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Tombstone Keeps Controversy Alive Over a Death

May 12, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — Somewhere in America there probably is a relative of a turn-of-the-century Army private named Dennis O'Leary who can solve one of the mysteries of the Old West.

A life-size statue of the 23-year-old soldier is in Santa Fe National Cemetery.

It's the only statue in the cemetery.

Among row after row of 16,000 identical, snow-white, two-foot-high government-issue headstones in the graveyard are many commemorating heroes from the Civil War through Vietnam.

Others who achieved fame and are buried here include Charles Bent, first American governor of the Territory of New Mexico, killed Jan. 19, 1847 in an Indian uprising at Taos.

Why the Statue?

There's a headstone for Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Hurley, secretary of war in President Hoover's Cabinet and U.S. ambassador to China in 1944-45; and another for the grave of Oliver LaFarge, author of "Laughing Boy," the story of an Indian youth caught between his tribe's traditional life and the forces of modern society that won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1930.

Six Medal of Honor winners are buried here.

None of the famous or heroic men and women, however, have statues.

So, why the statue to Pvt. Dennis O'Leary who died April 1, 1901 at Ft. Wingate, N. M., a little-known outpost with 76 men?

The statue is a sandstone carving of O'Leary in his Army uniform, holding his hat, wearing knee-high boots and a belt with bullets. He is depicted seated and leaning against a tree trunk. His name, age, date of death and Company I 23rd Infantry are engraved on the statue.

"Ever since I began working here in 1960 people have been asking me questions about the O'Leary tombstone," Robert Bustamante, 46, cemetery foreman, says.

"They can't help but notice it. It stands out like a sore thumb."

Bustamante and others who work in the graveyard, one of the nation's 110 national cemeteries, repeat the oft-told tale of Pvt. Dennis O'Leary:

Carved It Himself

Legend has it he was an unhappy soldier stationed at the remote outpost. He is supposed to have carved the statue in his free time out of sandstone in the mountains not too far from the fort, even engraving the date of his death on the tombstone.

According to the story, he wrote a suicide note describing his carving and its location and asked it be placed over his grave. Then he reportedly shot himself.

Military records, however, show a Pvt. Dennis O'Leary died of tuberculosis at Ft. Wingate on April 1, 1901.

Yet, the legend has persisted ever since the remains of O'Leary and the statue were moved from Ft. Wingate to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1911, when the fort was disbanded and all its graves moved here.

Well-Known Story

It's a well-known story to the people of Santa Fe.

"Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come into the office and comment about the statue," says Harold Trujillo, 34, cemetery representative. "It certainly is an eye-catcher.

"It would be nice if someone would set us straight and tell us the circumstances surrounding the carving of the strange tombstone.

"And let us know if Pvt. O'Leary did, in fact, die of TB or whether he actually committed suicide and someone altered his service records for whatever reasons."

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