23 October 2010

Visiting the Dead

The mausoleum where Olive Thomas is interred.

So how did I spend a lovely Saturday? Rambling around a cemetery of course. Specifically Woodlawn Cemetery. I have been meaning to visit the place for some time but the anniversary this week of silent screen star Olive Thomas’ birth prompted me to trek up to the Bronx and bring her some flowers.

Two of the many memorials found on the grounds. I wondered about the anchor held by Jane 
and sighed at the little broken girl whose lonely leg remains on the headstone.

Woodlawn Cemetery was founded in 1863 and its 400 acres are home to many famous New Yorkers. From Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the founders of Macy’s, JC Penny’s, and Woolworths, Woodlawn seems to have more stars than the sky (to steal from Louis B. Mayer). The grounds are covered with every type of memorial from simple stones to mausoleums that are larger than my flat. One of the more memorable epitaphs to be found is the one for George Spencer Millet, who died at the age of 15 on February 15, 1909—“lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office Metropolitan Life Building.” Poor kid.

Olive Thomas

But I was there to visit Olive Thomas who had suffered an agonizing death from poison on September 10, 1920. Her funeral was held on September 29, 1920 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City and ended up being a bit of a circus. At the conclusion of the service, crowds surged toward the coffin that was draped with purple orchids and a spray of yellow and brown orchids from her grieving husband, Jack Pickford. The pallbearers—Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s ex-husband who was in Paris when Olive died), Gene Buck, Thomas Meighan (who was the only witness at Olive and Jack’s wedding), Harrison Fisher, Myron Selznick, Harry Carrington, William Kelton, and Alan Crosland—had their hands full as general chaos broke out. The ushers, one of whom was Irving Berlin, tried to help but women ended up fainting and men had their hats crushed before the police arrived and brought order to the scene. Olive’s family followed the coffin out to the Bronx and Woodlawn. 

Jack chose a mausoleum that would fit two coffins and had the name Pickford engraved on the front. Olive was placed in the top position and the bottom was left for Jack. That spot is still empty. Jack, who died in 1933 in Paris (the same city as Olive), was buried in California with the rest of the Pickford clan.

Olive’s resting place is a bit of a walk from the main entrance of the cemetery, and I kept checking my map so I wouldn't miss the Wintergreen section. Suddenly, I looked up and saw the name Pickford peeping out from behind another mausoleum. I have to admit to feeling a bit of a jolt when I saw it. First off, it’s tiny (at least compared to the other mausoleums around it). And secondly, it just struck me as sad. Besides the Pickford name the structure contains no other writing and nothing mentions who lies within. 

I brought some pink roses (I wanted something violet or purple but none were to be found) and propped them against the door. I stayed for a while, sitting on the step and enjoying the solitude that only a cemetery can offer. And then, with one quick backward glance, I headed off for 233rd Street and the train to Manhattan. 

Dear readers, I promise that future entries on this blog will be about topics other than cemeteries but as it's October and Halloween is just around the corner you might have to indulge me for just a bit longer.

Photos of Woodlawn Cemetery by Michele.


  1. So sad that in effect they managed to completely erase this little girl's identity and further guarantee her anonymity with the name Pickford on her mausoleum. I'd like to see a plaque on the tomb identifying her as Olive Thomas, the name she worked under and was known for. Although most won't remember her, at least it would put her soul at ease.

  2. Why is Olive Thomas interred in a mausoleum in the Bronx? Her family lived in Pennslvania and husband and in-laws lived in California. If they shipped the body across the Atlantic, couldn't they have shipped to California? Why is tomb just inscribed "Pickford"? Where were Mary and Charlotte Pickford? Did they attend the funeral? I know they didn't care for Olive; but, if you don't attend your only brother's wife's funeral, that's heartless!

    1. Olive and Jack had an apartment in New York and both had ties to the city, especially Olive. Also, by 1920 Olive's family were no longer living in Pennsylvania. Jack chose the design for the mausoleum and had planned on being interred with Olive (hence the Pickford at the top) but when he passed away, Mary had him brought back to California and buried in the Pickford family plot. Charlotte Pickford attended the funeral as did Jack's sister, Lottie, but Mary was a no show.



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