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)
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.
I was born to a girl who was in the home with her sister and her sister also had a baby while in the home. I was adopted in 1964 by two wonderful people who had adopted my brother/cousin the year before. I have no memory of this place nor my brother as he was 6mos & I was 3mos. But my mom said they had taken good care of me til they were able to take me home as the nurses had already given me a temporary name and I had doubled in weight in 3 months. No memories of being there but lots of respect for those people who helped me find a loving family. Wish I could thank them today.
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?
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
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?
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 (email@example.com) with your brother’s name, we can try to confirm his possible death using our available resources.
Hi. Seen your looking for an older brother? I had a step dad. Back then he went by Paul Arthur Taft..he was in their with 2 of his brothers
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.
I am an intern with a production company and we are trying to do a special on the Annie Wittenmyer complex. We’re looking for people with stories like yours! Let me know if you would be interested in being interviewed!
Danielle did you ever end up making this?
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?
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information!
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?
On Ancestry.com there’s information about Allen Meacham at jkms6992.
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 email@example.com. (posted by Amy D.)
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
You said you were at the home for a number of years. Did you ever have a ghostly encounter? The production company I’m interning with is starting a quad cities ghost/history series and we’d love to interview someone who resided there and maybe had a paranormal experience. Please let me know.
I find it interesting that you were there at the same time as my father and his 3 brothers. I was wondering if you remember any of the names of the other children you were with? The 3 oldest boys went by the last name Jordon and the youngest Valentine (he was just a baby).
Any information would be helpful.
Debra – Please contact me for information on your uncle
Edward John Valentine that resided at Annie Wittnemyer Home in Davenport Iowa.
My number his 563 320 3540.
email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Jimmie. My mother Delores Baysinger was at the home during some of the years you were there. I’d really appreciate hearing from you. Since this is an old blog, I’m not sure I’ll get a response. However, I really hope there’s someone out there who knew her. If so, please get in touch with me. Thanks!
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.
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…
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.
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 (email@example.com) we can provide information on where you might request information on Edward, or perhaps research our own records.
Please contact me for possible information on Edward Valentine who was adopted out of the Iowa Soldiers Orphan Home / Annie Wittenmyer Orphanage.
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.
We regret that our library does not have any records from the Home.
If you would care to e-mail our Center (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.
I was in this home for several years. Sorry but the treatment was very abusive, hunger was common. I have talked with others from there in the 1950’s and they have the same memories as I. I remember children screaming and crying while being beaten, some older kids being hateful and mean to the smaller ones. I am sure Spirits of the Lost Children roam that place!
Cali, is there a way I can get in contact with you? I’m looking for information. My mother was there during the late 40’s and early 50’s.
I’m a historian and writer telling the story of events in the Home in the 1930s and 1940s. I’d be interested in your recollections about your time there, and whether you know of what the home was like in the earlier periods?
I’m wondering if you ever finished your project, I went to daycare in the cottages and work in foster group care there now and have been researching the history of the campus and would love to see what you have!
My grandmother lived there with three siblings after her mother died shortly after childbirth of my grandmother’s younger brother. Grandma was 5 in 1898 when she was sent there with her older sister and younger brother. There were four older children who stayed with their father, a wounded Civil War veteran, who could not care for the three youngest after the death of his wife.
My grandmother LOVED “the home”, and regularly told stories about the fun she had with the other children, the wonderful matrons, the homemakers’ skills they were taught, and the excellent education she received.
As well, when she was 15, she was taken to three potential employers with whom she was to be placed. She chose (and was chosen by) a woman who ran a boarding house. This woman and my grandmother became so bonded that by the time the woman became terminally ill, my now-married grandmother cared for the woman until her death. My mother’s middle named reflects the love which my grandmother had for the woman and the love was reciprocated.
Of course, my grandmother was not truly and “orphan” (no parents), and was regularly visited by her father, so that made a difference in her outlook, I’m sure.
Nevertheless, affection with which she remembered her 10 years at the orphanage, and the success of the orpahange-connected outplacement is testimony to the care and appropriate management of the Annie Wittenmyer home, at least during the 1890s and early 1900s.
Sorry for some of the misspellings – I should have proofread this before I posted!
Thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s wonderful story!
We love to hear about how the Home affected the lives of the children who stayed there!
I am looking for the real name of my deceased grandfather. He was born 19 Jun 1908 and most likely was placed here with several of his brothers, siblings.
He was adopted by a George and Mary Belle Emerson Brown from Conesville, IA. His brother ran away from there home due to abuse. He stayed and worked as farm labor.
I would really like to find his birth name and parents and family names for our genealogy.
Any help would be appreciated. Everyone is deceased now that would have known anything.
The existing records for the Annie Wittenmyer Home must be accessed through Iowa’s Division of Child & Family Services.
Please e-mail us at email@example.com for the contact information we have on file.
I am trying to find information on Daisy Joan Newton who lived at the Annie Wittenmyer Home in the late 1950’s (she died in in 1959 at age 6).
Daisy died before she could be adopted, and unfortunately, the only existing records from the Home are those contained in the adoption case files held by the State of Iowa’s Division of Adult, Children & Family Services in Des Moines.
For others seeking information on residents adopted from the Home: Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the contact information we have on file.
All of the information held by the RSSC Center of the DPL about the Annie Wittenmyer/Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home is described in this guide: http://libguides.davenportlibrary.com/wittenmyer.
But she never got adopted.was a foster child
The only information in our collection is from the Oakdale Memorial Gardens (Davenport, Iowa) burial record. The record states that Daisy Newton died in Johnson County, Iowa on February 1, 1959 from Respiratory Insufficiency. Any official records of Daisy would be with the State of Iowa’s Division of Adult, Children, and Family Services in Des Moines. We would suggest also looking into the death records for Johnson County which might provide further clues in your search. If you have any further questions, please email us at email@example.com. We wish you luck in your search!
Hello, my mother LaVonne Constance Shrimpton was taken to Davenport in December of 1929 with her brother Gerald Shrimpton and sister, Betty Jean Shrimpton. I have not been able to find any info especially Betty Jean, who could have been adopted or died. Jean was 3 months when they entered the orphange. Thank you
The existing records for the Annie Wittenmyer Home must be accessed through adoption files held by Iowa’s Division of Adult, Children & Family Services in Des Moines.
Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the contact information we have on file.