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Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Grave Sightings: James Dean

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Even though he appeared in just three movies, James Dean is one of the most iconic movie stars of all time, due, in part, to his untimely death. Dean was just 24 when he died, succumbing to injuries sustained in an infamous car wreck in Cholame, California, in 1955.

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Despite his beloved status, you won’t find Dean’s grave at Hollywood Forever, Forest Lawn in Glendale, or any other of the Tinseltown cemeteries known for their A-list clientele. After the crash, Dean’s body was sent home to Fairmount, Indiana. The tiny town—1.5 square miles and less than 3000 residents—was overwhelmed when more than 2000 mourners showed up to pay their respects at the closed casket funeral.

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Of course, more than 60 years later, Dean’s legend lives on—and so does the legend of the supposedly cursed Porsche Spyder he was driving at the time of the accident.

Dean was warned about the car, which he called “Little Bastard,” soon after he purchased it with his paycheck from Giant (1956). In fact, Alec Guinness liked to tell people about his premonition that Dean would be dead a week after receiving the Porsche:

Eartha Kitt said she also warned "Jimmy" that the Spyder would kill him; he told her to chill out with the “voodoo” stuff.

After insurance had settled up on the crash, William F. Eschrich purchased the wrecked car for $1092. He removed some of the salvageable parts, then allegedly sold the rest to celebrity car customizer George Barris. In his book Cars to the Stars, Barris claimed that even in its totaled state, Little Bastard managed to do a lot of damage. Here are just a few of the incidents he recounted:

  • When the car first arrived at Barris’ shop, it rolled off of the truck and broke a mechanic’s legs.
  • The engine was sold to a Troy McHenry, who put it into his own Spyder, then hit a tree and died.
  • The car was in a fire in Fresno that destroyed the garage and everything in it—except the Porsche.
  • While being transported to Salinas, the car fell off of the trailer and killed the truck driver.

Of course, Barris was known to embellish the truth, so it’s hard to say how factual any of those things really are. Snopes did some digging and found that a Troy McHenry did die in a car wreck while driving a Porsche Spyder in 1956, but whether that car contained Little Bastard’s engine is unknown.

What is known, however, is that Barris eventually contracted with the National Safety Council to exhibit the Porsche at car shows around the country to emphasize the need for safe driving. The car had been at one of these shows in Miami and was being shipped back to Los Angeles when it mysteriously disappeared in 1960. More than 50 years later, Little Bastard still hasn't resurfaced.

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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.
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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.
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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
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.

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 "How to Stay Young,' including "Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood."
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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