The Land Of The Dead: Forgotten History At Fairview Cemetery

Forgotten History At Fairview Cemetery

Ty Bannerman
9 min read
The Land of the Dead
The boulder on which John McCormick’s body was found. (Amelia Olson)
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Life is precious but fleeting. Nowhere is that more obvious than a cemetery. There, the dead outnumber the living, and monuments are erected to the memory of those who have gone before. But it is also a place where we flatter ourselves into believing that, even though our lives will inevitably be over, some part of us will last, even if it’s just a name on a stone. “In our hearts forever” we write. “Gone but not forgotten.”

At the southern end of the Student Ghetto, the Historic Fairview Cemetery stands as a rebuttal to these conceits. Founded in 1881 and containing over 12,000 burials, the sprawling grounds are now given over to brambles and broken bottles, vandalism and the subsidence of the earth itself. Many of the graves are unmarked, and shattered headstones litter the area. Even at the graves where the headstones remain intact, the ground is often collapsing downward as coffins give way to decay. Few people come here to visit the dead; rather, most who pass through are looking for a quiet place to sleep, drink or shoot up.

Susan Schwartz is one of the few who come to remember. “Everybody that formed our town is basically buried here,” she told me on a late spring morning as she and I walked among the graves. Schwartz has worked with the Daniels Family Funeral Services, the current owners of the cemetery, to catalog the burial records and has arranged for volunteers to periodically help clean up the land.

She tells me that she first became interested in the preservation of cemeteries after a woman in Michigan helped her find her great-grandmother’s grave. “The lady there was really helpful,” she says. “So when I came back, I was working on tombstone transcription [at Fairview] for a while, a friend and I, Linda Hobart. And we couldn’t find people’s graves that we wanted to find. And so we went into the office, and they said ‘well our records aren’t really good because you know they’re old,’ and I said ‘well my kids are leaving home, can I help?’ And I never left.”

After several years of working at Fairview, Susan became one of the few authorities on this ruined, historic cemetery. As we walk through the lot, she tells me stories of those who are buried here, and together we remember the dead.

The Pereas

Near the center of the grounds, we stop by a sandy red column, five feet tall and carved on all four sides with the kind of impeccable flowing script common to the late 19th century. “This is the first documented burial [here],” says Susan. “The Perea family. As you go around [the four sides] you’ll see that it’s showing different children.” The earliest dates belong to a baby girl named Mary Josefine Perea, who lived four months and died in February 1881. The oldest child is a 9-year-old boy named Mosheim. He died in 1889. Susan tells me there is some discrepancy between the dates listed on the headstone and the interment records, which list Mosheim as the first burial. “Occasionally, the headstone engravers do make mistakes. I am assuming my records are correct.”

There are many Pereas in Fairview. They were an influential family in early Albuquerque, and New Mexico overall. José Perea, buried nearby, was the father of the children listed on the red stone, and the first Presbyterian minister born in New Mexico. Their uncle, Francisco Perea, interred in the Jewish section of Fairview (some of Perea’s descendants speculate that the family had a crypto-Jewish background), defended Albuquerque from the Texan volunteers during the Civil War, served as a delegate to Congress and was in the audience at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot.

The Rock

“This is a good one,” Schwartz tells me as we near a granite boulder rising incongruously from among the headstones. “This is part of the Simms family plot. Albert Simms was in Congress and this,” she says, pointing to one of three inscribed slabs “is his second wife.” The boulder, she says, is a token from a tragedy that gripped Albuquerque for eight days in 1938.

Ruth McCormick, the woman whose body lies beneath the center grave, was a congresswoman and suffragette from Illinois. Her first husband killed himself following a failed bid for senator; afterwards she met and married Albert Simms, a US Representative from New Mexico (and the body to her left). She soon moved to Albuquerque to live on Simms’ estate, and her son from the previous marriage, John McCormick, came with her.

John, who was 21 in 1938, was enchanted by the mountains in New Mexico, and spent many weekends traveling and climbing. In June of that year, he and his 20-year-old friend Richard Whitner made plans to scale the Shield, the stark pinnacle at the northern end of Sandia. They left Simms’ estate in the North Valley in an old Ford sedan and were never seen alive again.

When the boys did not return the next day, Ruth McCormick and Albert Simms called for a search. Under the personal direction of Governor Clyde Tingley himself, dozens of police, forest service agents and trackers from nearby Isleta Pueblo began to comb the hills of Sandia. Airplanes flew overhead searching for some sign of the boys. Numerous photographs show Ruth McCormick in a white dress scanning the mountains with a pair of binoculars, hoping for some clue to their whereabouts. Soon, their car was discovered locked at the entrance to a canyon.

The search was front page news in the city, and each development was breathlessly reported. When Whitner’s body was discovered broken at the foot of the pinnacle, hope faded for finding McCormick alive. And indeed, at the end of the eight-day search, his crumpled form was discovered on a ledge halfway down the cliff. It seemed that as the boys had clambered up the rocks, a sudden lightning storm caught them unaware.

“Lightning hit him and his friend,” Susan tells me. “He fell off and landed on that stone, dead.” He was buried in Fairview, and to memorialize the tragedy, Susan says, Ruth had the stone he died on brought down from Sandia and placed above his head.

The Mask

Toward the east end of Fairview, small rectangular cinder blocks mark the graves of the impoverished. Some are sunken into the ground or toppled over; the effect is something like broken teeth.

As I pick my way through the weeds and try to avoid stepping into holes, Susan is scanning the ground carefully. “Here it is!” she announces. She is standing before one of the blocks. From where I am, it looks exactly the same as any other, but as I walk over, I catch a flash of color from the ground. In front of the marker, partially buried in the sandy earth, there is a white ceramic mask and a colorful tableau depicting a young, auburn-haired woman kneeling with her arm around a dog in a mountainous pine forest.

“A woman, Elizabeth Bauer-Barker, made this for her mother,” Susan says as I bend over the plaque. “She hadn’t seen her since she was four. Her mom was a product of the ’60s and ’70s and got involved with drugs, had a baby and couldn’t take care of her child. The grandma took over, and the daughter didn’t see her again.”

The mother, Deborah Ernice Bauer-Fout, drifted to Albuquerque, and by 1985 she had fallen into a lifestyle of hard drugs and transience. After splitting with a boyfriend, she left his house with nothing but her dog and a few belongings in her car. A kindhearted woman offered to let her stay the night at her home because she had no place else to go. The next morning Deborah was dead of an overdose.

Years later, her daughter came to New Mexico searching for her mother’s grave. She enlisted Susan’s help, and together they found it in the indigent section of Fairview. “She made that mask for her. And she made this [plaque]. Her mom liked mountains, so she did everything that would depict her mom. Beautiful girl, 32 when she passed away, drug overdose. I cried when I read the story she sent to me about it,” Susan says.

Too Many to Tell

These are only three of the thousands of stories that cry out from Fairview’s broken graves; too many for any one person to ever tell. Black Buffalo Soldiers who served in the West; children from the nearby Indian school interred in unmarked graves. Hundreds of Easterners who came out to the “Health Country” in the hope of a cure for their tuberculosis, but who died of it nonetheless in a land far from their homes. Several New Mexico governors. The first Albuquerque policeman to be killed in the line of duty, shot down by thieves in 1886. Life upon life. Story upon story.

But like so many who are buried here, Fairview itself is a forgotten place. It has been neglected for decades; vandals and the ravages of time have had free reign. It is not unusual for a visitor to come across syringes and condoms.

But people like Susan Schwartz are trying to change that. In addition to her efforts to organize cleanup and to maintain the history of the space, Schwartz’ work has recently borne fruit that promises a more permanent sort of stewardship. In June of this year, the Historic Fairview Cemetery received official nonprofit status. Although the organization is in its nascent stages, Susan Schwartz sits on the board. If her fellow members are as passionate as she is, the dead of Fairview will continue to be remembered for a little longer, at least.
The Land of the Dead

A memento left on Deborah Ernice Bauer-Fout’s grave by her daughter.

Ty Bannerman

The Land of the Dead

Francisco Perea defended Albuquerque during the Civil War and fought in the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

The Land of the Dead

Suffragette and Congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick founded Sandia Prep and Manzano Day School.

The Land of the Dead

Fairview, Albuquerque’s oldest public cemetery, has suffered from years of neglect.

Eric Williams

The Land of the Dead

This monument marks the site of Fairview’s earliest recorded burials.

Eric Williams

The Land of the Dead

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