Ghosts of the Prairie

The Face on the Tombstone: A Graveyard Mystery from Washta

An Excerpt from Troy Taylor's Book
"Beyond the Grave"

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One grave marker, this one located in Washta, Iowa, has a sinister tale to tell. The story of this tombstone dates back to the early 1900’s and centers around an elderly couple named Heinrich and Olga Schultz and their mysterious farm hand, Will Florence.

The old couple owned and operated a small farm outside of town and they were well liked in the community. Schultz had hired Will Florence during the haying season, despite the fact that many of his friends and neighbors were suspicious of the stranger. They had already turned him down when he asked for work and prodded Schultz to do the same. The kindly old man hated to see anyone down on their luck, so he hired Florence anyway, providing him with food and board and a small salary.

There was no clue as to where Florence had come from and the man revealed little information about himself. He did say that he had been recovering from some medical problems in Texas and while he claimed to have worked outdoors in the past, he was clumsy and obviously inexperienced at farm work. Schultz continued to show the man kindness though and he patiently instructed him with his chores.

Unfortunately, Florence repaid that kindness with murder.

One day, word came to the farm that failure was eminent at the bank in town. These were uncertain days and banks closed all over the country. Fearing for his savings, Schultz went into Washta and withdrew most of his money. He felt that it would be much safer at home until the bank crisis had passed. On his way out of town, Schultz waved a friendly greeting to one of his neighbors and that was the last time he was seen alive.

Three days later, a friend decided to check on the old couple because no one recalled seeing them for several days. He stopped by the house and opened the front door to find Heinrich and Olga lying on the kitchen floor in a huge pool of blood. Both were dead and their heads had been split open by an ax. The house had been wrecked and all of the money withdrawn from the bank was gone. And so was Will Florence!

The authorities were quickly notified and Florence was tracked down a few days later in Nebraska. He was arrested and returned to Washta for questioning. Convinced of his guilt, the local prosecutor convened a grand jury and pushed for an indictment. Sadly, there was just not enough evidence to hold him for the crime and the officials were forced to let him go. He vanished from town and was never seen again.

A short time later, a strange story began making the rounds in Washta. It was said that a face was starting to appear on the tombstone of Heinrich and Olga Schultz. Many believed that it was the face of their murderer. To make matters even more intriguing, those who saw it swore that it was the face of Will Florence!

The story was told and re-told and people flocked to the cemetery to see the gravestone. More and more of them, some grudgingly, admitted that the cloudy face that was forming in the stone appeared to be that of Florence. Was it the power of suggestion, or was the tombstone somehow changing to show the face of the man who killed the elderly couple?

A marble dealer was brought to the cemetery to examine the stone and try to explain what was happening to it. He reported that the features were developing because of “atmospheric influences of the rust and veins in the marble”. He predicted that the face would grow plainer, and it did. He believed that the strange event was caused by perfectly natural means, but local folks weren’t so sure.

Finally, after much urging, two police detectives agreed to visit the cemetery and examine the stone. They soon returned with other officers. Even the most skeptical of them agreed that the face in the marble did resemble Will Florence. That was enough to convince them to take a closer look at the case. When they did, they discovered new evidence that had been overlooked the first time. The new evidence solidly implicated Will Florence and a warrant was put out for his arrest. He was never found though... Florence simply vanished from the pages of history. I would like to think that he got just what he deserved. I’d also like to think that whatever happened to him took place at just about the same time that his face was being stamped on the tombstone of Heinrich and Olga Schultz.

© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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