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St. Louis cemetery home to some infamous characters

Saturday, October 25, 2008 | 6:30 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Plenty of words have been written about the famous people buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Carol Shepley is writing about some of the infamous.

And she was so taken by the story of one of them, an illiterate madam named Eliza Haycraft, that she wants to erect a tombstone on Haycraft's unmarked gave.

Shepley recently finished proofing the galleys of her book, "Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery." The book, published by the Missouri Historical Society, is scheduled to be out in December.

The cemetery board five years ago commissioned Shepley, 58, of Town and Country, to do the book.

Among her first interviews were Michael Tiemann, a retired cemetery superintendent, and Manuel Garcia, now deceased, who ran the cemetery's gatehouse.

Shepley thought she would interview them for a couple of months, then write it up.

"Well, I interviewed them for three years and I started writing and working on the project for five years," Shepley said. "I mean, it's so interesting."

Bellefontaine opened in 1849 and was the first "rural cemetery" west of the Mississippi River. Before the rural cemetery movement, begun in 1804 near Paris, graveyards were situated next to churches. The rural movement was intended to draw families to a rural setting where nature could be enjoyed.

Shepley, who grew up here and has written two other books, is, of course, writing about some of the big names buried in the cemetery and the architecture in some of its monuments (architect Louis Sullivan, who designed the first skyscraper in the U.S., designed the Wainwright family tomb.)

But she also was taken by stories about people who were shunned by society.

That would describe Miss Haycraft.

She arrived here in 1840, thrown out by her family in western Missouri.

With no way to support herself, she turned to prostitution, becoming a madam. St. Louis was a boomtown at that time and receptive to Haycraft's endeavor.

"The population grew from 36,000 to 350,000 and it was largely men because men came here to make their fortune," Shepley said. In addition, she noted, a lot of troops were stationed here during the Civil War.

Signing deeds with an "X," Haycraft became a major landowner here and made a list of the 10 wealthiest people in town, Shepley said.

Perhaps because of the rough times she had been through, she was generous to people in need. When she died in 1870, the streets to Bellefontaine Cemetery were lined with friends and admirers.

But her grave there is unmarked.

Shepley said that when Haycraft was dying, she was told by the superintendent that "they didn't want someone of her kind there."

Haycraft, according to legend, then suggested she would let the wives of the trustees know how she knew their husbands.

So she ended up in Lot 2076, Block 20, but without a tombstone.

In Haycraft's probate records, Shepley found an invoice for a tombstone. She would like to find a way to get the grave marked.

But Shepley was also clearly moved by the stories associated with the rest of Bellefontaine's residents.

"It makes me so proud of being from St. Louis," Shepley said. "I kind of have these visions in my mind of all these great spirits kind of hovering over us, enjoying themselves and thinking about our future, too."


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