Footprints of Fayette

A Historical Column From The Fayette County
Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office

Vandalism At The Old La Grange
City Cemetery
By Carolyn Heinsohn

In today’s world, we have become numb to the daily news with its seemingly endless accounts of crime. Vandalism is a common occurrence, most of which never makes the news. However, we still consider churches and cemeteries to be sacred and off-limits to purposeful destruction.  Desecration in either place raises the hackles of most people who cannot understand the mentality of perpetrators who seem to get personal gratification when they destroy what we hold most dear.
On the morning of Feb. 20,1908, the people of La Grange were shocked to learn that their beautiful Old City Cemetery had been brutally attacked during the night while the city slept. The sexton of the cemetery telephoned the sheriff’s office that morning to report that some vandals had wrought havoc on some 30 monuments and gravestones.  That preliminary count was soon increased to 67 markers and tombstones that had been turned over, broken in half or destroyed. One beautiful little angel marking a child’s grave was broken into multiple pieces with no hope of it ever being repaired. The obelisk tombstone for James Seaton Lester, an early citizen of La Grange who had donated the land for the cemetery, was also broken in half.
In addition to Sheriff William Loessin, Ben Harigel, the editor of the La Grange Journal, was also called to the scene. In a book that he later wrote on his recollections of important events in the community, Harigel stated that almost every man and woman in town were gathered at the cemetery that morning, and had the culprit been known at that moment the law could not have protected him against the wrath of the citizens. People were demanding help and a solution, so Sheriff Loessin searched through the cemetery for any possible clues. Wherever there was a footprint, he poured Plaster of Paris into it for a mold, adding a small sign with the words, “Do Not Disturb” to keep the curious from damaging potential evidence.
It was obvious to everyone at the cemetery that there were several railway cars, commonly termed “boarding cars” used by the bridge and building crew of a railroad company, sitting on a siding next to the old cemetery. Then the clues started coming together for the sheriff when he recalled that a citizen had called him a few days prior to the vandalism to report that the cook in the kitchen of the crew’s car was throwing empty cans into the street, to which Loessin had acted promptly to correct the situation. He then announced, “It may be that one of the bunch of the railway workers did the work!”
Several days had passed when a self-appointed committee circulated a petition among the citizens, asking to create a monetary fund that would be given to the officer who made an arrest. Of course, that task fell to the sheriff, who along with Constable Lee Smith, had been quietly working to gather evidence. Once Sheriff Loessin felt that he had all the evidence he needed, he arrested James Harkins, a 30-year old member of the railroad bridge gang, charging him with the crime.
Upon arrest, Harkins confessed that “he was angered at having to remove the debris from the street – the tin cans – and that on the night when he committed the act of desecration, he was drunk. When he neared his destination – the boarding cars – he thought of what the city had ‘done to him’ and let his wrath out on the grave markers. He quit turning them over after he became exhausted. Then he calmly went to his bunk and slept without dreaming.”
However, when the case came to trial, Harkins refuted his confession and denied his guilt. District Attorney Sam C. Lowrey persisted with the interrogation until Harkins got caught up in his lies, and the culprit became a subject for indictment for perjury as well as his initial crime. He was found guilty and sentenced to serve four years in the penitentiary.
Workers employed at the O.E. Stolz Marble and Granite Works of La Grange repaired the grave stones to the best of their ability, although some were too damaged to fix. Flat stones that were broken were placed on concrete slabs on the ground, obelisks were lifted back into place and cemented together, including the one for James Seaton Lester, and other ornamentation was replaced. However, some of the beautiful works of art like the little angel were gone forever. The repair work somewhat reconciled the people of La Grange, but their beautiful cemetery would never look the same after that shameless act of desecration. Comparing several archival photographs of the damage to the present-day cemetery, it is evident that the vandalized section of the cemetery encompasses an area including two rows of lots alongside College Street extending from East Colorado Street almost to East Travis Street. The terrible damage can still be seen today, especially at those graves with nothing left but a monument base to indicate a burial. 
How sad it is to see that tombstones and beautiful monuments that were lovingly placed on the graves of loved ones, hopefully for perpetuity, were destroyed in a moment in time by someone whose rage blocked out his sensibilities. His actions are forever “written in stone.”