The Orphans of Oakdale Cemetery

One of the most persistent local legends in Davenport centers on Oakdale Cemetery on Eastern Avenue. In this cemetery is a special section where children from the Iowa Solders’ Orphans’ Home*, standing just across Eastern Avenue, were buried. And it is said that if you go to Oakdale and stand by those small graves on Halloween night, you will hear the screams and cries of the orphans who died in a terrible fire at the Home.

Children, fiery deaths, and a graveyard combine to send satisfying shivers down anyone’s back, but is this legend based in  truth? To find out, we need to take a close look at the history of the Home and the records of the Cemetery.

On November 11, 1865, more than 150 orphaned children traveled on the steamboat Keithsburg from the overcrowded Iowa Soldier’s Orphans’ Home in Farmington, Iowa, to the new Davenport Home set up in Camp Kinsman, a deserted Civil War training camp. The orphans stayed in the barracks until the buildings were replaced with more suitable cottages. These cottages were still separated, as it was cheaper to use the foundations of the barracks than build one huge building to house all of the children.

Over the next fifty years, three fires broke out at the Home. In 1877, the engine room of the laundry building caught fire and both it and the schoolroom were destroyed. In 1880, the dining hall, kitchen and bakery burned to the ground. And on November 9, 1887, at three o’clock in the morning, lightning struck the main building, where thirty staff members and children were sleeping. The building, only three years old, burned to the ground.

According to newspaper accounts in the Davenport Democrat newspaper, no one died in any of these fires. The newspaper went on the praise the cottage system, saying that the separation of the buildings kept the flames from spreading through the entire complex. There was property damage worth thousands, but no loss of life.

Do Oakdale’s records support this? Information supplied by the records office tells us that there are 251 graves in the Orphans’ Section. Of these, only a few are older than 18, and none older than 26. The first burial in this section was a 15 year old girl named Lizzie James, who died of consumption and was buried on November 14, 1865, a mere three days after leaving for her new home. According to her record, Lizzie’s place of death was Farmington, which may mean that she died on route to Davenport. The last burial was a five-year old boy named Joseph Pohl who was struck by a hit and run driver while walking home from school on November 2, 1970.

Of the 249 children who died between Lizzie and Joseph, not one died by fire, burns, or through smoke inhalation. Most of the deaths between 1865 and 1950 were caused by pneumonia, diphtheria, influenza, untreated ear infections, and other diseases that thrive in a large group of children without access to modern antibiotics.

So if one were to stand in the Orphans’ Section on Halloween, or any other night, the sounds one hears would have more to do with wind and imagination than dramatic fiery deaths. But instead of going home disappointed, one might use the time to reflect on these young people whose only family in their too-short lives were each other and who deserve better than to be forgotten—or exploited–in death.
___
*Now called the Annie Wittenmyer Home

(Posted by Sarah)

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17 Responses to The Orphans of Oakdale Cemetery

  1. The State Government was so confussed, and lost back then that they could not even take care of the orphans that they created. How tragic. Seems as if the state government has not progressed much than from those stoneage days. What a country huh? I know I am ashamed and hang my head low when I think I put my life on the line for the backward people in this state. Maybe
    someday, the Territory of Iowa, will become a state in
    the great United States of America.

  2. swesson says:

    State of the art child care in 1860 certainly looks different from our viewpoint almost a hundred and fifty years later, doesn’t it?

    From what we’ve read, most people then were pretty impressed (and so are historians) that the children of the Home were so well cared for and that so many survived the carious epidemics that hit our area.

    But child care has certainly come a long way, hasn’t it?

    Sarah

  3. Scott Peters says:

    pertaining to the orphans buried in oakdale cemetery which I recently visited on a “Ghost hunt”.. I am a resident of Davenport, IA and recently ventured into this cemetery specifically to visit the orphans. What struck me as an unexplainable oddity would be a burial with no name, nor dates.. but read as follows “Limb of Unknown Child” As we all know, it would be hard not to notice a child losing a limb and not being identified unless the accident which occurred multiple children and in such case, barely identifyable.. I’ve been looking into this supposed fire and have nothing to show for it. Anyone else know any details on this? -Scott

    • Cindy L Kimmer says:

      I’m looking for a lost older brother who may have lived there born in 1959. I’ve heard rumor he died in a fire while living there in what year I don’t know. What fire are you refering to?

      • SCblogger says:

        Ms. Kimmer,

        As this post was primarily concerned with the Orphan’s Section of the Oakdale Cemetery, it may be that your brother is not buried in that section.

        Although our library does not have any of the records of the Home, if you would care to e-mail us directly (specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com) with your brother’s name, we can try to confirm his possible death using our available resources.

  4. Donna Self says:

    My grandmother and her siblings lived here. Losing father to coal mining accident and mother to TB the yr before 1906. I read of screams coming from the graveyard. By her accounts life there, without the fire, was tortuous.
    She was not a complainer!!!!
    Unable to reach the sink she stood on a stool to wash many dishes in scalding water..the boys worked long hrs on the farm. The little food they were fed was horrible gruel.
    They used harsh chemicals on the head for lice. Her once thick hair never grew back. Her hands were twisted from being beat. Coming to the defense of her siblings was her biggest issue and when she was beaten most.

  5. joann conolly cousino says:

    My grandfather was there in 1895 as stated by the registry.Trying to find my grandfathers life as a child.Anyone have anymore info or pictures that could help me?

    • SCblogger says:

      Hi!

      No records from the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home exist prior to 1910, but our Special Collections Center has photographs of and articles about the Home that might give you an idea of what life as a resident of the Home might have been like.

      Please contact our Center (specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com) for more information!

  6. Robert Edward Meacham, II says:

    Russell Arthur & Robert Edward Meacham were placed in the Orphanage beginning, in or about 1924. There was a third brother with them, Alan maybe, that died while there. Can you let me know if there is any information available regarding this crew?

  7. SCblogger says:

    We do not have the actual records from the Home as they are kept by the State of Iowa. I strongly think we may be able to answer your question about a third brother. Our research email is specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com. (posted by Amy D.)

  8. Jimmie D. Peterson SR says:

    Iwas at the Annie Wittenmyer Home in Davenport iowa from 1941 to 1953
    . I spent about 4 years in foster homes,I was five years old when iwent there and aix teen when i was released i have meny meny stories I can tell abouy this place some good some BAD Alot of the records i have I got from the state at the Department Of Human Services 1305 E. Walnut ST Des Moines Iowa 50319-0114

  9. James L. Mitchell says:

    Thanks for the postings of Annie Wittenmyer Home in Davenport, Iowa, I always wanted to know the history of the section of the Buildings and the Cementary. It looked like it had been an Orphanage Home for children by the way it was structered. I’ll be trying to get more information as time goes by. I love History.

  10. destiny says:

    I lived at Wittmyer for 2 years. It is haunted. I saw a few ghost myself. I was walking to my class with my teacher and another student and they pointed at the middle school building and said look do you see it. I couldn’t see it at first but then I could it was a tall woman with long black hair and wherein what looked like goggles. I am not lying. I even asked a staff member why don’t they get the ghost hunters there? She said they wanted to but the president said confidentiality of the other clients but it is really haunted…

  11. Debra Weiss says:

    We have been looking for information on a child that was placed at the home around 1940 he was around 3 yrs. old. He was sent there with 3 older brothers due to their mother being ill. Their names were Michael Jordon, Cyril Jordon, Francis Jordon and Edward Valentine.
    We have been told that all the records were destroyed in a fire and that there is no way of knowing what happen to theses boys. I know where the 3 older boys ended up.
    If anyone can help me find Edward I would love to pass it one to his only living brother.
    Sincerly,
    Debra Weiss

    • SCblogger says:

      We do not have any information about Annie Wittenmyer Home records being destroyed in a fire in or after the 1940s, though it’s possible records may have been discarded for other reasons after the closing of the Home. Regardless, information from remaining records may be requested through the state, though access may be restricted.

      If you would care to e-mail us directly (specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com) we can provide information on where you might request information on Edward, or perhaps research our own records.

  12. Anne Stalker says:

    Looking for a female cousin who was given up for adoption in March 1962 . Born in Ottumwa, IA about that time. We believe she was sent here and then adopted.

    • SCblogger says:

      We regret that our library does not have any records from the Home.

      If you would care to e-mail our Center (specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com), we can provide contact information for the Adoption Unit of Iowa’s Department of Child and Family Services, who can tell you what information might be accessible to you.

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