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Stacy Conradt

The Flying Wallendas

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Contrary to what the song would have you believe, flying through the air doesn’t exactly happen with the greatest of ease—even if the Flying Wallendas make it look that way.

The world’s most famous high wire act has been making headlines since 1780, when the Wallenda family traveled Europe as a complete circus act that included high wire, clowns, jugglers, and animal trainers. The modern-day act began when young Karl Wallenda joined the family business in the early 1900s. He developed a new four-person pyramid stunt that caught the eye of John Ringling, who invited the troupe to perform with his circus. They accepted, and so completely stunned the audience at their 1928 Madison Square Garden debut that they received a 15-minute standing ovation. The Wallendas say such an ovation has not happened at Madison Square Garden before or since.

As the family grew, so did the act. By the 1960s, children, in-laws, nephews, and family friends were all performing death-defying stunts—until the day that they didn’t defy death. On January 30, 1962, the Wallendas were in the middle of their famous seven-person pyramid 35 feet up when the front man on the wire faltered, sending three men plummeting to the ground. Two of them, Karl’s son-in-law and nephew, died from their injuries. The third, Karl’s adopted son Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Here's the modern-day troupe recreating the act:

A year after the accident in Detroit, Rietta Wallenda, Karl’s sister-in-law, was killed in Omaha when she fell 50 feet during her sway pole act.

Tragedy spared the Wallendas for the better part of a decade. Then, in 1972, Karl’s son-in-law was killed in a freak accident when the pole he was holding accidentally brushed a live wire. The resulting shock made him fall; he later died from head injuries sustained in the accident.

Karl himself died in 1978 at the age of 73 when he fell from a high wire strung 121 feet in the air between two buildings in San Juan. Though many reports chalk the accident up to high winds, the family has stated that it was due to some misconnected guy ropes along the wire.

Images: Stacy Conradt

The legendary aerialists who gave their lives to the craft can be found at Manasota Cemetery in Bradenton, Florida, which is a neighboring town to the Ringling Brothers’ winter home of Sarasota.

See all the Grave Sightings posts here.

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Grave Sightings: Alexander Hamilton
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Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Two hundred and thirteen years ago, a lifetime of political slights and injuries came to a head when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueled in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Thanks to that catchy little Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, you probably know how the story ends: Burr fired a single bullet that killed Hamilton and his own political career all in one fell swoop.

Burr made himself scarce for years after the infamous incident, fleeing the country for various locations in Europe before settling back in the U.S. under an assumed name. (In addition to killing Hamilton, Burr also had a pesky treason charge hanging over his head.) Hamilton, however, has been pretty easy to find: For more than two centuries, he's been resting at the Trinity Church cemetery at Broadway and Wall Street in Manhattan. And George Washington's right-hand man had quite a few visitors—especially the day of his funeral.

The ornate entrance to a Gothic church, with a wrought-iron fence and old gravestones in the foreground.
Stacy Conradt

The final farewell to Hamilton was extremely well attended; it probably helped that New York City declared July 14 a city-wide day of mourning. During the funeral procession from Angelica and John Church’s house (on what is now Park Place) to Trinity Church, “the sidewalks were congested with tearful spectators, and onlookers stared down from every rooftop,” wrote Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. “There were no hysterical outbursts, only a shocked hush that deepened the gravity of the situation.”

After a eulogy delivered by Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton’s friend and the author of the preamble to the Constitution, Hamilton was laid to rest—but not beneath the grand grave marker that denotes his final resting place now. The large tomb, topped with an urn at each corner and an obelisk in the middle, was donated in 1806 by the Society of the Cincinnati, a Revolutionary War fraternal group of which Hamilton was President General.

It seems obelisks were a common theme for memorializing Hamilton. Another organization Hamilton belonged to, the Saint Andrew’s Society, had a 14-foot marble obelisk [PDF] with a flaming urn erected at the spot where Hamilton fell. Sadly, the monument was repeatedly vandalized, including by souvenir hunters chipping away pieces to add to their collections. By 1820, it was completely gone except for a plaque. The plaque ended up at a junk store before it was eventually donated to the New-York Historical Society.

Just as the cenotaph at the duel site slowly faded away, so did the mourners who paid their respects at Hamilton’s grave site. Visitors likely picked up again after Eliza Hamilton died in 1854, but aside from that, their plot at the Trinity Church cemetery was much quieter before the Broadway hit.

The flat, rectangular white marble gravestone of Eliza Hamilton, inscribed with her name, relationships, birthday and deathday. Pennies have been strewn across the stone.
Stacy Conradt

But Alexander isn’t the only Hamilton at Trinity getting love from the public these days. Previously forgotten to the annals of history, Eliza Hamilton’s contributions and sacrifices have been brought to light in recent years by Chernow’s biography and Miranda’s musical. As a result, she has just as many fans as her husband—if not more. “She tends to get more gifts than he does," Trinity archivist Anne Petrimoulx told NPR in 2016. "I think the musical makes people identify more with Eliza than with Alex."

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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Grave Sightings: Satchel Paige
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Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

If you’re looking for life lessons at a cemetery, you’re probably imagining something abstract: A little reflection, and some deep thinking about the meaning of life and how fleeting our time on earth really is. Visit the gravestone of legendary baseball player Satchel Paige, however, and you’ll get step-by-step instructions.

Engraving on the granite tombstone of Satchel Paige with six pieces of advice on
Stacy Conradt

Originally printed on Paige’s business cards, this sound advice is just the beginning of what you can discover about the pitcher by paying your respects. The massive monument, which sits on a plot of land at the cemetery aptly named “Paige Island,” provides details about Paige’s career and personal life, including how he got his unique nickname:

Close-up of an engraving on the gravestone of baseball player Satchel Paige that details how he got his nickname.
Stacy Conradt

Part of the gravestone of baseball legend Satchel Paige and his wife, which provides the highlights of his career. The top of the grave is dotted with baseballs and coins.
Stacy Conradt

Paige died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 75—though he never did slow down much. In fact, on September 25, 1965, he became the oldest pitcher to ever play in a major league game, when the Kansas City Athletics put him in for three innings. The team made a big show out of getting the 59-year-old Paige a rocker for the dugout and hiring a nurse to oil and massage his pitching arm, but fans shouldn’t have worried that his “advanced” age would slow him down: In three innings, only one batter managed to get a hit off of him.

The granite gravestone of baseball legend Satchel Paige, with an engraving about his marriage and children. Fans have left baseballs, coins, and a necklace along the top of the stone.
Stacy Conradt

The large gravestone is a replacement for the original, a modest marker that can still be found at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The first stone was donated by a fan who played up Paige’s reluctance to reveal his real birth year by inscribing a question mark for the date. Paige’s family was said to appreciate the donation, “but not for the perpetuation of the ruse over the pitcher’s age,” as his biographer Larry Tye wrote. As far as anyone knows, the 1906 date on the current tombstone is correct.

The granite gravestone of baseball legend Satchel Paige, with the dates of his birth and death and a bronze engraving of his likeness. Fans have left baseballs and coins on the top of the grave.
Stacy Conradt

If you’d like to learn a life lesson (or six) from Satchel Paige himself, you can find his grave at Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. Don’t forget to bring a baseball.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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