I was thrilled this weekend to find a grave marker for a member of the Mosaic Templars of America, in Marshall, Texas.
The Mosaic Templars of America was an African American fraternal organization founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1882 and incorporated in 1883 by two former slaves, John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts.
The organization was established to provide important services such as burial insurance and life insurance to the African American community. Like many fraternal organizations, the Mosaic Templars’ burial insurance policies covered funeral expenses for members, both men and women, who maintained monthly dues.
By 1913, the burial insurance policy also included a Vermont marble marker. These markers are still found in cemeteries across Arkansas and other states. As membership grew, the Mosaic Templars expanded its operations to include a newspaper, hospital, and building and loan association. The organization attracted thousands of members and built a complex of three buildings at the corner of West Ninth Street and Broadway in Little Rock, Arkansas. The National Grand Temple, the Annex, and the State Temple were completed in 1913, 1918 and 1921, respectively.
Photo of the Mosaic Templar’s Endowment Office staff from the History of the Mosaic Templars of America and Its Founders and Officials.
Courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.
A blank Mosaic Templars of America [MTA] Monument Claim Form. In order for a deceased MTA member to receive an MTA marker, local chapter officers had to complete and sign the monument claim form to verify that the deceased MTA member had paid all dues and fees, and confirm that the deceased was a member in good standing. They also had to submit the member’s information that was to be placed on the marker, and had to provide a delivery address for the completed marker.
According to their official 1924 history, the MTA authorized a Monument Department as early as 1911 to provide markers to its deceased members. Operations were managed by the state jurisdictions until 1914, when the MTA created a national Monument Department to centralize operations and cut costs. Members paid an annual tax to finance the department, and were promised a marble marker.
A traditional MTA marker had a rounded and forward-sloping top, with the MTA symbol cut into the top center. The name of the deceased member was carved below the symbol, with dates of birth (if known) and death. The name of the local chapter, the chapter number and the city where the chapter was located could be found on the bottom. MTA markers issued by the Modern Mosaic Templars of America appear exactly as the MTA markers except with the word “Modern” carved just above the MTA logo. The dimensions of the markers generally measured twenty-five to twenty-nine inches in height, fifteen to seventeen inches in width, and three to five inches in depth.
The name of the organization, taken from the Biblical figure Moses who emancipated Hebrew slaves, elected the Templars ideals of love, charity, protection, and brotherhood. The organization was originally called “The Order of Moses,” but the founders revised the name to “Mosaic Templars of America” in 1883 during the incorporation process. Modeled after the United States government, the organization consisted of an executive branch, a legislative branch, and even a judicial branch.
Members of fraternal organizations often wore badges as a proof of membership, and the badges of this organization displayed several symbols of the Mosaic Templars. The letters “M,” “T” and “A” denote the Mosaic Templars of America. The two crossed shepherd staffs in the center represent Moses and Aaron and Exodus story from the Bible. The “3v’s” abbreviates the Latin phrase “Veni Vidi Vici,” meaning “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Finally an ouroboros (snake eating its tail), representing the cyclical nature of life surrounding the symbol.
In July 1930, the Mosaic Templars of America went into receivership.
The organization struggled to regain its status, but by the end of the decade it had ceased operations in Arkansas.
But I want to also share a bit about Amy since it is her grave marker, after all.
She was born in Tennessee in 1864, to Abner Dollis and Celia Bloodsworth Dollis.
By the time she was 25, in 1860, she was working as a live-in cook in the home of Sheriff William Poland and his family.
Just ten years later she had married, and was the widow of, “John” whose last name was not listed in the city directory. She had a two-year -old daughter named Cely, who was obviously named for Amy’s mother.
By 1912 she supported her daughter by working as a “washerwoman,” and lived at 805 Riptoe Street in Marshall, where only a couple of older homes still stand.
Her death certificate lists her father as Abner Dollis, and her cause of death by apoplexy (the term commonly used for a stroke).
Her daughter Pearl (this was possibly a middle name for Cely), a public school teacher, married Rufus Brown. In 1910, the couple was living with Amy in her home.
Amy died of apoplexy (a term commonly used for stroke), in 1928.
Amy Dollis’ marker, the one I spotted in Marshall, is not in the database being created by the curator of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at this time, so I was thrilled to be able to share the find with them.
When you’re in Little Rock, visit the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center museum at 501 West Ninth Street downtown.
When I found this amazing (and immense) Woodmen of the World grave marker in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, I had no idea that the person who rests here had important ties to Galveston.
Alexander Sessums (born in 1830 ) came to Texas and married Mary Howell Runnels (born 1835 in Houston) in 1854.
He became an important cotton and wool factor in Galveston, eventually also purchasing the wholesale grocery supply on the Strand from Ware & McKeen. Sessums also ran a mill in Houston.
Sessums’ office was upstairs in the John Berlocher Building (2313 Ships Mechanic Row, across from the Tremont Hotel) which was built in 1858. At the time, the Berlocher was four stories, only three of which remain.
Alexander died at the young age of 43 in 1873.
His monument at Glenwood definitely signifies his success in business, towering over surrounding markers. A beautiful example of Wo
odmen of the World gravestones, the marker shared by Sessum and his wife features morning glories (symbolizing resurrection), roses (symbolizing beauty, for Mary) and acorns (symbolizing immortality for Alexander).
It’s well worth the trip to Glenwood to see this stunning sculpture in person.
CLICK HERE for a video showing the entire monument:
Having wandered through countless cemeteries in the past forty years, I can easily recognize most of the common iconography or symbolism used to decorate the markers. That makes it especially exciting to see something new (to me).
This unusual marker in Galveston’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery features two lambs resting their heads together, marking the grave of two siblings, each of whose inscriptions is featured on opposite sides of a double-sided stone.
Happily the children’s names are on the stone. So many markers of this type only identify small children as “Son of” or “dau. of” and give the parents initials or names. Their parents remain a mystery however, for the same reason.
Born June 29, 1888 and died Sept. 30, 1888.
Dearest loved one, we have laid thee
in the peaceful grave’s embrace,
but thy memory will be cherished
till we see thy heavenly face.
Almost exactly one year after their daughter’s death, a son was born to the couple. But that joy was short-lived as well.
Sept. 10, 1889 and died Dec. 26, 1889
‘Tis hard to break the tender cord
When love has bound the heart
‘Tis hard so hard, so speak the words
Must we forever part
Losing a child so close to Christmas always seems especially poignant.
There are almost two full pages of Andersons in the local directory during this time period, and unfortunately no further clues as to the identity of the parents at this time. Looking for other Andersons in the same cemetery failed to provide more leads as well due to the number of seemingly unrelated individuals with that surname.
Both of the children were just three months old. I wonder if the couple had any more children who survived, but likely will never know.
Although I occasionally run across a rare exception, lambs on gravestones denote the resting place of children and symbolize purity and innocence. This symbolic use of the lamb pre-dates Christianity, being used first by the Egyptians.
Many lamb figures on grave markers from this time period are missing their heads, or so severely eroded that they appear more like a lump than a small animal. This one is lucky, perhaps because of the strength of their necks resting against each other, to still be intact.
I wonder if there are any family members left on the island to visit this poignant remembrance.
Judy Bell Burse
Died Jan. 24, 1924
Aged 27 Years
An unassuming, concrete grave marker people might wander by, thinking surely not much of a story could lie here. They would be wrong.
The first clue that this is no regular grave is in its location: the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. This cemetery is located about a mile southeast from the Walls Prison Unit and contains over 2,000 graves of inmates who either died in Texas prisons or were executed Graves of inmates whose bodies weren’t claimed by family or friends.
The male graves far outnumber the female sites, which makes them especially intriguing.
Though her marker states her age as only 27, she was actually 34 years old (born in 1895)…still so young to die.
When she was just a teenager, Judy Bell Tally married Jessie Burse. The couple lived on a farm in Gilmer, in Upshur County, Texas and had a daughter named Estelle in 1913.
It was not a happy marriage though. Jessie had a terrible temper was abusive to Judy, even whipping her.
Judy sought consolation in another man’s arms. Her lover, George Anderson, was enraged by the whippings and stated to friends that he was going to “get his meanness on” and kill Jessie.
After spending the day at the home of Judy’s father, Will Tally, George and Judy left around midnight to walk to her home. They had no idea they were being followed.
The couple stopped in a plum thicket to make love (three times, according to court records), and afterward were sitting together talking when her husband Jessie came up the path. Judy cried “There’s someone with a gun,” and Jessie, brandishing a stick in one hand and a gun in the other, yelled “I’ve ****** got you!” He raised his gun to take aim but George shot first, killing Jessie immediately.
According to trial records, George explained, “when he done that of course, I, just like any other man would do to protect myself, I shot. She insisted on me taking the gun to kill her father a rabbit, that’s why I taken the gun.”
He and Judy Bell then picked up Jessie’s buckshot ridden body and carried it to a thicket about four hundred yards away. It was a dark night, and no one else was in the area.
The body was soon found by accident, and by April the couple was being tried for murder.
George Anderson pled not guilty, but was sentence to 99 years. Upon arrival at the Darrington Prison Unit in Huntsville he was assigned inmate number 49518.
Judy Bell Burse also pled not guilty. She was convicted on August 12, 1922 and sentenced to 40 years. She was incarcerated at the Goree Prison Unit in Huntsville, which was a women’s prison at the time. Her inmate number was #48471.
Judy was considered an ideal inmate and was soon named a trustee, being given special responsibilities in the prison. Unfortunately, she died of pancreatic cancer in January of 1929, never seeing freedom again. She must have “fibbed” about her age, as her marker lists it as being 27. She was 34.
On the other hand, George was constantly getting in trouble for his temper, imprudence and “laziness.” The harsh punishments of the day didn’t deter him, and probably fueled his rage. His second escape attempt, on June 26, 1924, was successful and he was never recaptured. The last word in his prison log is “Gone”.
I wonder if he knew or cared that Judy died five years later.
And there is no trace of what became of Judy’s daughter Estelle. She was perhaps the most poignant and certainly the most blameless victim of the crime.
There’s always so much more to the stories behind the stones than an inscription can reveal.
Having escaped from an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, Elizabeth Percival started a new life with her two step-daughters Florence and Jessie. She opened a restaurant named The English Kitchen, serving the English dishes from her childhood with a boarding house on the floors above it. In the following months she and the girls gained a loyal following of customers and friends.
In March of 1881, Elizabeth and her daughters invited their friends to join them at their restaurant, which was right on Galveston’s Mardi Gras parade route, for a night of fun and fellowship.
They had no way of knowing the night of revelry would end in tragedy.
Elizabeth’s ex-husband hid among the floats and marchers in the parade. As he passed the restaurant, he took aim and shot Elizabeth in front of all who loved her. Her step-daughters, who she had rescued from their natural father, were grief-stricken, and erected a beautiful marker over her grave.
I stopped by Trinity Episcopal Cemetery to leave beads for Elizabeth. While the island of Galveston is in the middle of Mardi Gras season, I didn’t want her to be forgotten.
I hope you’ll enjoy more of Elizabeth’s story, along with other amazing stories behind the gravestones of Galveston in my book, “Galveston’s Broadway Cemeteries,” from Arcadia Publishing. Available on Amazon.com.