I’m reluctant to draw my Ohio adventure to a close with this final installment about Woodland Cemetery because there’s so much more to this place than what I’ve written. However, I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m currently planning a return to Ohio in September 2021 so I can revisit it and uncover more stories to share.
Today I’m going to share a few of those “why didn’t you include (fill in name here) in your series?” graves because some of them are indeed worth including. These people were not particularly well known outside of Dayton but their graves are among the most frequently visited.
A Boy and His Dog
Topping that list is the grave of little Johnny Morehouse. I preface this story with the awareness that some details attached to his death are part of a legend that’s evolved over the years. The people who would know all the facts are now deceased. We’ll never know the exact story.
Born in 1855, Johnny was the son of John and Barbara Morehouse. Johnny’s father was a cobbler and his shop backed up to an old canal that ran through the middle of Dayton. The Morehouse family is thought to have lived in the rear of the shop, so Johnny played with his dog along the canal often.
Legend has it that one day in August 1860, Johnny fell into the canal. His dog tried to pull him out but Johnny was dead by the time he got him out. Some versions of the story say the dog drowned as well. Others say the dog survived and stayed beside Johnny’s grave constantly until his death. There are those that even believe the dog is buried with Johnny but cemetery officials have always insisted that’s not true. Older newspaper articles have stated some Morehouse family members said the “dog tries to save boy” story wasn’t true at all.
Those variations don’t truly matter. This little boy and his dog hit you hard.
“In Slumber Sweet”
According to Woodland’s web site, Johnny’s monument was carved in 1861 by Daniel Ladow, the same fellow who carved the Beckel’s bee hive-topped monument that I wrote about a few weeks ago. A dog guards a sleeping child, dressed in period clothing. Little items like a top, a cap, and a harmonica are incorporated into the monument. On the side are carved the words “In Slumber Sweet”.
Fortunately, Johnny’s grave has never been vandalized and visitors often leave little trinkets behind. Coins, bracelets, and toys are common. It’s difficult to swallow the lump in the throat you get when you first catch sight of a little boy with his faithful canine watching over him. All I can say is that it strikes a chord with just about anyone who sees it, including me.
King and Queen of the Gypsies
One monument that gets a lot of attention is that of the Stanley family. If you’ve only seen the monument but don’t know the story of the lives (and deaths) of those buried beneath it, you don’t know why it reveals some truly unusual history.
Born in 1818 in England, Levi Stanley was the son of Owen and Harriet (also known as Maud) Wharton Stanley. Owen and Harriet were the original “King and Queen of the Gypsies” that came to Ohio when Levi was young. Gypsies, by and large, tend to be nomadic in nature and the Stanleys did their fair share of moving around. Gypsies are often referred to as “travelers”. But over the years, the Stanleys accumulated land in Ohio and made a good bit of money from horse trading. They chose Dayton as their summer home when they weren’t traveling.
Levi married Matilda Joles and Levi’s brother, Owen Jr., married Matilda’s sister Priscilla Joles. After the deaths of Harriet in 1857 and Owen in 1860, Levi and Matilda took over the titles of King and Queen, adding onto their wealth as more gypsies became attached to them.
Matilda was said to have the great talent of telling fortunes along with remarkable powers as a mesmerist. She was described in the press as a “plain, hardy-looking woman, with a touch of Meg Merrilies in her appearance, and a manner indicative of a strong and pronounced character.” Meg Merrilies was a gypsy queen in the Sir Walter Scott novel, Guy Mannering.
A Funeral Procession Like No Other
The Stanleys were in Vicksburg, Miss. when Matilda died of cancer in late January 1878. She was 55. Her body was embalmed and sent to Woodland Cemetery to be kept in their receiving vault. Embalming was still fairly rare at the time but it soon became evident as to why this was done. Over the next several months, scores of gypsies from all over the country (and some from overseas) came to Woodland’s vault to visit Matilda and pay their respects. It wasn’t until September that a funeral was finally held, and it was one Dayton would not soon forget.
According to newspaper accounts, over 20,000 people attended the funeral, filling the streets to capacity as they moved toward the cemetery. Many spectators came in hopes of witnessing strange and magical gypsy rites. But they were to be disappointed. The graveside service was presided over by the Rev. Daniel Berger, a prominent minister from the United Brethren Church, and was quite traditional in contrast to the colorfully garbed people attending the funeral. However, it’s unlikely many had ever attended a funeral where the people were pressed together so tightly that Rev. Berger had to stand on a wooden plank over Matilda’s open grave in order to officiate without being pushed by the crowd.
Levi continued to lead the gypsies with some help from his son Levi “Sugar” Stanley, Jr. Levi Sr. was in Marshall, Texas when he died at the age of 96 in December 1908. As was the case with Matilda, he was embalmed and sent home to Dayton to be placed in Woodland’s receiving vault. His funeral was not held until April 12, 1909. His casket was borne from the vault by two snow white stallions. Again, the Rev. Berger was called upon to perform the funeral service at the graveside. Levi’s funeral was not as big of an affair as his wife’s but it was still reported on by many Ohio newspapers.
Levi’s death marked the end of an era. While lauded as the new “King”, Sugar was not eager to fill the large shoes his father had left behind. According to his funeral notice, poor investments and other failures led to the disbanding of the tribe. Sugar, whose wife had died in 1911, was living in Memphis, Tenn. when he died at age 80 in 1916. His remains were sent to Dayton and unlike his parents, his funeral followed soon after.
A fundraising event was held at the Woodland shortly before I visited in October 2018 in hopes of getting funds to repair and refurbish the Stanley monument and Levi’s slab. Both are very faded. I don’t know what the status is of that project but it would a wonderful thing to see both brought back to their former glory.
Largest Obelisk in Woodland
I’m going for the big finish by sharing the story of veteran engineer John Alexander Collins (1815-1878). He has the distinction of being buried beside the largest obelisk in Woodland Cemetery.
Born in Staffordshire, England on June 8, 1815, John Collins came to America around 1825 and later became a locomotive engineer. He moved to Ohio in 1851 to open the Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton (C.H. & D.) Railroad, remaining with the railroad until 1872. Marrying later in life at the age of 58, Collins wed Emma Jane Baird Turner Collins (who was either 37 or 47 and for whom this was her third marriage) in 1873. He died on Jan. 26, 1878 of tuberculosis. He had no children. Emma inherited most of his estate and died in 1894.
Not until August 1896, a good 18 years after John Collins died, was his enormous monument placed on his gravesite. Why? The article detailing the unveiling of the monument mentioned that Collins had left instructions in his will that $10,000 of his estate be spent on his monument. I discovered this week that in court proceedings at the time of his death, Collins requested that land holdings in Iowa be sold and placed in trust with a Covington, Ky. bank (just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) for the monument and not used until after the death of Emma. That explains the delay.
The front of the monument details John’s life and also serves as a sort of memorial to his fellow railroad engineers.
I did notice an article on John Collins’ Find a Grave.com memorial that made me smile at the understatement. The newspaper reported, “It was not without some trouble that it was removed to the cemetery.” I can only imagine how difficult that task must have been.
My few hours at Woodland that day are precious to me for a number of reasons. One was that I spent it rambling over the hillsides with my cousin Christal Gray-Davis, who I’d always wanted to go hopping with. She and her husband, Ron, live about an hour from Dayton and drove over for the afternoon. I later apologized for the zeal with which I dragged her along with me since we only had a few hours to scour the place. I hope when I return in September that she’ll “hop” with me again if I promise to slow down this time.
It was also special because Woodland Cemetery is where so many of my family is buried, some whom I knew and loved dearly, others who died long before I was born. They are branches in my family tree that rest peacefully in a place that was the first cemetery I ever remember visiting. Perhaps the seeds were sewn then for the passion I have now to tell the stories behind the stones.
Farewell, Woodland. I’ll be back soon.