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Take No Grave Image: Tombstones and Caskets of the Bowers’ Collections

 Gravestone of Charles and Ada Bowers at Fairhaven Memorial, some additional spookiness added for effect.

All Hallows’ Eve

While the Halloween spirit might be somewhat diminished in a year in which unmasked children coming to your door asking for candy are more frightening than a monster doing the same, it is even more important to take a break from the mundane with a brief detour into the macabre. The Bowers Museum lies less than two miles away from Santa Ana’s historic Fairhaven Memorial Park where Charles and Ada Bowers are buried. In years past we have done posts on some of the ectoplasmic run-ins at the museum with Bowers Museum Ghost Stories Vol. I and Vol. II. In this year’s Halloween post we expand our scope in to the great beyond and look at a collection of Bowers photographs, paintings and objects which are associated with graveyards and the caskets buried there.

San Luis Rey Mission Graveyard, 1895
Unknown Photographer; San Luis Rey, California
Photographic print; 6 x 8 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrie H. Teaboldt
God’s Acres at Mission San Juan Capistrano, early 20th Century
Unknown photographer; San Juan Capistrano, California
Photographic print
Terry E. Stephenson Collection

God’s Acre

The earliest source of western cemeteries in California came following 1769 with the creation of our state’s missions. Every mission had at least a small graveyard where friars and others associated with the mission would be buried. The Bowers Museum has a large collection of photographs of the missions, and as a result, their graveyards. The above images depict the small grounds at Mission San Luis Rey about 100 years after it was built and God’s Acre at Mission San Juan Capistrano. In both we can see that many of the individual plots are fenced which was a way to keep both people and livestock from disturbing one’s eternal rest and to ensure it remained easy to find should nature take the marker itself. The latter of the two missions shown is considered to be very haunted, with one of the most famous ghost stories about a woman who perished when the basilica collapsed in the earthquake of 1812. Other stories tell of faceless monks and headless soldiers who haunt the hallowed halls of San Juan Capistrano’s courtyard.

Casket on Display with Floral Wreaths, early 20th Century
Edward W. Cochems (American, 1874-1949); probably Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 10 x 8 in.
Gift of Mr. Eldon G. McNeil
Open Casket at a Funeral Parlor, early 20th Century
Leo Tiede (American, 1889-1968); probably Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 10 x 8 in.
Leo Tiede Photo Collection

The Last Snap You Never Hear

A great deal of blog posts which investigate the history of Santa Ana rely on the lenses of Leo Tiede and Edward W. Cochems. This post too finds that both photographers at least dabbled in mortuary photographs. Rather than having visited and photographed strictly for their personal pleasure, however, it is likely that the early Santa Ana photographers were taking photographs for commercial purposes. Both advertised their services as commercial photographers and could have taken the pictures to help market Santa Ana’s early 20th century mortuaries.

Children's Gravestones, 1920-1922
Evylena Nunn Miller (American, 1888-1966); Japan
Oil on cardboard; 14 x 10 in.
Evylena Nunn Miller Memorial Collection

In Memoriam

Evylena Nunn Miller was one of the important figures in the early history of the Bowers Museum. She not only served a member of the Bowers Museum Foundation Board, helping secure funding for a 1955 museum renovation. She was herself an accomplished artist, with at least one painting in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Between 1920 and 1922 she took a trip which had intended to last only six months and became a sprawling two-year residency in Japan where she taught and painted. The Bowers has a collection of just over 300 of her oil on carboard paintings, many of which capture snow-washed temples. Though painted on a brilliantly blue day, one of these paintings retains a far more somber tone that the others, showing a country graveyard reserved for children with plots marked by carved markers and cairns. Evylena passed away in 1966. As it happens, she was buried at Fairhaven Memorial Park, only a few lawns away from Charles and Ada.

Casket Plaque of William Benjamin Rodrick, 1872
Unknown Maker; United States
Bowers Museum Collection
Casket Plaque of Henry William Metzger, 1869
Unknown Maker; United States
Bowers Museum Collection

Unearthed Mysteries

The most intriguing of the Bowers Museum’s objects from a cemetery are a pair of two silver plaques which were almost certainly removed from the end of a casket. The plaques date between 1869-1872 and were made for two young men who died before their time; the younger Henry William Metzger died at 16 and William Benjamin Roderick died at 29. Research confirms that these men lived and died around when the markers indicate, though does not tell of much else about either man. What is unique, however is that the plaques were discovered in 1965 in the back of the truck of the Bowers Museum’s gardener, Andy Anderson, while he was working on the museum’s lawn. How these two silver plates got out of the ground, across at least part of the continental United States to California and into the back of the truck has remained one of the grandest mysteries of the Bowers. Rumors of gravedigging have swirled around the objects, though there is no compelling evidence to point to that having been the case.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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Wednesday, 17 April 2024

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