Archive for April 29th, 2010

An earlier version of this post appeared in my LiveJournal before I started this blog.

A few weeks ago on the way to friend’s birthday party, we drove through Erie Street Cemetery. I was hoping to find a tombstone that wasn’t there – or more precisely, that other people had told me wasn’t there.

In 1900, an 11 year old newsboy in Cleveland named Alfred Williams committed suicide by taking rat poison. Contemporary accounts painted a picture of a child who had a very hard life: an uneducated unskilled sickly boy with a deceased father and an institutionalized mother who ended up in a strange city struggling to survive. His situation was desperate and it seems the boy did not see any possibility that it would get any better. Upon finding out that his body would be either buried in Potter’s Field or perhaps even donated to the medical school, the other newsboys of Cleveland raised enough money to pay for a plot in Erie Street Cemetery and a funeral. They didn’t have enough for a tombstone, but the owner of a local monument company was so moved by the boys’ generosity in grief that he donated one.

The tombstone was said to be very distinctive – a little newsboy wearing a hat with his bag on one side and a paper under his arm. A photo from a 1910 Cleveland Press article showed it read “Alfred Williams/Died Oct 11 1900/Aged 11 Years/ He was a newsboy without father mother or home who was buried by his newsboy comrades.” But whenever I read about the tragic event, the notes indicated that no one knew where the tombstone was anymore. Then I found A Grave Addiction’s post about her trip to the Erie Street Cemetery, and a photo that looked familiar. (On her post, click on the photo called “Little boy carving.””)

We drove into the cemetery, and I found the tombstone in 10 minutes. The epitaph is mostly erased, but it’s pretty clearly the same newsboy carving as the 1910 photo. The tombstone is sort of by itself in an open area, no trees or brush anywhere near it, so I’m not entirely sure how it was lost.
Alfred Williams, newsboy

For those close enough to Cleveland to make the trek who want to see it for themselves, enter Erie Cemetery from the gate on 9th Street, directly across from Progressive Field. Walk to Joc-O-Sot’s monument on your right. Go about 10 feet past Joc-O-Sot, and then make a 90 degree turn and start towards the wall – in about 40 feet, you will find the small white marker.

I’m going back in a few weeks to make sure it’s really there.

For more information on Alfred Williams’ short and tragic life, see the chapter in John Stark Bellamy II’s The Killer in the Attic and Cleveland Cemeteries by Vicki Blum Vigil. I found one or two books where the authors reminisced about Cleveland from the early 20th century that mentioned Williams’ grave, and my Google search indicated that his story has been used in some academic explorations of childhood that I couldn’t access yet: Vincent DiGirolamo’s “Newsboy Funerals” and Kathy Merlock Jackson’s Ritual and Patterns in Children’s Lives.

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