Until I read about a forensic scientist and law professor who made headlines looking beyond the grave, I did not know rumors following the demise of Jesse James included the outlaw faking his death to escape jail time.
James Starrs, who made a career of delving into conspiracy theories, convinced Jesse James’ surviving kin to allow him to exhume James’ body to see if the outlaw did rest in peace. Armed with family DNA, Starrs discovered the bones, uncovered, were the outlaw’s.
Starrs also had a theory about the death of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark.
He was convinced explorer Lewis did not die of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but was murdered.
But Starrs’ musings fell on deaf ears at the National Park Service. Lewis’ burial site is tended by the service, whose response to a request to disturb his grave was a resounding, “NO!”
For half of my adult life, I lived a short walk and a leg thrown over a stone wall from the town cemetery.
Because it is the resting place of five governors, dozens of maple and dogwood trees have been planted there over the years, giving the acres a park-like setting.
My children learned to ride their bicycles on one-lane roads cutting through grassy knolls in the cemetery and the neighborhood voted at the caretaker’s office.
For years, until the need for more family plots came to pass, a field at the far end of the cemetery housed an old stable where horses were boarded.
More than 150 years of lives, lived, have left their marks on mossy and stained head stones in that cemetery.
But the funeral the town remembers was far from traditional. A gypsy princess and her fellow travelers had stopped to spend the night off the highway when she fell ill and died, leaving a body, but no money for a burial.
There were irate letters to the editor of the local newspaper, complaints of tainting the hallowed ground at Maple Hill Cemetery if the gypsy princess was laid to rest there.
After days of fist poundings on tables at the local café, an anonymous benefactor, (still a mystery), sent word to the funeral home. He would pay for a proper burial for the gypsy princess, buying a plot in a section where Confederate soldiers were laid to rest.
You can imagine the outrage! The word on the street was an argument ensued at the local bank, ending with one church-going citizen brandishing his umbrella as a weapon and ‘beaning’ a fellow Rotarian on the head.
There was still a body to be dealt with, so another burial site was found. By then, gypsies had gathered from near and far.
For a town disapproving of “pagan rituals,” it was surprising how many folks stood outside the cemetery wall to watch the singing and dancing, the candles lit, as the life of the gypsy princess was celebrated with wine and song.
On the eve of every Halloween, her story is retold, more colorful each year. There was a rumor gold coins had been thrown into her grave, but when a couple of junior high boys came in the night to dig, they high-tailed it out of the cemetery after the police showed up!
My husband and I have a family plot a stone’s throw from the gypsy princess’s.
Before this year ends, we plan to drive to our old hometown, buy a headstone and have it set in place, the dates of our deaths to be added.
The trip falls in the ‘getting your affairs in order’ column, but we’ll take time to walk in the cemetery, stopping at the gypsy princess’ grave, touching my mother’s head stone. We will shake our heads at the marker, reading: “Damn the State Department,” but that’s a story for another day.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.