Ghosts of the Prairie --- Behind the Legends

Iowa’s Mysterious Black Angels

Behind the Legends of these Legendary Grave Monuments

Just about anyone familiar with strange ghost tales from cemeteries, or with stories of "haunted" cemetery artwork, has heard a tales of cursed graveyard statues. In the state of Iowa, perhaps the most notorious of these cursed monuments dwells in the haunted Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. Or Does it? That’s the real question for our purposes here because in truth, the stories behind two very different “black angels” in Iowa have become mixed together over the years, creating a hodge-podge of supernatural tales that it’s taken years to unravel.

You see, the state of Iowa does not boast just one black angel with mysterious ties to the unknown --- there are actually two of them, located in two different cemeteries, in two completely different cities!

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

The strange black angel in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery has long been connected to the supernatural. It’s a part of the local lore in Iowa City and has been mentioned in books and on websites for many years. As mentioned though, it’s history has long been confused with another black angel, which is located in Council Bluffs. The following is the true history --- and mystery --- of Oakland Cemetery’s black angel.

The black angel of Oakland Cemetery is an eight and a half foot tall burial monument for the Feldevert family, erected in the cemetery in 1912. Since that time, it has been the source of many stories and legends in Iowa City --- most connected to the mysterious change in color that the angel took, turning from a golden bronze to an eerie black.

The statue was erected by Teresa Dolezal Feldevert, a physician who had immigrated to America from Strmilov, Bohemia, Teresa and her son, Eddie Dolezal, came to Iowa City, where she worked as a midwife. They lived in Iowa City until 1891, when Eddie died of meningitis at the age of 18. He was buried in Oakland Cemetery and Teresa had a tree stump monument erected over his grave. It can still be seen today.

After Eddie’s death, Teresa moved to Eugene, Oregon where she married Nicholas Feldevert, who died tragically just a few years later in 1911. In the wake of this loss, Teresa returned to Iowa City and she hired Mario Korbel, a Bohemian artist in Chicago, to design the angel that would hover over the body of her son and the ashes of her husband. The angel arrived on a railroad flatcar in Iowa City on November 21, 1912.

There have been many stories spread about even the most mundane aspects of the angel’s existence, starting with the date that it was erected in the cemetery. According to local history, provided by people who lived in the city at the time, the angel was installed at the cemetery at the time of its arrival in 1912. Other sources claim that it was actually stored in a barn for six years and was not erected until after a court case that Teresa brought against the artist, Mario Korbel. The story states that she refused to pay the $5,000 cost of the statue because it did not meet her specification to include a replica of her son’s tree stump monument in the angel monument. She eventually lost the case.

Whatever the truth of this story, at some point after the installation of the angel, Eddie’s monument was moved from its original location to its present site alongside the angel. His remains, along with the ashes of Nicholas Feldevert, were placed in a repository under the angel’s base. Teresa died of cancer on November 18, 1924, her ashes were also placed beneath the angel and soon after, the strange stories began.

Within a few years of its installation in Oakland Cemetery, the glorious bronze angel strangely began to turn black. Most have explained this as the natural oxidation of the metal but not surprisingly, other explanations have surfaced, blaming evil acts, freak storms, infidelity and even murder.

One legend has it that Teresa Feldevert was a very mysterious woman and that her evil caused the angel to turn black. This strange shadowing was to serve as a constant reminder of the sins of her family – and as a warning for people to stay away from her grave. Some claimed that Teresa’s wicked ways were evident in the design of the angel. Unlike most graveyard angels, which are usually positioned with their head and wings uplifted as a symbol of aiding in the ascent to heaven, the Feldevert angel is looked down to the ground and her wings are not uplifted. And strangely, there is no death date on the monument for Teresa Feldevert.

One legend created another and a variety of stories sprang up, stating that any girl who was kissed at the angel’s feet in the moonlight would die with six months. Others said that touching the angel on Halloween night would lead to death in seven years and, worse yet, kissing the angel itself would cause a person’s heart to stop beating.

Others claimed the angel turned black after a freak thunderstorm on the night of Teresa’s funeral. According to this, the angel was struck my lightning and this is what caused it to turn black.

There are also stories that blame the black color of the angel on infidelity. In this version of the angel story, Teresa allegedly vowed over her husband’s grave that she would remain faithful to him until the day that she died –-swearing that his death angel would turn black if she ever cheated on his memory. The color of the angel, these stories claim, answer the question as to whether or not Teresa remained faithful!

Perhaps the harshest explanation for the angel’s color claims that Teresa’s son did not die from an illness, as the records stated, but rather because she murdered him. These stories claim that she fled to Oregon soon after and only her guilt brought her back to Iowa City. In shame, she moved his body to rest beneath the wings of the angel and soon after, it began to turn back as a reminder of her shame.

And while such stories may bear little resemblance to the truth, they do remain an essential part of the lore and legend of Iowa. For generations, local residents and University of Iowa students have come to Oakland Cemetery, often under the light of the moon, to ponder the mysteries of the angel. She is regarded as one of the region’s most haunted sites, likely based on the odd stories, curses and enigmas attached to her past and present.

The Black Angel of Council Bluffs

Far across the state from Iowa City is Council Bluffs, a place steeped in history. Here, at the edge of Fairview Cemetery, is another black angel with connections to the supernatural.

This angel rests at the Ruth Ann Dodge Memorial, which is located just outside of the entrance to Fairview Cemetery. This graveyard, one called the “Old Burying Grounds”, is one of the oldest in the region. It began as a Native American burial ground and then it was taken over by the Mormons for a time. Around 1919, the angel was erected here to mark the grave of Ruth Ann Dodge, the wife of General Grenville M. Doge, a Civil War veteran and the chief engineer of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Ruth Ann Dodge died in September 1916 at her home in New York but her body was brought to Council Bluffs, where she was buried. Soon after, her daughters, Anne Dodge and Eleanor Pusey, commissioned Daniel Chester French to sculpt the black angel. French is best known for the statue of Abraham Lincoln that he created for the Lincoln Monument in Washington. The young woman had strict criteria for French as to how the angel was supposed to look. They wanted it to be a likeness of an angel that had appeared to their mother during a series of visions that she had before her death.

These supernatural “visitations” were no mere dreams. According to Mrs. Dodge, they were realistic and overwhelming visions about which her daughter Anne stated: “We realized this was no dream, no ordinary occurrence, but an apparition such as appeared to those saints of olden times, who were spiritual seers, holy enough to penetrate the fleshly veil and view spiritual things hidden from the worldly minded.”

Ruth described the visions to her daughters. She stated that she did not close her eyes but was simply transported to the rocks of a seashore that she had never seen before. She had as feeling that she was looking and waiting for something, but she did not know what it was. But she did know that something tremendous was about to occur. Out of the mist, she saw an ancient boat appear that was covered with roses and rare and fragrant flowers. As it approached, she saw that a beautiful young woman was standing in the bow of the ship. As soon as Ruth saw her, she knew that she was a spiritual being and “not of this earth.” 

The young woman was clad in a glistening white garment that fell in long folds from her shoulders to her feet. Her hair, which reached to her shoulders, looked like spun gold, forming a halo around her head. Her eyes were bright and seemed to look at Ruth, and yet through her, and were filled with an expression that was beyond description.

The young woman came to her carrying a deep vessel, like a Grecian urn, under her arm. It was filled with water that Ruth described by saying that “it glistened, glittered and sparkled like millions of diamonds.” The woman offered it to her and urged her to drink from it, telling her that it contained a blessing. But as much as Ruth craved the water, she told her daughters, she was not ready to drink it just yet. A few moments later, she “awoke” and the vision was gone.

Ruth had the same vision three times and on the third time, she drank from the water that the angel offered her. A few days later, she died. On her deathbed, she told her daughters that the angel offered her the “wonderful water of life. I drank from it and it gave me immortality.”

Sculptor Daniel Chester French was order to make the Black Angel to the specifications outlined by Anne and Eleanor to match the angel in their mother's visions.

Ruth and Eleanor commissioned French to create the black angel to their specifications and he succeeded. The sculpture shows a beautiful angel that holds a vessel of water. While not a deep urn, the statue held a vessel that poured water into a fountain, continually offering the “water of life”. Over time, the fountain had declined and has also been restored to its glory. The water in the fountain was shut off in 1960 but restored to life again in 1985. It continues to draw visitors to the cemetery today.

While the story of Council Bluff’s black angel is not filled with the doom and dark portents of the angel of Iowa City, it stands today as a the connections between one woman and the afterlife --- between this world and the next.


Special Thanks to:
Christian Haunton, Casper Eldredge (More on Lost Destinations) &
Brian Stoner for their help with photos and information about these stories.  

© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Right Reserved.

Return to the Ghosts of the Prairie Home Page