The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

The Black Angel

The legend of Iowa City Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel is complicated. Like many stories passed down through the ages about her, especially through oral history, the Black Angel’s tale has twists and turns and all the rabbit trail features of our current incredulous modern messaging. When I first arrived in Iowa City back in 1983, it wasn’t long before I heard of the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery, and the many often conflicting narratives that surrounded this peculiar and riveting monument.

The Black Angel site has brought so many hoary and shiver-producing tales it’s hard to sort them out. The statue is eerily beautiful in its own way, its patina blackened by time and the elements. Of course its position in a cemetery lends automatic cachet to its value as a chill maker. The fact that there isn’t a lot to actually do in Iowa City Iowa adds to the generation of these tales as well. Here are a few of the myths, tall tales, beliefs, superstitions, and prohibitions surrounding the Black Angel.

  • Don’t touch or kiss the angel, or you’ll die instantly. Unless you happen to be a virgin. (More on this below.)
  • Pregnant women must avoid the angel, and never stand in the shadow of her wings, or you will lose your child.
  • The Black Angel is haunted.
  • She is cursed.
  • She weeps on the date that Mrs. Feldevert’s son Eddie Dolezal died.
  • Teresa Feldevert’s many sins caused the angel to turn black.
  • On the night of Teresa’s funeral the angel was struck by lightning, turning her black.
  • A preacher’s son is secretly buried beneath the angel.

The story of The Black Angel is indeed murky. Most of the myths surrounding her were hastily conjured and are easily dismissed. Her black patina, for example, is easily explained. The statue was cast in bronze by Chicago sculptor Mario Korbel, and even before she went up in Oakland Cemetery in 1931, the bronze had oxidized, and turned dark, due to the elements and oxidation.

The Black Angel’s presence caused an immediate controversy, and a lawsuit. Mrs. Feldevert, who had commissioned the monument, didn’t like it, especially its dark and ominous coloration, and she refused to pay the sculptor. She saw the oxidation of the bronze, and wanted the metal to stay the color it was, as a shining tribute to her dead son. The sculptor, Mario Korbel, knew the metal would discolor with time, and he tried to convince his client that a shiny colored tombstone wouldn’t make sense. The sculptor sued Mrs. Feldevert to get his payment. Korbel won his lawsuit, Mrs. Feldevert paid him for his work, and the angel was posted in Oakland Cemetery in 1913.

The Black Angel presides over the tomb of a family named Feldevert. Teresa, the matriarch, was born in the Czech Republic in 1836. She was a practicing physician & midwife who immigrated to Iowa City in the late nineteenth century. Her son Eduard ‘Eddie’ Dolezal died of meningitis at 18 years old in 1891, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. Below is a picture of Eddie’s gravestone, the sculpture of a tree limb lopped off five feet above the ground, symbolizing a life cut short.

Eddie Dolezal: 1873-1891

Today the Black Angel serves as a kind of gathering spot, reference point to the rest of the cemetery, and initiation place for U of Iowa college students and other groups looking for ways to memorialize one event or another, either a fraternity hazing, a wedding, a divorce, or a funeral. Here are a few more local legends associated with Iowa City’s Black Angel:

  • No U of I female is considered a real coed until she’s been kissed near the Black Angel.
  • If she’s kissed in the light of a full moon, she’ll die within six months.
  • Further, if the girl is a virgin when she’s kissed, the statue will revert to its original bronze color within six months. (Note: She’s still dark)
  • Touching the angel at midnight on Hallowe’en means death within six years.
  • Teresa Feldevert lacked the money to have her own death date inscribed in the angel’s base. (This legend is true. The base reads as follows: Nicholas Feldevert 1825-1911, Teresa Feldevert 1836- ) She died in 1924.

The site of the Black Angel has been used for the occasional seance, several wedding receptions, Hallowe’en parties, and numerous New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Base of Eddie Dolezal’s grave

The hatchet buried in rock, with its broken shaft, symbolizes Eddie Dolezal’s curtailed life. The rounded pail lower right is said to contain the ashes of his father, though, like many stories emanating from the Black Angel site, that has never been proven—or laid to rest, so to speak.

Tokens & Artifacts

Above, at the angel’s feet the day we took these photos were several coins and other artifacts. These things are left there often, tokens asking for the Black Angel’s intercession for whatever need or desire the depositor feels.

The Family Feldevertova

The Black Angel statue is eight and a half feet tall, nine feet across, and weighs nearly two tons with the base. The tree stump tombstone next to it is Eddie Dolezal’s final resting place. His grave was once several feet away, but was moved in 1913 at the request his mother, to put Eddie closer to the family tomb.

Because we seem to be immersed in death narratives these days, with the novel coronavirus lurking behind every doorway, and every un-masked face, it’s a good time to reflect on a few realities: None of us gets out of this alive; everyone will have a legacy, good or bad; no one can control the when—where—why—how of their demise; and finally, there are likely to be rumors and superstitions about us and the way we lived our lives, stories that will persist long after we’re gone. So…

Those tales will twist and turn and lapse into myth, provided someone keeps giving them ink or oxygen. So perhaps the Black Angel’s durable lesson to us is simply to live the most transparent, consistently positive lives we can, so that narrative gets passed along to our precedents.

Coming up soon: Rosie: A Life Well Lived. This is a legacy project we’ve undertaken with Mariah’s mother Rosie. It’s a conversation for the ages, our effort to write Rosie’s life story, a narrative covering her 90 years on the planet. Every evening at dinner we have this conversation with her following a proscribed checklist of questions and topics. We record what she says, and then transcribe the story for future inclusion in a book. The project allows Rosie to share her (amazing) story with us and future generations, and it reveals a part of her we knew existed, but never had the honor to hear about. Next blog will contain excerpts from this conversation for the ages. Thanks for reading, comments welcome.

2 thoughts on “The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

  1. Tony Marconi

    I love some of the stories and legends surrounding grave monuments, perhaps because they somehow stand out as testimonies to they universal message of we homo sapiens: I WAS HERE.
    It is estimated that about 108 million of us have made an appearance on our planet, and very few ever achieve any kind of immortality through our words and/or deeds.
    My own take on this very human condition is this:

    Cemetery Song

    I read over a thousand books, then I was gone.
    I killed many men in combat, then I was gone.
    I taught school for thirty years, then I was gone.
    I bore six children that lived, then I was gone.
    I carved the blocks for Khufu’s tomb, then I was gone.
    I slew the men and women of Troy, then I was gone.

    I had no marker when my breath at last joined the winds;
    no stone bore my name in the desperate hope that someday
    a stranger might read the markings and perhaps note
    that I was here, and, for just a very short span of time
    I mattered to someone, anyone, if even as merely the bearer
    of joy or grief, anything to make me real against the void.

    I worshipped the One True God, then I was gone.
    I wrote volumes of history, then I was gone.
    I fed the starving and healed the sick, then I was gone.
    I sang songs that people still sing, then I was gone.
    I knew only hunger and poverty and sickness, an aching belly
    and the shivering cold of a violent and never-ending night.

    Then I was gone and piled into plague pits and the trenches
    of potter’s fields or laid beneath the floors of towering cathedrals
    in bronze coffins carved with my name and left forgotten save by
    the curious tourist who never knew or remembered or cared
    who I was or why I deserved distinction when uncountable others
    lying nearby had been reduced to splintered bone fragments.

    I studied the origins of space and time, then I was gone.
    I was born with a limited mind, then I was gone.
    I ruled an empire and crucified a Jew, then I was gone.
    I loved with passion and abandon my wife, my children,
    and my cherished lifelong friends, then I was gone.

    I was young; I was old; my days fell like autumn leaves.
    Then I was gone.

    Like

  2. Thanks for this, Tony, very moving. It fits in well with our project coming up, the reason we’ve returned to the states, as it happens. I’ll blog about it soon, but in a nutshell, we’re recording and listening to Mariah’s mom’s life story. Every night at dinner we pick a topic, and she rambles on about this and that and the other thing, family, husband, farm life, kids, holidays, siblings, you name it. We’ll eventually compile her recollections in a book, if for no other reason than having it preserved for the family etc. Rosie is 90, and she has quite a tale to tell.
    Thanks again for reading, and for the poetry. I may have to use part of it!

    BE

    Like

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