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What lies beneath

LA’s first graveyards were abandoned, defiled, dug up, and bulldozed in the name of progress

When we bury our dead, it is assumed that their graves will be eternal resting places, where the living can pay their respects for centuries to come. But this is rarely the case. Cities grow, natural disasters occur, and the living take what they need. Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles, whose legendary rise from an isolated, dusty pueblo to a sprawling American metropolis happened at an astounding pace. Within 100 years, LA’s first four major graveyards were abandoned, defiled, dug up, and bulldozed in the name of progress—often with unsurprisingly gruesome results.

For the first 40-odd years of Los Angeles’s existence, departed citizens were carted off for burial to the graveyards of Mission San Gabriel, about 10 miles to the east, or Mission San Fernando, about 20 miles to the north. This time-consuming and distressing state of affairs was finally remedied when La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Catholic church commonly known as La Placita, was consecrated in the pueblo plaza, in modern-day Downtown, in 1822. The first burials, in 1823, occurred along the northern church wall. After a few years, a new graveyard, referred to as Campo Santo and the Old Cemetery, was started on the southern side of the church.

About 695 Angeleno settlers were buried in the churchyard between 1823 and 1844, according to historian Steven W. Hackel. Church records of those interred offer a fascinating look at the early inhabitants of Los Angeles—eternal residents hailed from places including Mexico City, Portugal, Ireland, New Mexico, and Baja. Hackel writes:

Among the cemetery dead are some of our city’s most infamous and notorious early residents. They are Gervasio Alipas and his lover, María del Rosario Villa, both of whom were executed in 1836 by vigilantes for the murder of María’s husband, who is also buried in the cemetery. Then there is Antonio Valencia, shot in 1838 for the murder of Antonio Águila. Also interred in the cemetery were the criminals José de Jesús Duarte, Ascensión Valencia, and Santiago Linares. Found guilty of having robbed and broken the skull of the German shoemaker and shopkeeper Nicholas Fink, all three were executed and buried in the cemetery in 1841, perhaps not far from their victim.

More than half of those buried in the cemetery were indigenous Californians who had been forced to work for the Spanish missionaries ("Mission Indians" largely built La Placita), convert to Catholicism, and give up their ways of life. They came from diverse tribes, including the Gabrielino-Tongva, Serrano, and Luiseño. According to Hackel, 44 percent of the California Indians buried were small children.

It wasn’t long before the small graveyard was overflowing with the dead. By 1837, a priest named Father Bachelot was calling for the cemetery to be enlarged. A year later, Angelenos were complaining to the town council, "asking that the cemetery be removed from inside the city ... as the place where it is now situated is very injurious to the health."

Today, Los Angeles’s first cemetery is a fenced-in rectangle of lumpy mounds, with only a small placard giving visitors any indication of what lies beneath.

In November 1844, a new Catholic cemetery, known as Calvary, was opened a mile away, down a dusty road called Eternity Street (later Buena Vista Street, now roughly North Broadway). Although town historians long claimed that all the people interred in Campo Santo were reburied at Calvary, recent discoveries have proved this assumption to be almost certainly false.

In the fall of 2010, during excavation on the southern side of La Placita for the construction of an outdoor plaza for the new Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a $24 million nonprofit center celebrating Mexican culture and heritage, workers discovered the full or partial remains of around 100 people. Shockingly, these remains were stored for a time in buckets and bags at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which led to an uproar in the California Indian community, since many of the remains were almost certainly those of their ancestors. The remains were reburied in the churchyard in 2011. Today, Los Angeles’s first cemetery is a fenced-in rectangle of lumpy mounds, with only a small placard giving visitors any indication of what lies beneath.

"All good friends, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I; as I am now, so will you be, prepare for death, to follow me." -Epitaph from Old Calvary Cemetery

In November 1844, the new Catholic cemetery was blessed by Father Thomas Estenaga, to the relief of town residents. Approximately 12 acres, the rural graveyard, located on rolling hills, would go by many names over the years: Calvary Cemetery, Buena Vista Cemetery, and plain old Catholic Cemetery. In the early days, stately funeral processions would travel from La Placita or the family home to the burial ground, which was initially segregated into three areas—one for ministers, one for monuments and vaults, and the rest for California Indians.

The cemetery, Los Angeles’s first "modern" graveyard, soon became a resting place for many of the city’s most famous pioneers. Joseph Chapman, LA’s first English-speaking inhabitant, was buried there. So was early politician Juan Bandi, merchant Alexander Bell, Governor Pío Pico and his wife María, and prominent members of the Avila, Coronel, Dominguez, Yorba, Boyle, Bernard, and Leonis families. Sacraments were performed in the brownstone-and-marble Briswalter Chapel, located at the cemetery entrance and dedicated to wealthy businessman Andre Briswalter. A later visitor commented on the diversity in the cemetery, which eventually became home to thousands of souls:

There are inscriptions in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian. The son of Erin seemingly considers his birthplace an important fact in his career. "County of Cork" or "Dublin", as the case may be, is given the most conspicuous place on his monument, and the name, date and epitaphs are crowded in above and below. One is surprised at the large number of French among the pioneers of Los Angeles. "Ici repose" occurs almost as frequently as "aqui yacen."

By 1860, the Los Angeles Star was already complaining about the situation at Calvary, calling it "sadly overcrowded." Burials continued at a fast clip as the city expanded, but slowed dramatically in the 1880s and virtually ceased by 1895, when the Catholic Church announced its intention to abandon the cemetery. Burials had already unofficially begun at New Calvary Cemetery, on a 52-acre parcel purchased by the Church in Boyle Heights.

Angelenos proved to have remarkably short memories, and Old Calvary was left to quickly fall into disrepair. By the turn of the century, Old Calvary was becoming a public nuisance. In 1902, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times visited the fast decaying site, now a "barrier for progress":

A strange fascination takes possession of the intruder, as he wades in among the tangled brambles, brushes away the dust and cobwebs, and peers at the half-obliterated inscriptions on quaint and crumbling tombs. To you and I, many of the epitaphs may be but a jargon of words in Spanish, but more eloquent than words are the evidences of affection that tell of heartaches left behind. Many of the decayed wooden crosses and headboards … are only too evidently the handiwork of the bereft husband or father … Even now, in its most secluded depths, among sunken graves and blackened tombstones, shaded by great pepper trees and overgrown with grass and weeds, the mournful creak of the oil pumps, the clangor of the locomotive, and the crash of the electric gong, and the din of the iron foundry is never hushed.

But much worse than the general neglect was the problem of increasing vandalism and crime at the poorly guarded cemetery. Rumors of Spanish treasures buried with the deceased led to rampant grave-robbing, with remains often tossed about in a shocking fashion. In Briswalter Chapel, the stained-glass windows were smashed, the stone was ripped from the floor, and obscenities were written throughout the interior.

A strange fascination takes possession of the intruder, as he wades in among the tangled brambles, brushes away the dust and cobwebs, and peers at the half-obliterated inscriptions on quaint and crumbling tombs.

In 1903, a schoolboy was taking a shortcut through the cemetery when he came across a horrifying site. There, lying in a clump of small pepper trees, was the skeleton of the once beautiful first lady of Mexican California, María Ignacia Pico, who had died in 1854. Her remains had been ripped from the Pico vault, apparently by a jewel thief. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The skeleton, which is well preserved, lay at full length on the ground, the hands folded over the breast, and some of the clothing still clinging to the bones … so well preserved are the ligaments that the skeleton is still intact. The hands are encased in gloves, and shoes and stockings little the worse for their long interment still cover the feet and legs. A mass of dark hair covers the skull.

Due to sensational stories like this, many folks with loved ones at Old Calvary began to disinter them. But this caused new problems. "A dozen places the houses of the dead have been emptied and gaping holes left open, with wreckage strewn about," the Los Angeles Times reported. "The monuments have been removed from several of the most elaborate vaults and the opening to the subterranean rooms left open. In each have accumulated stagnant water, tin cans and decaying refuse."

The forlorn cemetery—a grazing ground for goats and a last refuge for the homeless—endured into the 1920s. By 1921, oilman Walter Temple had removed Pío and María Pico from the cemetery, reinterring them in his family plot at the Workman-Temple Homestead in the City of Industry. Captain Alexander Bell was not so lucky, and a woman who lived in the neighborhood had to stop three young boys from stealing the poor man’s skull. In 1925, over the objections of historical groups, the city finally granted itself a permit to move the bodies. Over the next decade, the remaining corpses were reinterred, mostly at New Calvary.

Today, the former graveyard is the site of Cathedral High School and St. Peters Church.

First the boys came … soon they got to running about naked among the graves … the girls came next … pretty soon they were running around naked among the graves, too … well, they wore those little blouses and pants, you know, but that’s pretty near naked for a girl … -Jerry Remsen, caretaker of City Cemetery, 1907

In 1853, Protestant settlers, who were unwelcome at Catholic Calvary, formally established their own burial ground. Alternately called Fort Hill Cemetery, Fort Moore Cemetery, or the City Cemetery, it was located near the site of Fort Moore, an old fort positioned atop the large hill that towered directly behind La Placita.

Unofficial burials had already begun several years before—flanking the City Cemetery were burial grounds for the Masons and Odd Fellows fraternal orders—but Andy Sublette, a hunter killed by a bear in Malibu Canyon, was the first man officially buried in the City Cemetery. ("Fun" fact: although the bear killed him, he also killed the bear.) His dog Old Buck supposedly died of grief at the grave three days later.

As the American, French, and English populations of Los Angeles increased during the second half of the 19th century, thousands of Protestants joined Sublette in the "cemetery on the hill." Early mayors, sheriffs, and pioneering families like the Howards and Champions were buried at the cemetery, while many influential businessmen were buried in the adjoining yards owned by the Masons and Odd Fellows. The quickly crowded graveyard grew in a haphazard, disorganized fashion. By 1869, the city had taken over the cemetery. By 1879, the city council banned all future burials, except for those who already owned plots.

The bubbly youth of Los Angeles spent their school days in a building surrounded by the dead. Not surprisingly, this led to some not-so-savory shenanigans.

Because it was so close to the plaza, the dead on Fort Hill were quickly competing for space with the living. During the 1880s, the hill became the most fashionable neighborhood in town, dotted with Victorian mansions and beer gardens. In the early 1890s, the LA Unified School District bought a portion of cemetery land, disinterring many people. On this spot they built LA’s second high school. As a result, the bubbly youth of Los Angeles spent their school days in a building surrounded by the dead. Not surprisingly, this led to some not-so-savory shenanigans. In 1896, the Los Angeles Times lamented:

[The City Cemetery] has received no care of late, save the occasional attention of a bereaved man or woman, who might decorate the grave of a friend or relative from no other impulse than love and affection for the departed. But the cemetery has suffered from worse than neglect. Its sequestered situation has made it the haunt and rendezvous of vile persons, who have not scrupled to profane the place with orgies too filthy to allow of description. Men and women, and the young of both sexes, frequent the cemetery, where there is no one to molest them, and have succeeded in transforming what was once a sacred and hallowed spot to a retreat that is little better than a place of assignation.

Calls to remove the cemetery were met by scorn. Where would they put the bodies? How would the city pay for it? Wouldn’t it be disturbing? A few years later, these naysayers seemed to be proven right, when the Masons moved their members buried on the hill to a new graveyard on the outskirts of town:

The gathering up of human bones, patches of hair, bit and shreds of grave clothes and the seeking of missing members in the muck and mire of watery graves is enough to try the hardiest and most insensitive of men. Yesterday several men left their work when a particularly distressing case came to light, and some were so overcome that they were laid out on the grass.

So the City Cemetery remained, and strange legends about it began to grow. Rumors that a treasure was buried underneath the stone honoring "Old Man" Wilson and his wife led to their graves being repeatedly desecrated. In 1902, an old Spanish woman in Sonoratown lay on her deathbed, and drew a map for a friend, supposedly marking a spot in the cemetery that contained a great fortune. A few nights later:

In hope of finding a treasure of gold, diamonds, and other precious stones supposed to have been buried years before the American occupation … four men spent the entire night digging a large hole at the very edge of the old cemetery, which adjoins the High School property. By the yellow light of an old coal lamp, within a few feet of the line, not a dozen yards from the row of graves nearest the cemetery fence, these men toiled as few men ever did to find a fortune which they are certain is beneath their feet.

Crowds gathered in anticipation around the gaping hole, but all the men ever found was a large pipe.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the situation at the four-acre graveyard became increasingly grim. Foul trenches were left behind by treasure hunters, tombstones were overturned or smashed into pieces, statuary destroyed, flowers were "scattered and torn to bits." The situation was so bad that in 1907, Mayor Cyprian Harper toured the scene with caretaker Jerry Remsen, whose skin was the texture of dried parchment after spending so many years among "the foul gasses of decomposing human remains." Remsen led Harper to the crypt of Robert Carlisle, a famed Wild West character the mayor remembered:

I knew Carlisle well. When I was a boy he was one of the big men of the city. I remember him by the diamond settings in his teeth. He was killed in a gun fight on the steps of the Belle Union Hotel … Charles received a bullet in the heart. He fell to the ground, raised slightly, leveled his pistol across his arm and killed his assailant, then he dropped back dead.

Remsen took him into the crypt, which had been broken into, as had Carlisle’s leaden casket. "Look in there and see if the head is gone," the caretaker said, his voice shaking. "I have wanted to, but I daren’t." The mayor obliged. "The hair is there," said the mayor, drawing back in fright, "but the whole front part of the head has been carried away." Remsen was not surprised—it seemed the grave robbers had also heard the legend of Carlisle’s diamond teeth.

Over the next several years, fights between the LAUSD, which wanted to buy the remaining City Cemetery land, and plot holders holding out for more money, consumed the local papers. In 1914, exhumations finally began. Caretaker Dan Allman took the bodies from the ground at an average rate of three a day. In time he would uncover more than 1,000 human remains, which were subsequently reinterred at Evergreen, Rosedale, and Hollywood Forever. During his digs he found a grave containing the bodies of six early sheriffs who had been killed battling cattle thieves. He also discovered the unmarked graves of 30 babies, all in a row, buried in identical coffins with handles shaped like little lambs’ heads. Then there was the large gunslinger, who had simply been dumped in an earthen hole, bullet holes in his head, ankles, and feet.

Unfortunately, diligent Dan was unable to find everyone. As Fort Hill was dismantled decade by decade, bones of those left behind were frequently discovered. Skeletons were uncovered during the construction of the Hollywood Freeway in 1951, and more bones were found in 2006, during the construction of the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, which stands on what is left of the old hill. Doubtless, there are many more left to find.

Shortly after nightfall yesterday evening four men, armed with picks and shovels, and aided by the dim light of a lantern, began digging the Chavez Ravine, back of the Jewish Cemetery. A citizen who passed by asked them what they were doing. They said they were digging for buried treasure, but he was warned off and told to go about his own business. -Los Angeles Times, 1895

On July 2, 1854, the Hebrew Benevolent Society formed in Los Angeles, electing S.K. Labatt as president. Founded by the town’s population of around 60 Jews, it was the first charitable organization in Los Angeles. According to its charter, it was formed "for the purpose, among others, of owning and holding certain real estate to be devoted to burial purposes for deceased members of the Jewish faith." In 1855, the city of Los Angeles sold 2.3 acres on a high hill in Chavez Ravine to the society, for the nominal sum of $1. Shortly afterwards, the Jewish Cemetery was opened.

Over the next 50-odd years, 360 Jewish residents of Los Angeles were buried in the cemetery, including many prominent businessmen and merchants. In 1889, a large funeral cortege followed the casket of a prosperous councilman known as B. Cohn. The procession wound from his home near First and Main to the graveyard. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The procession was a very large one, over a mile in length … The procession was preceded by the police department of the city in command of Chief Glass, and it was followed by a large number of members of the fire department, both the exempt and active members. Other societies of which the deceased was a member also followed his remains to the grave …

But the city’s rapid growth and the hill’s unstable ground soon caused problems. When it rained, the land became mushy, making it almost impossible for funeral corteges to wade through the muck. "As the 20th century dawned, the cemetery property had become almost inaccessible, surrounded by oil wells, derricks, brickyards and kilns," historian Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "The smoke in the area had discolored the shrubbery and blackened the monuments, a prediction of problems to come."

The first four major cemeteries of Los Angeles were practically erased from the grid in the name of LA’s manifest destiny.

The society bought 30 acres of land for a new graveyard on Whittier Boulevard in East LA, which they named Home of Peace. "Today we witness the consummation of plans long cherished," Rabbi S. Hecht said at the new cemetery’s dedication, "and it is hoped that soon the bodies of the people resting in the old cemetery will find final sepulcher in this beautiful ‘home of rest’."

Within three years, the remains at the Jewish Cemetery had all been moved. Today, the land is home to the Naval Reserve Training Center and the LA Fire Department. On a deserted street behind the Fire Department land stands a historical marker commemorating the old graveyard. It is so shaded and aged you barely notice it.

And so the first four major cemeteries of Los Angeles were practically erased from the grid in the name of LA’s manifest destiny. Today, the many graveyards that replaced them—New Calvary, Hollywood Forever, Evergreen, Rosedale, and the like—have grown into giant cities of the dead, packed to the gills, and surrounded on all sides by urban jungle. Los Angeles is a city that continues to rewrite its history, but no matter how thoroughly we scrub away the past, bits and pieces are almost always left behind.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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