Hiker discovers lost headstone of English prostitute who committed public suicide in California in 1898

Hiker discovers lost headstone of English prostitute who committed public suicide in California in 1898

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The discovery of a 114 year-old headstone has reawakened the story of Marie Holmes, a 21 year-old English girl who fell into prostitution in Santa Cruz, California, and committed suicide in a main street by drinking carbolic acid.



Local historian Phil Reader researched her story in the 1990s.  He found that Marie Holmes had emigrated from England to America and originally settled on the east coast, but after a brief spell began drifting across the country.  She spoke vaguely of having left behind a daughter somewhere on her travels.  In autumn 1897 she arrived as a 20 year-old in Santa Cruz, California, and began working in a brothel on Pacific Avenue.

She was reportedly a reclusive person and only revealed details of her background during ‘periods of melancholy’.  Occasionally, she would receive letters from somewhere in the mid-west which would trigger feelings of despair about her circumstances, further aggravated by her suffering from tuberculosis.

Marie befriended one of the girls from the brothel, Gladys Mills, and one morning in May 1898 they went to the beach together.  As they talked, Marie was again in tears about the state her life was in and how she was missing her daughter.  She even confided that ‘Marie Holmes’ was not her real name.  When she spoke of suicide, Gladys talked her round and persuaded her to go back to her room.

When Marie returned, she burned all of her letters in a basin in her room.  She then went out and ambled around town.  After a while, she stopped in front of a house on North Pacific Avenue, took out a bottle of carbolic acid from her handbag, and drank it.  She reached as far as a saloon on Pacific Avenue before she collapsed.  All attempts to revive her failed, and she died 15 minutes later.

After the coroner’s inquest, her body lay unclaimed for 2 days before the brothel keeper paid for her funeral.  A reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time wrote mawkishly of the event, in a piece titled “The Wages of Sin”:

“Perhaps in old England a mother awaits in vain the coming of an errant daughter.  Perhaps somewhere a small child lisps the word ‘Mama’ while watching for her who sleeps cold in death.  Never more shall mother and daughter gaze upon their loved one…

Services were held Saturday noon in Wessendorf & Staffler’s undertaking parlor. Besides her former companions there were present a few kind-hearted women, who assisted in the services.  But none were there who knew anything of the girl’s early life.  Truly, the last rites were performed by strangers, to whom even her real name was unknown.  Many beautiful floral pieces were on the casket, mute tributes of sympathy from her companions, down whose cheeks tears coursed as they listened to the words of the Rev. E. H. Hayden from the BaptistChurch.  Perhaps it had been years since most of them had heard words from the lips of a minister.  A choir sang appropriate selections which touched the hearts of the women whom Marie Holmes knew…

The remains were interred in the Evergreen Cemetery, there to rest, while mother and child watch in vain for her coming until their short pilgrimage in this life is also at an end.”

Marie Holmes’ grave in the Evergreen Cemetery is marked by a small marble tablet with the epitaph “Marie Holmes 1877-1898,” and a more recent commemorative plaque, titled “Lady of the Night,” paid for by the Santa Cruz Museum.  A marble headstone, said to have been paid for by the prostitutes of Santa Cruz, was assumed to have been completely destroyed by vandals over the years.

That is, until this year, when a homeless hiker – who was aware of Marie Holmes’ story – reported to Museum staff that he had seen the headstone, moss-covered and almost totally obscured, in Davenport, around 12 miles up the coast from Santa Cruz.  The hiker, who goes by the name River Wolf, led the staff to the headstone, which was taken to the museum for safe-keeping until it can be returned to its rightful place.

Marie Holmes’ sad story doesn’t quite end there.  In his original research, Phil Reader found 3 letters in the archives of the University of Wyoming.  They were written by the wife of a successful dentist in Denver, Colorado, and postmarked Santa Cruz, California, 1927.  They are addressed to, “My Dear Grandmother,” and extracts read:

“Today I found were Mama died.  It was here in Santa Cruz…and she must have been so unhappy, for the newspaper said that she died by her own hand…  Oh, God…it was so horrible…while here she was called Marie Holmes…they buried her at the Evergreen cemetery and it is such a lovely place, tucked into the bottom of a small mountain…and so it is over for us, Grandmother, it is finally over…”

Marie Holmes' grave, minus headstone

Sources:  Santa Cruz Sentinel and Santa Cruz Public Libraries

Images:  Joe Dallman – Cemetery Explorers

Post image – ‘Victorian Prostitute’ – by ninidu

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