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My unexpected, sad connection to the Eldridge Cemetery

My unexpected, sad connection to the Eldridge Cemetery


By Chuck Gillet

Reading Teresa Murphy’s thoughtful piece in the April 1, 2021 issue of the Kenwood Press about the Sonoma Developmental Center’s Eldridge Cemetery brought to mind my own special connection to that peaceful place. I didn’t discover it until I had been in Glen Ellen for 22 years, after arriving in 1977 and starting to build my habitable work of art across the street from what is now the Glen Ellen Star Restaurant.

It was in 1999 that I learned that my Aunt Betsy was buried there in 1935, about 50 feet from the angel and bench placed in the cemetery by the Murphy family. Ms. Murphy’s article inspired me to share a sad tale from my family’s history.

Betsy was the dear younger sister of my mother, Arla. They lived together as part of a family of six on Sacramento Street in San Francisco in the 1920s — the two sisters plus an older and younger brother and their parents. Betsy had a condition which in those days was called “mongeloidism,” now referred to as Down’s syndrome. My mother remembered her as very sweet and gentle, but with a greatly compromised I.Q. of 39. My mother loved her dearly and cared for her with great affection.

Then, one day when my mother was about seven and Betsy was about three, Betsy just disappeared. No explanation whatsoever was given to the shocked and bewildered big sister. Her parents avoided the subject even when my mother asked directly about what happened to her little sister. The years went by and the unresolved mystery continued to haunt her.

In 1999, after my research had solved a family mystery concerning my maternal grandmother’s strange and elusive past, Mom asked me to look into Betsy’s fate. That was the first time I had heard of Betsy. As a family history buff, I jumped at the challenge. Figuring Betsy’s condition and age made her a likely candidate for placement at an institution for the “infirm,” I sent out requests for documents with the few details I had to several such facilities in and around San Francisco. After several months, a package showed up in my Glen Ellen post office box from the Sonoma Developmental Center. It was a slim but informative file on Betsy. It turns out that, while I suspect Betsy could have been admitted based on her Down’s syndrome condition alone, there were entries providing an additional justification. The file stated that, according to Betsy’s mother, Betsy was a threat to her younger, two-year-old brother, Ralph.

While hugely grateful and relieved to get the file, my mother was skeptical about the threat allegation. Given her sense of the family dynamic, she strongly suspected that her abusive and callous father coerced her mother to put that in the submission documents.

I sent a copy of the file to my Uncle Ralph (Phil, the older brother, had already passed away), and Ralph was shocked. He never knew he had another sister!

Soon after this discovery, I made a trip to visit my newly discovered aunt’s grave. It was an easy hike from my home in Glen Ellen. My dear friend, nurse Betty White Hertzog, who was working at the developmental center at the time, arranged with Wendy Walsh to take us to visit Betsy’s gravesite. Wendy knew exactly how to find it.

The conclusion to Betsy’s sad story is that there was no longer a gravestone to mark her life. It had been removed and replaced with a single row marker.

A closing note: It turned out from my research on Betsy and my mom’s mother, Arvilla, that Betsy was the granddaughter of Theodore Newton Barnsdall, said to be the second richest man in the U.S. around 1900 from a fortune made in oil and minerals. But then, that’s another story…