Civil War veteran's tombstone returned home after 30-year mystery solved

Richard Palmer, a Seattle man who died in 1901, has his tombstone returned and honored at Lake View Cemetery on July 30, 2017 (Photo: Shane Mitchell)

SEATTLE -- A Civil War veteran who died in Seattle 116 years ago now has his proper gravestone marker again after a decades-long mystery has been solved.

In 1987, an old broken tombstone with the name "Richard Palmer" was found under the porch of a Renton home. Who he was and the life he lived was a mystery, so the tombstone was donated to a local company that runs an annual haunted house, with the condition that every year on the anniversary of Palmer's death - -July 30, 1901 -- they would have a party in his honor -- what woud become known as "Richard Palmer Day."

That responsibility eventually fell to Shane Mitchell, who joined Scare Productions in 1996.

"Richard Palmer was for me, for the last 21 years, indistinguishable from the headstone," Mitchell said. "Someone would ask, 'Hey, where's Richard?' and the response would be something like, 'He’s over there under that box' or 'over there behind the coffin.' Something like that. And, over the past 21 years, Richard Palmer (the headstone) has become my friend. More than a friend, Richard is family."

And every year on July 30 spanning the past three decades, members of Scare Productions would meet and honor the life of Palmer.

'I wonder if you'd like your headstone back?'

But this year, the "party" took on extra meaning. A crucial clue came in earlier this month to who Palmer might be, pointing them to a man with that name buried at Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill.

"The last few days Richard Palmer became more than an anthropomorphized stone. He became a man. A man that had a family. A man that had a family, friends, business acquaintances, traveled (a lot). A man with decedents (some of whom we’ve contacted). A man that lived," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said all the pieces began to come into place when he visited Palmer's gravesite.

"Monday, (a friend at Scare) asked me to swing by the cemetery and see what (Palmer's) headstone said because there was some discrepancy in his death date (20 July in some places and 30 July others) -- maybe the one we have is a misprint and they had to make a new one or something. So I went. When I got there I found he didn't have a headstone at all so there was nothing to which I could compare," Mitchell said.

But there was an instant connection.

"While standing above his burial site that afternoon, I felt a spark of recognition between myself, the remains in the ground, the myth in the Scare community, and my friend, the headstone. Simultaneously while feeling this spark I said out loud to the bare grass, 'I wonder if you’d like your headstone back?' The smile he and I shared in that moment was unmistakable. I went to (my friend's) immediately after that and before I could say it, he asked me if I thought he’d want his headstone back. I called Lake View Cemetery immediately to see what needed to be done to get this done by Sunday - the annual Richard Palmer Day."

The group spent the rest of the week working with the cemetery to get things in place before Palmer's death day on Sunday, getting a new base poured to house the headstone. On Thursday, the wayward headstone was back where it belonged.

"I had on a Scare bracelet that I wanted Richard to have, so (the groundskeeper) made a little spot directly under the stone in which I placed it and then he began carefully pouring the cement so as not to disturb the bracelet," Mitchell said. "I can’t express the giddy excitement of watching the cement go in around and under the stone. It was like seeing a man, gone for a very long time, come home to his family."

Just who was Richard Palmer?

Meanwhile, the folks at the Capitol Hill Historical Society were able to discover a lot more about Palmer's life.

"Richard wasn't a Capitol Hill resident, but since he had been buried at Lake View Cemetery here on Capitol Hill and had such a unique story, we couldn't help but look a little further into who he was and were surprised to quickly find a wealth of additional details," said Rob Ketcherside & Tom Heuser with the Capitol Hill Historical Society. "As we continued to dig, the story only became more intriguing."

It turns out, Palmer was not only a Civil War veteran, but a notable Seattle merchant woodworker. He was born in Wisconsin on July 19, 1846, but moved to the Columbia City area of Seattle in 1892 after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, "and found his riches like many others during the Klondike gold rush."

He also had interest in a copper mill in Vancouver, BC, large amounts of property in Kitsap County, and was a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW). Their anchor and shield are engraved on his headstone.

He would go on to have 11 children -- nine kids with his first wife, Emily Turvey who died in Seattle in 1915, and two kids with his second wife, Kitty.

He and Kitty had two daughters, Rose and Pearl. Pearl died at age 12 of pulmonary hemorrhage and is buried between Richard and Kitty at Lake View Cemetery. Rose’s daughter Virginia moved to Sacramento and had two sons. Some of the family still lives there. Virginia died in 2014.

As for Richard, he contracted meningitis while on Vancouver Island and died in 1901 just 11 days after his 55th birthday -- even though his tombstone erroneously states he had died at 54.

"It's colorful stories like this that make what we do so worthwhile," the Society said. "We are honored that we could contribute."

A whirlwind week

Armed with all this new knowledge of the Palmer family, the Scare Productions group had a very special July 30th remembrance Sunday by celebrating Palmer's headstone being returned to its rightful place.

"And the first time his family congregated at his grave site and looked at this headstone in at least 30 years," Mitchell said. "It was exciting. There was jubilance. There was closure, for us and him."

"For years, I've stood over Richard's stone and believed that maybe his family had forgotten about him," added Robert Buchta with Scare Productions. "It makes me very, very happy to find his resting place and a family that is still honoring him- as we are too."

"This week has just been a whirlwind," said Christina Hendricks with Scare Productions. "Crazy how I feel like I know this man and his family."

Mitchell and his crew also discovered that Richard Palmer wasn't the only one in his family with missing headstones. Both his wife Kitty and daughter Pearl's grave sites had been unmarked at some point. And although his wife's was replaced in 1978, his daughter Pearl's remains unmarked.

Scare Productions is hoping to change that. Lake View Cemetery has offered the group a discounted price to purchase one for her and they are starting a fund raiser to reach the goal.

Mitchell says the entire process has brought joy, delight, excitement, "and a strong sense of the power of the unseen that aligned the circumstances to work so effortlessly that it felt like from the moment we discovered that he didn’t have a stone at his grave to the moment we poured whiskey on it on Sunday, that one event pulled the next one towards it. It was hard to keep up," he says. "I think it’ll take me a little while to process the events of the last few days and I assure you the Legend of Richard Palmer will be told to our kids, and our kids’ kids.

"Turns out Richard Palmer was a good man, a hard worker, a servant to his country, and that his good deeds are still being talked about, celebrated, and written about 116 years after his death. How many can say that?"

Editor's Note: The original story has been corrected to show the headstone was discovered in 1987, not 1996.

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