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Circumstantial evidence

“Before you begin the journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Howard Tabor hasn’t been shy about naming names in his local history column, but I suspect the story emerging from this storm-tossed tombstone incident will never appear in The Plantagenet. Any lesson to be learned here hasn’t shown its face–yet.

The long-hidden graffiti discovered a few weeks ago was found on multiple headstones from various sources. Since Neil Klien managed and maintained The Shades during those years, Howard and his cohorts wondered if Klien, the cemetery sexton, could be their source. It’s Fennimore county’s good fortune to have been chronicled by four generations of the same family for over a hundred years–a dynasty who approached local history cohesively, comprehensively, when others busied themselves collecting butter churns and Viking teeth–so a few hours at the History Center, the courthouse and the newspaper archive laid a foundation for some tentative but circumstantial conclusions.

Neil Klien graduated from Agincourt High School in 1927, a capable student barely mentioned in Muskrat yearbooks; you’d be hard-pressed to call him a joiner. Odd jobs in town and work at the Fahnstock farm of his adoptive parents kept Neil busy and out of trouble. The Market Crash of 1929 caught everyone by surprise, though, even folks like the Kliens who had nothing to invest. They were heavily mortgaged, however, and it took little time for their farm to come under the banker’s icy stare. Court records show a spastic pattern of delinquent payments through 1933, an especially harsh winter. Neil had gone to Omaha, seeking work at the stockyards, so no one thought it odd that Mr and Mrs Klien hadn’t been seen for several days.

Sheriff Pyne had delayed serving foreclosure papers as long as possible, but his reluctant trip to the farm found, instead, a cold stove and two frozen bodies. Pyne wondered for the rest of his years whether a more timely delivery of the bad news might have saved two lives. Tough call. But simply asking the question revealed a depth of character that kept the sheriff in office for many years. He carried the sad news himself to Omaha and drove Neil home for the funeral.

Loss of the farm left Neil with little more than doubt and his dad’s toolbox: what could he have done differently? Cemetery board members offered him a job as its caretaker, a position that invited last words–summary statements like “hard as the banker’s heart, but smaller than his ego”–especially when such sentiments never find their way into print. Remember the point of an obituary: “to highlight the best and ignore all the rest.” So when our bank president died twelve years later, who could blame Neil for connecting the dots.

Until the other tombstone testaments are explored, the story is incomplete. And the evidence is decidedly circumstantial.


1 Comment

  1. […] September 26 and 28: These two were my celebration of […]

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