Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Fella Who Started It All


Sidney W. Saunders Tomb
Monroe City (aka Old City) Cemetery
Monroe, Louisiana
I discovered Sidney and grave walking when I went to Monroe City Cemetery as a college student in the early 1980's. I was working on my black and white photography portfolio when a friend suggested I go "see" Sidney. The best part...he had a sordid tale behind his final repose...Victorian soap opera played out tragically in my hometown! Here's what we know about Sidney with cudo's and credit to Ouachita Parish historian/librarian Lora Peppers:
A native of Mississippi and raised in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, Sidney went on to become a private in the Confederate Army and was wounded during the Battle of Vicksburg. After the war, he became a businessman in the river boomtown of Monroe owning saloons as well as a grocery store. It was, however, the saloon business with a suspected sideline of gambling and prostitution that made Sidney a pariah of Monroe society. He just wasn't ever going to hold a respectable position as far as the upper echelon of Monroe folks were concerned. Making matters worse, he shows up with a bride named Annie Livingston who came with a child believed to by Sidney's named Willie St. John. The rumor was that Annie was a prostitute and not officially married to Sidney.
It only gets worse.
In 1886, young Willie passes away at the age of 12. Then came the fire that ravaged Sidney's empire. More rumors surfaced about Sidney being an arsonist in order to make a monetary gain from insurance claims. Such indignations only made Annie more defiant to overcome them. Unfortunately, the same indignations only broke Sidney's spirit. He purchased a plot at the Monroe City Cemetery in late January of 1889 and he killed himself with gunshot to the head on February 1. Annie took the proceeds of Sidney's estate after wrangling with Sidney's siblings over the proper inheritance dispersement. She commissioned the Muldoon Monument Company to build a grand tomb...and societele statement...for Sidney. Sidney's statue holds the marriage license so hotly contested in his hand and faces the "high society" section of Monroe in a stance that is permanant and unforgettable. The carved license is an exact replica of their real marriage license in wording. There are basement style doors in the ground to the antechamber that holds the caskets of Sidney and Willie. Also Sidney's writing desk and chair are inside and it is said Annie spent many hours sitting at it between her husband and child. Annie's sewing machine and Willie's bicycle are purported to be inside the tomb as well as Annie's casket after her death by fire in 1926.
The Saunders monument is inventoried and cataloged by the Smithsonian (url: http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!335352!0#focus). As if the backstory and the impressive nature of the monument itself wasn't enough, the gut-wrenching "stream of consciousness" speeches of Annie's words engraved into the monument are forever heartbreaking:
SIDNEY W. SAUNDERS
1846-1889
IS IT IN HEAVEN
A CRIME TO LOVE TOO WELL?
TO BEAR TOO TENDER
OR TOO FIRM A HEART?
(Side panel:)
WILLIE ST. JOHN
SON OF/W S & A SAUNDERS, DIED MAY 13 1886
WILLIE, MY BELOVED TREASURE
MY BRIGHT BEAUTIFUL LOVING JEWEL
MAMA'S WEARY HEAVY HEART
IS YEARNING TO BE AT REST WITH THEE
OH! ART THOU MY PRECIOUS ANGEL
LONGING TO BE WITH ME YOUR LONELY
UNHAPPY MOTHER
(Left panel on rear of monument:)
SIDNEY I COULD HAVE WELL FORGIVEN
THAT LAST SEEMINGLY CRUEL ACT OF THINE
FOR YOU WANTED ME WITH YOU IN HEAVEN
HAD YOU WITH YOUR LIFE TAKEN MINE
TREMBLING AND ALONE I TREAD
LIFE'S DREARY STRAND
BESET ENVY, STRIFE, AND JEALOUSLY
BUT 'MID IT ALL, GOD AND LOVE OF THEE
HAS STAID MY HAND
TO RAISE THIS MARBLE TO THY MEMORY
(Right panel on rear of monument:)
MY HUSBAND, MY GOD IN MERCY PARDON ME
IF WHEN HERE I COME TO WEEP AND PRAY
ALL MY SOUL AND THOUGHT SHALL BE OF THEE
AND WRAPT IN THEE IDOL FROM THE MAKER STRAY
FAREWELL, THIS MONUMENT IS NOW MY LAST ADIEU
TILL IS HEAVEN WE MEET NO MORE TO SEPARATE
I SAY IN HEAVEN
FOR WHERE'RE YOU ARE, OUR BOY AND YOU
THERE IS MY HEAVEN
FOR THAT ALONE YOUR FAITHFUL, LOVING WIFE
PRAYS, WATCHES AND WAITS
To find Sidney head east on DeSiard from the river, turn into the west entrance of the cemetery. The tomb is not far into the cemetery on the left near the fence, you can't miss him.
UPDATE:I posted this photo on a facebook page about Monroe, Louisiana. Here is a firsthand account from Herbert Otwell who posted about actually peering into the antechamber of the Saunders graves: " I was a supervisor on nights several years ago and we found the lock on the doors missing. We opened then but couldn't go inside because there was about 15'feet of water in the crypt. There are two caskets in the tomb but they are under water." I replied " Thanks for the post, Herbert! How sad it's underwater...I'd heard there were possibly three caskets: Sidney, son Willie St. John and Sidney's wife. His wife, Annie E. Livingston Saunders Hardin, was rumoured to have been interred there after she died from severe burns in 1926. It's also been reported that Sidney's writing desk, chair, her sewing machine and Willie's bicycle were in the tomb as well. " His response: The water was very clear and we could see the contents. There was only two caskets, one had pretty much disenegrated, the other looked to be in good shape. There was nothing else such as chairs, sewing machines, etc in there. There is a space for a third casket but it was vacant. The area down at he bottom is not real big and there was a There was a casket in the space directly in front of the steps and one to the left, which would be north. There was nothing in the space to the south."

2 comments:

  1. Scout, this is Lora Peppers. Love the article about Sidney. To add to Mr. Otwell's story, I talked to a lady back in my college days, who had been allowed into the crypt in the early 80's or so to do a photo project for a course she was taking. She is the one who told me she saw three coffins: two adult and one child. Sidney's coffin was deteriorating so badly, she could see hair and bones. She also told me that in the early 80's the crypt was drained and the city hauled out the remains of a red wagon and sewing machine. I imagine they were thrown away. I work at the Ouachita Library, and we found Annie's obituary. I need to add that to her findagrave listing. It said she even hung curtains in the crypt! Oh! When I gave a tour of the cemetery a few years ago, an elderly lady chimed in that she attended Annie's funeral as a child. Her family went a long way back in Monroe, and told her stories about Annie. Annie DID NOT BURY SIDNEY UNTIL THE MONUMENT WAS BUILT! She kept his coffin out back of the house in a shed! Scared the local kids to death! Sidney and Annie have been a lot of fun to research!

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  2. Oh, my! Annie was quite the headstrong lady, wasn't she? Thanks so much for the information and all of your hard work, Lora! I've been to dozens of cemeteries and I don't think any rival poor Sidney's. The story I heard in college was that Sidney had killed Willie, then attempted to kill Annie, then committed suicide. I was relieved to find out the truth. I'm living in Bossier City, the closet grave story we have to the Saunders is the Milton Taylor Hancock crypt in Shreveport's Greenwood Cemetery. I'll post his story soon!

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