Old City Cemetery

Posted on October 22, 2008 – 4:47 PM | by OldManFoster
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By Emily Scott

What comes to mind when you think of history? A monotone teacher like the one in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? If so, it’s time to get rid of that notion — especially when it comes to Old City Cemetery. “Sacramento really played a huge part in American history and the cemetery documents that,” said Lynda Walls, President of the Old City Cemetery Committee. The permanent residents of the cemetery contribute to the rich history of Sacramento. Many of them had very interesting lives. And some had even more interesting deaths.

 Sutter GraveOne of the most famous residents of Old City Cemetery is John Sutter, founder of Sacramento, whose grave can be found by the main gate. The cemetery was first established with land that he donated to the city in 1849. The need for a cemetery was realized shortly after the Gold Rush. In addition to a want for wealth, the pioneers also brought diseases, and for many pioneers Sacramento was their final destination. John Sutter and gold-seeking pioneers are not the only ones buried in Old City Cemetery. There are approximately 30,000 permanent residents of the cemetery, each of whom has a story.

The stories of the individuals buried in the cemetery are located in the archives building, a converted mortuary on the cemetery grounds. I ventured to the mortuary… er…archives…one afternoon to find out some of the stories. As is the case with most cemeteries, some of the people buried there met with rather unfavorable deaths. While sifting through the stories, I started to have visions of dark, stormy nights and flickering candles. It didn’t help that I kept remembering that I was in a mortuary.

There was a disproportionate amount of barroom fatalities in these stories, and Pierce Surgeon was one of the unfortunate victims. According to a story that ran in the Sacramento Bee on April 24, 1899, there was a poker game going on in a saloon on 6th and E Streets one evening. One of the poker players, David Quinn, had lost three games and wanted to play a fourth so he tossed 25 cents into the pot. John Sullivan, another player, objected. Quinn then demanded that he get his 25 cents back but Sullivan refused. Quinn struck Sullivan and Surgeon, another player, tried to separate them, which proved to be a fatal mistake. Sullivan and Surgeon started to run away but Quinn drew out his pistol and shot Surgeon. He was not going to let these men– or his twenty five cents– get away so easily.
cemeteryWine was the cause of Manuel Nevis’ death, according to a story in the September 24, 1907 edition of the Sacramento Union. Nevis, one of the most well-known vintners in the area at the time, was the proprietor of Pioneer Winery on 21st and R Streets. Nevis was last seen one Friday evening under the influence, and, as the Union reported it, “he was in a joyful mood and said…that…he thought he would go to the winery and get some more wine to drink before going to bed.”  Nevis went to his winery, and when inside, tried to turn on the light above one of the wine vats. In doing so, he stumbled headfirst into the vat and was discovered dead nearly ten hours later. At least he went while doing something he loved.

William Moffett also died as a result of doing something he enjoyed. According to a story in the Bee on July 22, 1918, Moffett went out for a night of drinking and debauchery with his friend, Al Martin. He promised his wife he’d be home at 6 for dinner, a much too common mistake. As is usually the case, once the two men got to drinking, he completely forgot about his promise. The liquor-soaked men didn’t make it home until 8 that night, nearly two hours after Mrs Moffett had requested. Needless to say, she was not very pleased. Due to Mr Moffett’s level of inebriation, a rather violent argument ensued. According to Martin initially, he grabbed a shotgun that was in the corner of the room and fired it at Mr Moffett.
Once he was incarcerated, however, Martin’s recollection of the story was a bit different. He told the sheriff that during the violent debacle, he couldn’t help but be distracted by a rifle that was leaning lopsidedly against the bedroom door. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies got the best of him and he went over to adjust the position of the gun. In doing so, he knocked the gun over, the trigger bumped against the door, and — oops —  the weapon accidentally went off. Wow — thank goodness Martin finally came forward with the truth and cleared things up!

Not all residents of the City Cemetery had colored pasts. Many were just ordinary people. Jane Norris, a mother of three, lived within blocks of the Capitol building when the Civil War ended. She couldn’t help but noticing, however, that there was no American flag on or near the Capitol building to commemorate the triumphant and monumental event. Norris went over to the Capitol building carrying a tattered American flag one afternoon. Conveniently for Norris, there was some construction going on at the time. While the construction workers were on their lunch break, she found a ladder and proceeded to climb it, all the way to the top of the building. Upon getting there, she secured her flag, and to it, attached a note simply signed, “A Lady.”

CemeteryAmos Norris, Jane’s husband, was one of the construction workers on site that day. Coming home from work, he found his wife preparing dinner and proceeded to tell her what happened . “That was no lady,” he scoffed, obviously referencing the signature on the note. “I can assure you, my dear, it was doubtless a brazen hussy.”

Dr. Charles Duncombe, another resident of the cemetery, also had moments when he could have been seen as brazen  —  and at times, a brazen hussy. Duncombe, a native of Connecticut, relocated to Canada. Being a true Yankee, however, he was not very happy about the British rule and decided to revolt along with a group of like-minded men. The rebellion failed and the men were seen as traitors. While fleeing from a search party, Duncombe was taken in by a group of farmers and disguised as “Grandma.”  The search party came into the house, respectfully greeted “Grandma” who sat in a rocking chair, and resumed their search elsewhere.           

Duncombe’s gender-bending antics did not end there. When he arrived at the Canadian border, he found that it was guarded by militia. That didn’t stop Duncombe, however. He disguised himself as sick “Aunt Nancy” who desperately needed medical care in Detroit. Duncombe’s plan worked and he was allowed to cross.

Wanting to get as far from Canada as possible, Duncombe headed to Sacramento where he proceeded to live out the rest of his life practicing medicine and dabbling in politics. Despite his apparent affinity for dressing in drag, it was never reported that Duncombe gave another performance.

One of the most heart-warming tales of the Old City Cemetery is probably the story of May Woolsey, beloved only child of Mary and Luther Woolsey. Mary Woolsey, being a very spiritual woman, filled a trunk with May’s most treasured belongings after she died so she could return from the afterlife and enjoy them. A century after May’s death, the trunk was discovered and, in it, was a letter. A portion of it read, “Momma dear, do not weep for me. I am not dead, no, only gone before to wait your coming.” The bottom corner of the letter, where the signature would have been, is torn off, so no one knows who wrote it. To this day, cemetery visitors have claimed to feel May’s presence while placing their hand over her grave.

Stories similar to those may be heard at one of Old City Cemetery’s ongoing tours held on various Saturdays throughout the year. If you’re looking for stories of unabashed blood, guts, and gore, however, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This elegantly manicured cemetery blooming with fragrant roses hardly conjures up images of goblins and ghouls. I have heard though, that if you’re not careful, you may run across a black cat or two. The variety lurking in Old City Cemetery have fluffy tails and white stripes down their backs.    
Old City Cemetery is located on 1000 Broadway in Sacramento. For more information including, tour dates and times, please visit: www.oldcitycemetery.com

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