|The mystery of the dislocated grave|
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Here lies a tale about the past, and the mysteries in its wake.
Sit down, have some hot tea, stir the fire, make yourself comfortable on a cold winter’s night.
Hear a story about events long ago transpired, people long since dead, and old tombstones mostly — but not entirely — forgotten.
A tale of the cemetery, and those who repose within it.
Not a spooky tale, mind you, although to many people cemeteries are spooky places. And not necessarily a sad tale, although most of us find graveyards to be forlorn and gloomy locales where grief and regret reign supreme.
No, this is a tale about lives lived, accomplishments achieved, decisions made — and questions asked.
A story about histories.
The story begins about a decade ago, when a young woman from Denver, Jennifer Miklosi, was working on her master’s degree in art history at the University of Denver.
Miklosi, who today works as a wellness coach and is married to Joe Miklosi, elected last month to the Colorado House of Representatives, was then studying under Dr. Annette Stott, head of art history at DU.
“It began as an assignment,” says Miklosi, a petite woman whose enthusiastic affection for funereal ambiance seems somehow at odds with her charming and outgoing nature.
“Every quarter was different and that quarter we were supposed to look at 19th century sculpture in Denver. The focus was on cemeteries, since that’s where most of the 19th century sculpture is in Denver.”
The idea was to find a particular piece of sculpture and analyze it from the perspective of an art historian, requiring the student not only to write an artistic analysis but to uncover as much of the sculpture’s history as possible.
Miklosi chose Denver’s venerable Fairmount Cemetery, a virtual bonanza of Victorian sculpture. She spent hours walking the marble and granite alleyways of the necropolis, and finally found the piece she was looking for.
It was a marble statue, in the form of what experts on the esoteric topic of cemetery sculpture call a “woman in mourning,” a female figure, wrapped in a shawl, holding a wreath of flowers and looking plaintively toward the grave below. The figure’s right hand is wrapped around the cut-off trunk of a small tree.
Miklosi was taken by the life-like expression on the figure’s face, by the realistic texture and wave of her hair, by the intricate details apparent in the hem of her shawl and the flowers in her wreath — in general, by the overall artistic excellence of the piece.
On a recent November morning, chilly and gray — and undeniably quite gloomy — Miklosi pointed out the fine points on the statue in question. With a gentle touch, her hands traced the cold marble, highlighting the gentle curves of the mourner’s garment, the delicate precision of the roses, daisies and what looked like columbines in her wreath, the lace threads edging her shawl.
Miklosi feels that such quality of craftsmanship set this statute apart from most of its fellows at Fairmount, including many which have very similar designs.
The “woman in mourning” theme, and the cut-off tree — a motif often used when the deceased was a young person, one whose life was cut short — are evident in any number of sculptures at Fairmount and other cemeteries, Miklosi says.
Most of the others, however, can be quickly identified as mass production models by astute observers, she says, since many were purchased from mail order catalogues which, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were popular sources for affordable memorials.
The one that interested Miklosi bore plentiful evidence of considerably superior workmanship.
“What really struck me about the mourning woman at Fairmount was that, although it was weathered, the artist who created it definitely had some skill. That led me to believe that maybe it was commissioned.”
The sculpture begged further questions.
Many “mourning women” figures used in cemeteries are found over Christian graves. That faith is symbolized by placing a horizontal branch on the cut-off tree, creating the design of a cross. Those which feature the cut-off tree, but without the cross design, usually have an angel instead of a mourning woman.
Miklosi’s sculpture was therefore a one-of-a-kind enigma — a mourning woman beside a cut-off tree, but without the Christian symbolism. This further convinced Miklosi that the statue was a unique adaptation and combination of well-known themes.
In her close examination of the statue, Miklosi searched for some sign of the sculptor — a set of initials placed discretely on the figure, or maybe some sort of artist’s imprint. The search was in vain — the sculptor who had carved this woman out of a large and excellent block of marble apparently wished to remain anonymous.
Further investigations — including queries made to the Fairmount office — brought no more information on the statue’s origin.
So Miklosi did what any conscientious art historian would do — she investigated the family over whose plot the mourning statue looms, hoping to glean more information.
She became something of an art detective, in pursuit of history.
She found plenty of that, but also new layers of mystery.
The first history lesson was who the statue commemorates.
Her name was Jessie Eleanor Salomon. She died on Jan. 8, 1889, at the tender age of “19 yrs., 26 ds.” as a nearby memorial marker indicates.
She was the daughter of Hyman and Cecelia Salomon, whose graves are included in the sizable family plot at Fairmount, as are those of her siblings Eva, Oscar, Florence and Lillian, and a man, James Geoffrey McMurray, who is assumed to have been her brother-in-law. Eva and Oscar both died when quite young; Florence when considerably older; and the couple Lillian and James McMurray, apparently at an advanced age in the 1920s.
The plot holds individual tombstones for all family members interred there, plus a large central granite memorial, adorned only by a single Old English “S” and the family surname. The statue which stands at the head of Jessie’s grave is the only sculpture in the plot. No other graves, including those of her parents, boasts such a distinctive marker.
Another tidbit of history uncovered by Miklosi: The Salomon family was Jewish.
Her explorations into that interesting fact have made Miklosi — who is not Jewish herself and had never before studied local Jewish history — into something of an authority on the subject. The paper she ended up writing for her DU course contains much of what she learned.
It, too, is an interesting tale.
Miklosi scoured old newspapers and written histories of the Denver Jewish community and found plentiful information on Hyman Salomon, the patriarch of the family. Hyman and his brothers are no strangers to the history books.
Hyman Salomon, in fact, is believed by some historians to have been the first Jew to set foot in the rough-and-tumble settlement along Cherry Creek known today as Denver.
Born in Prussia, Salomon came to what was then known as Auraria early in 1859, making him one of the first pioneers to arrive here. His brother Frederick followed close on his heels. In short order, they set up Denver’s first-ever dry goods business, Salomon Brothers, which hop scotched over several locations in its early years.
The brothers, in partnership with a Gentile trader by the name of J. B. Doyle, then began opening up general stores in Colorado and New Mexico.With other partners, they also set up wagon trains full of provisions to help supply the new mining camps in Colorado’s high country.
They, and a third brother, Adolph, who became a successful potato farmer and merchant in Horace Greeley’s Union Colony in northern Colorado (known today as Greeley) were as authentic as Western pioneers could get. They braved confrontations with restive Indians on the eastern plains, rode hundreds of miles on horseback to distant locations, helped set up mining camps that would later become gold and silver boomtowns and outfitted US Cavalry units throughout the region.
In addition to setting up what is believed to be Denver’s first brewery, the Salomons were able to bring to the fledgling settlement of Denver both cigars and whiskey, the latter said to be considerably superior to the notorious “Taos Lightning” previously available.
The Salomons made lots of friends among Indians and white men alike, and gained reputations as plain dealers and straight shooters (denoting honest traders, not accurate gunslingers). Such terms constituted high praise indeed in the days of the Old West.
They also made lots of money, due both to their mercantile skills and what can only be described as impeccable timing. In time, as Denver grew ever more civilized and settled, Hyman and Frederick Salomon became respected, even prestigious, citizens.
That they were Jewish seems never to have been held against them.
In fact, both brothers were openly proud of their Jewish heritage, and at times even assertive about it. They both helped found the Hebrew Burial and Prayer Society, which organized Denver’s first Jewish cemetery and later evolved into Congregation Emanuel, Denver’s first synagogue, of which they were charter members.
During her research, Miklosi uncovered an interesting letter from Hyman Salomon published in the Rocky Mountain News in 1865. It was in response to a proclamation issued by then territorial governor Alexander Cummings on the subject of Thanksgiving, in which the governor stressed its Christian roots.
“Are we of the Jewish persuasion included in the Proclamation for Thanksgiving, ‘requiring all good people of Colorado to assemble in their respective places of worship and render unto G-d devout Thanksgiving for the riches of His grace, manifested through His Son Jesus Christ’? If so, we have never in the United States of America seen a proclamation excluding Jews from participating. Jews do not worship G-d through Christ, and by the above proclamation, we are excluded. Respectfully yours, H.Z. Salomon.”
That’s an impressively bold and confident statement for an American Jew to have made publicly way back in 1865. It helped Miklosi understand how important his Jewishness was to Salomon.
But it also summoned the primary mystery.