Long-buried city founders lie buried in the heart of downtown Phoenix, and their history returns to life twice each year with character-driven cemetery walks. Thanks to the non-profit Pioneers’ Cemetery Association (PCA) and a handful of enthusiastic volunteers organized by author and Association board member Debe Branning, these events visit the denizens of the Pioneer and Military Memorial Park cemeteries near 14th Avenue and Jefferson Street.
Attendees of all ages meet historical figures depicted by actors in costume — on March 23, for instance, the theme was early Phoenix physicians, with actor Mark Broadley taking on the role of 19th-century state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Helm. “Debe knows the history of the cemetery backwards and forwards,” he says. “She’ll do the research on some of the most interesting people buried there…and then [Branning] writes a short monologue for usually eight people and recruits the re-enactors.”
Broadley, who’s been involved with the cemetery walks for six years, continues. “Once she sends us our biographies we’re basically turned loose to do our own research on the character, prowl around local thrift stores for costumes, and decide what props, if any, our character might have used.” He adds, “Most of my preparation involves studying the script so that I’m comfortable enough to give the speech a number of times for each tour group that comes through.”
To recreate those characters, Debe Branning says, “I read hundreds of obituaries and old newspapers, and actually dive into their ancestry a bit so that I can get a feel of what these pioneers were made of and what their family life was like.”
This year’s spring walk also called on a few of the physicians’ wives with their own unique accounts of early Phoenix life, and it was followed by an informal ice cream social. October’s walk coincides with an outdoor dinner party fundraiser at the Memorial Park called Dining Among the Dead, and all proceeds go toward tombstone restoration. Other opportunities to visit the Park occur every Thursday as well as the fourth Saturday of each month.
Branning strives to reconnect the community with the cemetery and remind Valley residents about the forgotten early Phoenix pioneers buried in the Park. “They come from many backgrounds and professions,” she says, “and some met strange untimely deaths.” With the help of a cadre of volunteers, Branning organizes outreach and paranormal research events in the hopes of reviving interest in Arizona’s burial sites and engaging newly-interested participants.
Around 2007, recalls Broadley, “Borders Bookstore hosted a group called MVD Ghostchasers (made up of past and present employees of Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division) that lectured about their investigations of haunted places around Arizona.” He continues, “Having always been interested in ghost stories and things that go bump in the night, I went to the lecture and met the group’s founder (Branning) after the event.”
The practice of dowsing also plays an interesting role for many of the cemetery volunteers — it’s a method of divining answers and locating objects (including unmarked graves and water) using a hand-held wand or pendulum. “Dowsing of cemeteries has been used back east and in other countries for centuries,” says Branning, who was taught by a dowser from Missouri and teaches a class on the subject herself. “You can map out a cemetery, determine the rows, and have a rough idea of how many are buried at a site.”
The history of the Pioneers’ Cemetery Association itself began in 1938, when a group including Carl and Thomas Hayden and Barry Goldwater banded together to preserve the historic cemeteries near the State Capitol building. Used between 1884 and 1914, those seven small cemeteries on 11 acres include several established by Phoenix’s fraternal orders, including Ancient Order of United Workmen, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and Masons.
It’s reported that Civil War veterans are buried in Porter cemetery, which abuts Rosedale (also called Loring or Walker Cemetery), while Loosley, the city cemetery, houses Jacob Waltz, the “Lost Dutchman” of gold-mining fame. More ancient secrets lie buried beneath those estimated 3700 pioneer graves in the remains of a Hohokam village known as La Villa.
Together with the historic 3000-square-foot Smurthwaite House, built in 1897 and serving as the PCA’s headquarters, the cemeteries were designated as the Pioneer and Military Memorial Park in 1988, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, allowing Arizonans to not only remember the often unsung heroes who helped create Phoenix, but also care for their monuments and burial sites, preserving a bit of history.
If you go:
What: Visit the Pioneer & Military Memorial Park and Smurthwaite House any Thursday (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org first to get in touch with volunteers), or bring the family and stroll through time on the fourth Saturday of each month through May (Apr. 27, May 25)…and don’t forget to plan for the Dining Among the Dead fundraiser in October.
Where: 14th Ave. and Jefferson St., downtown Phoenix
Contact: 602-534-1262 www.azhistcemeteries.org
Additional Info: Another local organization, the Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project, was founded in 2004 and focuses on dowsing to locate graves as well as marking and protecting burial sites.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy Debe Branning.
Marshall Shore steeps himself in the history of Phoenix that others might overlook: the cultural anomalies, the fads, the dreamers, the artists and the eccentrics that provide a unique window into our city’s past. One such character was the infamous Phoenix trunk murderer, Winnie Ruth Judd.
Back in 1931, the nation was rocked by the grisly details of this gruesome crime. On October 16, 1931, Winnie purportedly killed her two roommates, cut up one of the bodies, stuffed both bodies into trunks, and took them by train to Los Angeles.
It was a big job for a small woman, and the twisted tale of adultery, jealousy and murder was complicated by rumors, speculation and uncertainty. Bits and pieces of the story continue to come to light, even to this day.
“As I talk with people in my research, the most interesting things come to light.” said Marshall. “Just recently, my phone rang and someone began telling me about how Winnie Ruth Judd’s victim was cut up in the basement of her house.” Yikes!
This Sunday, October 16, is 80 years to the day since the crime was committed, and in true Marshall Shore style, he’s hosting a bus tour to commemorate the date. The tour runs from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and begins and ends at the historic MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain coffee shop on 7th Street.
The bus will travel along the old Brill trolley line, which will give tour-goers an idea of the shape and size of Phoenix back in Winnie’s day. Other stops will include the houses where she lived and where she met Jack Holleran, a well-known Phoenix businessman with whom she had an adulterous affair; the Grunow Clinic (still a medical clinic!) where she worked; the house where the murders took place; the train station where she attempted to board with the oozing trunks; and the old Maricopa County Courthouse where the trial took place.
Marshall promises a few surprise stops along the way and tour participants will be among the first to hear about details in the story that have recently come to light. The tour will cover more information than found in any book, and Marshall will reveal a little known connection to the story that explains why MacApline’s was chosen as the meeting place.
Celebrate Halloween early with this eerie trip down murder’s memory lane.
If you go
What: Winnie Ruth Judd/ Trunk Murder Tour
When: Sunday, October 16
Time: 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Where: Tour begins and ends at MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain
Tickets: Available here