|The following is reprinted from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: World of Odd.
Here’s the story behind one of the most peculiar (and most popular) grave sites in the entire United States. More than 60 years after it was completed, it still attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year.
The Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas (Image Credit: KansasExplorer [Flickr])
(Image Credit: John Charlton, Kansas Geological Survey)
In the mid-1870s, a college student named John Davis was forced to drop out of Urania College in Kentucky after his parents died and he was unable to pay tuition. He became an itinerant laborer, taking work wherever he could find it, and in 1879 he signed on as a farmhand for Tom Hart, a wealthy landowner in tiny Hiawatha, Kansas. Davis was a good worker, but that didn’t count for much when the penniless lad fell in love with Sarah Hart, the boss’s daughter. When the two announced their plans to marry, Mr. and Mrs. Hart, furious that Sarah would marry so far beneath her station, disowned her.
Ever heard the expression "living well is the best revenge"? John and Sarah got back at the Harts by becoming one of the most prosperous couples in Hiawatha, though it took them a lifetime to do it. After scraping together enough money to buy a 260-acre farm, they managed it so wisely that they were able to use the profits to buy a second farm, which also did well. Then, after 35 years of living in the country, the childless couple moved to a stately mansion on one of Hiawatha’s best streets. They were still living there in 1930, after more than 50 years of marriage, when Sarah died from a stroke.
At first John commissioned a modest headstone for Sarah in Hiawatha’s Mount Hope Cemetery, but soon decided it wasn’t enough. He’d never forgotten how Sarah’s family had spurned them when they had nothing; now that they were more prosperous than the Hart clan, he decided that he and Sarah should be laid to rest in the nicest, most expensive memorial in town.
Davis was friends with a local tombstone salesman named Horace England, and together the two men designed a memorial consisting of life-size marble statues of John and Sarah as they looked on their 50th wedding anniversary. The statues would stand at the foot of the graves and face the headstones; the cemetery plot would also be protected from the elements by a 50-ton marble canopy supported by six massive columns.
England stood to make a small fortune on such a grandiose memorial. Even so, he suggested that it might be a little much, especially considering that the country was in the depths of the Great Depression and folks in Midwestern towns like Hiawatha had been hit especially hard. Davis thanked him for his opinion and then offered to give the business to another tombstone salesman. England assured Davis that that would not be necessary and committed himself wholeheartedly to the task at hand. As far as anyone knows, he never raised another objection.
Statues of John and Sarah Davis (Image Credit: Kansas Travel)
More statues of John and Sarah Davis (Image Credit: Hilary (curioush) [Flickr])
Davis approved the final design and sent his and his wife’s measurements off to Carrara, Italy, where master craftsman carved their likenesses out of the finest Italian marble. Completed in 1931, the Davis memorial was easily the most impressive in Hiawatha, probably in the entire state. And yet when Davis got a look at it he felt something was missing. The giant stone canopy dwarfed the pair of statues beneath it. The solution? More statues. "I thought it still looked too bare, so I got me another pair," Davis explained. The second set of statues depicted John and Sarah as they would have looked on their tenth wedding anniversary, much earlier in life than the first pair of statues showed them.
NO STATUE OF LIMITATIONS
By now Davis was pretty much out of loose cash, so he signed over his two farms to Horace England for $31,000—more than enough money to pay for the second set of statues. What did he do with the money that was left? He bought a third set of statues, showing Sarah and himself seated in comfy chairs as they would have looked in 1898, after 18 years of marriage. (John is depicted clean-shaven—in the late 1890s, he had burned his beard fighting a brush fire and for a time went without his flowing beard.)
Why stop at three pairs? Davis then decided he wanted a fourth pair of statues. Again John is shown seated, this time missing his left hand, which he lost to infection in 1908 after he injured it while trying to trim his hedges with an axe. (The axe is on display in the nearby Brown County Agricultural Museum.)
Statue of John Davis and "The Vacant Chair" (Image Credit: Hilary (curioush) [Flickr])
Because this fourth set of statues depict John after his wife’s death, her absence is represented by a statue of an empty chair. (Just in case anyone misses the symbolism, the words "THE VACANT CHAIR" are carved into the chair.) Unlike the other statues, this pair was done in granite instead of marble. Davis claimed it was because he thought men looked better carved in granite.
FORMING A CROWD
Who says four pairs of statues are enough? Davis commissioned a fifth and then sixth. When the money from the sale of his farms ran out, he signed over his mansion to Horace England for $1, on the condition that he be allowed to live in it for the rest of his life. That solved Davis’s money problems, which may be why the fifth and sixth pairs of statues were once again done in Italian marble. The sixth—and—final—statues depict John and Sarah as angels kneeling over each other’s graves.
When the odd jumble of statues started to attract visitors, some of whom were disrespectful and climbed the statues or sat in The Vacant Chair, Davis had a three-foot-high marble wall built around the entire memorial, with marble urns at the corners inscribed "KINDLY KEEP OFF THE MEMORIAL." The wall is just low enough for the seated figures to be seen peeking over the top. [Note: Image Credit: Kansas Travel]
Why did Davis keep adding statues? Some people speculate that with no family of his own, he was determined to blow his entire fortune to keep his wife’s relatives from getting a penny of his money. Others speculate that Davis was motivated by guilt—he was apparently a very jealous man and during the more than 30 years that he and Sarah had lived on the farm, he had rarely let Sarah go into town alone or even visit the neighboring farm wives. Now, realizing too late how hard that must have been for Sarah, he was making it up to her in marble.
A third theory, simple but compelling, is that Davis was just plain nuts. He became a compulsive memorial builder in much the same way that some people are compulsive collectors. Even if he did realize that each new addition of statues further cluttered an already crowded memorial, he couldn’t stop himself.
THE END…OR IS IT?
In 1937, the same year that he signed over his mansion to Horace England, John Davis learned from his doctors that he had less than six months to live. Davis quickly gave away the rest of his fortune—possibly as much as $55,000—prepared to join his wife in their final resting place. Six months passed…and then a year…and then two years, until eventually Davis realized that the same doctors he blamed for losing his hand after his axe incident had also botched the diagnosis of his "terminal" illness. He didn’t have six months to live, he had ten years to live, and now that he had given away his entire fortune he couldn’t even afford to live in his mansion, even though it was rent-free. He moved into the local poorhouse and lived there for the rest of his days, though he did spend a lot of time out at the cemetery, proudly showing off the 11 life-size statues and The Vacant Chair to the throngs of people who came to see it. He died in his sleep in 1947.
In all, Davis is believed to have spent $200,000 on his memorial, the equivalent of well over $1 million today. (Many locals also credit him with giving tens of thousands of dollars to the needy during his lifetime, usually in small sums. But since this giving was done in private, it has been overshadowed by the memorial.)
A SIGHT TO BE SEEN
The Davis Memorial isn’t the prettiest grave in America. It looks like a cross between a gas station and a statue-company showroom. Nevertheless, it attracts as many as 30,000 visitors a year, many of whom go straight to the cemetery without bothering to visit the town. Perhaps it’s only fair, then, that Hiawatha’s townspeople are as ambivalent about Davis today as they were during the Depression, when he memorialized his wife in stone instead of building a library or a hospital that would have honored her memory while contributing to the common good. But Davis wouldn’t have had it any other way. "They hate me," Davis admitted late in life, "but it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased."