Tom Davis is a thin, older gent. He's soft-spoken; his demeanor's one of perfect calm. He's the perfect tour guide for a graveyard.
Tom's one of several historians who offer their knowledge to tourists who come through Crown Hill Cemetery. Sure, most are interested in visiting the plot occupied by John Dillinger or the one looking out over the city from James Whitcomb Riley's tomb.
But on this crisp October day Tom and I are looking for the lesser-known occupants, those whose stories aren't as legendary — but whose monuments are unique among Crown Hill's 550 acres. We'll see sculptures of grieving people — "perpetual mourners" — and marble statues of some who died very young.
Davis, an English-major-turned-accountant-turned-cemetery expert, spends the next few hours showing us memorials that are, for the most part, true works of art: marble masterpieces constructed in the era between the Civil War and the Great Depression. We're looking for the unusual stuff, the hidden gems nestled in Indy's biggest graveyard.
There's humor, here, too. Tom shows us an elaborate marker bearing the sculpted likeness of one Cornelius King. As we walk around to the right side of the monument, Tom begins to riff: "We have one president buried here, three vice presidents, 11 Indiana governors, 14 United States senators — and one Indiana King."
Sure enough, Mrs. King's first name was Indiana — it's literally written there in stone.
Davis continues, taking inventory of some of the odder monikers in Crown Hill: "We have three or four ladies named Indiana. We actually have a lady named Lake Erie Neal. There's a Nebraska Cropsey — she was a teacher in the library Downtown. I don't know if it's still there, but in the old library, there was a Nebraska Crospey room. The men were often named after politicians or war heroes. The ladies apparently got geography."
Tom's quite literally an encyclopedia of the dead — he knows the cemetery's quirks, the stones marked with cartoon characters; Donald Duck, Homer Simpson. Tom notes that there are two dogs buried in Crown Hill. "It's unofficial, but it's in the records — the dogs were buried by a board member who broke the rules 100 years ago. Don and Rab, two dogs."
Crown Hill's known for its namesake, of course — that hill, where Riley's tomb sits, is a deposit left behind by the glaciers that once draped across a big portion of the state. There was a time when the hill — at 842.6 feet — was the highest in Indy. When the city limits expanded to the edges of Marion County, a rise to the northwest became Indy's highest point at well over 900 feet.
What's less well know is that Crown Hill was originally envisioned as a prime example of the 19th-century "rural cemetery movement," which placed large graveyards in verdant, pastoral settings. Davis notes that most of this land was purchased from farmers back in 1863 when the cemetery was being plotted. It's why a large number of tombstones are shaped like tree trunks, mirrors of Crown Hill's natural surroundings in the Victorian era.
Another popular, recurring visual theme: "Cleopatra's Needle," the distinct tower-topped-by-a-pyramid shape most famously expressed by the Washington Monument in DC. When that monument was dedicated in the 1880s, it inspired hundreds of smaller imitators in graveyards and public spaces throughout the U.S.
Beyond mimicking presidential tributes, though, Victorian-era mourners were big on symbolism. Every embellishment meant something, from opened books representing an incomplete story of a life to stone flowers indicating a life cut short, two examples we found on a single statue. Modern stones are more literal: if the deceased drove a truck, perhaps an image of a semi might appear on the headstone. "There are only a couple of Victorian-era monuments that I know of that reference a person's profession," says Davis. "One was an artist, and a palette's part of the stone. Another gent who was a minister has a monument that includes his pulpit."
Nineteenth-century Americans weren't nearly as mobile as their contemporaries, either — that's why "family plots" full of blank stones are prevalent in Crown Hill.
Davis points toward the Johnson family turf. "You can see four rows of 20, maybe 80 headstones, none of which have a name on them at this point.
"Hopefully the entire Johnson family wants to be buried there."
Angels were big business, too: the Eastman family's marker features a white marble spirit atop a darker granite base. Next to the Eastmans: a gathering of simple stones, all with the name Vonnegut. Kurt — the author, not his dad — isn't buried here, though. He left Indy, and prophesied he'd rest elsewhere in the novel Timequake:
"It may be, too, that we wanted to escape the powerful pull, not of gravity, which is everywhere, but of Crown Hill Cemetery."
The Ruckle Memorial
A stature of Corliss Randle Ruckle gazes across the lawn. Corliss' grave is the most striking of the Ruckle family plot; even his father's marker nearby is nondescript by comparison. The marble likeness of this 12-year-old boy is worn from nearly 120 years of Indiana weather. The child looks plaintive and alert, leaning against a miniature staircase and clutching a bouquet of flowers. He's holding a book that's open — a Victorian bit of symbolism that indicates Master Ruckle's story was left unfinished.
Tom Davis: His dad there was active in the Civil War, also active in the Scottish Rite Cathedral — he has a portrait hanging in the Cathedral Downtown. They also sold real estate — that's why I'm sure you've seen Ruckle Street in town. He developed part of whatever subdivision that was in. Corliss died in 1889 from diphtheria. It wasn't unusual when a child died to memorialize them with a likeness. Supposedly, the steps number his age: if you start at the bottom, the step's marked with the year he was born. He's holding flowers — that's a symbol of a life cut short.
The Pieter Grootendorst Memorial
It's diminutive. Pieter Grootendorst's headstone is shaped like a very small house, hardly a foot high, with a peaked roof, door and windows cut into the stone. It's long and narrow, and one side of the roof carries this inscription:
Here lies the body of Pieter Grootendorst, born in Holland, September 29, 1918. I came to America in 1949 and wanted to love this beautiful country and I found out it was corrupt and that there is no opportunity for people who want to do right. So I am gone and may the Lord take my soul.
As noted in the coffee table book Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary, Grootendorst had owned a shop called the Humpty Dumpty Carryout Restaurant on East Michigan Street. One night in 1974 a man and a 13-year-old boy — the man's nephew — entered the shop and ordered some food. Instead of paying for the order, though, the older customer drew a pistol and announced he was robbing the joint. Grootendorst was armed as well, and in the ensuing shootout the child was mortally wounded and Grootendorst was struck four times.
The boy was named Lankie Whisenant, Jr. His uncle Troy Statz was the man with the gun. Lankie Sr. was waiting outside in the getaway car.
As witnesses circled the scene, Whisenant Sr. and Statz abandoned young Lankie, who died roughly 30 minutes later.
Grootendorst's injuries led to the decline of his business, and as his assets dwindled, he became ever more angry. He told the Indianapolis Star, "It is funny that our government spends so much money on foreign aid, but they won't spend enough money to keep our streets safe."
Tom Davis: The fact that the tombstone's a tiny house was a mystery to me for many years. I gave a tour to a woman from Holland, and she said there are many markers in this kind of shape there.
The Bratton Memorial
One of Crown Hill's more striking monuments is a large, contemporary, abstract sculpture that carries very little information: no dates, just a name in modern typeface and a signature at the bottom of an angular construction. Unlike many of the markers Davis shows us this day, this particular gravesite is only a few decades old. The artwork — which appears to be bronze, is adorned with a variety of surface features, including several spheres. It's hollow, too — a knock on the sculpture produces a distinct gonging sound. The artwork had actually been designed by the deceased, though apparently hadn't been intended as a grave marker.
Tom Davis: See the signature? The J? It's Jeffrey Bratton, who was buried June 11, 1980. As I remember, he was 21 or 22. Apparently he designed a smaller version of this. After he died the family commissioned an artist — from Ohio, I believe — to do a full size version of the scultpture.
The English Memorial
A monumental, ornate column towers over a circular plot of land. The base of the heavily inscribed marble column is surrounded by smaller stones, scroll-like affairs emblazoned with the names of the English family — Indy hoteliers, politicians and some of the city's first millionaires.
Tom Davis: William H. English bought this lot for $6000 — the land, that is. I have no idea what the marble shaft would cost. English had been a congressman before he moved to Indianapolis. He grew up in Southern Indiana, came here in the 1860s, became active in banking and real estate and owned and developed the English Hotel that was on the northwest quadrant of Monument Circle. He ran for vice president in 1880 on the Democratic ticket, but didn't get elected.
His son, William E., is on the other side of the main monument. As a young man he managed the theatre there at the hotel. An actress came through town — her name was Ann Fox, and there's a newspaper account from the day that states she caught all the men's eyes because of her short skirts and blonde wigs. According to the newspaper, English was "taken more than most."
He fell in love with her, but she went on to New York City to pursue her career and married someone there. When William E. found out that she'd married, he caught the next train, found the young couple and pulled out a gun. Fortunately, he didn't shoot anyone — he spent one night in jail, was released and within a week or two had talked Fox into divorcing her husband and coming back to Indianapolis. She died not too long after that.
Later, as we were fighting the Spanish-American war, William E. joined up with Teddy Roosevelt for the charge up San Juan Hill. Before he went to war, he'd married a divorcee — Helen Orr.
(Editor's Note: While William E. was fighting the Spanish, Helen had a number of lovers — and this led to the couple's first divorce. Helen married one of her suitors, but the marriage didn't last long. After William E. and Helen split again, their daughter, Rosalind, begged them to reconsider, and the couple married a third time. After Rosalind died in an auto accident, William E.'s health began to fail and he perished. Helen married again, divorced and remarried the same man before finally succumbing to a lifelong battle with depression.)
If you take into account all of her marriages, her name would've been Helen Orr Phaff English Wegman English English Prince Prince. She ended up dying from an overdose of sleeping potion in Beverly Hills.
The Fisher Memorial
The gravestone's another tall affair, a large pedestal atop which stands an angel who's carrying a mortal woman, ostensibly toward heaven. Tom Davis notes that while the spirit/human juxtaposition might seem unique, a nearly identical statue exists in Metarie Cemetery in New Orleans. He's got a blurry photograph of that similar piece of stone perched atop a mausoleum in the Big Easy, but there's one difference: the angel in the Southern version has a finger pointing skyward. Poor Mrs. Fisher: her guardian's heavenly digit has been broken off for decades. As Tom notes, the identity of the human woman immortalized in marble has posed something of a mystery.
Tom Davis: In our records, she's only listed as "Mrs. John Fisher," which disturbed me for quite a while. There's a footstone, but the only inscription there reads "My darling wife." On the monument itself, I don't know if you can read the letters in the wreath — I've never been quite able to make it out myself — if it says anything, it looks like it says "PET."
I finally found in our records that the lot is owned by a Smith family. It's mentioned in one document that those who can be buried here include the children of Anna Mary Fisher. Her complete name appears to be Anna Mary Smith Huddart Fisher.
The Forrest Memorial
The memorial built for the grave of Albertina Allen Forrest is startling: the greening, copper figure of a woman is draped over an altarpiece in abject, inconsolable grief. The subject of the statue, titled "Woman in Repose," is anonymous, her face hidden, buried in her arms. Although the memorial includes two resting benches, it's hard to imagine anyone stopping to find a bit of peace in such a mournful place. The man who built the memorial for his late wife, J.D. Forrest, lived in the home which was eventually expanded to become the Irvington United Methodist Church on Audubon Road.
Tom Davis: Albertina and her husband met when they were students at the University of Akron. Then they went on to the University of Chicago. He graduted with a degree in sociology; a doctor's degree. She all but had a doctoral degree in English when he accepted a position at Butler when it was still in the Irvington area. She died in 1904 at the age of 31 from a brain aneurysm. He went on to become the president of what would become the Citizens Gas Company.
I don't know if he also inherited money, but he had enough to build this large monument. The sculpture's actually done by the same artist who did some of the work around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown, Rudolf Schwarz.
Forrest actually [remarried] ... They had two daughters, but when he died in 1931, he was buried in an unmarked grave beside his first wife, Albertina.
The poem [on the memorial] is the 13th poem in Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam group of poems.
We have about a hundred statues at Crown Hill. Most of them date from the same era, pre-1920. Out of the hundreds, there are only a couple that are male. About 30 of the sculptures are angels, with wings or trumpets, and the rest are called "perpetual mourners" — this is the prime example here at Crown Hill.
The lines of poetry:
A loss forever new
A void where heart on heart reposed
And where warm hands have prest and closed
The McGinnis Memorial
One of the monuments that depicts a child is a stone for Mary Ella McGinnis, a young girl who died of "heart congestion." The marble likeness of Mary Ella has a bouquet of artificial flowers tucked into the crook of the girl's arm. The flowers are brightly colored and fairly new, a stark contrast to the worn marble statue that carries them.
Tom Davis: Mary Ella died in 1875 at the age of five and a half. Again, in that era, it was not uncommon that the family — if they could afford it — would make a likeness of their child, especially a girl of that age. Her dad was in the Civil War and later became the Postmaster of Indianapolis. Someone's always leaving artificial flowers with her — if we take them out, there will be more placed there later.
The family has always said that originally Mrs. McGinnis had hired a young sculptor out of Chicago named Lorado Taft to do the likeness of the child. She apparently didn't like his version. They ended up commissioning an artist, probably Italian, who was working in Bedford. It ends up Lorado Taft went on to become very successful. If you go to Chicago, [you'll see that] a lot of the outdoor public scultpture from the 1800s was created by Taft. There are photographs of a very similar statue, a model of it, in Taft's studio.