I was looking for early evening of solitude after a solo dinner of pho with everything at Andy Nguen's on Broadway Street just south of downtown Sacramento. I thought I could find peace and quiet in the tree-lined and terraced gardens of roses and monuments that is the Sacramento Historic Old City Cemetery. It was a fine late October evening. The temperature was mild and the fog was light. I crossed Broadway to walk on the sidewalk between the cemetery's iron rail fence and the wide, empty street. I heard some shuffling noises through the fence. I didn't give the sounds much thought. Maybe I should have paid closer attention.
I turned through the main gate to enter the cemetery.
Something made me feel uneasy. I thought I could hear faint music in the distance, but it wasn't the boom-car thumping I usually hear around Sacramento Streets. I strained to listen closer to what sounded like brass band music from a century ago.
The music stopped. I heard a cracking sound – I thought a branch must have broken off its tree. A bearded young man walked out of the fog, wearing a red jacket festooned with gold braid across his chest. The center of the jacket was stained. I looked directly toward him, but I felt our eyes didn't meet. Something didn't feel quite right.
He spoke to me, “She done me wrong, that Josie she done me wrong. She told the entire town I forced my way upon her. Not a man nor woman in Sacramento didn't hear her story. She spread her lies all over town. She stomped the good name of Jacob Klein down into the Front Street mud.”
I delicately turned away, but this apparition followed me step for step.
He continued his story, “Josephine Weizel grew heavy with child and took to following me around town, hoping to shame me into giving in to her demands to “act like an honest man” and marry her. How could marriage make me an honest man when half the band had had their way with her?”
“She done shot me on a balmy Saturday Night in April. She shot me dead while I walked off the stage after the band finished playing. She had her trial just before the baby came. The jury listened to her filthy lies and let her off, while I was planted to moulder in this field where you stand.”
Klein reached out toward me, but he vanished into the fog before his hand met my shoulder.
I walked a bit further to clear my mind. I thought it might be the lemon grass and beef tendon that was making me see strange things. I stopped to sit at a bench near the the Tilden Family's monument.
I must have nodded off. The next thing I remember seeing was a very pale girl around age seven. She knelt on the bench and looked at me like a cat might sniff its owner's nose.
She asked, “Sir, will you play with me?” I reached below the bench, grasped a stick and tossed it as far as I could, hoping the girl would leave to chase the stick and disappear in the fog. She did not leave my side.
The girl continued staring, her face only a few inches from mine. She asked me, “Do you like mashed potatoes? Do you like rats?” I remained silent, and the girl continued staring. “I like mashed potatoes, but I don't like rats. Rats like mashed potatoes.”
The girl crawled onto my lap, but I couldn't feel any weight press on me. I had an urge to rise and leave at great haste, but I feared some horrible and unnatural consequence of upsetting this strange thing sitting upon me. I was as good as pinned to the bench.
The girl twisted to face me and spoke again, “You should always ask before you take food, even from the table. I ate some mashed potatoes from a big bowl on our dining room table. I died before the next morning. I did not know the butler had mixed strychnine and mashed potatoes to poison the rats in our walls. If only I had asked first! Now there are no surviving Tildens to come and play with me. Will you come back and play with me again? I like you, can you stay here with me forever? Please, oh please?”
I leaped from the bench and ran back to my car and the world of the living.
Both Jacob Klien and the tragically poisoned Tilden Girl are buried in the Sacramento Historic Old City Cemetery. The Old City Cemetery Committee used their stories in their October 2012 Lantern Tours. I recommend the Lantern Tour for anyone who might be in Sacramento in October.
My wife is currently working with the Committee to research the lives of the hundreds of former citizens buried in the cemetery's indigent section. I'm hoping her work digs up more delightfully grim stories from Sacramento's past.