Stew Thornley's Book of the Dead

Writer Stew Thornley may be working in a dying field, but his subjects don't tend to complain
Craig Lassig

One brilliant Sunday afternoon, Stew Thornley and I went looking for Marshall Sherman, a Civil War veteran who gained immortal fame for capturing the flag of Virginia's 28th Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg. It was the last week of October, and a stratum of dry leaves crackled beneath our feet while we walked. The sky was a soft moiré of clouds backlit by the sun, like the cover of a cheap religious paperback. It seemed like the right sort of day to spend nosing around a graveyard.

We found Sherman in a neat row of plain tombstones. His was set apart from the others by its gold-inlaid inscription, which read, "1822--April 19, 1896. Medal of Honor."

"You find these sections in a lot of cemeteries," Thornley explained. "They're usually called 'Soldiers' Rests' or something like that."

A medium-sized fellow of 49 years with a brushy gray mustache, Thornley is deeply knowledgeable on a number of subjects but laconic enough not to seem like a show-off. He works as an educator at the state Department of Health, a job he enjoys and one that affords him plenty of time to pursue his hobby: visiting the graves of famous people, or, as he sometimes calls it, "cemetery surfing." For the afternoon's reconnoiter of St. Paul's Oakland Cemetery, Thornley was wearing a NY Yankees cap and a blue windbreaker. Every few minutes, he took a tin of shredded beef jerky from the windbreaker's pocket, pinched a couple of blond threads out of it, and pressed them behind his lower lip.

Thornley has been visiting cemeteries since childhood. The first time he recalls going out of his way to visit a grave was during a family vacation in Michigan when his parents happened to drive past the resting place of George Gipp, the Notre Dame football player famously portrayed by Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne: All American. Since then, Thornley has visited the grave of every player in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2001, during a tour of Cuba, he even managed to track down the grave of Martín Dihigo, a star from the 1930s who played winter ball in Cuba, then came north in the summer to pitch in the American Negro Leagues.

Thornley has also visited the grave of every U.S. president, including David Rice Atchinson, who held the office for one day (Sunday, March 4, 1849), but excluding Reagan. "There were a couple of times I was in southern California, and I thought, 'Geez, if he'd just die now, I could go see his grave.' Now I don't know when I'll get out there again."

For the last three years, Thornley has focused his cemetery surfing on research for Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press), a fascinating who's who of the state's illustrious departed. In his book, Thornley provides a biographical sketch of 375 such personages, along with the precise location of their interments, so that pilgrims and the merely curious might pay them a visit.

Here, for example, is his entry on Callum De Villier, who now resides in Lakewood Cemetery, section 11, lot 1072: "A marathon dancer, de Villier made the Guinness Book of World Records by dancing 1,448 hours in the Kenwood Armory in Minneapolis in 1928 and topped that total a few years later in Massachusetts when he and a partner danced for five months, taking only brief medical and restroom breaks during the final three weeks of their endurance feat."

Six Feet Under contains the expected share of governors and literati, of course. But it's Thornley's fast and loose definition of celebrity that makes his boneyard Baedeker such a quirky read. You'd probably be able to find, for instance, Sinclair Lewis or Henry Sibley on your own. But did you know that Ferris Alexander, the famous Twin Cities porn magnate, is buried in the military cemetery at Fort Snelling? Or that the first black baseball player in the state, Prince Honeycutt, went on to become a barbershop proprietor and mayoral candidate in Fergus Falls? Or that Dan Patch, the once-celebrated horse, is buried in an unmarked grave on the bank of the Minnesota River, not far from what is now the town of Savage?

As we gamboled along, we came upon a woman in a black dress kneeling by a tombstone, but facing away from it, with one gloved hand pressed into the grass. Thornley dropped his voice and steered in the opposite direction. Spending so much time in cemeteries makes one sensitive to their special etiquette. Thornley pointed to a section of grand funeral monuments.

When he was researching his book, he explained, he came across the grave of one William Assman. Thornley naturally started digging. Assman, he found, had been a humble family gardener--and his surname alone wasn't quite enough to secure him inclusion in the final edition.

Later on, Thornley brushed a pile of leaves from a plaque embedded in the sod: nobody he recognized. "That's the whole thing," Thornley said. "Everybody's notable if you look closely at them."

Occasionally, while working on Six Feet Under, Thornley stumbled upon an intriguing grave by accident. While poking around the New Ulm cemetery, for example, he found the grave of "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt, a famous--and very excellently named--polka bandleader during the '40s and '50s. Tracking down other dead notables often took a fair amount of detective work. For instance, Thornley found that Ann Bilansky, the only woman ever to be executed in Minnesota, is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Paul's Calvary Cemetery. Bilansky, it turns out, converted to Catholicism the day before she died.

"A lot of the time, there's no address for the cemetery," Thornley explained when I asked him how he tracked down these hard-to-find graves. "So you'll get something like: 'Turn left at the DQ, then go half a mile down the dirt road.' As far as finding the actual grave, somebody's always in charge."

In any case, a man systematic enough in his pursuit to track down Martín Dihigo's grave in Cuba seems unlikely to be deterred by bad directions. I asked Thornley why he'd go to such trouble to see a grave. He shrugged. "I don't collect baseball cards or books--though I have quite a few books. I collect experiences. Maybe I'll take a snapshot. But mostly it's about collecting the memories."

Certainly, some might view Thornley's hobby as melancholy, perhaps even a little morbid. But Thornley doesn't seem like a man much given to alas-poor-Yorick philosophizing; nor does he seem greatly troubled by the prospect of death as a nonabstract eventuality. The one time he admits feeling a little creeped out in a graveyard was while visiting Ty Cobb's mausoleum in Georgia. "He was such a bad man. There was this sense of evil emanating from there."

Thornley stopped at the tombstone of Harriet Bishop (January 1, 1817--August 8, 1833), who established St. Paul's first public school, and pointed at the fresh sod in front of the stone. "I mean, Harriet's down there, yeah. But is she really? Her body's probably totally decomposed at this point. So, no, there's no mysterial feeling for me. I like the research, the hunt of it all. I get to spend time outside and do some digging. Figuratively, I mean. For me, cemeteries are just a nice place to roam."

Thornley took another pinch of beef jerky and put it in his mouth, then leaned lightly against Harriet Bishop's tombstone. Two squirrels were chasing each other between the graves, leaving small contrails of dead leaves to drift down behind them. "On a nice day like today," he says, "where I have a little time, and the weather's good, sometimes I even hope I don't find what I'm looking for right away."

Harriet Bishop has plenty of time to wait.

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