Thursday, April 8, 2021

...mystery of the circus performer buried in Thornrose Cemetery...

 Although Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton, Virginia is a stunning cemetery to visit on its own, yesterday’s trip was focused on visiting the grave of Eva Howard Clark.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct 3, 1906.
I first learned about this woman in the Visit Staunton on Foot: Thornrose Cemetery. When I find such articles or tourism guides, I always look for any history connected to women. Eva Clark was mentioned and as a trapeze artist with the Cole’s Brothers Circus in the early 20th century, I was immediately hooked. According to the piece, each time a circus came to town, performers would pay Eva Clark’s gravesite a visit and decorate her grave with flowers. From 1906 until 1923, this was the only marking for her grave until “friends with Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus” erected an official grave-marker.

Yesterday’s trip to Thornrose Cemetery, which is an approximately 2 ½ hr. drive from my home, included one of our first hot summer-like days. It was gorgeous and sunny. It has trees but not necessarily the kind that offer much shade. Thornrose Cemetery was established in 1849 on 12 acres. The first burial in the cemetery was in 1853.

The News Leader, Sep 14, 1923.
Entering the cemetery, one goes through a stone arch and gatehouse that was designed by local architect T.J. Collins and built by William Larner & Company. This was added in 1896. If you continue straight through, you will also see a footbridge and tower. The cemetery includes a row of mausoleums that is often referenced as the “city of the dead.” Other than the impressive collection of mortuary art, I was also taken by how seemingly every grave faced the east. While this is a tradition in Christian burial grounds, the graves in Thornrose Cemetery add a bit of drama. I had to go to the eastern part of the cemetery if I wanted to see anything other than the backs of graves.

Before meandering, I searched for Eva Howard Clark’s grave. She is located in section 10 with a road on the left of her grave, which made it somewhat easy to find.

In 1906, when the circus was touring through Staunton, Eva Clark was found in a circus tent with a bullet in her abdomen. She lived for just a month after that. Although the circus wanted to take Eva’s body home to be buried, authorities refused suspecting that the shooting had not been accidental and the body was evidence. Witnesses said her husband, Lum Clark, and a fellow trapeze performer named James Richards were present during the shooting. Clark was known to be a jealous husband and was suspected of the shooting his wife but it was unclear if it was an intentional or an accidental shot. No charges were ever filed.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct 5, 1906.
When I went looking for more information about Eva Clark, I found an article, “A very cold case: Circus performer's mysterious death in 1906 has ties to Cincinnati” in the Cincinnati Enquirer that shared that every Christmas since 1906, a wreath has been left on her grave. Her parents, who were also performers, called Cincinnati home and worked for the Clements & Russell Railroad Show in 1890.

Two women have been researching the life of Eva Howard Clark for a couple years now and note, “she was a big deal in the entertainment industry…” In the piece, Eva Howard grew up in the business and was an aerialist who could sing and dance and was known as "The Queen of the Air." Their goal is to tell the story of Clark’s life, not her death.

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