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The Girl in the Shadow Box of Bellefontaine Cemetery: an 1890s love affair

3 min read

Bellefontaine Cemetery, Missouri, the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi is home to the elaborate tombs of St. Louis’ local beer barons.
Members of beer dynasties like the Anheuser, Busch, and Lemp families are buried in the beautiful 314-acre landscape next to the River, some in graves dramatically encircled by sculptural spires and elaborately carved angels in varying states of grief.
The cemetery came into being in 1849, when a devastating cholera epidemic struck St. Louis, killing over 4,000.
Given the rapid population growth of the area and concern that cemeteries in the city posed a health risk, the Rural Cemetery Association saw the need to purchase 138 acres of land along the road to Fort Bellefontaine.
Over time, the city grew around the expanding cemetery.
In the final resting place of approximately 87,000 people, other notable burials include the victims of the 1855 Gasconade Bridge train disaster (the worst railroad disaster in Missouri history), The Joy of Cooking author Irma S. Rombauer, and William Beaumont, the “father of gastric physiology.”
But on its grounds stands also a beautiful marble sculpture encased in a stone chamber with a glass window, commonly referred to as “Bessie, the Girl in the Shadow Box.”
Interestingly, It does not depict a person buried there, but a girl for whom a local man longed.

This is the story of Herman Luyties (1871/1921), owner of the first proprietary drugstore in St. Louis and one of the pioneers of homeopathy in the area, who visited Italy in the early 1900s on a pleasure trip. The Grand Tour was very popular during Victorian times and, during his trip he fell for a beautiful girl who was modeling for the Genoese sculptor Giulio Monteverde.
After she turned down his proposals, the heartbroken Herman commissioned Monteverde himself to create a 3.5-meters marble statue of her.
On his return the sculpture was shipped to St. Louis, where he kept it in the foyer of his home at 39 Portland Place. However, her several tons didn`t sit well in the foyer, and due to its massive weight, it had to be relocated to the family burial plot in Bellefontaine. As one might imagine, this only partially solved the problem, and the gossip between the lines was pretty hot for 1900. The cemetery workers were quick to point out her slightly rounded belly, and they loved to speculate about her.
In any case, Herman added the glass screen for protection when it started to wear and weather away.
When he died in 1921, at the age of 50, he was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, at the foot of his beloved.
“Bessie, the girl in the shadow box” as she is known to the cemetery attendants, who maintains the eternal vigil.
While this story may sound romantic to some, there is a remarkable often-overlooked fact: the man had already been married when he proposed to the girl in Italy!
And now the wife and the rest of his family have a cosy little spot of their own, across the road and down the block a ways.
As for the girl herself, not much is known about her.
She was the model for the universally praised “Monteverde Angel” in the Monumental Cemetery in Milan (in second photo below), whose imitations can be found around the world, but It’s unclear what her name was, what her life was like afterwards, or where she was buried.
By the way, I don’t believe Mr. Luyties would have called her Bessie. That name is said to have originated with the cemetery workers, way back around the time she arrived in Bellefontaine….

Images from web – Google Research

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