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Stranger Than Fiction

July 2024 

Grave Injustices
by Dean Jobb

Los Angeles millionaire Griffith Jenkins Griffith about 1900, shortly before he stood trial for the attempted murder of his wife. (Public Domain/Wikipedia).

In a windswept cemetery in the northern Illinois village of Garden Prairie, Daniel Stott’s gravesite stands out. The local railroad stationmaster was sixty-one and suffered from epilepsy when he died in 1881, but his weathered headstone cries cold-blooded murder. Stott was “Poisoned,” the inscription declares, “by his wife & Dr. Cream.”

He was the sixth victim of Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian doctor-turned-serial-killer who murdered at least nine other people in Canada, the U.S., and Britain between 1877 and 1892. Cream, who normally preyed on sex workers and women seeking abortions, was having an affair with Stott’s wife, Julia, when he hatched a plot to kill him with poisoned medicine. Both Cream and Julia Stott were charged with murder but she was freed after she agreed to be the star witness at Cream’s trial, ensuring he was convicted. After serving ten years in prison, Cream was paroled in 1891 and moved to London, where he poisoned four women before Scotland Yard ended his murderous spree.

Macabre monuments to murder such as Stott’s are surprisingly common. The charming countryside of the British Isles is dotted with similar memorials to shocking crimes. “To Record Murder” appears atop a monument to Margaret Williams in a Welsh churchyard, which recounts how the body of the twenty-six-year-old—“with marks of violence on her person”—was found in a nearby ditch in 1822. While the unknown killer escaped “the detection of man,” the inscription warns, “the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible righteous judgement.”

A monument in Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama not only honors George Kirkley and Wafe Adams, policemen shot to death in 1900—it doubles as an indictment of their killers. The officers were “murdered,” the inscription reads, “in attempting to arrest Frank Duncan and Frank Miller the Standard Oil Co. safe blowers.” Miller was hanged and Duncan was sentenced to life in prison.

Some markers stand at the scene of the crime, like the simple roadside crosses sometimes erected today to remember the victims of traffic accidents. Near Nottingham, at the edge of a busy road, a stone records that Elizabeth Sheppard, just seventeen, “was murdered while passing this spot by Charles Rotherham” in 1817. Rotherham, who beat her to death with a stake, was hanged within three weeks of the crime. In Hindhead, about halfway between London and Portsmouth, a monument stands where an unidentified sailor was robbed and murdered in 1786. Erected “In detestation of a barbarous Murder,” it names the three men convicted and hanged for the crime.


Tina Griffith’s photograph and an illustration depicting her pleading with her husband accompanied a press report on the shooting. (San Francisco Call, November 3, 1903)

In the United States, Boot Hill Graveyard in the aptly named Arizona city of Tombstone was in use for only a few years—from 1878 to 1884—but filled quickly with the victims of Wild West violence and swift justice. Markers restored in the 1920s record the fate of many of the occupants. Tom Waters was shot to death in 1880, after fighting with a man who made fun of the black-and-blue plaid shirt he was wearing. Rodriguez Petron’s wooden slab says he was “Stabbed” in 1882 and Charles Helm and Jasper Von were “Shot” the same year. The body of a likely murder victim, identified as “Unknown,” was found at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft. For decades a small cross informed visitors that the unfortunate George Johnson was wrongly accused of being a horse thief and “hanged by mistake.”

In 1889, nine years after five members of the Donnelly family were killed by a mob of vigilantes during a feud among Irish immigrants who settled in the Canadian province of Ontario, an eleven-foot granite monument was installed at their gravesite. The name of each victim—a farmer and his wife, two of their sons, and a niece—was inscribed on the stone beside the phrase “murdered Feb. 4, 1880.” No one was ever convicted of the massacre. The headstone became a magnet for vandals and a more modest replacement, installed in 1964, makes no mention of cause of death. A replica of the original memorial, created for a television production about one of Canada’s most infamous crimes, now stands in a local museum.

Tourists who visit Bermuda’s historic St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s, a centuries-old architectural gem of whitewashed stone, may be surprised to discover the tale of modern-day political crime told in the adjoining, tree-shaded cemetery. Two fenced-in, side-by-side graves with matching headstones of polished granite bear the names of the island’s governor Sir Richard Sharples and his aide-de-camp, Captain Hugh Sayers. Sharples was “assassinated” and Sayers was “murdered,” the stones note, in March 1973. They were ambushed and shot to death as they walked through the grounds of the governor’s residence. Two men, members of a militant Black Power group opposed, as one of them put it, to “the evilness and wickedness” of colonial rule—Bermuda then was, and remains, a British Overseas Territory—were convicted of the killings and hanged.

Several Alabama cemeteries have memorials that identify victims of homicides. Teenager David Gartman of Citronelle was “Murdered March 3, 1910,” his headstone reports—shot to death, it turns out, to prevent him from testifying against a man accused of killing a dog. Moses Graves, a postmaster in Crossville, was “Killed July 16, 1889,” notes his stone, neglecting to add that he was shot during a robbery. A marker for Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil-rights marcher shot by a state trooper in Marion in 1965, asserts that “He Was Killed for Man’s Freedom.” The trooper, who claimed he thought Jackson was armed and had acted in self-defense, was not prosecuted until 2010 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

A stone in a cemetery in Perth, Ontario records the outcome of one of the last fatal duels fought in Canada. Robert Lyon, a twenty-year-old law student, issued a challenge to John Wilson in June 1833, after they quarreled over disparaging remarks Lyon made about a woman who later became Wilson’s wife. When a first volley left both men unscathed, they reloaded their pistols, fired again, and Lyon was killed instantly. Wilson was acquitted of murder—juries were reluctant to hang a man who survived a fair, consensual fight—and later became a politician and judge. Lyon’s tragic end is summarized in his epitaph: “He fell in mortal combat.”


A mug shot taken when Griffith arrived at San Quentin State Prison in 1905. (California State Archives/Wikipedia).

Not everyone convicted on a headstone is guilty of murder. Hampton “Hamp” Kendall, convicted in North Carolina in 1906 of a murder he didn’t commit, served ten years in prison before the state’s governor reviewed the flimsy evidence against him and issued a pardon. Despite his exoneration, he endured another thirty-five years of being condemned in stone as a murderer.

Kendall and John Vickers shared a rooming house with Lawrence Nelson, who was shot and killed in the woods near Lenoir, a town of a few thousand. A teenage girl later recanted her testimony that the pair had paid her to lure Nelson to his death, leading to the pardon, but the wording on Nelson’s gravestone remained unchanged: “Murdered and robbed by Hamp Kendall and John Vickers, Sept. 25, 1906.”

Kendall and his supporters lobbied for decades to have the offending words removed from the stone. Their efforts paid off in 1949 when the state passed a law making it illegal for anyone to erect a gravestone or other monument “bearing any inscription charging any person with the commission of a crime.” Max Longley, in a recent article published in Atlas Obscura, notes that Nelson’s stone was finally replaced in the early 1950s with a new marker that makes no mention of Kendall, Vickers, or the murder.

In jurisdictions without an explicit ban on accusatory cemetery memorials like North Carolina’s, anyone who uses a gravestone to accuse others of murder or to settle scores risks being sued if the allegation is unproven or false.


Libel laws apply to any defamatory statement made in a public forum, not just in news reports. Anyone who manufactured or erected a stone making a false accusation, or allowed such a stone to remain on display, could be ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in damages to the person wrongly branded a killer.

Playing the blame game on headstones is not a relic of the past. When an Israeli woman in her seventies died during the COVID-19 pandemic, the memorial erected at her grave alleged she was “murdered in the Beilinson Hospital coronavirus ward” and included the Hebrew phrase “May God avenge her blood,” which is commonly used to refer to victims of homicide. The woman, who was unvaccinated, was seriously ill and had suffered a heart attack before being admitted to the hospital, where she contracted COVID, in 2021. Hospital administrators, who insisted the woman had received the best possible care, threatened legal action to have the allegation removed.


Gravestones of most killers and their victims omit the gory details. Charles Chapin, a former editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, is buried in a cemetery plot in Washington, D.C. alongside his wife, Nellie. While the memorial records that she died in 1918, a dozen years before her husband, there’s no mention of the murderous backstory. Chapin, distraught and facing financial ruin in 1918, shot his wife as she slept—“to keep her from starvation and want,” he claimed, as if he was doing her a favor. He had planned to kill himself, but lost his nerve and surrendered to the police. Locked up in New York’s Sing Sing State Prison, where he became famous as the “Rose Man” who transformed the prison yard into a meticulously landscaped garden, Chapin died in 1930.

While Chapin has a stone to record his passing, it was once a common practice to bury an executed criminal in an unmarked grave, a final punishment for their crimes that erased their memory as well as avenged their crime. London’s infamous Newgate Prison went a step further, burying the bodies of executed prisoners under the flagstones of an underground passage, known as Dead Man’s Walk, that led from holding cells to the gallows. A single letter—the first of each prisoner’s surname—was carved into the stone wall as the only record of the internment. Condemned murderers were forced to take a gruesome walk over the remains as they were escorted to their own appointments with the hangman, aware that the next initial carved in the wall would be theirs. The practice continued until the prison was demolished in 1904 and prisoners’ remains were reburied in an unmarked mass grave in a London cemetery.

For almost 120 years there was no marker on Samuel Pleasant Armstrong’s grave in Baker City, in eastern Oregon.


The twenty-seven-year-old laborer shot and killed schoolteacher Minnie Ensminger early on Christmas morning in 1902, then tried to kill himself, after her parents refused to allow them to marry. Convicted of murder, he was hanged in 1904. A local historian who researched the case designed and paid for a simple monument that was erected in 2023.

“He deserves a marker on his grave. Everyone deserves one,” Gary Dielman told a local newspaper. The killer’s crime deserves to be remembered as well—Dielman ensured the words “Hanged For Murder” were chiseled under Armstrong’s name.


Dean Jobb’s new book A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue, released this month by Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada, is the incredible true story of Arthur Barry, who charmed the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. For more on this and Dean’s other true crime books, find him at

Copyright © 2024 Dean Jobb

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