Saturday, January 17, 2009

Colorado: The mystery of the dislocated grave

Ready for a good mystery? The Intermountain Jewish News has just published an excellent Jewish mystery tale.

Here lies a tale about the past, and the mysteries in its wake.

Sit down, have some hot tea, stir the fire, make yourself comfortable on a cold winter’s night. Hear a story about events long ago transpired, people long since dead, and old tombstones mostly — but not entirely — forgotten.

A tale of the cemetery, and those who repose within it.

Not a spooky tale, mind you, although to many people cemeteries are spooky places. And not necessarily a sad tale, although most of us find graveyards to be forlorn and gloomy locales where grief and regret reign supreme.

No, this is a tale about lives lived, accomplishments achieved, decisions made — and questions asked.

A story about histories. And mysteries.

A young Denver woman, Jennifer Miklosi, was working on her master's in art history at the University of Denver some 10 years ago, working under Dr. Annette Stott, head of art history at DU.

Miklosi says it began as a course assignment with the focus on 19th century sculpture in cemeteries. She was to find a piece and analyze it from an art historian's perspective, write an artistic analysis and uncover as much of its history as possible.

She decided on Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, filled with Victorian sculpture. After hours on the walkways, she found the piece she was looking for

It was a marble statue, in the form of what experts on the esoteric topic of cemetery sculpture call a “woman in mourning,” a female figure, wrapped in a shawl, holding a wreath of flowers and looking plaintively toward the grave below. The figure’s right hand is wrapped around the cut-off trunk of a small tree.

Miklosi was taken by the life-like expression on the figure’s face, by the realistic texture and wave of her hair, by the intricate details apparent in the hem of her shawl and the flowers in her wreath — in general, by the overall artistic excellence of the piece.

Miklosi says both the“woman in mourning” theme, and the cut-off tree — often used for a young person whose life was cut short — are seen in sculptures at Fairmount and other cemeteries.

What caught her eye was the superior workmanship, it wasn't a mass production piece like many others - so she thought it might have been commissioned. While mourning woman figures are found at Christian graves, there is usually a horizontal branch on the tree, creating a cross. This sculpture had no such branch and was an enigma. There was no indication of the sculptor anywhere, and the cemetery office had no information.

That's when Miklosi set to work as any conscientious art historian - investigating the family who owned the plot. Along the way, she became something of an art detective in pursuit of history - family history.

The young woman was Jessie Eleanor Salomon who died at the age of 19 on January 8, 1889.

She was the daughter of Hyman and Cecelia Salomon, whose graves are included in the sizable family plot at Fairmount, as are those of her siblings Eva, Oscar, Florence and Lillian, and a man, James Geoffrey McMurray, who is assumed to have been her brother-in-law. Eva and Oscar both died when quite young; Florence when considerably older; and the couple Lillian and James McMurray, apparently at an advanced age in the 1920s.

The plot holds individual tombstones for all family members interred there, plus a large central granite memorial, adorned only by a single Old English “S” and the family surname. The statue which stands at the head of Jessie’s grave is the only sculpture in the plot. No other graves, including those of her parents, boasts such a distinctive marker.

And, as suitable for the International Jewish Graveyard Rabbit, the Salomon family was Jewish, as Rabbit readers have already guessed.

Miklosi isn't Jewish and never studied local Jewish history, but her passion for this investigation turned her into an authority.

Like a good genealogist, she checked old newspapers and written histories for the Denver Jewish community and found data on the family's patriarch, Hyman Salomon, who appears in history books. Some historians believe he was the first Jew to settle in the place now known as Denver.

Born in Prussia, Salomon came to what was then known as Auraria early in 1859, making him one of the first pioneers to arrive here. His brother Frederick followed close on his heels. In short order, they set up Denver’s first-ever dry goods business, Salomon Brothers, which hop scotched over several locations in its early years.

The brothers, in partnership with a Gentile trader by the name of J. B. Doyle, then began opening up general stores in Colorado and New Mexico.With other partners, they also set up wagon trains full of provisions to help supply the new mining camps in Colorado’s high country.

They, and a third brother, Adolph, who became a successful potato farmer and merchant in Horace Greeley’s Union Colony in northern Colorado (known today as Greeley) were as authentic as Western pioneers could get. They braved confrontations with restive Indians on the eastern plains, rode hundreds of miles on horseback to distant locations, helped set up mining camps that would later become gold and silver boomtowns and outfitted US Cavalry units throughout the region.

In addition to setting up what is believed to be Denver’s first brewery, the Salomons were able to bring to the fledgling settlement of Denver both cigars and whiskey, the latter said to be considerably superior to the notorious “Taos Lightning” previously available.

The Salomons made lots of friends among Indians and white men alike, and gained reputations as plain dealers and straight shooters (denoting honest traders, not accurate gunslingers). Such terms constituted high praise indeed in the days of the Old West.

Along the way they also made lots of money with their skills and timing. Hyman and Frederick became respected citizens. Both were were proud of their Jewish heritage, helping to found the Hebrew Burial and Prayer Society, which organized Denver’s first Jewish cemetery and later evolved into the city's first synagogue, Congregation Emanuel, whre they were among the founding members.

As she uncovered information she found a letter from Hyman published in the Rocky Mountain News in 1865, in which he criticized then-territorial governor Alexander Cummings on a Thanksgiving proclamation he had issued, stressing the holiday's Christian roots.

“Are we of the Jewish persuasion included in the Proclamation for Thanksgiving, ‘requiring all good people of Colorado to assemble in their respective places of worship and render unto G-d devout Thanksgiving for the riches of His grace, manifested through His Son Jesus Christ’? If so, we have never in the United States of America seen a proclamation excluding Jews from participating. Jews do not worship G-d through Christ, and by the above proclamation, we are excluded. Respectfully yours, H.Z. Salomon.”

So, she learned that his Jewishness was important to Hyman, but here now was the mystery. Why would such a respected Jew have his and his family's graves in a section other than the Jewish part of Fairmount Cemetery? His brothers Frederick and Adolph were in the Jewish section, but Hyman's is in the general section - with very few Jewish graves.

Well, there was more, continues the story, at least five of the plot's graves were originally in the old City Cemetery, but were moved when the city decided to redevelop the land.

The Salomon graves were moved to Fairmount on April 4, 1916. Hyman’s widow, Cecilia, apparently paid for the new plot and arranged the move, although Fairmount records do not mention Jessie's statue.

There's much more, including a list of further questions that need to be answered to understand the full picture. The Denver Public Library Western History section has no record or photograph of Jessie in any newspaper article or obituary.

The newspaper is asking for help from the readers of the story.
It is possible that descendants of Hyman Shapiro (or more likely, his brother Adolph) still reside in Colorado and might possess a few family anecdotes that could shed light on the many mysteries of the grave. Such individuals are encouraged to contact the newspaper, no matter how hazy or folkloric the recollections might be.

Please read the rest of this particularly fascinating mystery of history at the link above. Let me know if you have any information that can help solve this case.


  1. This is extremely fascinating and intriguing.

    I'd love to know the answer, also.

  2. I'm sure the wonderful Intermountain Jewish News will publish a follow-up when new information is located. And Rabbit will bring it to you!

  3. Fascinating story - from one who finds cemeteries to be so interesting!