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Inquest, tatoo, trunk and British Archives are only clues to Wm. Rattery

Sometimes as much can be learned from “reading between the lines” as reading the lines. Sue Hunter Weir explains that this can also be true at a cemetery where between the markers lie fascinating Tales.”Where there are gaps, there are stories.”

Sometimes as much can be learned from “reading between the lines” as reading the lines. Sue Hunter Weir explains that this can also be true at a cemetery where between the markers lie fascinating Tales.”Where there are gaps, there are stories.”

One of the tricky parts about writing these columns is trying to find a picture or graphic to go along with the story, something that draws you in and makes you want to know more. There are 22,000 people buried in the cemetery, only about 10% have markers. We have photos of some of those people but not nearly enough. The problem is that some of the really interesting, mysterious or poignant stories don’t have pictures to go along with them. Even if they did, most of the stories would still have significant gaps.

William F. Rattery’s is one of those stories. Mr. Rattery committed suicide on September 27, 1875. He doesn’t have a marker, most likely he never did. Everything that we know about him comes from a seven-paragraph story that ran in the Minneapolis Tribune the day after he died. It probably ran no longer than five or six column inches, and even then they got his name wrong (Rattray).

The story recounted the testimony given by a handful of witnesses during the coroner’s inquest. A six-member jury was told that Rattery, a “seedy Scotchman,” had checked into the St. James Hotel on September 23rd. He had just come into town after working as a laborer for one of the railroads. He spent the next four days drinking heavily and was “very low spirited,” telling several people that he intended to kill himself. On September 27th he took an overdose of laudanum and corrosive sublimate. He somehow managed to tell P. H. Robinson, a local merchant, what he had done; Robinson tried to save him but was unsuccessful. The jury concluded that Rattery “came to his death from causes unknown to the jury; but from the evidence, we are of the opinion that he came to his death by poison administered by himself.”

Rattery seems to have had a number of reasons for being low-spirited. His wife, two children and father lived in Michigan. He was separated from his family over “domestic troubles.” He obviously drank too much. Although it’s impossible to say whether or not he had syphilis, corrosive sublimate, one of the poisons that Rattery took, was widely used for treating it. The last sentence in the Tribune’s story was the most intriguing: “The shoulder of the deceased was branded with a “D,” the mark for a deserter from the English army.” There were no further details and there was no explanation about what must have been one of the defining moments in his life.

From those seven paragraphs it’s probably safe to conclude that Rattery’s life was a series of disappointments, both to himself and to his family. His room at the St. James Hotel was littered with whisky bottles, but it also contained a trunk filled with “old clothes, a pocketbook containing 75 cents in currency, some postage stamps, some letters, and a photograph album.” The photographs were of his father, wife and two children. The coroner believed that Rattery had friends in the area and said that he would try to find them and let them know what had happened. In the end neither friends nor family stepped forward to claim Rattery’s remains and he was buried at the expense of the county. Whether the contents of his trunk went back to his family, were claimed by friends or were thrown away is another thing that we don’t, and can’t, know.

One of the surprising items found in Rattery’s trunk was his naturalization papers. It was surprising because deserters from the British Army usually were sent to Australia, one of England’s “criminal colonies.” Instead, he wound up in the United States. An answer, if there is one, might be found in his military records; if they still exist, they are located at the British National Archives located in a suburb of London. For the time being, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, William Rattery’s remains are in Minneapolis. He is buried Lot 65, Block H, in the 35th grave from the south, in the cemetery’s paupers’ section. That we know.

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