and who burned to death in an accident January 13, 1944. The Grinnell Herald-Register (January 13, 1944) reported that Taylor had lived for "many years in a shack near the site of the old tile factory" south of town. Called a "mechanic of exceptional ability, almost a genius," Taylor nevertheless "rarely worked, preferring to live alone in his little shack with his pets," among which he numbered a badger, rats and snakes. Some years earlier Taylor had worked with Billy Robinson on his airplanes, but he had had little regular work for years. Because the McBlain greenhouse on East Street had recently suffered fire damage, Mrs. McBlain had hired Rusty Taylor as night watchman. At some time after 4 o'clock that morning when his employer had checked on him, Taylor fell asleep and "his oil-soaked clothing caught fire." According to a neighbor who was aroused by Taylor's shouts, Rusty threw himself out the door of the greenhouse, and hit the ground, rolling over and over in an attempt to put out the flames. But he was unsuccessful, the coroner reporting that Taylor had third-degree burns over his entire body.

As with transient strangers, no one in Grinnell knew much about Taylor, despite his having lived in Grinnell for decades. The newspaper allowed that he was "about 56 years old and was born in Canada," but there was little else to go on. Officials apparently learned the identity of a brother said to be living in Princeton, Illinois, and a sister who was thought to live in Canada. The newspaper said that officials were trying to contact relatives, but either they failed to reach his siblings or the relatives disassociated themselves from their "eccentric" kinsman, allowing him to take his rest in Hazelwood's potter's field.

Luke W. Taylor, Jan[uary] 13, 1944 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
A similar destiny befell Everett Fulton, who was "about 65 years old" when he "dropped dead about 4 o'clock Friday afternoon in the Rex cigar store" on Fourth Avenue. Apparently Fulton had just come from a doctor's office, bringing a prescription to have the pharmacy fill. But death caught him unawares as he sat in a chair, awaiting the medicine that might have saved him. Reporting on the man's demise, the newspaper (Grinnell Herald-Register, January 16, 1950) admitted that, although Fulton "had been around Grinnell for a good many years and had been employed as a hired hand by several farmers," little was known about Everett Fulton except that he had previously worked as a coal miner in Kansas. A subsequent report (January 19) indicated that officials had reached two sons—one in Kansas and the other in Texas. Both expressed an intention to come to Grinnell, but apparently without taking responsibility for their father's burial, as Fulton entered Hazelwood's potter's field soon thereafter.
Everett Fulton, Jan[uary] 20, 1950 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Likewise, when Martin Parse (1883-1930) of 1527 Davis Avenue died, the brief newspaper account admitted that, although the man had lived in Grinnell "most of his life," he had lived largely out of sight to most of the town. The published report claimed that Parse had a son, but his death certificate, reporting that he had died of carcinoma of the prostate, identified him as "single." In any case, if any kin survived Parse, none arrived to claim his body, so that Martin Parse soon joined other "strangers" in potter's field.
Martin Parse, May 5, 1930 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Even when survivors were known and close by, the deceased might nevertheless be left to join the penurious and unknown in potter's field—which is what happened to Arthur Tompkins (1887-1933), who died of injuries incurred in an automobile accident. His skull fractured, Tompkins died soon after admission to hospital, but, as the newspaper confirmed (Grinnell Herald, March 24, 1933), he was survived by his wife and several children. Indeed, his wife, Helen, when reached at their Des Moines home, served as informant for officials who completed the death certificate. Nevertheless, for reasons unknown, Tompkins joined the others in potter's field.

One fairly obvious contributor to the potter's field was the railroad. J. B. Grinnell is famous for having selected a site for his new town based upon the coming of the railroads, and, of course, the railroads did come, and they contributed mightily to the town's well-being. But less often remarked upon is the fact that the railroads also played their part in helping populate Hazelwood's potter's field. Of the several persons to have been killed at the railroad one of the most pathetic was never identified, and therefore the small cement marker embedded in the grass over his potter's field grave describes him only as "unknown man railroad victim." According to news reports (Grinnell Herald, November 6, 1931), an elderly man with a wooden leg had stepped in front of the Rock Island Train No. 9 at 9:15 in the morning of November 4, 1931. The train severed the man's head and one arm, killing him instantly. No identification was found in the dead man's clothing, and, despite the dispatch of fingerprints to Washington, DC, the victim was never identified, and his body was buried at Hazelwood, November 10, 1931.
"Unknown Man," November 10, 1931  (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Another occupant of Potter's field owes the railroad for his permanent resting place. James O'Malley, who earlier had lived and worked in Grinnell for some years, on June 7, 1933 rode a freight train from Des Moines where he had looked for a job. As the train approached Grinnell's Railway Express office at Park and Third, O'Malley tried to jump off. But something caught, and, instead of landing on his feet away from the train, he fell beneath it. "One leg was badly crushed, and O'Malley died from shock and loss of blood," the newspaper reported (Grinnell Herald, June 9, 1933). Authorities attempted to contact O'Malley's wife in Newburg, Oregon, but either these efforts did not succeed or the woman declined to accept her husband's body. As a result, James O'Malley was put to rest in Hazelwood's potter's field June 10, 1933.
James P. O'Malloy [sic] (1873?-1933), June 10, 1933 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery 
In October, 1940 yet another freight train generated a potter's field burial. The Grinnell Herald (October 31, 1940) reported that a "Negro hobo reached the end of the trail" when a Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway "southbound freight severed his body at the waist after he fell from a carload of poles." According to an acquaintance who was riding the freight with him, both men had been drinking alcohol on the ride down from Marshalltown. When the train stopped at the Grinnell depot, William Hart (as he was later identified) awoke to vomit, and when the train jerked to a start, he "fell off between the cars." Apparently at first unharmed, Hart tried to make his way across the rails to escape, but the moving freight caught him and cut him in two. Like O'Malley, Hart was known in town. The newspaper said that since Hart often stopped in Grinnell, many would have recognized him, "a rather stooped man who always used a cane because of an impediment in his walk." But local familiarity with Hart was only superficial, since no friends or kin asked for his body, leading to his burial in potter's field.
William Hart (1900?-1940), October 30, 1940 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery 
Perhaps the most wrenching tale of railroad death belongs to Velma Marie Davis. The June 2nd, 1933 issue of the Grinnell Herald reported that the little girl (whom the paper misidentified as "Vivian" Davis), left in the care of her invalid father in their home on the west edge of town, had wandered out of the house and through the fence. For reasons known only to her, little Velma started walking the tracks with her dog. Unfortunately, at just that time a freight train was headed west out of Grinnell, and began to pick up steam as it left town. Before the engineer noticed the tyke the train had run over both dog and child. The train screeched to a stop, but too late to help the girl or dog. Extracted from between the cars, some ten cars back of the engine, little Velma Marie was rushed to the hospital where she died an hour later.

Although numerous infants and children are buried in Hazelwood's potter's field, why Velma Marie ended up here is not clear. Unlike the transients described above, the little girl lived in town with her family, although apparently they had moved to Grinnell only a few months prior to the accident. But why would their brief residence in Grinnell leave her to join the unknown in potter's field? Perhaps the father's disability meant that the family had few resources and none to invest in a burial plot, and therefore acceded to the option of burying their daughter in potter's field. Or were there other reasons behind the abandonment of this little girl?
Velma Marie Davis (1931-1933), June 5, 1933 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
The death of Velma Davis highlights the fact that many of the graves in Hazelwood's potter's field belong to infants and children. At least twenty-two names on the cemetery list identify infants or children consigned to potter's field. As many readers will know, Hazelwood Cemetery includes "Baby Land," a section dedicated to the burial of children. Moreover, the graves of numerous infants and children can be found throughout the cemetery, often in proximity to parents and family. How did these little ones find their way to potter's field instead? Careful examination of some babies buried here offers possible explanations.

Part way down the second column of the hand-written list of those buried in potter's field, one finds reference to an "unnamed infant of F. H. Lagrange." Floyd LaGrange (1900-1969) was well-known in Grinnell where he lived all his life. In 1918 he married Vera Martin, and the 1930 census found them living at 1217 First Avenue, along with their three children: Colleen who was 9; Lorita, almost 5; and Judd, who was almost three. Their next child, who was born and died on the same day, May 3, 1935, ended up in Grinnell's potter's field. Records from that time, including the potter's field list, describe the child as unnamed, but Floyd's 1969 obituary identified the baby as Bernard Dean. Had the little baby boy, so long ago abandoned in potter's field, somehow remained alive in the memory of his parents and family?

Nothing survives to answer this question, nor does the available evidence explain why this baby was laid to rest in potter's field. The 1930 census reported that Floyd worked as a mechanic for the washing machine company, perhaps Maytag in Newton for whom he is said to have worked many years. His later employment—for Winpower, then Solar Aircraft in Des Moines, and finally for Berman Brothers Salvage Yard in Grinnell—gives little indication of his pay, but Floyd seems to have worked steadily and presumably, therefore, he maintained reasonable income. Nevertheless, his unnamed baby found permanent rest far from Floyd's and Vera's own graves in Hazelwood. Why?
Gravestones of Floyd and Vera LaGrange, West Hazelwood plot 467 (2017 photo)
The baby's death certificate cites as cause of death "prematurity," without any specifics. It may be, therefore, that the brevity of the baby's life—"ten minutes," according to the death certificate—coupled with the child's incomplete fetal development allowed the LaGrange family to separate themselves emotionally and physically from the newborn, and accede to the child's burial among the unknown. But then one wonders when and how this infant, unnamed when buried, came to have a name that remained in family consciousness at least until Floyd LaGrange's death in 1969.

Several other infants, whose circumstances we know less about, joined the LaGrange baby in potter's field. Guy Ewing, for example, was born September 13, 1932, but died in a few days, and was buried in potter's field September 17.
Guy L. Ewing, Infant, September 17, 1932 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
Richard Leroy Stanley was born October 23, 1934, but died the next day; he was buried a week later, not far from Guy Ewing. Nearby lay the unnamed child of Luther and Anna Mae Troxler, who was born premature (about six months, according to the death certificate) on January 21, 1934 and died on the same day.
Richard Leroy Stanley, October 30, 1934 (2017 photo)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
One of the earliest potter's field burials commemorated with a stone was James Snyder, who joined the others in Hazelwood mid-September, 1903, several months before he could celebrate his second birthday.
The infants committed to potter's field make one wonder what explains their seemingly uncaring abandonment. If some, like the premature La Grange baby, barely lived and may not even have been fully formed, we can perhaps more readily understand their parents' distance. The same might be said about infants whose lives were measured in days or weeks—although Hazelwood is filled with graves of infants and children whose parents claimed them and buried them near themselves, no matter how brief the children's lives. Hardest of all to internalize are cases like James Snyder's—a child who had already spent a year in his parents' care before he succumbed. How did he earn their inattention when death called him?
Hazel Haines (1920-1936)
Potter's Field, Hazelwood Cemetery
A very different story surrounds the grave of Hazel Mary Haines, above which stands a relatively new and handsome gravestone that provides the girl's full name (although apparently in mistaken order) and dates of birth and death. How this marker got there I don't know; perhaps one of her relatives took pity and later added this stone to her grave. But apparently at the time of her death her family abandoned her, like any stranger, to potter's field.

As the newspaper reports, Hazel was a suicide. Her death certificate confirms that Hazel Haines, when only sixteen years of age, shot herself in the left breast with a 22-calibre gun at 2:45 in the afternoon. What led this teenager to extinguish her own life may never be known, but how did a teenager with family in town end up buried in potter's field?

Born in Brooklyn, Iowa in 1920 and one of ten children to whom Pearl Otto Haines gave birth, Hazel had moved to Grinnell only three years previous to her death, the family taking up residence on north Summer Street. "A bright and intelligent young girl," the newspaper said (Grinnell Herald-Register, December 17, 1936), remarking that she "had promise of developing into a fine woman." Her father, Andrew Jackson Haines, who lived into his eighties (died in 1964), was a graduate of the Brooklyn schools, although his signature indicates that he might not have been fluidly literate. Hazel's mother also lived a long life filled with the labors of a farm and a large flock of offspring. None of this information, regrettably, casts much light on why a young, promising woman fired a gun into her chest.
Undated Photo of Hazel Haines
Although her parents and several family members lived in Grinnell a long time, both Andrew and Pearl Haines were buried in Brooklyn Memorial Cemetery. Why did they not choose to bury Hazel near their own plots, and why did they allow her to go to Grinnell's potter's field? I could discover nothing that answered this question, leading me to wonder whether Hazel's suicide had generated an emotional barrier that Mr. and Mrs. Haines, reportedly long-time members of the Church of Christ, could not scale. It is worth noting that Hazel's funeral took place not in her parents' church but rather in the Northside Friends church. The newspaper notice published no word on the ceremonies, named no pallbearers nor kin, making the young girl seem very much like the strangers buried near her in potter's field. Perhaps—and this is only a guess—after the parents' deaths a sibling or some other relative sought to dignify Hazel's grave with a more expensive marker and added to her on-line grave memorial a fetching photograph of a smiling, energetic young woman.
No doubt many other stories lay undiscovered in the graves of Hazelwood's potter's field. Even this small selection, however, reminds us that the physical separation denoted by potter's field is but symbolic of the separation that Grinnell felt from those buried there. Many of those who ended up in potter's field were in fact transients—people like Arthur Borowski or Manuel Ramos—whose brief appearance in town provided no opportunity for them to be better known or for their distant kin to claim them. Some others who lived here longer nevertheless occupied a space distant from most of the town. People like Luke Taylor, regarded as "eccentric" and different, never joined the warp and weft of greater Grinnell, so that when dead, they remained, as they had been in life, objects of interest rather than members of a social body. Hazel Haines, who took her own life, had to succumb to a similar distance, presumably because of the manner of her death.

And what about the infants and children who occupy space in Hazelwood's potter's field? At least some of these children arrived prematurely and lived so briefly that not even their parents could think of them as whole persons. Others who lived longer, like James Snyder, present a situation harder to understand. Something unknown to us allowed his parents and family to consign him to permanent rest alongside the others who remained strangers to living Grinnell.


  1. Another remarkable post Dan. No matter how sad it was in places, such interesting information. I did not know there was a potter’s field at Hazelwood Cemetery. Now I’m going to find it and hopefully some of the graves you wrote about. Thanks again for your posts!

  2. The "Baby Land" section always made me feel sad when I visited. So many unanswered questions. Thanks, Dan, for your attempt to shed light on some of those family histories. So sad that those who were "different" remained so even in death. Thanks again for sharing what you've learned through your research and writing!

  3. I want to mention Hazel Haines. She was one of ten children as Dan says. But I want to clarify a few things. She is my aunt on my mother's side. My grandparents had no money when Hazel passed so they buried her where they could which was in Potter's field. They never had enough money for a headstone or to move her. My mother was about ten years younger than Hazel. My mother spoke about how she grew up going to school (one room schoolhouse) without shoes. I know that my grandparents would have moved her if they could afford it. My aunt Betty was able to purchase the headstone for her in the late 70's. I remember that every year my mother would take me on memorial day to her grave and put flowers. This was even when her headstone was metal marker. I think that you are making some awful assumptions Dan about Hazel's family and where she was buried. I feel that you may come from a family that has not had to worry about putting shoes on the children's feet nor understand the kind of decisions that kind of poverty forces upon one. By the way........ my grandparents also lived at Tiny Acres.