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“While we’re here, you should see Mr. Smedley.”
I have just met Andrew Phinney for the first time, and we are strolling down a dirt road behind John Marshall High School on the North Side of Richmond, Virginia. A few yards away, a police officer walks a German shepherd into the bomb squad office, oddly situated just over the school’s property line.
Andrew stops at a chain link fence and gestures to a statue lying face down in the dirt on the other side. “Here’s Mr. Smedley. This was done by the same guy that did Bojangles.”
The statue isn’t just lying on the ground, but is more accurately in the dirt, its face totally buried. And yet, there’s something about the character’s posture, its lean, that definitely reminds me of the famous Bojangles statue a few miles away in Jackson Ward.
This is not the reason we’ve met here today. We have more interesting things to discuss. But he seems to be making a point: The small area of land that surrounds us is teeming with the unknown, having somehow become Richmond’s forgetting ground.
Andrew’s story – the one we’re actually here to discuss – begins with a plaque. He won’t tell me where he got it, and I get the sense that it might be best if he didn’t. All he can say is that it was abandoned as trash amidst a virtual treasure trove of neat stuff.
“[T]here were pianos, wheelchairs, boxes of 1940s photographs…all sorts of cool Richmond history. I ended up with the plaque.”
While the word “plaque” tends to conjure up the image of something small and wooden, the tablet in question is a large, white stone relic that reads:
In memory of Miss Robbie Yeager, whose life was surrendered
in faithful performance of duty as nurse in the city hospital.
Died January 3, 1903
After he first acquired it, Andrew briefly searched the internet for the name, but found nothing. It sat in his front yard for a year before he decided to try again. This time, century-old archives of the Richmond Times-Dispatch began to unveil a fascinating story.
Discovering Robbie Yeager
In the summer of 1902, a 21-year-old woman named Robbie Yeager moved into Richmond from Culpeper County. Her mother had already died, and it was perhaps this experience that prompted her to start the nurse’s training program that assigned her to “City Hospital” right across from Shockoe Cemetery in Gilpin.
Late that year, there were several outbreaks of smallpox in the area, one of which infected a man named Mr. Cox, who was visiting from North Carolina. While smallpox wouldn’t be officially eradicated for many decades, the medical community had long since understood that it was a highly contagious illness with no real treatment. You either died or you didn’t. Despite this danger, Robbie volunteered to tend to Mr. Cox in his time of illness. No record exists of whether Mr. Cox survived.
What we do know is that Robbie Yeager contracted smallpox as she nursed him. The disease wracked her body with “several weeks of the most intense agony," during which time she was strictly quarantined. Even her family could not see her or stand beside her bed as she lay dying. During the final days, doctors kept her alive with oxygen, but this could not save her. The moment she was pronounced dead, two weeks after she took ill, the Board of Health took charge of the body and buried it. Her funeral resembled her final days: lonely and quiet.
As Andrew read through the available stories of this young woman, it was clear that her bravery in the face of such a lethal disease had struck a nerve with her patients and with the city of Richmond. She was the beautiful, young, compassionate heroine of the medical community. Headlines declared her a “Martyr of Her Duty”, and it was reported that “[a]t the news of her death yesterday afternoon old men broke down and wept, and last night there was a general air of mourning throughout the building. Each inmate felt that he or she had lost a near and dear friend.”
Such a symbol did she become, that when City Council voted whether to appropriate $100 (no small sum in 1903) to commemorate her, one councilmember demanded that it be increased to $250. The proposal passed unanimously.
The commemoration of Robbie Yeager, Andrew learned, was twofold:
“Her grave has been surrounded by an iron railing and marked by a granite headstone. A tablet has been prepared and it will be fixed upon the walls of the hospital.”
He had the tablet, but where was the grave?
The Missing Cemetery
The clues Andrew had to go on seemed promising enough. The articles had said that she’d been buried at the “city farm," and that there was an iron railing surrounding a granite headstone. The “city farm” had been located just beside John Marshall High School, and was used to grow food for both the jail and the hospital. But there wasn’t a grave in sight. No headstone, no iron railing.
Imagine Andrew’s surprise when he found a survey of the farm from the year 1875 that showed not just a grave, but a cemetery beside the farm. It was small, probably belonging to the farmer’s family, but also seemed to be where the bodies of smallpox victims were being interred. Sometime between 1910 and 1940 it disappears from history completely, never resurfacing in any known databases.
With a little help from the city’s GIS (geographic information services) office, Andrew was able to see the 1875 survey overlaid with a satellite image of the current-day area. It was clear that what used to be the final resting place of Robbie Yeager was now a half-acre storage lot owned by the city, strewn with junk and surrounded by barbed wire fencing. At some point, the cemetery had been plowed over - cleared and stripped of fencing, headstones and any other markers that Richmond’s dead lay beneath the soil.
Andrew says that one official from Parks and Recreation has been out to the site with him to hear his story and take possession of Robbie’s plaque, but he’s not sure what else will come of it. My own inquiries about the matter seem lost in a bureaucratic chain of communication that holds little promise for answers about future plans for the site.
For now, Robbie Yeager, the young woman whose dedication once captured the heart of Richmond, lies with an unknown number of others beneath a junk lot, the forgotten ground behind John Marshall High. As the news reported at the time:
“Such a reward did fate hold in store for this Virginia girl, who was as much a heroine, a martyr to duty, as any woman who ever died for her religion or her sweetheart.”
Curious about Richmond's other cemeteries? Check out RVADeadBuried.com.