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.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs… Why I Love Iowa City.

For readers of a certain age, the headline (from the song ‘Signs’ by The Five Man Electrical Band), will take you back to 1971. Those lyrics will also rent space in your head all day, I’m guessing. You’re welcome.

This post is simply about Iowa City Iowa, and the reason I love this progressive little burg so much. Iowa City is a tiny blue spot in a sea (an ocean? An expanse? Which is bigger? I dunno.) a sea of red these days, which is why I love living here. The signs posted around town reinforce my attraction to it. In this little village of 70,000 hardy, left-leaning souls, I found my tribe, and that’s always a serendipitous occasion.

Years ago, when I lived in Iowa City the first time, I was invited to write a monthly column for the local newspaper, The Iowa City Press Citizen. In one of my pieces for the paper I discussed the leftie bent, and the politically correct default of folks living here, noting that even the newspaper’s initials were PC. In these parlous times, especially now with the political and coronaviral churn we’re witnessing, the signs and postings are proliferating. Everyone, it seems, regardless of stripe, sensibility, or preference, feels the need to announce their opinions. As I drove around taking these photographs recently, I noticed pretty quickly that many of the signs were hand made, and posted pretty much all over.

This sign speaks for itself, and also its owner’s/creator’s spot on the left-right continuum. On a ball cap the inscription would be MAS&S, I suppose. And the hat would be green. And recyclable. And union made. And knowing Iowa City as I do, the sign itself would have gone through a stringent vetting process for content, and size, and neighborhood acceptance, and environmental impact. And the paint would have to be child safe and eco friendly.

In Iowa City, wearing a mask really is a political statement. But then, in Iowa City choosing a parking spot, buying cat food, or choosing a brand of Kombucha is a political statement, so… One would think that the hyper-sensitive posture of Iowa Citians would become tiresome. The reason it appeals to me is that I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve seen what happens when consideration for others, and blindness to differences, and insensitivity to needs and desires and cultural considerations are dismissed and relegated to lower status. None of the seeming obsequiousness and PC culture here bothers me; what bothers me is the assumption of privilege for white, male, heterosexual, christian, wealthy people who own a boat. That offends me. I should mention that in my cruise around Iowa City I saw exactly one sign promoting he who shall not be named and his lap-dog Veep. That sign was planted close to the house. It was manufactured, likely in China, not hand made. It was ensconced among other right-leaning candidates’ signs. And in Iowa City, as further proof of my attachment to this accepting town, the sign was unmolested, however much I fantasized skipping the curb and crushing it with my car. Oh, the photo on the right above? That’s U of Iowa mascot Herkie the Hawk, en mask, of course.

Being hopelessly caucasian, I can’t speak for my black & brown neighbors, but from what I gather, Iowa City is a wonderfully accepting, diverse, anti-racist place where folks from around the world (literally, thanks to the University of Iowa) can thrive and feel wanted. As far as I can tell our black friends & neighbors can even leave their homes, drive their cars, sleep in their beds, and allow their children outside to play, and not expect mayhem or murder. Radical concept, I know.

Yard signs pop up like tulips in springtime, especially now. I included the gun safety sign because I see a lot of them here, and also because, this being Iowa, the well-armed center of heartland America gun culture, attaching these tiny stickers to ones vehicle is truly a political act here. I suspect these tiny black and white stickers are rarely spotted in, say, Ottumwa, or Spencer, or Waterloo.

Not much question about this leftie’s position!

Another reason I love Iowa City is that it’s a highly literate, well educated, amazingly urbane place in a sea of corn and soybeans. Home to the best writer’s school in the world, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, many well known and widely read authors have inhabited Iowa City. Authors such as Marvin Bell, Clark Blaise, TC Boyle, John Irving, Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, Jorie Graham, WP Kinsella, Flannery O’Connor, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, Mark Strand, and numerous others have studied and perfected their craft here. It would not be unusual to bump into Marilynne Robinson, or Chris Offutt, or Kent Haruf at Prairie Lights, the best bookstore in the known universe. (Even though Mr. Haruf is deceased, sad but true.)

Go Cubs!

I had to include this, yet another reason I love living in Iowa City. Here I’m surrounded by Cubs fans. There’s a smattering of Cardinals and White Sox fans, of course, and the odd Minnesota Twins insignia here and there, but the Cubbies and their Fly The W signs are dominant.

In closing, a picture that says it all this political season. There are a number of these signs posted around Iowa City. My fellow IC dwellers are not without a sense of humor.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe, mask up, and please, please, please VOTE! Thanks for reading.