Oak Ridge angels

Meet Lillian Marie Davis, more than a memory

click to enlarge Lillian Marie Davis, 1898-1915
Lillian Marie Davis, 1898-1915

Cemeteries are mysterious places with magical names – cenotaphs, crypts, footstones, headstones, memorials, plots, tombs, urns, vaults and such – words that seldom surface in everyday discourse, unless you operate a funeral home. I've always been intrigued by these places, especially knowing I'll probably end up in one. And I've been known to wander Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery, sometimes portraying departed folks whose stories inspired me to resurrect them for public cemetery walks. I usually meet forgotten folks I long to know better.

Not so long ago I was near Block 20 interpreting a 160-year-old Osage orange tree for a crowd of enthusiastic tree-huggers when I spotted the grave of Lillian Marie Davis. What drew me in was a black and white photograph on her headstone, a beautiful inset in a glass oval frame, capturing the ageless face of a child captured in a living moment. But Lillian died in 1915 at the age of 16. Still, the weave of hair wrapped atop her head and those huge rose ribbons smothering her ears, the small string of pearls around her neck and her pristine, pleated white blouse suggest she was packaged for an Easter outing by someone who loved her dearly. Nevertheless, her sorrowful eyes and reluctant smile suggest she had other plans, ones that didn't involve such fanciful attire but, perhaps, a fishing pole.

Lillian's dreams and adventures ended in 1915. At first I was unable to determine if she was actually buried beneath her headstone; she might easily have died elsewhere and her headstone was a cenotaph – a memory stone, of sorts. In doing research I discovered a Lillian S. Davis who died in the summer of 1915 in Chicago, a casualty on the Eastland disaster. She was 22, but she wasn't our Lillian. I couldn't find Lillian Marie on Ancestry.com either, and my initial search for her death records were thwarted because I didn't have her death date, only the year. I finally found her death records in the cemetery's official interment records, which can be found online at the Lincoln Library's website, linked also to the Illinois State Library's Illinois Digital Archives (IDA) records at http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/linl3/id/1337/rec/4.

Lillian's official cause of death was meningitis/typhoid, a bacterial infection that causes brain swelling, fever and delirium; perhaps she drank tainted water from the local reservoir or from an unsafe backyard well. She died on June 28, 1915, at Springfield Hospital, then located at Fifth and North Grand Avenue.

With help from Stephanie Martin at Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection, I learned that in 1915, Lillian and her family – father George, mother Margaret, and a three-year-old brother, Harold – lived about a mile down the road at 1907 North Grand Avenue East. They moved several times over the next 50 years, also residing on Klein and Livingstone streets before their journeys ended. Her father, George H. Davis, was a coal miner working at Peabody No. 5 mine in Springfield at the time of Lillian's death.

Lillian's headstone in Oak Ridge has her photograph and birth and death years carved into the three-foot-tall stone. On the reverse is a single word, "Davis." Directly behind her stone is another headstone for a "Davis" family, Charles D. Davis (1844-1913) and Amanda ("1845-19??, his wife"). The proximity suggests these are Lillian's paternal grandparents, but I haven't proven this.

Immediately adjacent to Lillian's headstone are two plots with no associated headstones, although Oak Ridge Cemetery records indicate Lillian's parents are now buried there. Lillian's father died in 1945. He was still working as a coal miner, a "topman," when at the age of 64, on an October night during a heavy thunderstorm, the car in which he was traveling left the road about a mile north of Farmersville and flipped over. There were six people riding in the car; all six were injured, but only George died from his injuries.

One can only imagine what death and pension benefits George was eligible for in 1945, or how Margaret survived on this meager allowance. What we do know is that those earnings were not enough to purchase a headstone for George in Oak Ridge, or have his name carved on Lillian's tombstone, on which there is still ample room. When Margaret died at the age of 84 on April 27, 1965, she was buried next to George without much ceremony and without a headstone. She was survived by her son, Harold, and two sisters.

Life is challenging, and for some folks it is absolutely brutal. "But for the grace of God, there go I," as my mother was fond of saying. The older I get the more Lillian Marie haunts me, and now her family haunts me as well, just one of the reasons I visit cemeteries – to find people whose stories remind me to live each day and breathe each moment.

If you're visiting Oak Ridge, stop by Block 20 and say "hi" to Lillian and her family. Then you can walk across the street and check out the massive, 160-year-old Osage orange tree. It was there in May 1865 when Lincoln was buried, and gave shade to Lillian's family 50 years later in their bleakest hour. I'm sure it could use a hug.

William Furry is the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society.

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