Most often when I tell people that I am a tour guide at a historic cemetery, I am met with the common response of, “How can you spend so much time in a cemetery? Isn’t it depressing being around all that death?” Having become accustomed to this question by now, I am pretty quick to respond with my standard response of, “No, actually it is actually quite beautiful!”
You can imagine the reaction of most people when they hear me say this. Their faces scrunch up in skepticism, they look a bit shocked or surprised, some look at me sympathetically as if I’m delusional. And I get it. After ten years, I am no longer offended by these looks because I have come to realize the beauty I see in Bellefontaine comes from my experiences there, my love of history and my appreciation for what the cemetery is beyond its surface level appearance. There has not been one time I have been to the cemetery that I am not awed by the majestic rolling hills, the serenity of the water features in Wildwood Valley, the beauty of the sculpture and the breathtaking experience of seeing one of our foxes gazing at me from a distance. In fact, I believe that as a tour guide if I do my job well, people forget they actually ARE in a cemetery, seeing only the beauty beyond the (forgive me) surface level purpose of the 314 acres that is Bellefontaine.
It truly is this beauty I see in Bellefontaine that compelled me to write this post for you today. See, a few weeks ago I was offered the opportunity to write a short piece about one of the women who was critical in forming the suffrage movement in the state of Missouri over a century ago. Bellefontaine thrives on being a tribute to living history and this year our focus is on the centennial anniversary of women being granted the right to vote in 1919. There are so many women in Bellefontaine who took up the banner for female voting. Not the least among them are Virginia Minor, Edna Fischel Gellhorn and Lucy Semple Ames. However, my writing assignment was focused on Mrs. Anna Clapp, a lady I am sorry to say I knew little about. Right away I began researching Mrs. Clapp and came up sadly disappointed. I was able to find that Mrs. Clapp was critical in serving the wounded during the Civil War and was a founding member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement of Missouri. And that was about it. Being the dedicated historian I am, I began using all the resources I knew to dig up (sorry) all the information I could on Anna, with little success. How, I wondered, could someone so important to the women’s movement in St. Louis, a hotbed of Suffragettes in the United States, be so poorly remembered?
After stewing about this for a bit, I decided to start at the end and observe the final resting place of Anna at Bellefontaine. I’m sorry to say that once again in this instance, the marker did not quite make the woman. A simple headstone, easy to trip over and forget, next to her husband, with no recognition for her achievements in history. She is tucked quietly in the North Corner of the cemetery, without much of a ‘view’ and far off the beaten path.
Naturally I found this a bit upsetting initially, but became even more troubled as I traveled the cemetery to look at some familiar markers, particularly as I drove past the marker of Mrs. Kate Brewington Bennett. Unlike Anna, Kate Brewington Bennett rests beneath a marker that screams to be noticed. Parked on a prime piece of real estate overlooking the vista towards the east, Mrs. Bennett is marked by a large, opulent and Gothic style monument featuring a beautiful woman lounging in a classical Roman pose in eternal peace.
Now you may be thinking that this woman must have contributed a great deal to society to have such a stately marker. But the truth is, Mrs.Bennett was known for one thing and one thing only: her beauty. When she died at age 37, she was known as the most beautiful woman in St. Louis. Her death, in fact, was in the name of that beauty due to ingestion of beauty powders designed to create a porcelain like complexion…..that included arsenic. That’s right, rat poison. Arsenic is cumulative and builds up in the system over time, leading to her death. If you’re trying to wrap your brain around this, think of the movie “Gone with the Wind” in which mammy does not want Scarlett to wear her now famous green dress to the barbecue as it will leave her shoulders freckled, making her appear unladylike as only field workers had tanned skin. White skin was a sign of being indoors, serene, controlled and demure, all that was desired of a bride. But this desire led women to undertake many measures that today would seem incredulous (well, maybe not), and could ultimately be deadly.
White skin was a sign of being indoors, serene, controlled and demure, all that was desired of a bride. But this desire led women to undertake many measures that today would seem incredulous (well, maybe not), and could ultimately be deadly.
As I made my way back around the cemetery after pondering at Mrs. Bennett’s grave for a bit, I made a call to someone I knew HAD to have more information on Anna Clapp. There HAD to be more to the story of why there WASN’T much of a story. My source didn’t fail me. He proceeded to let me know that while Anna Clapp was important politically, she wasn’t really considered a beauty or someone who could be the public face of a movement. In fact, ‘handsome’ was the most common word used to describe Anna Clapp, rather than the elegant words used to describe Mrs. Bennett, who had done far less in her life.
And then it hit me: the way in which Clapp and Bennett are remembered in their final place of rest is truly reflective of what was considered ‘beautiful’ at the time they lived. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and Anna Clapp just wasn’t beautiful enough for the notoriety that Bennett received. This is truly a metaphor for the way Bellefontaine itself is seen through my eyes versus others who see value only in life. To me, it is the most beautiful place in the world, because I am able to see beyond the surface rather than just at ground level. Furthermore, the story of Clapp and Bennett is reflective of a truth that still remains true today over 100 years later. The way we choose to remember the past, reflects a great deal about who we are in the present. We have to remember that the way we celebrate history, particularly as we enter Black History Month and Women’s History Month we reflect upon who we are now centuries into the future. We must be sure that what we value does not make us seem superficial, and that our present is respected when one day we become the past. That we do this truly is of the gravest importance.