Friday, July 27, 2012

Those Amazing Tree Stones

If you’ve been a taphophile for a while, you have probably developed a special fondness for certain gravestones, those that just seem to draw you to them.  My current favorites are the white bronze, headstone photos, and trees stones.

I am amazed but not surprised by the number of people who love the tree stones.  I remember the first time I found one.  There, amid a mixture of short stones, flat stones, intricate sculpture and obelisks, set an unassuming limestone tree stump.  Touching, yet solid and dependable, maybe a true adaptation of the person resting below.

There is something peaceful and heartening about the natural rustic look of a tree stone. – Life has ended but as a part of nature, we go on….

Tree stones were popular from the 1880’s to 1920’s.  They are called tree stump stones, tree trunk stones and tree stones.  Joseph Cullen Root was the founder of Modern Woodmen of America (1883) and also of Woodmen of the World (1890,) both fraternal insurance benefit societies.  Both became well known for using tree gravestones for their members. Root decided on the woodmen name after hearing a minister describe his congregation as ‘trees in God’s forest.”

Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) offered its members the opportunity to purchase grave markers for deceased associates until the mid-1970’s.  Cemeteries around the country also have the tree stone monuments, engraved with the MWA initials and symbols.  The MWA did not supply these grave markers or provide any monetary assistance for their purchase to members.

However, from 1890 to 1900, Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) life insurance policies did have a proviso that provided for the grave markers, free of charge, for members.  From 1900 to the mid- 1920’s, members purchased a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument.  By the mid-20’s, the organization had discontinued the grave marker benefit due to the increased cost of the stones.

As the tree gravestones became more popular, the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and Montgomery Wards catalogue offered them for sale to the general public.  A tree stone marker does not necessarily mean that person was a member of MWA or WOW.  Only if the organizations initials or symbols are located on the stone does it indicate that the deceased was a member of one of these organizations.

Tree stones vary in size and height from tiny children’s stones, just a few inches high, to soaring 10 to 12 feet high tree trunks.  All have intricately carved detailing at the base, and many ties around the trunk.  You could request certain elements be added to a stone to better tell the story of the deceased.  Many local stone makers could incorporate these carvings on the tree stone, making them very individualistic.

Symbols found on the tree stones include axes, mauls, wedges, any type of tool used in woodworking, flowers, vines, animals, chairs, buckets – anything that helped tell the story of the person buried there.
Tree stones also vary according to the area they were carved in and the type of cemetery.  Many local stone carvers left their personal mark on a stone.  This carver in Illinois put mushrooms on all of his tree stones.

The tree stones found in B'nai Abraham-Zion Cemetery in Chicago may feature an inscription in Hebrew, and photos – an extra bonus for the Tombstone Traveler.

Many times tree branches were broken off to show that a family member had died.  Tops were notched in certain ways and bark appeared to be peeled back or cut off to reveal the epitaph of those buried there.

Although no longer available for purchase, I can’t help but believe that if they were offered again, we would see a resurgence of tree stones in our 21st century cemeteries – a link to our past, and a nod to nature.

~ Joy

Friday, July 20, 2012

Skeletons in the Family Closet

Tonight at 8 o’clock will mark the 125th anniversary of the evening my great – great – great - great grandfather, Peter Burkhart killed his wife of 43 years and then turned the gun on himself.  The reason given for the murder – suicide?  The newspaper called it a moment of insanity, a crime of passion.

I've Got a Secret...
If you’ve been involved in genealogy for very long, you’ve probably uncovered a family secret or two.  With the continuing popularity of the hobby, some sociologists are warning that if you dig too deep, you may get more than you bargained for.

Family Secrets
Family secrets can run the gamut from the relatively tame taboos (in today’s world) of cousins marrying cousins, illegitimate children, interracial or interfaith marriages, to criminals, bigamy, mental illness, even into the darker depths of incest, suicide or murder.

We all begin our genealogy journey wanting to discover who our people were, (especially in relation to who we are,) but when we discover a family secret, we need to be prepared handle the information. 

It’s important to remember that every family has a story – some of it good, some not.  And there are skeletons in every family’s closet.  Think about what you will do when you open Pandora’s Box.  What to do will depend on several factors, the most important - Who will it affect NOW?  

Most genealogists abide by the standard rule - do not publish anything about a living person. If someone is still alive that the secret involves directly, or who will be devastated by it, it’s best to keep the status quo, for now.  That does not mean that you are altering your family story or rewriting history. It simply means that you have decided to respect someone’s right to privacy.  But, that also does not mean hiding it forever.

Family secrets and skeletons in the closet are not the same as information that you just were not aware of before.  Secrets are kept hidden, on purpose.  They are an attempt to withhold information about an event or person because family feels shame and/or fears what others will think.

Peter Burkhart
Farming in the 1800's
According to the biographical sketch in the History of Pike County, Indiana, my ancestor, Peter Burkhart was a model citizen.  He had the reputation of being “the greatest hunter and of always keeping the largest number and best bred hounds of any man in the county…. He succeeded well as a farmer.”

The book went on to describe his family - “Elizabeth Snyder became his wife April 1, 1844. They became the parents of nine children, eight of whom are married and living within three miles of their father.  They all have families but none of their children have died.  The family history presents remarkable instances of longevity.”

The sketch refers to Peter as having “always been a Democrat in politics and served as township trustee six terms…. He has been one of the most successful office holders and prominent pioneer citizens in the county.”

Summer Wheat
Pike County, Indiana
Everything in the biography fits with what I know – My family was a pioneer family in Indiana, settling in Pike County near the town of Petersburg because the land was rich and farmable.  Raising dogs for work and companionship goes back through the generations. Longevity has always been a strong suit – with some members making it just short of 100.  Even the prominence of leadership qualities has followed through. 

But newspaper headline that read “Died By Own Hand – Peter Burkhart Kills His Aged and Faithful Wife and Then Kills Himselfsuddenly presented me with information that had not been discussed in the family.  A story I want to know more about.

A Pike County Homestead
The Pike County Democrat newspaper declared this “The most startling case of _____ and suicide which has ever taken place in Pike County.  Peter Burkhart shot his wife, Elizabeth with a shotgun.  She ran out on the porch, followed by Burkhart.  He placed her on a chair where she soon died.  He then took the same gun and emptied a load into his own body.”

The newspaper goes on to report, “It seems however, that without cause he had become jealous of his wife and crazed of the ‘green-eyed monster,’ committed the awful crime which human conscience refuses to commute.  Mr. Burkhart left a piece of writing in which he accuses his aged and faithful wife of marriage infidelity.  This must have been the result of a crazed brain from some accountable cause….”

Peter and Elizabeth Burkhart
Close Up of Their Stone
I know the family had many reasons for letting this family secret pass quickly and quietly into history. But unfortunately, with all of the main family gone, even my grandparents, who would have known parts of the real story, I must now figure out a way to contact cousins to find out more.  And even in this day and age some will want to ‘protect the family secret’ of a murder – suicide that happened well over 100 years ago.

Family Tree
Gathering Storm
But this is what genealogy is all about, researching and discovering facts about your ancestors. That includes the hardships and decisions they made, what circumstances they endured that made them who they were.  I don’t know the end story of Peter Burkhart or why he decided to act as he did that fateful July night in 1887, but I intend to find out all that I can to help me understand it. And who knows what other family secrets I may uncover...

Key in Lock
Remember that if we continue to keep those family secrets, key components of family history will never get fully revealed or stand a chance of being explained.  That could leave us with a large gap in the understanding of who our ancestors were, and the real information that could help us make sense of them could end up lost forever.

As George Bernard Shaw said, If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

~ Joy

Friday, July 13, 2012

Billy the Kid

New Mexico 1877
Billy the Kid
He was born William Harry McCarty, Jr.  in New York City on November 23, 1859.  McCarty grew up in the slums, but moved with his mother to New Mexico Territory when he was 14.  In 1877 he moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico under the assumed name William H. Bonney.

Tunstall's Store
John Tunstall
Billy worked as a cattle guard for John Tunstall, an Englishman who was a cattle rancher, banker and merchant in Lincoln.  A conflict, known as the Lincoln County War, erupted between Tunstall and the other merchants in town who did not want the Englishman doing business there.  The group of local merchants took it upon themselves to get rid of Tunstall.  He was ambushed and murdered by the sheriff, William Brady, and four of his men in February 1878.  Evidence showed that Tunstall had tried to avoid a confrontation before being gunned down. 

Sheriff William Brady

The Regulators
Tunstall’s men vowed revenge and formed their own group known as the Regulators.  On April 1, the Regulators, including Billy the Kid, ambushed Sheriff Brady and his deputy George Hindmen on Lincoln’s main street.  Both the sheriff and deputy were killed.

Lincoln Courthouse
Billy the Kid
Billy agreed to testify against the corrupt district attorney, John Dolan, in exchange for amnesty in the killings.  Although Billy's testimony helped to convict Dolan, the agreement for a pardon was ignored and Billy was jailed.  He escaped with the help of a friend and spent the next couple of years as a gambler, rustler, and general outlaw.  McCarty became known as Billy the Kid when a reporter gave him the moniker because he was so young looking.

It is said that Billy the Kid killed 21 men, although it is believed that the number was actually less than 10. New Mexico Governor, Lew Wallace placed a bounty of $500 on his head, dead or alive. 
Sheriff Pat Garret

Billy McCarty was captured on December 23, 1880, by the new Lincoln sheriff, Pat Garrett.  On April 9, Billy was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the murders of the former sheriff and deputy. On the evening of April 28, 1881 as Billy was being returned to his cell, he grabbed the jailer’s gun and shot him dead.  He also gunned down another guard before escaping on horseback.

Old Fort Sumner
In July, Garrett was tipped off that Billy was hiding out at Old Fort Sumner.  Sheriff Garret called on two of his deputies and set out for the fort, about 150 miles away.

Pete Maxwell
Maxwell's House
When Garret arrived one evening he went in search of an old friend, Pete Maxwell.  As he and Maxwell were talking, Billy the Kid entered the darkened room; not realizing the sheriff was there.  Garret recognized Billy and fired. Billy the Kid died in the early morning hours of July 14, 1881.  He was buried later in the day at the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery between two of his friends, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. He was 21 years old.

Lew Wallace

Bill Richardson
One hundred twenty nine years later, in 2010, William McCarty aka Billy the Kid was to be granted a pardon by Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico.   It was to be a final make-good on the promise made by then Governor Lew Wallace in 1879, and a parting gesture by Richardson as he left office.  But an Albuquerque attorney petitioned the pardon and Richardson left office without granting it.

Enclosed in Cage
At Old Fort Sumner Cemetery, the spot designated to be Billy the Kid’s grave is covered with reinforced concrete.  His pointed footstone is held in place with an iron shackle.  But oddly enough the exact location of his body is not known.  The wooden cross that marked his original grave was washed away in a flood of the Pecos River in 1889 and again in 1904.  The grave remained unmarked until 1932 when a cemetery tour guide raised funds for a permanent marker.  This stone bears the names of William H. Bonney, Tom O’Folliard and Charles Bowdre. It has never been stolen.

In 1940 a footstone was added.  This has become the more famous marker for Billy the Kid’s grave, the one that has disappeared at least two times.  It was first stolen in August 1950, and was missing for over 25 years before being discovered on a ranch in Granbury Texas.  It was stolen again in February 1981, but recovered days later in Huntington Beach, California.  The local town residents then placed a large steel cage over all three gravesites to protect the headstone.  The footstone was also shackled to prevent vandalism and theft.

But Billy’s gravestone is once again in the news.  Last month, on June 16th it was vandalized.  The two thousand pound marker was tipped over and damaged along with other graves damaged at the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery. Police are following several leads and a $1,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.

Although Bill the Kid has been dead for 131 years, it appears he can still create a stir.  Maybe “Rest in Peace” needs to be added to his stone.

~ Joy