Every now and then, the classic (and now 75 years young) film “The Wizard of Oz” still manages to pop up in the news—most recently it was in the past few weeks when another one of the film’s very few surviving cast members, “Munchkin” Ruth Robinson Duccini passed at the age of 95. This void leaves but one last living little person from the once 124-strong Munchkin troupe: Jerry Maren, the “center” Lollipop Guild kid, who incidentally, I had the pleasure of actually meeting several years ago…
But as a lifelong fan of The Wizard of Oz, I often reflect back on another very intriguing “Oz-centric” news story that broke in Central Illinois back in the spring of 1996, when a New York-based Womens’ Studies professor researching the life of suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage made her way to Bloomington’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery to make a remarkable discovery—an old, illegible grave marker designating the final resting spot of a five month old infant that had died in November of 1898.
Why was this discovery so remarkable? Well, the infant was one Dorothy Louise Gage, born June 11, 1898 in Bloomington to Sophie Jewel and Thomas Clarkson Gage. Thomas was the son of Matilda Joslyn Gage, and brother of Maud (Gage) Baum.
Maud and her husband Frank were living in Chicago at the time-they had four sons, but Maud had always longed for a little girl and made frequent visits to see her family in Bloomington. She was very fond of her niece Dorothy, once describing her as “a perfectly beautiful baby. I could have taken her for my very own and loved her devotedly.”
Maud’s husband Frank was a failed theatre actor/impresario, journalist, and entrepreneur— in fact he had failed at almost everything he touched, except storytelling. Frank had a way with words, and upon Dorothy’s birth, he jokingly wrote to Maud’s family: “Can a girl of tender years cuss, chew terbacker, smoke corn silk, run away to swim in treacherous waters, and follow a band innumerable miles? NO! Therefore, rear boys…Let us cling only to thoughts of the sweet innocent child faces that will brighten our lives for years to come and make us thank God heartily that they have arrived at all.”
Dorothy had indeed arrived—but tragically, not for long. On November 11, 1898 (five months to the day after her birth), little Dorothy died of "congestion of the brain" according to records. Maud attended the funeral, and the grief that consumed her mandated medical attention.
By 1898 Frank was gaining some momentum as a published author, and for years had entertained not only his boys but scores of children in every neighborhood they had lived in with his tales, the most popular being ones he wove about a magical land allegedly named after his bottom filing cabinet, which was labeled “O-Z”.
He had finally taken Maud’s advice and begun writing down all of his stories on the Land of Oz. In the wake of little niece Dorothy’s sad death, and perhaps as a way to comfort his wife, it would seem he now had the perfect name for the little Kansas farm girl that travels over the rainbow to his magical land.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published in May of 1900 by the George M. Hill Company in Chicago. Frank dedicated the book to his “good friend & comrade, My Wife.” And Dorothy Gage was forever immortalized in its pages as Dorothy Gale.
The rest, as they say, was hiss-it was hiss-it was history…
“Dorothy of Oz” is not from Kansas, folks. She never was, and she’s actually buried 45 minutes from Peoria.
As I mentioned earlier, this fact was discovered in 1996 by Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner after being kept as a low-key family legend for nearly a century by the surviving Baums. The story made newspapers, which told of how illegible the plain and unremarkable grave marker was, and the resulting difficulty in finding it. Only after the stone was coated in shaving cream and squeegeed clean could the name “DOROTHY” be deciphered and its complete inscription read.
Suddenly, large amounts of attention were being heaped upon this lost baby of Oz; a small and mighty movement began demanding that more be done to memorialize Dorothy (the internet of course didn’t quite pack the same punch yet then that it does now)
This movement made its way to the attention of Mickey Carroll, a St. Louis native and another one of the original Munchkins from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, who had traded show business for running his family’s monument business. He personally funded and crafted a new grave marker for Dorothy, which he dedicated on May 31, 1997 to an audience of hundreds that included members of Dorothy’s family.
The grave’s original marker was also restored and replaced on the opposite side of the new headstone, which had been crafted from African black granite and proved a more suitable memorial for a girl made famous for slaying witches and exposing humbugs.
I have visited the site once before, almost ten years ago while still at ISU—but on a recent trip through Bloomington, I decided on a whim to take another visit to Evergreen Memorial Cemetery and see it all again for myself...if Dorothy could return to Oz, I could return to Evergreen Cemetery for MBIP.
While no tornadoes were in the forecast that day, a blizzard was a distinct possibility…brr. Evergreen Cemetery is nestled back behind a neighborhood surrounded by a maze of one-way streets.
Once you enter the cemetery, immediately to your left you will find the “Dorothy Gage Memorial Gardens,” a children’s section that was dedicated the same day as the new grave marker back in 1997.
It was so named because the staff at Evergreen felt that families of lost children might be comforted by knowing they “rest with Dorothy.”
Dorothy herself however, is actually located in an older part of the cemetery, and one thing I do remember from when I came last time was how long it took me to find her. The weather was much nicer that day, but for now it’s freezing and we don’t have time for a stroll.
Fortunately, the cemetery front office is right next to the Dorothy Gage Memorial Gardens, and the nice ladies working there invited me inside for a map, directions, and cozy moment of warmth. No surprise, I was the only one with designs on wandering the place that day.
The map on the outside of the office shows what a sprawling place Evergreen is; not only is Dorothy here, but Evergreen also serves as the final resting place of Adlai Stevenson, judges, generals, and even an opera singer.
Dorothy’s grave is located in the very far back of the cemetery and near the last road by Constitution Trail. The ladies in the office reminded me that the gravestone is flanked by two bushes, and that might be a big help in finding her on a day like today. They were right.
We’ve found Dorothy.
The old, refinished headstone sits on the side facing the road, and difficult to read on a snowy day like this. On the right, is a look at the stone in warmer months (pilfered from the net, I admit). Let’s check out the newer stone…
This is exactly how it looked when I found it. Weird.
After kicking away the snow, you can get a good look at the slab, which hasn’t aged a day it seems in almost 17 years…in his dedication, Mickey Carroll promised that it would “last forever” and it is well on its way to doing just that.
Here’s an overhead shot of both stones, back to back. The juxtaposition of their respective text is interesting; when she died she was merely “Daughter of Mr. & Mrs. T.C. Gage” but the stone crafted 99 years later identifies her as “Niece of Mr. & Mrs. L. Frank Baum” and confidently deems her the “Namesake for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.” Flowers are placed at the grave each year on June 11th and November 11th in remembrance of her birth and death, as well as at Christmas.
As I walked away from Dorothy’s resting spot in the snow back to the warm car, I couldn’t help but have this image flash through my mind:
I felt there just had to be more to this story, but trips to the Bloomington Public Library and McLean County Historical Society fell short on information beyond what is found in old articles and at the cemetery. But really, what else can truly be said of an infant who briefly lived and died over one hundred years ago? Especially when Thomas Gage, a traveling salesman, moved his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota a year after Dorothy’s death.
I’ve seen a fair share of “famous graves” in my day—Jim Morrison, Martin Luther King, and Edgar Allan Poe among them—but it’s strange and humbling to think that, right there in Bloomington, Illinois rests the namesake for what is arguably the most well—known heroine in American film and children’s literature. And as one of more than 23,000 people buried at Evergreen Memorial Gardens, I think it’s fair to say she has undoubtedly impacted the world more than any of the others, by inspiring the story that in the opening dedication of its film version states: “Time has been effortless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”
And is also dedicated to the Young at Heart...
Breathe, breathe in the air,
Don't be afraid to care,
Leave but don't leave me,
Look around and chose your own ground,
For long you live and high you fly,
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry,
And all you touch and all you see,
Is all your life will ever be,
Run, run rabbit run.
Dig that hole, forget the sun,
And when at last the work is done,
Don't sit down, it's time to dig another one,
For long you live and high you fly,
But only if you ride the tide,
And balanced on the biggest wave,
You race toward an early grave.