A really good mystery
ALPENA — Everyone relishes a good mystery. A bit of a puzzler turned up a week ago in Alpena when two tombstones from the 1880s were discovered buried face down in a backyard. The grave markers, commemorating the deaths of two infants, were unearthed during excavation work at the State Avenue home of Bruce and Julie Dietz.
Whose tombstones were they? How did they end up hidden in a backyard fronting Lake Huron? Were bodies buried at the site as well?
It’s a mystery Officer Lee Grant gladly took on after both markers were turned over to the Alpena Police Department as found property. Though not a typical case for a police department, with his keen interest in Alpena history and genealogy, Grant proved the right person to try and solve the mystery.
“It’s been a fun little investigation for me,” he said. “I really enjoy this type of stuff.”
Right from the start, Grant had some information to go on since both gravestones were preserved in good condition and easily readable. One marker indicated the deceased was the infant son of C.D. and Margaret McKenzie.
“Budded on earth to bloom in heaven” the sweet sentiment on the marker read. According to additional engraved words, the unnamed baby died on Sept. 7, 1882, at 9 weeks of age.
The second infant, also unnamed and listing the McKenzies as parents, died July 12, 1881, when 6 months, 7 days old. Her gravestone read, “This little one but tasted the cup of pain and woe, and then away she hasted, where joys unceasing flow.”
In trying to determine the best permanent place for the newly discovered gravestones, Grant sought out Chris Witulski, executive director of the Besser Museum. Equally intrigued by the mystery, she suggested he touch base with a couple members of the Northeast Michigan Genealogical Society and Sexton Jim Kochanski at Evergreen Cemetery.
Grant also did a search of some old U.S. Census records and other online resources he was familiar with due to his own interest in genealogy.
“It looks like the family of C.D and Margaret McKenzie homesteaded at 450 State and the markers were found at 430 State, so that matches up really well,” he said.
Grant, along with Matthew McCormack and RoseMarie Guthrie of the genealogy society, learned C.D. McKenzie, also known as Colin Donald, was born in Canada in 1851, came to the United States in about 1866 and sometime before 1874 relocated to Alpena where on April 15, 1874, he married Margaret “Maggie” McNeil. She too was born in Canada.
McCormack, who owns and operates New Line Genealogy, LCC, determined the McKenzies had seven children, including the two infants in question.
“The first unnamed child was a daughter who was born in about January of 1881 in Alpena,” McCormack said. “She died on July 12, 1881, in Alpena of ‘summer complaint,’ which was a significant cause of infant death in the late 1880s.”
Those involved in solving the mystery of the tombstones felt fairly confident they had properly identified who the infants and their parents were, but the mystery how the markers ended up buried in a backyard on State Avenue and whether the bodies were buried there too still remained.
That’s where Guthrie stepped in to study old records of Evergreen Cemetery.
“I noticed that two infants who died in 1881 and 1882 were buried in the same section and lot,” she said. “This often points to a relationship between the deceased. The years were correct, but in each case the date was just a month off. At any rate, I called Evergreen and spoke with the sexton, Jim. He did some research and discovered that the lot was purchased by Colin McKenzie.”
The research indicated both McKenzie parents and several of their other children were buried nearby.
Guthrie provided this information to Grant, who also sought out Kochanski’s assistance. Grant said after Kochanski went to look at the section and lot in question, the sexton told him it was his belief the infants never were buried at the cemetery.
Grant now theorizes the McKenzies, in keeping with a custom of the time period, most likely buried their two young infants in their backyard, then later purchased the plots for them. For whatever reason, he believes they never moved the bodies or the tombstones to Evergreen.
“It looks like they were never buried at the cemetery and that their tombstones never got transferred there,” Grant said. “It’s highly unlikely that someone stole the markers and took them back to the place where their parents lived. I think they were buried at the family homestead right by the lake in the 1880s.”
He also said it’s possible the babies were buried in small coffins, but after so much time nothing would be left of those coffins or the bones.
Having solved the mystery to their satisfaction, all that remains for those involved is to reunite the grave markers of the babies with those of their parents and other siblings at the cemetery. They plan to relocate them soon to Evergreen and conduct a short service in their honor. Grant will be among those on hand for the ceremony.
“I was able to use a little detective work to solve this and hopefully get the gravestones reunited with the parents,” he said. “At least this didn’t involve any recent tragedy but instead incorporated things we all love — Alpena history and genealogy. And I was able to work with other members of the community in a collaborative effort.”
Diane Speer can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5691. Follow Diane on Twitter ds_alpenanews.