If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, “Dead Mean Tell Great Tales.” This is the reason I tell you to look at the names in church cemeteries. A couple weeks ago we took our own advice and went to go visit the 314 acre home of more than 87,000 graves and mausoleums stretching back into the early 1800s at Bellefontaine Cemetery. (That’s prounounced “Bell-Fountain.”) There are countless stories waiting to be told from the lives of those whose bodies reside there, but we will only scratch the surface with this post. But we do know that the story all starts with a man named Edward Hempstead
Edward Hempstead was an early settler of the Louisiana Frontier. In fact he was so early that he helped rename it “Missouri” so that we wouldn’t confuse it with the state of Louisiana down south. It has been said that few men were more influential in the drive to Missouri Statehood than this man and in fact he likely would have been named Missouri’s First US Senator had he not died in an unfortunate horse accident and instead became the first person to be buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery
Mr. Hempstead was so well loved that his friend Thomas Hart Benton (you would have heard this story if you had listened to our “Drive By History” lesson) had to tell Charles Lucas that their duel would have to wait for a few days while he sat in wake for his friend. A few days later, the men traveled to Bloody Island (a small wooded sand bar in the Mississippi River where people would duel because it wasn’t under the jurisdiction of either Missouri or Illinois,) and had their duel. And after being shot in the knee and shooting Charles Lucas in the throat he was named one of Missouri’s first senators in place of Mr. Hempstead. (I’m sure those aren’t related in any way shape or form.) Thomas Hart Benton had much to say during his political career including being an advocate for hard currency (gold or specie), opposing the Bank of the United states (if only to support “General Jackson” who survived a duel with Benton carrying a bullet in his shoulder for the rest of his life.), the merits of dueling (This guy really liked dueling. I’d recommend not getting on his bad side. You’ll either get shot, beaten, or impeached) , and even authored one of the first Homestead acts.
This is just one of the countless stories you’ll find at Bellefontaine Cemetery.
If you stop at the visitors center and ask for a map, they’ll give you a map with 50 markers showing the most popular grave sites to visit. They also have a civil war map showing you the locations of some important figures in Missouri civil war history. As much as we tell you to go on the road less traveled, I definitely recommend seeing everything on the well marked main road. Some of these mausoleums would put a small country church to shame, complete with stained glass, altars, and one even sported a baptismal font. (Theologically, I’m really puzzled by this one.)
One grave that surprised me was a man named “Vest.” He has a simple grave stone about 50 from the road, and unless it were marked on the map you’d likely never find it. Mr. Vest first coined the phrase “Man’s best friend” in reference to dogs. (Yet another thing you can thank Missouri for.)
Other notable people you will find there are William Clark (you know from the Lewis and Clark Expedition), Adolphus Busch (founder of Anheuser Busch), the first several governors from Missouri, the woman responsible for the first women’s suffrage case to the supreme court. You might even find a story about your neighborhood.
One man named David R. Francis served as Governor of Missouri 1889-1893 and owned a large property in the St. Louis Hills (west side of St. Louis) and operated a dairy farm after his time in office. Mr. Francis was appointed president in charge of the World’s Fair in 1904 (he wanted to do it on his property but they convinced him to do it in Forest Park) and later served as Ambassador to Russia in 1916. In 1917 he donated his land to the city and now Francis park is a perfect place to shatter your nose in a particularly violent game of ultimate Frisbee (or so I’ve been told… It’s not like I have a $15,000 surgery bill to show for it or anything.) His grave is pictured above, where a robin sings cheerfully, despite the gloomy shrouded statue.
Having just scratched the surface, I hope I encouraged you to go digging around in cemeteries (I meant that in a metaphorical sense…not with a shovel). See what tales you can find and be sure to share them with us at Comments@drivingonsunday.com