Today an air of mystery hangs over the memorial, sort of a second canopy of skepticism and resentment.
Hiawatha knows whodunit: John Milburn Davis. The question remains...why?
– Hiawatha Convention and Visitors Bureau brochure
There’s a vestige of stubbornness in his expression. Flinty eyes shadowed under furrowed brow, old John Davis glowers defiance, mouth downturned, fierce beneath a full beard cascading in waves to his chest, one eyebrow half-cocked as if in askance: You dare question me?
Some do, amazingly enough. Some still do.
I don’t. As Lori and I stood beside his marbled monument on the eastern fringe of Hiawatha, I stared into those cold gray eyes and saw something besides anger, a trace of longing so deep and terrible no words could express. The stiffness in his posture belies his anguish; feet placed carefully together, right hand draped over the arm of his overstuffed chair, left hand gone, sleeve empty, jacket unbuttoned, spine rigid, eyes locked forward. An almost formal posture, as if sitting for a portrait or worried that any sudden movement would irreparably fracture his comportment. Beside him an empty chair matching his own is all the more revelatory for what’s missing, what’s designated simply by an inscription that reads, “The vacant chair.”
But even that doesn’t explain his unregenerate demeanor. Something more is at play in the grassy fields of Mt. Hope Cemetery, whose headstoned ranks eddy around the central bastion of the monumental Davis Memorial.
Commissioned after the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1930, the memorial consists of 11 life-sized statues portraying the couple through the stages of their lives. Here a younger John Davis sits on a bench beside his wife, an attractive woman impeccably dressed. Foursquare beneath a central marble canopy weighing more than 50 tons are two middle stages of Davises, one set older, him dressed more casually as depicting his occupation as a farmer and her outfit trendy, the other set more casually attired but with the addition of hats; his broad-brimmed, hers stylish. Opposite the seated younger couple sits an even older vintage, and it is this that greets visitors when they drive into the cemetery. Sarah stares placidly into the distance, cheeks sunken in a toothless mouth, eyes hooded as if gazing inward at another place entirely, some inner dimension or landscape people by shadows. Her husband looks to the side and down, sorrow etched in the lines of his face, pooled in his eyes.
It’s an impressive assembly of marble and granite. Some would say pretentious, as I did when I first heard of it. I’ve been around spectacularly rich people and have seen their monuments, both to the living and to the dead, and in nearly all instances found in them a hollow facade tinged with fear. Death is the great equalizer but some imagine themselves greater than the common denominator, not knowing, and probably not caring, that others view their sepulchers as no more than outlandish wastes of money.
Such was certainly the case with John Davis. By the time the monument was taking shape he was embattled, harried by townspeople who saw only his assets and not his need, and after their demands for assistance were rebuffed, flayed him with vicious rumors that persist to this day.
The town lacked certain amenities, a swimming pool, a hospital; the Great Depression was a wolf ravening at the door. Community leaders pressed Davis to underwrite the projects, but he undauntedly carried on with the memorial. Their union had been childless, and opposed by Sarah’s parents, so he sank his fortune into creating a lavish tableaux of their life together, all the while slipping money to the truly needy and ignoring the townspeople’s demands. When Ernie Pyle interviewed him in the late 1930s, he told Pyle, “They hate me. But it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.”
No wonder the look of brooding discontent.
I knew little of this at the time. We were on our way to an old woolen mill in Missouri and had taken a detour through northeastern Kansas to pick up a few of the more interesting sites that had eluded us in the past. But while researching our itinerary I came upon John Davis and felt a kindred connection. That vacant chair spoke volumes, much more so than the angry, beggarly entreaties of the good citizens of Hiawatha who saw his entrenchment as simple selfishness. I believe it was a matter of remembrance. The alleged “mystery” about why John Davis paupered himself to create a memorial to his wife and the times they’d shared—versus forking his loot over to the town—is artificial and disingenuous, a figment to lure tourists and to mask a central greed.
The wind was raw, raking the cemetery in gusts that sent dust and corn husks skittering down the pavement. Lori and I got out of the car and walked around the monument, me framing photographs and measuring light, Lori reading the documentation and the expressions on the faces of the graceful statues. When she disappeared into the car for warmth I remained alone and letting the camera drop finally stared at John Davis’ scowl, and in a flash felt something raw and elemental as the icy wind, personified in the vacant chair, and I thought of him sitting in his living room as dusk settled down and the walls closed in, the silence deepening into a preternatural scream. After she was gone, nights would have been the worst. When Lori’s not home I never know what to do with myself. Pace the floor, stare out the window or aimlessly surf the Internet, read a book with only a half-measure of concentration. Rub Sheba. Grow brittle and apathetic. I recognized the look.
There’s no mystery here. There’s only a vacant chair.