Gravestones typically provide only the most meagre details of a person’s life: a name; a date of birth; a date of death; and perhaps a family relationship (“Father”, “Daughter”, “Beloved Wife”). If any other text appears on the marker, it will, as likely as not, be a religious verse or popular saying that reveals little about the person. More rarely, there might be a few lines about the person’s life, accomplishments, and occupation. Most uncommon of all are those stones which describe how their owners died.
In rural Adams County, Illinois, near the village of Ursa, is Denson Pioneer Cemetery. Denson looks much like other small-town cemeteries of similar age – save for the large number of stones which were repaired after a tornado struck the cemetery in 1974. Among the marble headstones is one that lies flat on the ground, with a remarkable inscription: “In Memory of Tho’s Y. Trimble, …was Slain by the Murderous Hand of a Ruffian and Outlaw, May 13 1865”.
Henry Asbury’s “Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois” (1882), provides scant details of this murder:
“In 1865 Rose, an alleged bushwhacker was taken from the jail and hung by some of the convalescent soldiers in the hospital here aided by a number of promiscuous people and inhabitants. Rose was, I believe, accused of having shot Mr Trimble a valuable and prominent Democratic citizen of Marcelline.”
In Plainfield Cemetery, Will County, Illinois, a black granite monument features an etched picture of a hot air balloon. The inscription reads “Prof. Harry Darnell met his death July 26, 1911, making a Balloon Ascension at Electric Park Aged 38 years.” Upon closer inspection, one can see the figure of a man hanging from the bottom of the balloon, clinging to a rope or trapeze with his legs.
The New York Times of that July 27th carried an short article entitled, “Balloonist Falls to Death – Aeronaut Drops 700 Feet in the Presence of Thousands”. The article details how Harry Darnell, an experienced balloonist, was “dashed to death in the presence of thousands of horrified men and women”, falling into the DuPage River, during a performance at Electric Park in Plainfield. The Times article concludes with the statement that “Every bone in the aeronaut’s body was broken.”
Plainfield’s Electric Park, one of many amusement parks that used that name in the early twentieth century, was opened by the Aurora, Plainfield and Joliet Railway in 1904. Darnell had made over 230 balloon ascensions, eight of them in Plainfield; but two years before, his own brother had died in a fall from a balloon near DeKalb. On that July 26th, the management of the park offered a prize to the amateur photographer who captured the best image of Darnell’s flight, and one such spectator captured the moment just after Darnell lost hold of his trapeze bar. Two thousand watched as the performer fell into the river. As no relative was available to claim the body, the people of Plainfield buried Darnell in Plainfield Township Cemetery, with the contributions of citizens providing for a monument. (from “Plainfield”, Timothy Smith and Michelle Smith, Arcadia Publishing).
Disasters, in which a great many lives are lost, are often mentioned on the monuments to the victims. Queen of Heaven Cemetery has a section dedicated to the ninety-two children and three nuns who died in the Our Lady of Angels school fire, with a shared monument reading “In Devout Memory of the Victims of the Fire”. In Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, several monuments bear the phrase “Obeti Eastlandu”, indicating the persons interred there died in the S.S. Eastland disaster of 1915, in which a passenger ship overturned on the Chicago river, trapping over eight hundred people to die below decks. In Forest Home Cemetery, west of Chicago, one monument to two children reads “Lost in the Iroquois Fire”, referring to the 1903 theater fire where six hundred died.
Those who sacrifice their own lives for the good of others are remembered by those they saved. Soldiers who die in battle often have the place where they made their last stand indicated on their monuments. Police and firemen who die in the line of duty might have their sacrifice noted; such as Harry Magers, young police chief of Elmhurst, Illinois. Chief Magers was shot and killed when confronting two robbery suspects, a day after his own twenty-sixth birthday.
Perhaps the most spectacular Illinois monument erected by the grateful recipients of a hero’s selfless deed is that of Cale Cramer in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago. A railroad engineer, Cale Cramer stayed at his post, slowing his train in an attempt to avoid a head-on collision with another. Though he was unable to prevent the crash, the reduction in speed was enough to prevent major damage to the passenger cars – Cramer himself was the only person killed in the collision. Cramer’s monument – erected by the grateful survivors – resembles a pile of disassembled train parts; a flat panel on one side shows a picture of the train and tells that Cramer “lost his life by saving the train at York Indiana, July 27 1887″.
Of the hundreds of thousands of monuments that I have seen in my travels through the Graveyards of Illinois, only a tiny fraction list the cause of death. A sudden and unexpected tragedy, like the murder of Thomas Trimble, the falling death of aeronaut Harry Darnell, prompted some of these monuments. Others are part of a community’s attempt to cope with a major disaster, such as the capsizing of the Eastland or the Iroquois fire. And some monuments list the cause of death to commemorate the act of a hero. As police chief Magers’ monument reads, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.