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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Virginia City, Nev.

Cemetery sleuths won't rest

Historical preservationists in an old Nevada mining town have few clues as they reunite stolen artifacts with the proper graves. Then there's talk of a curse.

February 21, 2010|By Ashley Powers

"They cited examples of 'bad luck' that ranged from sickness and death to divorce. They sought a firm promise . . . that it would be placed in its 'rightful location.' This was thought to 'reverse the curse,' " Wheeler wrote in her thesis. No one volunteered that their misfortune had abated, though Wheeler didn't ask.

Once the cemeteries got fences in 2004, vandalism plummeted more than 80%. In 2005, the cemetery group notched another victory when the Nevada Legislature raised cemetery vandalism from a misdemeanor to a low-level felony.

These days, the cemeteries are more parks for the living than monuments to the dead, with about 100 visitors a day -- sometimes led by tour guides in period costumes -- and more marriages than funerals.

Storey County officials once considered locking the cemeteries at dusk, in hopes of preventing vandalism. At a public meeting, one woman said the townsfolk would never acquiesce. Too many of them, she said, fondly remembered downing beers or losing their virginity on cemetery grounds.

The discussion abruptly ended.

'Tell me I'm right!'

One afternoon, Wheeler and Dillon drove the marble cherub from the history center to Silver Terrace. Headstones were sunken and fencing askew, as though someone had given the hills a good shake.

Dillon lugged the cherub into the cemetery. Wheeler's teenage son had guessed it belonged to the grave of Lewis Horace Osbiston, who was 1 month old when he died in 1874. The baby's resting place was near the cemetery entrance, giving the cherub smugglers an easy getaway.

"Come on, tell me I'm right! Tell me I am right!" Wheeler called to Dillon.

He placed the cherub on the massive grave marker. He leaned in. On the left side, the cherub and the base were similarly chipped. He thumbed the marble. Both cherub and base had equally "sugared," or deteriorated to something rough and granular.

He turned toward Wheeler, smiling. She wrapped him in a hug. When they returned to the history center, she greeted Bedeau by exclaiming: "My cherub found a home!"

ashley.powers@ latimes.com

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