If it weren't for the small metal sign on the gate that says “Bangs Cemetery,” you'd miss that the green lawn on Johnstown Road is anything other than a yard.
That is, until you looked closely at it and noticed the regular slight depressions in the ground, or dug into the turf and discovered, in places, field stones at the head of the depressions. If you search carefully, you can find small metal plaques sunken into the grass at the heads of some of the depressions, engraved with names and incomplete dates.
Harry May. John Dusenberry. Ellen Shively. Jesse Walters. William Prentice. Gus Thomas. Little Flower Grun. The list goes on.
You've found Knox County's potters field. A potters field is a place set aside for the burial of indigent people who have no funds themselves, nor do their families, to pay for a traditional interment. It is a sad place of forgotten stories.
In 2010, Janet Wacker, Robia Kaylor, the late great Kimberly Orsborn, and I explored the cemetery when we stopped to look at the old Knox County Home, which was adjacent to the cemetery. We spent as much time as we could tolerate in the hot sun that afternoon, peeling back grass to reveal the metal plaques, speaking the names we found as a tribute to the forgotten people buried there.
At the time, I assumed all the people there had been tenants of the Knox County Home, which burned down five years later. But some of the dates didn't match up with the history of the county home, which moved into Mount Vernon in 1955. The huge four-story building, originally built from 1875 to 1877, later become the home of the Mount Vernon Bible College from 1957 to 1988, but that offered no answers.
Why were there burials here after 1955? Surely the final exams at the school weren't that difficult!
It is because this cemetery wasn't just for the county home. Anyone who died without the ability to fend for themselves financially could be buried here, including patients at the Mount Vernon State Hospital, the Knox County Hospital, and the Avalon Sanitarium. An exploration of the death certificates of a few of the interred shows a variety of paths.
William Prentice was a black man born in Alabama in 1906. He appears to have lost his parents young, because at age 12, he is listed in the 1920 census as living with his uncle's family in Birmingham. As an adult, William moved north looking for work and can be found on the 1930 census living at a boarding house in the Buffalo District in Brooke County, West Virginia, and working as a coal miner.
By 1937, William was a patient at the Avalon Sanitarium on Avalon Road in Mount Vernon, being treated for pulmonary tuberculosis. On July 29, at 10:30 p.m, William died. He was only 31 years old. Dr. John Baube filled out Prentice's death certificate, and the body was sent to the Shaw Funeral Home for preparation.
Ellen Shively had a longer life than William Prentice, though she eventually ended up beside him in the Bangs Cemetery. According to her death certificate, she was born in Kansas in 1904 and lived in Akron, Ohio. But census reports turn up no such person. The closest match is a woman by this name born in Kentucky who was, according to the 1940 US census, an “inmate” at the Massillon State Hospital, and had been for more than five years.
The death certificate, filled out by Dr. Virginia Edwards, indicates that Ellen had just come to the Mount Vernon State Hospital five days before her death. It is possible that she was transferred from the Massillon State Hospital to the Mount Vernon State Hospital facility on Vernonview Road.
This would suggest that she was a mental patient, for by this period, according to Fred Lorey's History of Knox County, Ohio, 1876-1976, the old tuberculosis sanitarium had been converted to a facility for the tubercular insane in 1945. Oddly, though, her death certificate says nothing about tuberculosis, identifying her cause of death as uterine cancer that had metastasized to her liver.
According to the cemetery-cataloging website FindAGrave.com, the Bangs Cemetery once had stone markers, but they were replaced with the metal plaques in 1999.
Whoever engraved the plaque for Harry May's grave went to the trouble of putting a decorative scroll under his name. Harry was a Knox County home resident who died there in 1943 of liver cancer. Sadly, the widower was joining his son David, who had died at the facility in 1937 due to congestive heart failure brought on by kidney failure.
David was only 36.
Farm laborer Gus Thomas had no family in the area when he died at the Knox County Hospital in 1966 from a stroke. The Illinois-born man was 87 years old, and became one of the later documented burials in the potters field.
Most mysterious of all is the plaque inscribed to “Little Flower Grun,” with a date of March 10 listed, without a year. The 1991 Knox County Genealogical Society's publication of burials in this cemetery — identified as being based on township records which may no longer exist — identifies the grave as “Florence Grun,” and the year of death as 1938, though no such person shows up on any genealogical records for the period.
Who was Little Flower Grun? A stillbirth? Even if Little Flower was a stillbirth, she should still appear in state records, though no death record exists for a Florence or Flora Grun in 1938. We may never know her story.
The thing which eventually occurs to the observer of the Bangs Cemetery is that all the identifiable graves are from the 1930s onward. The adjacent county home dates from 1877, and before it, the less euphemistically named Knox County Poor House stood on the same site since 1842.
Where are the remains of the other deaths that must have occurred in the century before the markers were placed?
The answer is that, almost certainly, they are still there. In a potters field, the practice was to dig the graves very deep, so that as the years passed, each plot could be reopened for new tenants. For a small cemetery serving a large county need for well over 100 years, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the bodies are stacked in layers at the Bangs Cemetery.
Layers of forgotten stories.