By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Last week, in her story about Grant Wood, Ruth mentioned that we had visited Stone City, where Grant Wood established an art colony. We did our photographing there before sunrise and then headed east to photograph a number of stone barns on a farm associated with the Anamosa State Penitentiary. On the way there, however, we passed a simple, yet beautifully maintained cemetery and we couldn’t resist going back to check it out.
We hadn’t caught the name of the cemetery, but it was strikingly beautiful with its white picket fence, neatly mowed grass, and simple stones rising up from the hillside as the sun was rising beyond the hill. Upon returning to the cemetery, we discovered the words “Anamosa State Penitentiary Cemetery” on the arched entryway.
As I headed up the hill with my camera equipment, I was struck by the simple nature of each and every gravestone. Is it possible that they were carved by prisoners as a part of the work program at the penitentiary? Some of them were of average size with a single name on them. Others were very large, with many names listed on them.
As I studied these large stones, I noted that there was almost never a first name carved in the stone; only a first initial, a last name, and the year the prisoner died. And then I noticed something quite unusual on one of the stones. About halfway down, the list said, “?. Parke 1887.” It was preceded by “A. May 1882” and it was followed by “J. Smith 1887.” How sad that this man lived and died among prisoners and prison officials and no one ever knew his first name.
In August of 1872, work began on the building of the Anamosa State Penitentiary and the first prisoners were transferred there from Fort Madison Penitentiary in May of 1873. The first prisoner death at the new penitentiary occurred in December of that year. The inmate’s name was George Williams and he was buried a short distance from the west wall of the prison on a hill facing east.
By 1914, there were 34 more prisoners buried near Mr. Williams; prisoners who had no families to give them proper burials or whose families would not or could not claim their bodies. At that time, the prison farm needed more land, so the bodies of these 35 prisoners were moved to the current location, about a quarter-mile uphill from the old graveyard.
On August 26, 1896, a prisoner, who was serving a life sentence at Fort Madison Penitentiary for killing a 73-year-old guard in an escape from the facility, was transferred to Anamosa. This transfer was done because the prisoner was suffering from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then called) and Anamosa had a better hospital.
This prisoner was Polk Wells, a train robber and bandit who was associated with outlaws like Jesse James and the Younger brothers. He was originally sentenced to ten years in prison for his highway robberies after being captured in Randolph, Wisconsin by Sherriff Dan Farrell of Mills County, Iowa.
While serving this ten-year sentence, he planned an escape during which a prison guard was killed, and he was then sentenced to life in prison. Polk Wells died on September 11, 1896, sixteen days after his arrival at Anamosa. There is a stone at the Anamosa State Penitentiary Cemetery with his name on it, but he is not buried there. Upon his death, his body was immediately taken back to his home area of St. Joseph, Missouri. The only explanation for this mistake is a clerical error by the penitentiary.
The saddest thing I discovered as we were about to leave the cemetery was a gravestone for a World War II veteran named Benjamin Perry, who died in prison on November 2, 1962, the day before his 52nd birthday. Ruth and I tried to find some information about this man, but we were unsuccessful. It’s sad that he served his country in the war and then died with no one to claim his body.
The good news in all of this is that someone still cares about the lives of these prisoners. There were flowers, a military marker, and an American flag on Benjamin Perry’s grave. The lawn was neatly mowed and there were flowers on many other graves.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this “virtual visit” to this interesting and historical cemetery.
Until next time, Happy Shunpiking!