Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Sometimes a tip’s so good, the editor keeps the story

A headstone for Harman Hanson sits in a corner of Tacoma’s pauper’s cemetery. He was interred in 1891.
A headstone for Harman Hanson sits in a corner of Tacoma’s pauper’s cemetery. He was interred in 1891. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

The editor of the paper receives story tips by the dozens. They come daily by phone and by email from readers, community leaders and local businesses.

Generally, I acknowledge the tips, then forward them to editors and reporters in the newsroom who I think might be interested.

Two months ago, however, I got a story tip that was just too juicy to pass along — at least for a person with my interests.

For the past several weeks I have worked the story on a back burner among my other duties. The result is the piece on today’s front page about Tacoma’s little-known and long-forgotten pauper’s cemetery.

It started with an email in June from Stan Mowre, a retired Tacoma police officer who lives in Arizona. Mowre had been sharing stories with another cop buddy about their family histories.

“During these discussions, he told me he had family buried in Old Tacoma Cemetery,” Mowre wrote, “and up in one corner I would find a very neglected part of the cemetery — a shameful part, known as a paupers’ cemetery.

“In this day and age, it seemed absurd to both of us that this could even be.”

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On his annual trip home this year, Mowre decided to look for it. His 32-year-old son, a history nut like his dad who still lives in Tacoma, went with him. Together, they found the cemetery.

“Being a retired TPD Sergeant, I hopped the fence with less intimidation probably than most people,” Mowre wrote. “It was surreal, over-grown, with all the foliage dead and mowed down except blackberry bushes. There was very old barbed wire and cyclone fencing.”

Mowre’s email shared his theories about who owned the cemetery and his dismay that it no longer was maintained. He’d researched enough to believe several hundred people were buried there and that Tacoma Cemetery had the names. He told me how to find the place, and shared the name of a guy he heard was the local expert.

“The story itself might be fascinating for a Sunday human interest feature,” he suggested.

I agreed and wasted no time claiming the story as my own.

Sometimes it’s good to be the editor.

I’ve been picking away at my own family history for 30 years. I’m a frequent flier on Ancestry.com. I bore my friends with each ancestral discovery. And I love walking cemeteries in search of any detail that a gravestone can add to my family narrative.

The genealogy aspect of this story captivated me. And so did the thrill of investigating a good mystery.

The first step was to see the cemetery for myself.

I drove out on a Friday morning to the South Tacoma address Mowre gave me. To the right was Old Tacoma Cemetery, and to the left was a small field fenced all the way around. No sign of a pauper cemetery.

I went down the hill to the Tacoma Mausoleum. The nice woman there sent me to the office of Oakwood Hill cemetery next door.

People are buried 'two, three deep' at Tacoma's pauper cemetery, says funeral director

Bill Habermann, funeral director at Piper-Morley with Oakwood Hill, talks about the history of the pauper’s cemetery in Tacoma and how things were done back in the Victorian age.

David Montesino dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

The receptionist there responded with, “Sure, it’s right back behind us. Just be careful climbing through the fence.”

Taking that as tacit permission to enter, I squeezed between two wood slats, tripped over some blackberry vines and promptly fell down. When I looked up, I saw the gravestones, but just a few. It seemed odd that only a dozen or so people could be buried there, but clearly it was a cemetery.

I walked the entire square, taking pictures and shooting video, stopping to see every stone. That would give me details about people buried there I could investigate later.

I paused for a bit just to soak in the place. Birds were singing in the oak trees. It was quiet and peaceful, situated in an older working-class neighborhood — the kind of place I wouldn’t mind as my final resting place.

I came back to the newsroom obsessed. Before long, everyone knew about my little cemetery project.

Then the research began. What was the history and who was buried there? Who owned it and why wasn’t it maintained like the two adjacent cemeteries?

Bill Baarsma and Michael Sullivan, our usual sources on Tacoma history, could offer few details, which made me even more interested.

“Frankly, I don’t know much about it other than seeing mention of it as a resting place in the crime stories I tend to dig into,” Sullivan said.

First, I found Bill Habermann, the man Mowre had heard about. To my good fortune, Habermann’s investigation into the pauper cemetery started years before mine, and he was excited to share what he’d found. This project had become his hobby, something I completely understood.

We spoke the same genealogy language and shared the thrill of the historical hunt.

We spent a morning together at Piper-Morley Funeral Home, turning the pages of his 100-year-old ledgers, the only known record of who is buried at “county.” The first astonishing fact was that 1,600 people — and maybe hundreds more — are buried in the 2-acre cemetery. The wooden stakes that marked most of their graves are long gone.

Habermann directed me to findagrave.com, a website I’ve used to find my own ancestors, where he has entered the information collected so far.

My next stop was the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room. Microfilmed newspaper stories filled in the blanks about when the county opened the cemetery and why the city closed it. Famed local photographer Marvin Boland had even documented it in 1924 with a picture that now resides in the library archive.

County property records confirmed that Tacoma Cemetery now owns the pauper cemetery. Managers there explained why they keep it closed to the public and fairly “wild.”

Lastly, we set up a photo shoot with Habermann at the cemetery. Photo editor David Montesino, who helped me piece together a video for the story, would take the pictures himself.

He wanted to shoot at first light, and asked if I had permission to trespass into the cemetery. He didn’t think it would look good for the editor of the paper to be arrested if a neighbor called the cops. I assured him we’d be fine if we were there with Bill.

Habermann happily agreed. He suggested we meet and climb over the wire fence at the top of the cemetery.

Montesino, sure we were risking injury to the 79-year-old funeral director, came the next morning equipped with a stool. Not surprisingly, Habermann already knew of a weak spot where he could push down the fence and step over.

I arrived to look down the hill and see Habermann lovingly wiping the moss off a gravestone and Montesino lying on his belly in the grass taking pictures.

Nobody called the cops.

It’s not often I have a chance to report and write a story of my own. This one was special. I’m glad I took the time to do it.

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