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Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

The Flying Wallendas

Stacy Conradt
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: Joe DiMaggio
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Legendary Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio and equally illustrious actress Marilyn Monroe had one of the most famous and tumultuous relationships in modern celebrity history. After countless ups and downs, including marriage and divorce, the two had reconciled again and were reportedly planning to remarry when she died in 1962.

Stacy Conradt

Devastated, DiMaggio—who was born on November 25, 1914—stepped in and planned the whole funeral, banning almost all of Monroe’s Hollywood contacts from attending (as well as the public). He had her buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, in a crypt they had originally purchased together while they were married—his was located directly above hers. Afterward, DiMaggio had flowers delivered to her grave multiple times a week, a practice that continued for 20 years.

Despite their his-and-hers crypts, however, Joltin’ Joe’s eternal resting place isn’t near Marilyn. It’s not at the same cemetery, or even in the same city. He ended up nearly 400 miles away at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.

Stacy Conradt

Though most of us associate the Yankee Clipper with New York, he actually grew up in San Francisco, arriving in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach when he was just a year old and spending his entire childhood there. In 1939, after baseball success had brought him fame and fortune, he bought his parents a home in the Marina district. When they died, his widowed sister Marie moved in, and eventually, so did Joe. He was involved with the community, even helping his brother when he opened a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Stacy Conradt

When he passed away from lung cancer in 1999, DiMaggio’s funeral was held at San Francisco's St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, where he had been baptized, taken his first communion, and was confirmed and married. Given his personal ties with San Francisco, it’s not that surprising that he ended up spending eternity in the area—especially since he sold his crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park after Marilyn filed for divorce just nine months into their marriage.

Though he wasn’t buried with her as originally planned, Marilyn was still on DiMaggio’s mind when he left this world. According to Morris Engelberg, Joe’s lawyer, his final words were, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.”

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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Grave Sightings: Alexander Hamilton
Stacy Conradt
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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