Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
The peacefulness of Arbor Vitae Cemetery, shown here, was shattered in 1914 when a would-be grave robber attempted to break into the vault holding the body of Elizabeth Barnett, presumably to steal the jewels with which she had been buried.
Although I am not anxious to go there permanently, I do love to visit Arbor Vitae Cemetery. Not only is it beautiful, it is the final resting place of so many folks whom I have met through the years while doing research for this column.
Just the other day, I went out to stroll up and down the rows looking for my friends from the past.
For instance, there was Dr. Joseph Borden and Levin Sledge, two members of the Alabama Colony, the first permanent European settlement in this part of the San Joaquin Valley.
Then there was Captain Russel Perry Mace, who purchased the first lot in Madera in October of 1876 and built its first hotel. From Mace, I walked over to the grave of Henry Clay Daulton, the first chairman of the board of Madera County’s supervisors and the patriarch of Shepherd’s Home.
Up and down the rows I went, and as I passed the old tombstones, each seemed to shout eloquent reminders of past struggles and triumphs. Then suddenly I found myself standing in the Barnett plot, and I stopped cold. My reverie turned a bit sour, for I found myself standing at the site of one of the most hideous desecrations ever perpetrated in Madera County.
Elizabeth Barnett was just 25 years old when she died in 1909, after an operation for appendicitis, which was performed at her family home on Yosemite Avenue. She was laid to rest in Arbor Vitae supposedly wearing her diamond earrings and other valuables. As the years passed, the story of the Barnett “treasure” at Arbor Vitae spread far and wide, until finally some ghoulish fiend could stand it no longer.
On Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 1914, the sexton, David Edwards, came to work and noticed a mound of earth in the Barnett section of the cemetery. He hurried over to the plot and saw instantly what had happened. Grave robbers had struck Arbor Vitae during the night and had attempted to open Elizabeth Barnett’s vault. Immediately the sexton sent for the town marshal, who just happened to be the brother of the deceased.
The lawman rushed to the cemetery, and sure enough, there where he had helped bury his sister just five years before, a huge, gaping hole appeared. Sick at heart, Barnett contacted the rest of the family members and then proceeded to conduct his official investigation.
A hole four feet long and a yard wide had been excavated with a shovel to a depth of about four feet. At that point, the ghoul had struck concrete, whereupon he attempted to penetrate the vault with a pick. Little did he know that the construction was in the form of a double vault with two rows of bricks having been laid in mortar and concrete poured over them. There was no way the robber was going to bust through to the body before daylight.
A close examination of the sides of the pit gave ample evidence of the labors of the would-be robber, who left fingerprints, tracks, and pieces of clothing behind. Barnett estimated that the man had worked most of the night in pursuit of his nefarious, nocturnal scheme.
After completing his preliminary investigation, Barnett summoned his stunned family. Within a short time, the survivors of Elizabeth Barnett were gathered around her grave once again, unnerved and distraught. No one could think of the reason for such an atrocity other than attempted robbery. Everyone agreed that the act was not done simply out of spite.
Word of the attempted grave robbery spread like wildfire through Madera. Barnett was besieged with offers to form a posse to track down the criminals, but alas, the numerous clues led nowhere.
People surmised that a professional crook, passing through Madera at the time of Elizabeth’s death, heard the report that valuables were buried with her and returned in order to steal them. Upon discovering that her remains were beyond disturbing, the would-be robber fled the scene for parts unknown.
The Barnetts carefully restored Elizabeth’s grave to its original condition, and a night guard was placed at Arbor Vitae to ensure that there would be no repetition of the crime. In time, the rest of the family joined Elizabeth in Arbor Vitae, and now the Barnett plot constitutes a significant part of the pioneer section.
Today one could never tell by looking that such a thing ever happened in Madera. The years have hidden all signs of the forced entry, and there are none left whose memories stretch back that far. Time has restored peace and calm to Arbor Vitae — a peace and calm that was briefly interrupted by one who was fortunate to have gotten out of town with his skin.