Pandora's Box: What happened to the family headstone?

News-DemocratNovember 27, 2013 

— Lisa Garcia was on a quest.

She wanted answers to questions about her family, questions that had puzzled her for years, so she and her fiance drove 2 1/2 hours from their southern Missouri home and came to Belleville recently in search of answers. A cemetery seemed the place to start.

The questions began after Garcia saw a scrapbook picture of a cemetery plot marker in Belleville with her family's name -- Hanna.

In September, Garcia traveled hours from her home in Mountain View, Mo., to Mount Hope Cemetery in Belleville. She spotted the site, but the plot marker was gone.The marble marker probably weighed more than a ton, her fiancee, Albert Parkhurst, estimated. Instead of answers, Garcia left Belleville with another puzzle: What had happened to the marker?

Garcia, 48, was still left with questions about the people buried in that plot that, according to the old scrapbook photo, was clearly marked "Hanna" carved in stone -- especially her great-grandmother, Gertrude Wirth Hanna. She had heard about Gertrude from another family member.

Family history and the quest for information can open a Pandora's Box: Often, there's good. Sometimes, there's bad. It was the same for Garcia.

BND reporters found Gertrude's husband, Charles V. Hanna, died when he was 28 from tuberculosis. Widowed at 26, Gertrude Hannah supported her three sons, Trainor, Charles "Bill" Dewey, and Marcus Aurelius, Garcia's grandfather, by operating a boarding house for Illinois Central Railroad crews. The house was located near the railroad tracks on Trendley Avenue in East St. Louis and was called "The Hanna Hotel."

Official documents or photos of The Hanna Hotel couldn't be found at the Belleville Historical Society or the Belleville Public Library. East St. Louis city directories don't list it. But an online obituary for Gertrude mentions the hotel.

Garcia hadn't known that her great-grandmother operated a boarding house for rough-and-tumble railroad workers. It intrigued her.

Garcia also didn't know that one of her relatives was a ringleader in the 1917 East St. Louis race riot.

Charles Hanna, Garcia's great-uncle and Gertrude Hanna's middle son, was one of the few riot leaders prosecuted and sentenced to prison for a murder that occurred during the July 2, 1917 riot, according to St. Clair County court records.

Charles Hanna, then 19, was with two other men when he pulled a black family off a streetcar on July 2, 1917, at the corner of Collinsville Avenue and State Street in East St. Louis. According to published reports, Hanna and two other men shot Edward Cook and his foster son, Lurizza Beard. Edward Cook's wife, Lena Cook, witnessed the killings and was beaten by the crowd. Lena Cook survived and later testified against Hanna.

But Hanna wasn't convicted of those murders. He was convicted of killing William Keyser, a white man who was killed when the bullet passed through Beard, Edward Cook's foster son, and struck Keyser.

The jury sentenced Hanna to 15 years in prison.

Garcia didn't seem fazed by her family's infamous past.

"It's weird," she said when she learned about her great-uncle's story. "I mean this is strange. I'm sitting here thinking that this is just the beginning."

The pieces of news about her family seemed to fuel another quest for more information. And this one doesn't date back generations. Garcia said she is looking for her half-sisters, Kathleen Smith and Sharon Louis Smith.

Garcia's mother, Imogene, had talked about her children from her first marriage. From these stories, Garcia said she always knew she had half-siblings, but she isn't sure whether her siblings know about her.

Garcia's mother divorced the girls' father, Howard Smith, in 1957. Imogene left her daughters and son, Jimmy, in Belleville when she went to California. Jimmy later died.

Imogene later remarried and had Garcia.

"I don't know if they know about us," Garcia said. "I just want to meet them."

While continuing to look for family members and sort through history, Garcia knows there may be things that may not necessarily be flattering, like Uncle Charles, but those stories are as much to the family lore as the granite that used to encircle the family's Belleville burial plots.

"I just want to know where I came from, where my family came from," Garcia said.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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