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 Oakdale 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 orphan burial was a 15 year old girl named Lizzie (or Elizabeth) James, who died of consumption on November 14, 1865 while enroute to Davenport. She was buried on November 17, 1865, a day after the orphans arrived at their new home. According to her record, Lizzie’s place of death was listed as Farmington. If a person died while traveling, place of death was commonly listed as the last known residence. 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)