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The Season of the Spirits at Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local Site – November 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Things that go bump in the night” must feel right at home in Leadville’s historic Evergreen Cemetery.

Not that I actually plan to test that theory. An afternoon visit is enough to convince me that Evergreen is permeated by a strange, brooding presence that undoubtedly reaches its zenith in the dark of a moonless midnight.

Maybe that eerie sensation is what makes me start at a raven’s croak and glance nervously over my shoulder when a twig snaps. Maybe that’s what fills my mind with images of being snatched into the shadows, never again to be seen amongst the living…

“Or maybe it’s just the overgrown trees reminding you that it’s easy to get lost in there,” is the prosaic suggestion of local historian Neil V. Reynolds. But Reynolds, who conducts a nocturnal tour of Evergreen each Halloween season, has no intention of totally bursting my Gothic bubble. He readily admits that strange things really do seem to happen in this 1879 cemetery on the northwest edge of town.

One event involved a pair of researchers who discovered a grave bearing two markers. To better organize the area, they moved one marker to an adjoining grave, walking over that grave several times in the process. Once the marker was in place, the ground above the grave where they’d just been standing suddenly sank about four feet.

Other eerie occurrences range from blue lights shooting from treetops to the appearance of a woman dressed in a flowing white cape who “flies” over tombstones. The cemetery’s large, copper-hued elk statue also gets into the act by occasionally turning its head to stare at passersby.

I even have my own curious anecdote. While researching this story, I sought out the grave of Emma “Pony” Nelson, a local prostitute who died in May, 1918, at age 60. Although I knew which section to look in, more than five minutes of searching failed to locate the stone. Frustrated, I jokingly said aloud, “OK, Pony, help me out here.” I took four steps, glanced down to my left, and there was the stone.

Pony Nelson is just one of some 25,000 individuals whose earthly remains now rest in Evergreen Cemetery.

Pony, nicknamed for her employment in bordellos then derisively known as “riding academies,” was remembered in an October, 1957, Leadville Herald- Democrat article as an elderly, poverty-stricken outcast who took in stray cats and dogs. “I can only say, if all that was told me was true, it never changed my feeling for her,” wrote (Mrs.) Clyde Robertson. “I do not believe in double standards and the men, with whom she was reported to have been too friendly, were, some of them, now leading citizens of Leadville. I wager she is in heaven…God rest her soul.”

Pony’s modest headstone bears a small bronze plaque inscribed with her name and the words, “Friend of the Friendless.” An anonymous benefactor provided the stone; the source of the faded, pink silk flowers adorning the site is also unknown.

Another well-known Evergreen “resident” is Mollie May, a madam who died in April, 1887, at age 36. Like fellow soiled dove Pony Nelson, Mollie, also known as Maggie Mickey, was scorned by polite society. Yet she, too, is remembered for her kindness and generosity, especially to the families of needy miners. Mollie’s unmarked grave lies near that of an outlaw named Frodsham, who holds the dubious distinction of having been lynched on the eve of November 20, 1879, the date that H.A.W. Tabor opened the Tabor Opera House.

A gigantic mystery surrounds a small, metal plate bearing the name “John Wilkes Booth.” Although cemetery records indicate that this man was just 17 years old in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, there are those who believe that Evergreen Cemetery does, indeed, hold the remains of Lincoln’s murderer. Evergreen’s Booth, who described himself as a cousin of the assassin, was born in 1848, ten years after the birthrate attributed to Lincoln’s killer. His death, on the last day of 1916, raises such tantalizing questions as: If Evergreen’s Booth really was the assassin, how did he get away? Where and how did he live for the next half-century? And who, then, was the person identified as the assassin and subsequently killed by the authorities?

One of Evergreen’s most famous denizens is John B. “Texas Jack” Omohundro, a man of myriad talents whose numerous career changes linked him with several illustrious contemporaries. As a Confederate Army soldier, Texas Jack was reportedly the scout who delivered a dispatch to General J.E.B. Stuart just moments before Stuart was shot and killed. While working as a cattle driver, Texas Jack struck up a friendship with James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Later, he was a guide for William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody during a buffalo hunt organized in honor of a visit by Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.

But Texas Jack, who was also a schoolteacher and a journalist, is probably best known as an actor. He appeared on stage with both Bills — Wild and Buffalo — and with the “noted danseuse,” Mlle. Josephine Morlacchi, who later became his wife. Texas Jack came to Leadville to perform at the Chestnut Street Theater in March, 1880. Three months later, he died of pneumonia at age 39. One of the graveside speakers was none other than H.A.W. Tabor.

In September, 1908, Buffalo Bill Cody paid tribute to his old friend by organizing a memorial service at Evergreen, which was attended by his entire Wild West Circus troupe. Cody, John M. Burke and Johnny Baker also erected the granite stone that marks Texas Jack’s grave.

Texas Jack, too, has unknown admirers. Faded red silk roses, a small American flag and an unadorned wooden cross decorate his headstone.

In addition to individuals, Evergreen Cemetery also memorializes important, and tragic, events. One such monument commemorates the victims of the Homestake Mine disaster.

In February, 1885, ten miners seeking high grade lead-silver ore at the Homestake Mine 15 miles northwest of Leadville were killed when their cabin was engulfed by a huge snowslide. Their remains went undiscovered until late April, when two locals, curious as to why the miners hadn’t been seen since mid-January, hiked to the site-and found the cabin, outbuildings, and mine entrance covered by snow.

A 1948 Rocky Mountain Empire Magazine article states that a letter was discovered in the cabin rubble, written by victim Horace W. Mathews on Feb. 21, 1885. “Snow, snow, snow! Will it ever stop?” Mathews wrote with haunting irony. He went on to describe mining as “certainly a dangerous and uncertain business, but there is something about it which draws a man on, ever hoping to become rich suddenly.”

The letter’s date, along with Mathews’ alarm clock, which had stopped at 12:25, indicated that the slide probably occurred around February 22.

Horrified by the calamity, the entire Leadville community quickly raised funds for an elaborate funeral service involving 48 pallbearers, three bands, seven clergymen, and 14 fraternal, labor and military organizations. Businesses throughout the city shut down for two days to honor the dead, eight of whom were actually buried in Evergreen Cemetery. (The bodies of the remaining two victims were returned to their families.) Even the mines closed to allow workers to attend the rites.

In September, 1886, using money left over from the funeral, a “Memorial Erected by the Citizens of Leadville to the victims of a snowslide at Homestake Mine, Feb. 1885,” was raised in Evergreen Cemetery.

The 3,200-pound monument, with the names of all ten victims inscribed on its 6-1/2-foot-tall pedestal, is crowned by a life-size figure of Grief, represented by a woman kneeling with bowed head. Sadly, someone has defaced the figure. A bullet hole is plainly visible on the forehead, above the left eye.

Equally intriguing and perhaps even more masterfully crafted than the Homestake memorial are Evergreen’s tree trunk-shaped, “Woodmen of the World” headstones. These large, intricately carved, stone “trees” are decorated with flowers, leaves or twining vines; some also bear the fraternal organization’s mallet and axe emblem. Information about the deceased is chiseled onto scrolls attached to the trunks by carved “rope.”

Several bear touching epitaphs, such as this to John C. Kolb, who died in 1895 at age 22: “We loved him, Picture of the mother, was our sweet bud and darling brother.” On another, the depth of a woman’s grief-and love-spans a century with the simple words, “My man, my all, farewell.”

Visitors to Evergreen Cemetery will find some areas unkempt and overgrown, with graves sunken and unmarked, or headstones toppled. This is particularly true of the so-called “free,” or paupers’, sections, which nevertheless contain many finely sculpted stones. Neil Reynolds explains this seeming incongruity by noting that geographically distant family members often did not discover and mark a relative’s grave until long after the death. Other families may not have had sufficient funds to immediately purchase a headstone.

Few burials take place at Evergreen nowadays. Yet Evergreen Cemetery is more than a silent relic from Leadville’s frontier boom days. Its wood, stone and metal markers tell poignant, dramatic tales of individual triumphs and tragedies, joys and sorrows.

So don’t let the occasional raven’s call keep you from exploring this historic treasure.

Lynda La Rocca of Leadville does not hang out in cemeteries unless she’s working on a magazine article.