I’m still at Gardiner Cemetery, after a two-week break. As I said, it’s a smallish cemetery but still has plenty of stories to offer. I was saddened to learn that just this week, a fire that began in a business on Main Street in Gardiner swept through a number of stores. Fortunately, nobody was injured but it will take time for those businesses to recover.
Montana was definitely the wild frontier for many years, even up through the early 1900s. Unfamiliar landscapes and drastic weather changes could catch many unawares, leading to an untimely demise.
Death of “Mormon” Brown
Alexander “Mormon” Brown probably got his nickname from having lived in Ogden, Utah much of his life. But by 1886, the 35-year-old was living in the Gardiner area. According to Lee Whittlesey’s book, Death in Yellowstone, the winter of 1886-1887 was brutally cold. Brown left Gardiner with a friend, Thomas Garfield, to stay in Thomas’ cabin some five miles away for a few days.
Unfortunately, because Brown struggled with alcoholism, he suffered from DTs (delirium tremors) while at the cabin. While Thomas slept, Brown left the cabin on the night of January 4, 1887 and disappeared. Brown was found the next day by a search party, his body nearly frozen halfway in the water of the Yellowstone River.
You can barely make out Brown’s name and dates on what looks to me to be a wooden marker. I suppose it could be petrified rock. Regardless, it’s rather amazing that it still exists at all.
Struck by Lighting
Mormon Brown’s demise was certainly an agonizing death but in the case of Robert Wright, he had no warning whatsoever of what was coming.
Although a native of Montana, Robert S. Wright was the son of Scottish immigrants. His father, Edward, arrived in America around 1895 and married Sibel Somerville around 1897. Robert was born in 1908.
According to Whittlesey, Robert was working for the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company. On July 18, 1929, he was driving a company truck on the Mammoth-Tower Road. The truck broke down near Oxbow Creek. It began to rain, so he sat down under a large tree. Lighting struck the tree, killing him instantly. According to a newspaper report, his body was found leaning against the split tree. He was only 21.
Another article I read said that Robert’s funeral reunited the extended Wright family for the first time since they had left Scotland, a group of about 35 of them attending. Robert is buried between his parents in the Wright family plot. Sibel died in 1937 and Edward died in 1938.
Two Markers, Two Cemeteries?
There’s a marker that looks fairly new for a child named Marie L. Douglass. It states that she was traveling with her parents, Nebraskans Volney and Florence Douglass, through Yellowstone Park in a covered wagon (along with grandparents and a sister named Ruth) when she died of a sudden illness on Aug. 13, 1906.
From what I could discover, the Douglass family lived in Bloomington, Neb. most of their lives. Volney was a native of New York but had lived in Nebraska from the time he was a boy. Sadly, Florence Douglass died the following year in 1907. Volney remarried and died in Bloomington in 1946.
The puzzling thing about all this is that there is also a marker for Marie in Maple Grove Cemetery in Bloomington, Neb. beside those of her parents. Is Marie buried in Gardiner Cemetery or in Maple Grove Cemetery? Which one is a cenotaph? I can understand why the family would choose to bury Marie in Montana while remembering her with a marker at home. But I still wonder exactly where Marie is buried.
UPDATE: In June 2021, I received an e-mail from Ruth Marie Steinkruger, whose mother was the half-sister of Marie Douglass. The stone in Maple Grove Cemetery in Bloomington, Neb. is indeed a cenotaph. Here’s what Ruth wrote: “Marie is buried at Gardiner. The stone at Bloomington, NE was placed by her parents when they returned from the trip to Yellowstone. My dad designed the stone that is in Gardiner on the 1980s to replace a very small marker that was originally there.”
“Little Gus” Smitzer and “Morphine Charley” Reeb
I photographed one grave marker for its unusual name than the look of it, since it appeared to be fairly new. “Little Gus” Smitzer, as it turns out, had a colorful past his stone did not hint at in any way.
Born in 1849, “Little Gus” Smitzer got his nickname for his short stature. I don’t know what his family background was but he was born in New York. By the 1890s, he was living in the Yellowstone area and had become friends with German immigrant George “Charley” Reeb. Like Gus, Charley was a bit of a drifter. Charley, who had an addiction to drugs, went by the moniker “Morphine Charley”. Together, the pair hatched a plan to rob a stagecoach to finance their itinerant lifestyle.
Lying in Wait
On August 14, 1897, Gus and Charley stationed themselves on Solfatara Plateau about four miles from the Canyon Hotel in Yellowstone Park. Each had a pistol and rifle, and wore a mask. They awaited the line of stagecoaches traveling from the Canyon Hotel to Norris Geyser Basin. Six stages filled with tourists and an army ambulance carrying two officers, their wives, and a doctor, rounded a bend to face the two armed bandits.
One by one, the robbers halted the coaches at gunpoint and relieved the passengers of their cash and coin. Nobody was injured and when it was all said and done, Gus and Charley netted about $650. But they were careless and left evidence of their misdeed on the trail of their escape, so arrests soon followed.
Charley and Gus were later sent to Cheyenne, Wy., where in May 1898 they were tried in U.S. Federal court, convicted of highway robbery, and sentenced to 2.5 years in the federal penitentiary by Judge Riner.
A Fresh Start
When the ex-thieves emerged from their incarceration, both were determined to stick to the straight and narrow. Charley was actually released four months early on good behavior. Upon his return home, Reeb personally stopped at Fort Yellowstone to thank Judge Meldrum for helping him to break his morphine habit. He went on to marry (and divorce) twice, fathering several children. But he never broke the law again.
Judge Meldrum assisted Gus as well, helping the former drifter get hired on at the buffalo ranch in Lamar Valley as an irrigation worker. Gus proved to be a good employee for a number of years. He died in 1931 at the age of 81.
The Short Life of a Young Wife
The last story I’m going to share is that of a young wife who died at the age of 19. She is alone in her plot but it is surrounded by a handsome wrought-iron fence that still retains decorative chains on each side. I find it somewhat amazing that they are still there.
Myrtle “Myrtie” Johnson was born on March 10, 1873 in Enterprise, Mo. to Noah Johnson (a Canadian) and Catherine Bechtel Johnson. She was one of several Johnson children who moved with her parents to North Dakota in her childhood.
On Nov. 17, 1890, at the age of 17, Myrtie married F.M. Scott in Pembina, N.D., just a few miles from the Canadian border. Her new husband was 33. I don’t know if they had any children. Myrtie Scott died on Feb. 27, 1893 for reasons unknown. It may have been childbirth or diphtheria or typhoid.
I could not definitively trace F.M. Scott after Myrtie’s death but there was a Frank Scott living in Gardiner in 1900 who was married in 1895 and had two young children. That may have been him.
I like to think that F.M. must have loved his young wife a great deal by providing such a pretty fence and marker for her. A single finger points to Heaven where surely she must now reside after her brief life.
Next time, I’ll be within the borders of Yellowstone National Park as I share stories from Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery.