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The mystery of the dislocated grave

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.

And mysteries.

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.

If Salomon was such a proud and confident Jew — as the record certainly seems to show that he was — why is his grave, and that of his immediate family, not located in the Jewish section of Fairmount Cemetery?

The location of the Salomon plot was immediately puzzling to Miklosi. She knew that Hyman’s brothers Frederick and Adolph were buried in the Jewish section at Fairmount, which has long been operated by the same Congregation Emanuel the brothers helped found.

But the plot for Hyman’s family is in the “general section,” in which very few Jewish graves have ever been located — “smack dab in the middle of the mainstream, non-Jewish section of the cemetery,” as Miklosi puts it.

The plot, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, thickens.

In that very spirit, this “Mystery of the Dislocated Grave,” as it might aptly be called, does provide a few answers.

Miklosi discovered, and the IJN later confirmed, that at least five of the graves now in the plot were originally located in the old City Cemetery, located on ground that is now used by Cheesman and Congress Parks and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The graves in that cemetery all had to be moved when the city decided the land would be developed for other purposes. According to records, the Salomon graves were moved to Fairmount on April 4, 1916. Hyman’s widow, Cecilia, apparently paid for the Fairmount plot and arranged for the move.

Fairmount records, however, say nothing specific about a statue — namely Jessie’s — being included in the move, although Miklosi is confident that it was. Its style, and the weathering patterns on the marble, suggest to her that it was probably newly installed when Jessie died in 1889, and was moved along with the grave.

That’s not for sure, of course, and constitutes only one of several mysteries posed by Miklosi’s scholastically-driven, and now curiosity-inspired, explorations.

Summarized, these questions include:

What is the story of the statue?

Was the “woman in mourning” a unique, commissioned sculpture? Did a Denver sculptor create her, as Miklosi suspects? Is she made of Colorado marble, or perhaps something more exotic, say from Europe?

Does the lack of any Christian symbols (or Jewish, for that matter) say anything about the family’s religious convictions?

Also, why is there only one statue in the plot, and why does only Jessie’s grave merit such special recognition?

Who was Jessie Salomon?

Who was the young woman over whose grave the mourning woman still stands sentinel?

What brought about her death at the tragic age of 19 years?

The DPL Western History section has no record of any mention of her in any newspaper article or obituary, nor does a photograph seem to reside in any local archive or repository.

Although Jessie’s cousin, Amy Salomon Liftin (a daughter of Adolph Salomon), wrote a colorful account of her own childhood in early Denver, entitled Fools Rush In, the book makes no mention of Jessie and only briefly alludes to Jessie’s father Hyman, describing him as a jovial man who loved to make people laugh with humorous anecdotes.

Based on the virtually non-existent information about her, only one thing can be safely inferred about Jessie Salomon: She must have been very much loved by her family. The statue which guards her grave provides moot testimony to that.

Why is the Hyman Salomon family plot not located in the Jewish part of Fairmount Cemetery?

Congregation Emanuel, which keeps the burial records for its cemetery at Fairmount — known informally as Emanuel Cemetery — says that while it has documentation for the graves of Frederick and Adolph Salomon, it has no record whatsoever of Hyman Salomon plot. This is despite the fact that Hyman was no less than a founder of Emanuel’s own scion organization, the Hebrew Burial and Prayer Society.

Neither Fairmount nor Emanuel are willing to speculate on why Hyman’s family is located in the gentile section of the cemetery, nor is Dr. Jeannie Abrams, director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society.

“It strikes me as odd,” Abrams recently told the IJN, that the grave of a once prominent Jew would not be placed in the Jewish section.

Historians have hinted once or twice that Hyman Salomon might have grown somewhat estranged from the Denver Jewish community.

The eminent American Jewish historian Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus suggests that “in their later years, Fred and Hyman withdrew from Jewish life; they had few Jewish associates.”

Marcus apparently derived that from local historian Ida Uchill who, in her history Pioneers, Peddlers and Tsadikim, made a similar observation, based on sources she spoke with in the 1950s who still remembered members of the Salomon family.

Still, it seems extreme that such a seemingly non-hostile withdrawal would result in burial in non-consecrated ground.

Was there more of a rift between the Jewish community and the Salomon brothers than history has recorded?

Did Hyman’s widow Cecilia harbor any such resentment? Is it possible that Cecelia herself was non-Jewish, and preferred the plot be located in the gentile section?

Another possibility: Since one of Hyman’s daughters, Lillian, may have intermarried — the name of her spouse, James McMurray, suggests the possibility — the relocated plot may have been placed in the general section of the cemetery.

Edward Shapiro, president of Denver’s Chevra Kadisha, says that in those days, Emanuel Cemetery might have prohibited the burial of a non-Jewish spouse, thus causing the family to obviate the problem altogether by avoiding Emanuel Cemetery. (Nowadays, Shapiro adds, such a burial would almost certainly be allowed).

Yet another possibility: Shapiro indicates that a strict reading of the Jewish commandment against graven images might have interpreted the mourning woman statue as such an image. Although halachic interpretation of the graven image prohibition is incredibly complex, a brief description of the mourning woman suggested to Shapiro that she might indeed qualify for the dubious distinction.

If this was the interpretation of the Emanuel Cemetery’s overseers in 1916, when Jessie’s grave was moved to Fairmount, the placement of the statue might have been prohibited. The family, in turn, might have opted for another location, in order to preserve a beloved statue.

Does anybody still alive know the answers to any of these questions?

Unanswerable, of course, unless any readers of the IJN step forward. It is possible that descendants of Hyman Shapiro (or more likely, his brother Adolph) still reside in Colorado and might possess a few family anecdotes that could shed light on the many mysteries of the grave. Such individuals are encouraged to contact the newspaper, no matter how hazy or folkloric the recollections might be.

Miklosi is able to provide one enticing clue, adding yet another mystery to the story. During the time of her research at Fairmount, she noticed that flowers had been placed in the Salomon plot, strongly suggesting that there is somebody who still remembers and still cares.

The question, of course, begs yet another: Is any of it important anymore?

Not in any immediate sense, since everybody who was actually involved with any of these events is almost certainly dead by now.

But it is interesting as history, nonetheless, and it would certainly be a boon to Colorado Jewish history to know why the first Jew ever to set foot in Denver lies buried today in a non-Jewish cemetery.

Jennifer Miklosi admits that she too would love to have answers to any and all of the questions her research has raised.

Walking through the quiet byways of Fairmount Cemetery, and delving into old records of the past to tell the stories of the people whose names are on the stones, has only deepened her appreciation for the cities of the dead.

“I have always enjoyed cemeteries,” she says, “but this has made me love them, especially the older ones. I love looking at the dates and the inscriptions. I’m an art historian, so obviously I love history and art, and a cemetery is full of both.”

She pauses significantly. “And they’re very, very peaceful.”

Not to mention — sometimes — very, very mysterious.

Copyright (c) 2008 by the Intermountain Jewish News. Republished by permission of the Intermountain Jewish News. No reprint or republication without written permission of the Intermountain Jewish News.

[Editor’s note: Jennifer (Porter) Miklosi (MA ’06) is a University of Denver alumna, Annette Stott is a professor at DU’s School of Art and Art History, and Jeanne Abrams is an associate professor of Penrose Library and director of the Beck Archives at DU and director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society.]

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