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7 Mysterious People Without a Past

As the TV show Unsolved Mysteries and its three comebacks proved, folks love a good mystery. History is loaded with people who have disappeared without a trace, though; rarer are the ones who seem to have emerged from nowhere, with no traceable past. Here in the era of the internet, of course, it’s getting easier to crack these cold cases, but there are still a fair number that remain unsolved. Here are some of the creepier people without a past.

1. JEROME OF SANDY COVE

Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, Nova Scotia. Image credit: Paul Hamilton via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Although the versions of his discovery differ, the general story goes that in September of 1863, in Nova Scotia, Canada, an 8-year-old boy walking on the beach of Sandy Cove met a man who was suffering from cold and exposure. He also didn’t have any legs.

When the boy’s family took the legless man to their home, in the village of Digby Neck, they learned that he didn’t speak English. The townspeople named him Jerome, after he murmured something that sounded like that name when they asked who he was. Not only did he not speak English; he didn’t speak in words. As curious looky-loos began stopping by the house to check out the mysterious stranger, Jerome would growl at them like a dog.

When Jerome was examined, the plot thickened. It seemed that his amputations were fresh, so much that they still had the dressings on them and hadn’t yet healed. As well, it seemed that a skilled surgeon had removed the man’s legs. It wasn’t an accident.

After a while, the people of the mostly Baptist town of Digby Neck somehow decided that Jerome might be Catholic (by some accounts, because of a Mediterranean appearance), and he was shipped off to the nearby Acadian community of Meteghan. He was taken in by Corsican-Canadian polyglot Jean Nicola, who tried French on him, in addition to Latin, Italian, and Spanish. Jerome either didn’t speak them or didn’t want to.

Nicola kept Jerome in his house anyhow, caring for him for another 7 years, along with his wife, Julitte, and stepdaughter, Madeleine, for whom Jerome became a favorite. It was during his time in Meteghan that the government was notified of the unidentified double amputee and granted a 2-dollar weekly stipend for his care. Despite living with a linguist, Jerome never learned to speak any language and could only grunt and growl.

After Julitte died, Jerome was sent to live with the Comeau family in the nearby town of St. Alphonse. Jerome stayed here for the rest of his life, allowing the Comeaus to collect admission from onlookers to view him (in addition to collecting his government stipend). Jerome died in 1912, almost 50 years after he was found on the beach. No one ever figured out who he was.

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Jerome has become a favorite character in the folk history of Nova Scotia, with songs and even films telling his story, and theories on his background still abound. Some posit that Jerome was a sailor who was punished with amputation after an attempted mutiny, while others say he was an heir to a fortune who was mutilated, usurped, and then disposed of. According to a book published by Nova Scotian historian Fraser Mooney, Jr, in 2008, Jerome was an immigrant from a town in nearby New Brunswick who suffered from gangrene and was dropped off on Sandy Cove after he became too great of a burden on the town.

None of these theories have been proved—and to this day, Jerome’s identity is still a conundrum.

2. JOHN DOE NO. 24

In October 1945, a deaf teenager was found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois, unable to speak, sign, or otherwise communicate. The only thing he could write was the name “Lewis.” After trying for some time to locate his relatives and failing, a judge sentenced him to the state’s mental health system, and as he was the 24th nameless person to enter the system, he became known as John Doe No. 24 (and not Lewis, mystifyingly). The name ended up sticking with him until he died.

After being subjected to abuse for years in the state mental institution, things got worse for John, as he eventually lost his eyesight as well, possibly as a side effect of diabetes. Once that happened, he was transferred to several different nursing homes after 30 years in the federal mental health system. He was reported to have kept his sense of humor, though, and was a cheerful guy who enjoyed dancing to music, feeling the vibrations.

When he died of a stroke at the nursing home in Peoria in 1993, no one was any closer to discovering who he was or where he’d come from. At his graveside service, when the crowd was asked if anyone had words to say about John, nobody did. Fortunately, he may not be completely forgotten; when she heard the sad story, singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter commemorated him in her song, “John Doe No. 24.”

3. MONSIEUR CHOUCHANI

Also known as Shushani, Jewish teacher M. Chouchani is best known for his distinguished students—one of whom was Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel—and not his own works, but that’s mostly because he fervidly guarded the secret of his identity for his entire life.

Chouchani’s disheveled, mendicant-esque appearance is often mentioned in accounts of his life. Wiesel wrote that Chouchani was "dirty," "hairy," and "looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing hobo,” while according to another pupil, the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “his external appearance was quite unpleasant, some say even repugnant.” But he left a strong impression on his students, who called him a master of philosophy, mathematics, and the Talmud. Both men credit him with being one of their most influential teachers ever.

Extremely little is known about Chouchani’s origins. Just after WWII, between 1947 and 1952, the rabbi lived in Paris, then vanished for several years, popping up in Israel for a while. Then he was hanging out in Paris again briefly. Finally, he moved to South America at some point, where he lived until he died. Beyond that, all that’s really known about this guy is that he was born in 1895, and even the location is unknown.

So is his real name. Chouchani and Shushani are thought to be nicknames, and possibly puns; Shushani is a demonym for someone from the Biblical city of Shushan, now in modern-day Iran. But no one’s even clear on WHY he was called that. Or when he started being called that. Or what the pun is, if there is one.

We do know that Chouchani died in 1968 and that he’s buried in Montevideo, Uruguay. Wiesel paid for his headstone and penned his epitaph, which reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” Nailed it.

4. BELLA (OF THE WYCH ELM)

David Buttery via Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1943, in the thick of WWII, four boys were playing in Hagley Wood outside of Stourbridge, England, when they made a grim discovery: a human skull in the hollow trunk of a witch hazel tree. When police returned to the scene, they found more goodies inside the tree—a nearly complete skeleton of a middle-aged woman along with some bits of clothing, a shoe, and a cheap wedding ring. A severed hand was subsequently discovered buried nearby. The corpse was found to have a piece of taffeta in its mouth, suggesting the woman had been asphyxiated, and she’d been dead about a year and a half. It’s surmised that she was stuffed into the tree while she was still warm, as rigor mortis would have prevented it.

As the war was raging, the process of identification was stymied—people disappear all the time during a war, often on purpose. Authorities could roughly discern what the woman looked like, but they had no idea where she was from. All they had was her approximate age (35), her height (5 foot), hair color (mousy brown), and the fact that she had messed-up teeth. A search of 3000 missing person cases did no good, and although the press did cover the story, no one came forward with information. The war surged on, and people forgot about the incident.

To add to the creepiness, strange messages started appearing around Christmas of 1943 or 1944 (sources differ). In the West Midlands town of Old Hill, not far from Hagley, a graffito in white chalk appeared on the side of an empty building, inquiring: WHO PUT LUEBELLA DOWN THE WYCH-ELM. (Witch hazel and wych elms are easily mistaken for one another.) Other similar phrases soon showed up in nearby locations, always including the name Bella or Luebella and frequently the name of Hagley Wood.  After a week or two, the phrase became more consistent, taking the form of: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH [sometimes WITCH] ELM?

Despite the messages, the case remained as cold as ever. The best lead the police ever came up with was that a Nazi spy ring had been operating in the Midlands area during the war, and one of the women connected to the spies was named Clarabella Dronkers (or possibly Clara Bauerle), who was in her thirties and had irregular teeth. They didn’t have enough information, though, to confirm she was the Bella they were looking for.

No one ever managed to work out the identity of the graffiti artist, or artists, either. The phrase kept appearing for decades after the murder, in and around the Midlands. Many of the instances found it spray-painted in white, all caps, on the base of the 250-year-old Wychbury Obelisk in Birmingham; that location seems to have first been chosen in the 1970s, and the question last appeared there in 1999.

5. MAN OF THE HOLE

He has a slew of nicknames, including the Last Tribesman and the Loneliest Man on Earth. But his real name, like his backstory, isn’t known. Usually called the Man of the Hole, he was first discovered to be living alone in the Amazon rainforest in 1996, on a patch of land surrounded by cattle ranchers, and it’s thought that he is the last living member of his indigenous tribe. Which one? That’s unknown too, as is the language he speaks.

MofH’s most common nickname derives from his practice of digging narrow 6-foot-deep chasms inside of each of his homes—which are made of straw, thatch, and giant leaves, and each of which he eventually discards to build a new shelter, leaving the hole behind. It’s thought that the purpose of the holes is to trap animals, or perhaps it’s a place for him to hide. He also has a garden, where he grows manioc, corn, and paw-paw fruit, among other produce.

Since 2007, Brazil’s Fundação Nacional do Índio, the country’s governmental protection agency for natives, has made it illegal to develop on—or even trespass on—the Man of the Hole’s land, beginning with cordoning off 31 square miles around his territory and later expanding it by 11.5 more. He’d already been granted rights to his traditional land, per Brazil’s constitution.

As of 2014, the Man of the Hole was alive, although he’ll fire an arrow at you if you get too close.

6. KASPAR HAUSER

A contemporary depiction of Kaspar Hauser by Johann Georg LaminitImage credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

This one is almost certainly a hoax, but what an elaborate hoax it is.

In May of 1828, a teenaged boy in peasant clothes was found roaming the streets of what is now Nuremberg, Germany, affecting such a helpless and confused air that passers-by stopped to assist him. He carried on him two letters, one from his caretaker, who said he had raised the boy from infancy and tutored him in reading, writing, and religion, but never allowed him to “take a single step out of my house,” and the other from his mother, stating that he was born on April 30, 1812, that his name was Kasper Hauser, and that his cavalryman of a father had died. The letters were in the same handwriting. He was taken to the home of Captain von Wessenig, where the only things he would say were that he wished to be a cavalryman, as his father was, and “Horse! Horse!” If he were asked any further questions, he would burst into tears and shout “Don’t know!”

When Hauser ended up in custody of the police, jailed as a vagrant in Nuremberg Castle, he said a little more. He claimed to have been held in a dark cell for as long as he could remember, with only a wool blanket, two wooden horses and a toy dog, and fed nothing but bread and water. (As such, he refused to eat any food he was given except bread and water, displaying a special disgust for meat.) He added that he never saw the face of his custodian, only that he’d occasionally drink bitter-tasting water and then wake to find that his hair and nails had been cut.  As well, he seemed obsessed with horses, lighting up with joy after someone gave him a toy horse, petting it, talking to it.

However, the boy seemed in good health, climbing 90 steps up the tower to the jail cell, and he didn’t display any signs of rickets or other malnourishment that would come along with being raised in a dungeon. He said he’d been taught to walk recently by a mysterious man with a blackened face who taught him the phrase, “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” (in an Old Bavarian dialect), but he had no idea what it meant. He said the same man was the one who dropped him off on the street in Nuremburg.

Hauser was an object of great curiosity, and people began to visit him in his jail cell, including the city’s mayor, who spent many hours talking with him. Rumors began circulating that he was possible nobility, maybe even one of the princes of the House of Baden.

After two months, Hauser was released and a schoolmaster, Georg Daumer, eventually took the boy into his home and began instructing him on writing, reading, and drawing—which Hauser showed a strong skill for, especially for somebody who’d allegedly never had the occasion to practice.

A drawing attributed to Kaspar Hauser. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

After about a year, Hauser started getting mysteriously injured.  He was found one day in Daumer’s cellar with a head wound, saying he was attacked by a man in a hood who told him, “You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremberg.” He claimed it was the same man who took him to Nuremberg—he recognized the voice.

This resulted in his being moved to the home of a municipal authority. About six months later, a pistol went off in Hauser’s bedroom and he was found with another bleeding head wound. He explained that he’d accidentally knocked the pistol from where it was hanging on the wall. The problem was that the wound was pretty minor and certainly not consistent with a gunshot wound. His caretakers accused him of lying and sent him to the house of Baron von Tucher, who also complained of Kasper’s lies as well as his vanity. The boy continued to burn bridges as he was shuttled around to different caretakers and summarily kicked out after a few months. One patron wrote, “Hauser is a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed.”

In 1833, five days after a huge fight with another schoolmaster who’d taken the teen in and then found out he was a giant liar, Kasper showed up with a serious chest wound. He claimed he was lured to the Ansbach Court Garden and a stranger had given him a bag and then stabbed him in the left breast. When police searched the boy, they came up with a violet purse containing a letter written in Spiegel schrift(German mirror writing). In English, it said:

“Hauser will be
able to tell you quite precisely how
I look and from where I am.
To save Hauser the effort,
I want to tell you myself from where
I come _ _ .
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”

Nobody believed him this time, saying the wound, like the previous ones, was likely self-inflicted and he probably just punctured his chest more deeply than he’d meant to. The letter was also folded in a peculiar triangle shape that Hauser himself was known to use, and it contained some grammatical errors that were typical of his writing.

So they did nothing, and Hauser died from his wound three days later. He’s buried in Ansbach, and the epitaph reads: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, enigma of his time … mysterious his death.”

Although historians seem to agree that Hauser was full of it, none of them ever figured out where he came from in the first place, and the idea that he was a lost prince of Baden prevailed for over a century. Finally, in 1996, a blood sample of Hauser’s was compared to samples from living members of the House of Baden. No dice.

7. GREEN BOOTS

It’s one thing to die shrouded in mystery, your identity never discovered, but it’s another for your anonymous, frozen body to serve as a landmark for the next 13 years.

To be fair, it’s not such an uncommon thing to do when you’re dealing with bodies on Mt. Everest. Obviously, it’s hard enough to climb the thing, much less to retrieve dead people and drag them down the mountain, especially if they’ve fallen into difficult-to-access places. That was the situation with the corpse known as Green Boots, who lay on his right side, with his face obscured from view, on the world’s highest mountain from at least 2001 until 2014.

Although there are approximately 200 frozen human bodies on Everest at any given time, it was the location of Green Boots in combination with his bright lime-green footwear that made him so memorable. At around 27,900 feet, all expeditions coming in from the north side could plainly spot Green Boots curled in his final resting place, a limestone cave. He’s so well known that another climber, David Sharp, died in Green Boots’ Cave (that’s its name) in 2006, after lying there in a hypothermic state for hours, while at least two dozen other climbers passed him. It’s believed that the other climbers saw him and thought he was Green Boots, already dead, and therefore didn’t stop and help.

There are lots of ideas out there as to who Green Boots is. He’s most commonly thought to be Indian climber Tsewang Paljor, who was known to have been wearing green boots the day he disappeared on Everest in 1996. Other people think it’s the body of his climbing partner, Dorje Morup. Both men died in the Everest disaster of 1996, along with six others. There have been many deaths on Everest—more than 200—and it seems unlikely that Green Boots’ identity will ever get pinned down. In 2014, he (or she) disappeared, presumably removed and buried.

SOLVED: LORI ERICA RUFF

Wikipedia // Public Domain

September 2016 update: The case has now been solved—Lori Erica Ruff was Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18.

Lori Ruff had been acting bizarrely in the months prior to her death in 2010, but it wasn’t anything new—her husband Blake had recently separated from her for that reason. Lori had always been a weird one, refusing to let any members of his family hold their baby daughter, for starters. Although she was in her 40s, she’d asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. She also had a strange habit of abruptly leaving family gatherings to go take a nap. Lately, it’d gotten worse—after Blake filed for divorce, Lori had been sending harassing emails to his family and even stole a set of their house keys.

But even after she committed suicide by gunshot in Longview, Texas, neither her husband nor any of her in-laws saw the final bombshell coming.

Throughout their marriage, a lockbox had been stashed in the couple’s closet—a lockbox that Blake had been instructed to never touch—and when it was pried open, it was found to contain a series of documents pointing to a very convoluted past. Lori had always been evasive about her background, saying her parents were dead and she had no siblings, and it turns out she had good reason to be cagey: Prior to marrying Blake and becoming Lori Erica Ruff, she had been Lori Erica Kennedy, having legally changed her name in July of 1988. But only a few months before that, it seems her name had been Becky Sue Turner—and according to an investigator the family knew, Becky Sue Turner was a 2-year-old who had died in a fire in Fife, Washington, in 1971.

That’s where the trail stops. Ruff had also gotten herself a new social security number after she changed her name to Lori Kennedy, which basically wiped her identity clean. It’s not known what name she used before she was Becky Sue, or really much about her at all, only that she got a GED and a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1997 and may have once worked as an exotic dancer, according to an old acquaintance.

The lockbox also contained fake letters of reference from an employer and a landlord, as well as scraps of paper with illegible writing on them—only the words “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and the name of attorney Ben Perkins were made out. It’s thought she might have been facing possible jail time—402 months of it—at some point. It’s also suspected, due to some of the documents, that she might have been older than she’d purported to be, a theory that’s supported by the fact that she suffered infertility when she was supposedly in her 20s and resorted to in-vitro fertilization to conceive her daughter in 2008.

Ruff wrote Blake an 11-page suicide note, as well as a shorter one addressed to her daughter, but neither those nor anything found in the lockbox—or her squalid house full of dirty dishes and scribbly scraps of paper—has cleared up the mystery of who she was or where she came from. The police don’t even have any leads, only a list of ruled-out suspects. The Social Security investigator assigned to the case, in regard to Ruff’s next-level identity theft skills, says: “She’s very good.”

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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