Visiting Mother Damnable Conklin’s Grave

Back in April and May, I spent a lot of time in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery. If you’ve heard of it, chances are it’s as the place where Bruce and Brandon Lee are buried. But it’s also home to the remains of many of Seattle’s pioneers, and it’s a stunning hilltop from which you can see both the Cascades and Olympics on a clear day. Aside from the fact that a beautiful cemetery is an ideal place to practice social distancing in a pandemic, I went because I wanted to find the grave of Mother Damnable.

Mother Damnable, born Mary Ann Boyer in 1821, ran Seattle’s first hotel, the Felker House. Among other guests, she hosted the territorial government—and, by many accounts, ran a brothel. She supposedly earned her sobriquet because of her fondness for cursing (in multiple languages!), although there’s also a tradition of witches and madams named “Mother Damnable” elsewhere. But our local Damnable really earned her place in weird Seattle history because of a story about her corpse. When she was dug up and moved out of the old Seattle Cemetery in 1884, the papers said her still-smiling body had turned to stone. I wrote up the whole tale for The Stranger, America’s hometown newspaper, back in 2013 under the headline “The Madam Who Turned to Stone.”

Shorey_Contract_cover copy

Undertaker Oliver C. Shorey’s contract for moving the bodies from Seattle Cemetery, courtesy John LaMont at SPL

Now that we live just a few blocks away, it seemed rude not to visit the lady (skeleton) I’d read so much about. But Damnable proved surprisingly hard to find. The cemetery isn’t terribly big, but after five or six fruitless “maybe she’s over here!”-style wanders, I gave up and emailed Lake View. They were kind enough to send me a plot map with the relevant grave highlighted, and after a few missteps we found her!

IMG_0786Bess Lovejoy, CC BY-NC 4.0

Sorry the lettering is so faded—it’s clearer if you visit. This is actually Mama Damnable’s second headstone at Lake View. The first was also quite plain, and said “Mother Damnable Conklin, died 1887”). You can see it on HistoryLink. That death date is incorrect—she died in 1873, the date listed above. The name Conklin comes from her first husband, a sea captain who abandoned her in Port Townsend. I believe is actually her third resting place, after she was moved from the old Seattle Cemetery downtown (now Denny Park) to Washelli cemetery (today’s Volunteer Park) and then to Lake View. May she rest in peace, free of irritating hotel guests and bad husbands forever.


Adventure Time

It’s been an exciting few months. Just to prove that I have actually left the house, here are some photos from recent travels:

At the end of April, I spoke at several Rest in Pieces-related events in New York. The first was at Observatory in Brooklyn, co-presented by the wonderful women of Morbid Anatomy and Phantasmaphile. I took advantage of the Morbid Anatomy space to snap a few pictures with some very early–or very late?–guests. Thanks to all who showed up!

I was lucky enough to speak at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery the following night. Yes, that Sleepy Hollow, the one with the headless horseman. (He was sadly absent.) Keys to the Sleepy Hollow mausoleums:

sleepy hollow keys

Burial registers at the cemetery–you can bet I was itching to pour through these:

Burial registers

Afterward, Jim of Sleepy Hollow invited us to join one of their “Murder and Mayhem” tours through the cemetery, which I highly recommend. Wandering through a cemetery with lanterns at dusk was one of the lovelier experiences of my recent memory. Unfortunately, it was hard to take good pictures with my iPhone, although this captures some of the experience (the grave is of a famous abortionist):

sleepy hollow tour

My favorite stop was the Bronze Lady, a sculpture who supposedly figures in some complicated local high school graduation rituals:

Bronze Lady

The last event in NYC was a reading at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The place was just gorgeous, with fruit trees all in bloom around the graves. Driving up to the chapel in full sun was a sight to remember. Of course, the only good photos I got were inside. Here’s me with Carrie Schaff, a friend and editor type from Feral House/Process Media:


Here’s the one good photo from outside Green-Wood. Do I look bored? I definitely was not bored. That’s just my face.


A few weeks later I flew to San Francisco, where I was delighted to appear with the singer/songwriter Jill Tracy at an event for Obscura Society SF. (I also did a fun interview with Atlas Obscura to promote the event here). It was such a pleasure to meet Jill, Annetta from Atlas Obscura, and many others. Jill played a few songs that she composed while spending the night at the Mütter Museum, which I can’t even imagine doing. Here she is performing with the museum projected over her:

Jill Tracy performing

Judging from the audience response, the highlight of my talk was the part about Rasputin’s penis. I won’t post that picture, but here’s one of Rasputin’s daughter on a Wheaties box. (This is stolen from an eBay listing that has since sold.)

RasputinDaughterWheatiesAnother highlight of the San Francisco trip was exploring the giant necropolis of Colma with Colin Dickey and his wife Nicole Antebi. (I’m not sure why I look like I’m running away here.)

Colin and I

Hours before our visit, I discovered that I have a relative buried in Colma, a sea captain named Simeon Bartlett Kinney. Here he is:

Photo courtesy my dad James Lovejoy
Simeon Bartlett Kinney. Photo courtesy my dad James Lovejoy. Year unknown.

I’m thinking his beard would be an inspiration to the young men of Brooklyn.

Simeon B was buried in San Francisco’s Masonic cemetery, which was dug up at some point and the graves moved to Colma. (All of San Francisco’s graves were dug up and moved to Colma when the city ran out of room for graves in the early 20th century.) My father had researched Kinney and discovered that his grave had been moved to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma, conveniently enough the first cemetery we came across in the city. I braved the records office, where three helpful young ladies in black suits informed me that all the bodies from the Masonic cemetery had been buried in a mass grave at the back of the cemetery. They were relieved at how calmly I received the news, and I wanted to say “Hey, some of the most famous people in history ended up in mass graves!” Nevertheless, I may have shouted “mass grave!” with a little too much glee when I left the office to share the news with Colin.


Two strange big cats were flanking the monument, so of course I made friends. These guys didn’t look like normal cemetery art to me. Perhaps they’re rejects from a Disneyland ride?


Thanks to all who came out, let me crash at their house, showed me around, and cared about my odd little book! Let’s do it again soon, huh?

The Madam Who Turned to Stone

Statue at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, where Madame Damnable is buried. By Steve Mohundro on Flickr, Creative Commons license.
Statue at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, where Madame Damnable is buried. By Steve Mohundro on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I wrote a few articles in preparation for the release of Rest in Pieces, but the one I most enjoyed was about a nineteenth century Seattle madame, Mother Damnable, whose corpse is said to have turned to stone. Mother D (also known as Mary Ann Boyer or Mary Ann Conklin) has been fascinating me for a few years, and I’m glad to have had a chance to tell some of her story. Read it at The Stranger.

I’d like to thank John LaMont, Special Collections librarian at the Seattle Public Library, for his help tracking down key documents for the story. John provided me with the 1884 article that describes the discovery of Mother Damnable’s corpse, which I’m including below.

“Removing the Dead.” August 22, 1884. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

A reporter of the Post-Intelligencer called upon Mr. O.C. Shorey, the contractor for removing bodies, monuments and stone work from the old city cemetery to the new burying ground, adjoining the Masonic cemetery, and asked him for anything of interest in connection therewith that has so far come under his observation. Mr. Shorey said: “I have been at work about three weeks, and have removed so far 120 bodies together with most of the monuments and stone work, and have, I think, over half of the work done. I have been laying off for a few days, waiting for the Catholics to get their grounds in readiness for the reception of the bodies of those of that faith. I have also delayed some in order to give all friends of deceased persons an opportunity to select new lots, and to give all such friends an opportunity to be present during the removal of the remains of their friends and loved ones.

“Last week among the remains taken up and removed were those of Mrs. Mary Conklin, who died and was buried eleven years ago, at the age of 70 years and 10 months. During her life she was known by the old settlers as ‘Mother Damnable,’ and many will remember her by that name. We discovered that the coffin was very heavy, weighing at least 400 pounds and it took six men to lift it out of the grave. On removing the lid to the coffin we found that she had turned to stone. Her form was full sized and perfect, the ears, finger nails and hair being all intact. Her features were, however, somewhat disfigured. Covering the body was a dark dust, but after that was removed the form was as white as marble and as hard as stone.

When we took up the coffin under the headstone marked “William Carnes,” who will be remembered as a large butcher, who died some ten years ago, we found the form of a small, delicate woman, with her clothing on and watchchain about her neck. The way I account for this is as follows: Some time after Carnes died, his friends had a stone made to mark his grave, and the parties employed to set the stone placed it over the wrong grave.

When the remains of James McKay, the tanner, who died ten or eleven years ago, were taken up, they were found well preserved, though the features were unrecognizable. All the graves, at certain seasons of the year, are full of water and the coffins float in their boxes. The action of the water has turned most of the bodies black. In a greater number of the coffins there is nothing but a few bones. The coffins are mostly sound, and before removing them we place them in new cedar boxes. So far we have found nothing of an offensive nature so far as smell is concerned, most of the bodies having been buried so long that the flesh has either all turned to dust or been eaten by the worms. I shall take up and remove all the bodies that can be found, including those who sleep in unmarked graves within the Pottersfield, but shall not interfere with the Chinese graves, as the Chinamen desire to take up the bones of their dead and ship them to the Flowery Kingdom.

Many graves have been sadly neglected, and I fear that some will be consequently overlooked. I wish you would tell the people again that I am anxious to hear from all those who have friends buried in the old cemetery, and have them point out the graves to me, especially those that are unmarked. A forest fire ran through the cemetery two years ago, and burned up a number of wooden grave marks, which adds to the difficulty of finding some of the graves. The new cemetery is located on a fine site between the two lakes, and can be made a beautiful burying ground with proper care and attention.”

Where’s Moliére? The Mystery of Père Lachaise

Your final address matters most of all. Not the one where you breathe your last, but the one where your bones rest, where your name is engraved on stone. Of course, the irony is that you’ll no longer be there to care, but the terror of that thought makes the location feel all the more crucial. People who sell plots in cemeteries – the scholar Frederick Brown calls them “metaphysical realtors” – are aware of this anxiety, and often seek to exploit it.

Lately I’ve been reading Brown’s 1973 book, Père Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate. Père Lachaise, of course, is a sprawling village of the dead in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, home to some of the most famous graves in the world – Jim Morrison, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde. Wikipedia says it’s the most-visited cemetery in the world, which is easy to believe. When I visited in February 2010, men half-crazed with cold sold tourist maps outside the entrance (despite the free ones inside) to a steady stream of young art students, couples, and tourists from around the world. I hear that in the spring the place is even more crowded, with both tourists and hundreds of resident cats.

Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise

For the purpose of this blog, Moliére (1622-1673) is my favorite resident of Pére Lachaise. A famed actor and playwright in his day, he had the singularly ironic fate of  going into his death throes while on stage playing the part of an ill man. He’d written the part himself, in a play of called The Unfortunate Invalid. When he fell ill, the audience had no idea Moliére was actually suffering, and thought his twitches were part of the act. He died, of a lung hemorrhage, about an hour after stepping offstage.

In the bad old days, actors were denied a Christian burial. Fortunately, Moliére’s resourceful widow pulled some strings, and got permission for a night burial in the cemetery of St. Joseph. Details of the precise burial location are sketchy: some say he was buried in a consecrated grave “at the foot of the cross,” others that he ended up in a corner of the graveyard set aside for suicides. Sources are even more divided about what happened in the years that followed: some say he was moved inside the church, others that his body stayed out in the yard.

What we know for certain is in 1792, the revolutionary government decided to name a section of town after Moliere, and went in search of his bones. By that time, no knew for certain where he lay. That didn’t seem to bother the commissioners in charge of his exhumation, who dug in what seemed to be promising spot and labeled the resulting skeleton “Moliere.” Afterward, the bones went to a museum, where they lay for about 18 years, until the man behind Pére Lachaise needed a corpse to be part of the founder’s circle.

Like PR people today, the promoter behind Pére Lachaise, Prefect of the Seine Nicolas Frochot, knew that the presence of celebrities would enhance the desirability of his product. He had a job on his hands convincing Parisians to bury their departed in the eastern suburb where Pére Lachaise lay. They were used to burying their dead in city churchyards, and the idea of a far-flung cemetery seemed a little weird. Because Moliere was so beloved, reburying him in Pére Lachaise seemed like an ideal way to convince the French bourgeoisie that the cemetery was the “in” place to spend eternity. Of course, Frochot had no idea the bones may well have belonged to a pauper or suicide, but he may not have cared. In Père Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate, Brown says,

“…judging from their haste, one may presume that they cared no more whether these were the real bits of Moliére and La Fontaine than did the Church whether its saints’ relics were historically true. Myths suffice when any bones will do, and any bones, in turn, will serve a myth–in this case a myth still current in France, which has it that her writers, forming a national treasure, mystically belong to her bourgeoisie, however dull and ill-read.”

The move paid off. Today, many of the tourists who pass Moliere’s grave probably don’t know who he is. They’re on their way to throw flowers at Jim Morrison, or plant a lipstick kiss on Oscar Wilde’s grave. But if it weren’t for the bones of the fake Moliere, they might not be there at all, and the Parisian tourist industry would definitely suffer.

Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise
Moliére and the cats of Père Lachaise

William Blake’s grave: Lost and found

I love visiting the Morgan Library and Museum: Its small size allows for an intimacy that is impossible in the caverns of the Met or the MoMA. I even love the elevator, which is made of glass and slips soundlessly from floor to floor.

In January 2009, the Morgan showed William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun,” an exhibition devoted to poet/painter/engraver William Blake. Blake first caught my eye as a teenager: I loved the gentle tones of his watercolors, and his fantastic beasts. The exhibit puts many of the Blake pieces owned by the Morgan on display for the first time in twenty years. These range from small, delicate engravings to lively color prints destined for the covers of Visions of the Daughters of Albion (in part a defense of sexual freedom) or America: A Prophecy (Blake was a big fan of our rebellious little colony).

Like so many geniuses, Blake was under-appreciated in his own lifetime, publishing only a single book conventionally and earning most of his bread as an engraver. Sadly, he died in poverty, and most of the obituaries focused on his eccentricities rather than his brilliant output. Blake was an iconoclast, a freethinker, and generally written off as totally insane. Nevertheless, in the years since then his reputation has vastly improved, with the help of some devoted biographers. Unfortunately, London, Blake’s only home, hasn’t treated his remains very well. In a city of monuments, Blake has no public memorial, and even the site of his grave was lost for 40 years.

According to a book published around the time of Blake’s death in 1827, “Blake died in his sixty ninth year, in the back room of the first floor of No. 3 Fountain Court, Strand, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, on the 17th of August.” He was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1927, on the centenary of Blake’s death, one of his biographers finally erected a memorial stone over his grave. Unfortunately, the wording for the stone was a little confusing. The stone, which can still be seen today, reads:


The use of the words “near by” refers to the fact that while Blake’s grave was directly beneath the stone, the grave of his wife was about 70 meters away. However, many people erroneously believe the wording refers to the fact that Blake’s grave site is lost. In fact, the wording may have helped make that the case.

In 1965, Bunhill Fields began a beautification project, and added a new lawn where several gravestones had been. Blake’s gravestone was moved, but his body was not. Somehow, the records of the location of his grave were lost. Thus his tombstone, standing at an angle against Daniel Defoe’s, became literally true: William Blake was no longer underneath the stone, but somewhere “nearby.”

So the situation remained until 2005, when a London couple, Luis and Carol Garrido, came to pay their respects. Like so many before them, during their visit to Bunhill Fields the Garridos were befuddled by the imprecise wording on Blake’s tombstone. “Nearby lies William Blake?” they wondered. Then came a strange experience. Wandering around the cemetery, the Garridos suddenly became aware of a beautiful fragrance that seemed to fill the air in a particular spot. They walked in a circle, hoping to find a flowering tree or shrub, but found nothing that could be responsible for the fragrance. According to the couple, they “happened to be aware of similar accounts of beautiful fragrances manifesting unexpectedly by the graves of saints of the past.” In fact, Blake is considered a Gnostic saint in Aleister Crowly’s cosmology, and is thought to be the reincarnation of an archangel by Sahaja Yogis. According to Sahaja literature that appears on the web, the Garridos are Sahaja Yogis themselves. That may help explain their determination to find William Blake’s grave.

On a second visit to the cemetery, the Garridos happened to run into the cemetery’s keeper. When they asked if anyone knew where Blake’s grave actually was, the keeper told them that an elderly man who had been responsible for moving the gravestones in the 1960s claimed Blake had been buried not far from the current site of his gravestone, near a Plane tree. The site the keeper was describing was exactly the same as the place where the Garridos had smelled the fragrance. Sensing their enthusiasm, the keeper offered to show them cemetery plans that might elucidate the mystery. However, those documents proved inconclusive, and sent the Garridos on a sleuthing quest deep into the city archives.

Eventually, they were able to discover that all the graves at Bunhill Fields were laid down with north/south and east/west co-ordinates. By plotting the co-ordinates of known graves, the Garridos were eventually able to find Blake’s originally gravesite, as well as those of other members of his family. They’ve detailed their entire quest, and their proof, on their website and in a detailed 106-page book available at the site (which provided much of the information for the post).

A proposal for a new memorial to William Blake has been approved in general, and plans are currently underway. I like the Blake Society’s proposed design, which includes a new headstone as well as one of Blake’s poems carved in a pathway towards his grave: “Hear the voice of the Bard! Who present, past, and future sees; Whose ears have heard/The Holy Word/That walked among the ancient trees.”