By Mary Hooper
If it weren’t for Ray Wetzel, Robert McCanse, said to be the first settler in what is now Kinsley, in Edwards County, would be lying in an unmarked grave.
So would baby Charles Woods.
Wetzel may have found the burial site of former slave Taylor Caldwell.
Then again, it may have been someone else.
It’s hard to say, for Caldwell is buried in a potter’s field.
Wetzel is sexton, or caretaker, of the Northern Edwards County District Cemeteries which takes in five of the 14 graveyards in Edwards County -- Hillside, First Kinsley, St. Nicholas, Salem and Peace Lutheran.
Shortly after he became sexton in 1996, Wetzel discovered an unusual gift.
He is a grave dowser.
Wielding two copper rods, Wetzel witches cemeteries under his care for unmarked graves, and when he can match a name to a site, he makes a marker for it.
So far, he’s dowsed more than 150 anonymous gravesites in Hillside Cemetery, the county’s largest with 4,000 graves, and believes there may be 200 more graves of the unknown. He’s also found graves in his other cemeteries, including those of two horse thieves in Salem.
Wetzel says he doesn’t know why he has this strange ability, but he’s glad to put it to use in identifying forgotten graves and giving names to those who lie in them.
Holding his rods at chest level, he paces slowly among the graves, the rods standing away from him perpendicularly. But when he walks over a grave, the rods fly apart. Even weirder, the rods seem to indicate where the head and feet of the deceased are situated. Demonstrating on a gravesite marked with a headstone, Wetzel walks the length of the site. At the marker end, the rods suddenly come together and turn to point away from the head, towards the feet. When he walks to the end of the site, the rods meet and swing in the opposite direction, towards the head.
The rods, which are about two feet long, are bent at 90-degree angles like Ls. The short ends fit loosely in pieces of copper tubing. The short pieces of tubing are what Wetzel holds, rather than the rods themselves.
“I don’t know why I can witch graves. It might involve some kind of magnetism in the body, that’s the only thing I can think of. And it only works for graves that’re more than ten years old.”
Everybody who sees Wetzel in action wants to give it a try. I was no exception.
“Sure, go ahead.” He handed me the rods.
I walked over a gravesite and the rods remained perpendicular to my chest. However, when I stepped off the site, they separated.
Gee, maybe I can identify where graves aren’t.
Wetzel chuckled. Sometimes people get a wiggle or two out of the rods, he said, but he’s never come across anybody else for whom the rods behave as they do for him.
Wetzel says he came across his skill by accident. Years ago, the head of the cemetery board mentioned that he could dowse water and suggested that Wetzel might try his hand at locating water lines in the cemeteries.
“I started messin’ around with the rods, and I could not find water, but I found out that the rods worked when I walked over graves. These were graves that had markers. I wondered if I could locate unmarked graves. I decided to try.”
Wetzel spends a lot of time at the public library reading old newspapers and researching the records of local funeral homes in his quest to document the anonymous dead of Edwards County. His task is made the harder because cemetery records, going back to 1883, went up in flames when a drug store in Kinsley caught fire in 1929 and burned to the ground. The old Kinsley Cemetery Assn. had an office on the second floor of the building.
“After everything burned, the only thing we had are the old maps of lots for Hillside and First. They were at the courthouse,” he said.
The maps are of limited use, though. When a person bought a cemetery lot, he was given a deed, but many lot owners neglected to record their deeds. So the sites of many unmarked graves are unknown.
Wetzel recently was getting ready to set 20 markers. One was for an infant, Charles Woods, who died in 1893. He found Charles’s name in a newspaper obit but his name was not in Wetzel’s looseleaf binder of names of the deceased and their grave locations.
Infant mortality was high in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Lot of infant graves here from those days. Today it’s very seldom that we get an infant burial.”
Unfortunately for the Woods family, two other babies had died. Their graves were marked. Wetzel used the cemetery map to locate the family plot and the dowsing rods to pinpoint the site of Charles’s grave.
He demonstrated by walking through the Woods’ plot. All of a sudden, the copper rods flew apart.
“It’s right here,” he said.
Half a step to the right, and the rods joined and pointed left. He stepped left, and they met and pointed right, indicating the perimeters.
“Just a step. It’s very short, a tiny grave,” Wetzel said.
When he can match a name to an unmarked grave, Wetzel makes a concrete marker with cement and metal plates donated by the Ark Valley Wilbert Vault Company of Kinsley. He places the ready-made letters into the metal plate, adorned with a cross, along with the deceased’s dates of births and death, if he knows them. Usually, he knows at least the year of death.
The hardest grave to find – in more ways than one – was that of the Watkins children, an 8-year-old boy and his sisters, 6 and 2, who were burned to death by their father in 1930. According to newspaper reports, Watkins was a layabout whose wife supported the family. One day she threatened to send the children to her mother’s. While she was at work, Watkins, according to reports, poured five gallons of gasoline on his children and set them afire. He too died in the blaze. The children’s charred remains were laid in a common coffin.
Wetzel waited for a windless day. After much searching, his rods registered bodies below. At one end of the site, the rods swung right and left, indicating a body below. That, he presumed, was the 8-year-old. At the other end, the rods indicated that the little girls were interred side by side.
“A slight variation in the rods told me where the bodies were,” he said.
Wetzel would rather talk about how he does this, than why.
“I’m interested. I’m interested in what some of these people did,” he says.
It’s obviously important enough for Wetzel to put so much time and effort into it.
He would like to honor Taylor Caldwell, a freed slave who made his way to Edwards County and lived to be 116. But Caldwell was buried in the potter’s field section of Hillside. The rods located several graves in potter’s field but Wetzel has no way of knowing who was who.
He’d like to honor the wagon train wayfarers who lie beneath a section of the Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail that runs along the north end of the cemetery. He’s dowsed it and found four buried bodies but has no idea who they were.
A large number – 150 – of anonymous graves lie in the First Kinsley Cemetery, about a half mile east of Hillside. Many of those buried there were children, and many died of smallpox or typhoid fever. Local lore has it that most of the graves were moved to Hillside, but Wetzel says only about two dozen were disinterred and reburied.
“They say that smallpox remains dormant for years. That’s why those graves were never moved. You dig down and release the virus.”
He says he has no idea why so few of the graves in First Cemetery have markers. There are no records of First Cemetery.
In his years as sexton, Wetzel has amassed a trove of stories and graveyard lore. He points out the grave of Lewis Grove, a Confederate POW at Fort McHenry who moved to Kinsley after the war. A man named Gottlieb Lippoldt is buried in Hillside. He knew Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. The story is that Lippoldt and a bunch of farmers hired Lincoln, then a fledgling lawyer, to represent them in a dispute with a railroad. Good guy Abe wouldn’t accept a fee from them, Wetzel says.
There are the graves of two veterans of the Union Army’s Colored Infantry, John Gaines and Albert Winchester, after whom Winchester Avenue in Kinsley is named.
Victorian funerary art is everywhere in Hillside. The Victorians evidently spent a lot of time thinking about death.
“They had whole catalogues of this stuff,” said Wetzel.
One gravestone is elaborately carved with pillars and other adornments, but only on one side. The other side is rough and unfinished, to indicate a life cut short. There are several of those in Hillside.
One might hope that Wetzel has plenty of ghost stories. But he’s never seen or experienced anything spooky, even when he’s in the cemetery at night. Not even when an owl hoots mournfully … and a chill prairie wind springs up … and clouds drift across a full moon …
Nope. No ghosts.
That’s okay. Wetzel’s stories about real people are enough.
The aforementioned Robert McCanse, for instance, and his almost gunfight with Bat Masterson.
McCanse was sheriff of Edwards County back in the day. One time he and two deputies chased two suspected thieves all the way to Dodge City. They had telegraphed ahead to Sheriff Masterson to be on the lookout. A deputy spotted McCanse and his men ride into town and for some reason took them as the bad guys. A confrontation ensued at the livery stable.
“McCanse was hot-headed Scotch-Irish,” said Wetzel. “Masterson told them to throw their weapons down, but McCanse wouldn’t surrender his. He was about to have it out with Masterson when another one of Masterson’s deputies recognized him as the sheriff of Edwards County.”
A gunfight was averted.
Otherwise, McCanse might’ve gone to his unmarked grave sooner than he did.