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Above the Silent Sleepers: The Lively Lives at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery

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Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery sits in the shade of bustling downtown Los Angeles. Off Washington Boulevard in Pico Union, it is easy to miss, and easy to forget about. It lacks the Hollywood glamour of other L.A. area cemeteries, for its heyday was decades before movies took over the town's plotline. The lawns are mostly brown, and the stately monuments are yellowing and moss covered from neglect. The only plots of green surround newer graves, (mostly Latino, judging from the names) clearly tended to and well maintained. When I visited the cemetery it was nearly empty, and its expansive size and towering mausoleums and memorials made me feel like I was in some kind of post-apocalyptic showcase of civilizations past. There were pyramids and obelisks, Greek style statues and large Celtic crosses. On these impressive hunks of stone and marble were the names of a who's-who of modern SoCal's founding families: Banning, Burbank, Slauson, Stephens, Fremont, Woodman, Dominguez, Glassell, and Patton.

For a history nerd like me, it was astounding. There are movie stars here: Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, and Fernando Lamas. Most tantalizing of all is the fact that Maria Rasputin, daughter of the infamous monk who brought down the Russian monarchy, is for some reason buried here. Angelus-Rosedale tells the story of early Los Angeles in a way few SoCal landmarks can. And all the life that happened at and around this now silent cemetery tells the story of Wild West Los Angeles, when the names mentioned above were attempting to harness a community rich in diversity, eccentricity, passion and plans.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

City of the Dead

Rosedale Cemetery was a modern city cemetery from the start. It was opened by the Rosedale Cemetery Association in 1884, in response to crowding and outright destruction of the older graveyards in what is now downtown Los Angeles. As long as you could pay, there were no requirements for being buried at the cemetery; religion, race, and socio-economic status were irrelevant. The directors of the Association purchased and improved 65-acres of rolling hills in a "gently rural" area on the outskirts of town. By November 1884, the cemetery was in use, with 12 burials already accounted for. In 1887, the cemetery continued on its progressive, practical way, opening the first crematorium west of the Mississippi. The cemetery quickly became the in-spot for the city's first wave of elite families. Pioneers like Phineas Banning were moved from other rundown graveyards, while the wealthy Bryson family constructed a $20,000 vault to await its dead. The state funeral of Lieutenant-Governor Spencer G. Millard was a typically elaborate affair:

But from the start, Rosedale was home to numerous cosmopolitan contradictions. A scant month before Millard's impressive send-off, a pauper named Ira Sampson was buried at Rosedale by friends who had scraped together the money to buy a plot for him. Ira had died at the County Hospital, and his friends had been shocked to find that those in county care were typically buried naked with their eyes and mouth still opened. So they complained to the County Board of Supervisors, who were so embarrassed that they had Ira disinterred and then reinterred with a proper set of clothes. They also promised that all city charges would henceforth be buried in clothes provided by the county.

Rosedale, inclusive and laid out in the new "park style," also became an important meeting place for all races in Los Angeles. In 1889, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote of a large nighttime rally of African-American men at Rosedale. The reporter gleefully reported that the men were furious with the racist character of the Times' main competitor, and had marched from downtown to the cemetery, where a handsome young lawyer named Jacob Joseph decried the "Los Angeles Trombone," (Tribune) as he stood on a gravestone:

Unfortunately, the Times proved to be no better than the Tribune. The seemingly supportive reporter resorted to racist stereotyping when he alleged the assembled men had been scared away from the cemetery by two newsboys pretending to be a ghost.

Rosedale Cemetery, seen across from Loyola High School | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Rosedale Cemetery, seen across from Loyola High School | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Rosedale was a busy place, and the living came and went as they pleased. In 1892, Los Angeles was titillated by the case of a mystery woman who had been found dead on a child's grave in Rosedale, apparently from a morphine overdose:

Though it was originally assumed that she was the little girl's mother, the truth was much stranger. An investigation revealed that her name was Carrie Love, an out of work woman from San Francisco who seemed to have no association with the young girl. By 1892, the area surrounding Rosedale was no longer rural. Now known as Pico Heights, there were "people enough to fill a good sized town" with "fine school houses and churches" and a busy streetcar line. 5 There would be numerous suicides and strange occurrences at Rosedale over the years, and as the city got more crowded -- the stories became odder and odder.

Gruesome Affairs

Pickpockets like Mother Mc'Garey weren't the only criminal elements in Rosedale. In 1905, the insurance company United Patriots of America hired two clean-cut Midwestern transplants to sign up new group members. The men excelled at the job and were paid for every contract that was signed. The United Patriots began to send out bills for the first payment to their new members. They soon began to get letters back -- some sad, some sarcastic, and some irate, informing them that the person they were contacting was six feet under in Rosedale Cemetery. By the time the United Patriots realized most of their new customers were long dead, the slimy salesmen had skipped town, leaving a trail of befuddled, bereaved families and one irate, unpaid landlady behind.

Affairs of the heart also caused the cemetery problems. There was the case of a mysterious man called "Bill Smith," a railway laborer who had died of acute alcoholism in a cheap L.A. lodging house. A few days after his death, a woman claiming to be his wife went to the undertaker and claimed the body was that of her missing alcoholic husband, William Allen Smith. She notified his wealthy family back East, who paid to have the body buried at Rosedale. However, a letter from the real William Allen Smith led L.A. reporters to San Francisco, where they found him very much alive.

Men, women and children surround decorated graves of Civil War veterans for 'Decoration Day', which later became Memorial Day | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Men, women and children surround decorated graves of Civil War veterans for 'Decoration Day', which later became Memorial Day | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Then there was the fascinating tale of Mrs. H. C. Deming, who died in 1903. Her heart-broken husband initially buried her in an unremarkable plot at Rosedale. Her absence making his heart grow fonder, he soon moved her to a $500 lot on the "crest of a knoll" and had a huge marble and granite shaft built atop her grave. But Mr. Deming was soon sued by his dead wife's former husband Mr. Bolton, who proved that their marriage had never been dissolved. The court ordered that Mr. Bolton should get half of Mrs. Deming's estate. In retaliation, Mr. Deming moved his wife a third time -- "to an unmarked and uncared for grave in the poorest portion of the burying ground." 7 The poor sculptor, who had been commissioned (and never fully paid) to sculpt Mrs. Deming's fine shaft monument, sanded off the Deming name and bought the empty plot from Deming, claiming he would repurpose the monument for his own burial.

Story continues below

However, most of the commotion that occurred at the cemetery was caused by the living, not the dead. This humorous and horrifying incident seems to have typified a typical day at Rosedale:

During the first decade of the 1900s, the Rosedale Cemetery Association and the citizens of growing Pico Heights were consistently at odds over the cemetery's rapid expansion. Angry town meetings were held, and repeated calls for part of the cemetery's land to be turned into a public park were constantly foiled. One successful developer, Mr. Harbett, whose father was buried at Rosedale, even called for the whole cemetery to lose all its gravestones and be turned into a fully landscaped public park. He eerily predicted that eventually the cemetery would fall into disrepair, as the wealthy moved on to newer and trendier cemeteries in Hollywood. The secretary of the Rosedale Cemetery Association was not amused:

Such an idea is preposterous! If Rosedale Cemetery was not cared for as it is and if it were neglected, then I can imagine how such a proposition might be of great benefit to this community, but as it is you will find few, if any, of the public parks of this city to be better cared for than Rosedale Cemetery, nor will you find in them a greater variety or abundance of rare trees, plants or flora. The maintenance of Rosedale is not just temporary. Look at our magnificent endowment fund! Perpetual is a long time, but that is exactly what we mean! 9

His Friend, His Tombstone

Even the venerable Bryson family had its share of Rosedale drama. In 1906, the late John Bryson was secretly laid to rest in the family vault, for fear that his long time "nurse" would attempt to cause a scene. Shortly after, many in the Bryson family were moved to Inglewood Cemetery for mysterious reasons. Even the Rosedale Superintendent J.C. Von der Lohe frequently made the news -- in 1913, he was unconscious for nine days after falling into the elevator shaft of the cemetery's new crematory building. His divorce made headlines, as well, with his ex-wife claiming that he often threatened to move her first husband's body from one grave to another at Rosedale, solely because he knew the thought upset her.

But perhaps there was no stranger story than that of Abel Bennington Crawford, the friendless man whose only obsession was his tombstone. A poor man (he died at the County Hospital), he spent his life savings on a towering monument -- 15 feet high with a fine marble base. For eleven years, he would come to the cemetery every month:

Abel visited his friend in the cemetery, his tombstone. He would sit in its shadows and read, or gaze upon it joyously. Often he polished its glistening sides and watched his reflection upon its surface...11

When he finally died in 1922, strange Abel was buried, in a steel vault, with no one but the gravedigger in attendance, per his request.

Tank for transporting liquid capsized at the gate of the Rosedale Cemetery | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Tank for transporting liquid capsized at the gate of the Rosedale Cemetery | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

As the character of Pico Heights changed, becoming more crowded and diverse, the cemetery became less celebrated and more of a typical, peaceful family cemetery. It settled into quiet respectability and became a popular spot for the burials of prominent civic leaders in the African-American and Chinese communities. In 1993, the cemetery was bought by the Angelus Funeral Home and renamed Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery.

Today, if the cemetery appears run down and a tad hungover, who can blame it? Its first fifty years were some of the liveliest any cemetery has ever known.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

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1 "The Saunterer" Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1892
2 "A state funeral: with all the pomp" Los Angeles Times, Oct. 28 1895
3 "Indignant colored men: they meet and denounce" Los Angeles Times, April 33, 1889
4 "At her childs grave: A mysterious suicide at Rosedale Cemetery" Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1892
5 "The Saunterer" Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1892
6 "Old mother mc'garey: she attended the stimson but was disppointed" Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1898
7 "Final rest of one once dear" Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1906
8 "Voice from the tomb: peculiar accident during a funeral at rosedale" Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1900
9 "Perpetuate" Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1904
10 "Terrorized by a maniac" Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1906
11 "Lives and saves to die" Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1922

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