Bee County Historical Commission Chair Barbara Welder addresses members and guests in the Dougherty Room at the library.
Toppled tombstones at St. Joseph’s Cemetery wait for warmer weather before they can be repaired.
Texas Historical Commission Program Coordinator for Cemetery Preservation Jenny McWillliams offers ideas.
When they got down to business last Thursday in the Dougherty room of the library, the dim light made it difficult to discern in the face in the 1940s portrait of the lady for whom the room is named.
About three dozen people were gathered to discuss cemetery vandalism. Except, vandalism seemed too flippant a word to apply to more than 300 tombstones toppled in the night.
“The people who did this are not hoodlums,” Bee County Historical Commission chair Barbara Welder said, “they are criminals.”
Repair is estimated at $150,000.
The vandalism can be compared—in degree of severeness—to kidnapping, aggravated assault, sexual assault, manslaughter, criminal trespass, arson, robbery and possession of a controlled substance.
Sadly, the focus of the group—members of the commission, teachers, cemetery officials, policemen—is nothing new.
“This is not a new thing,” Welder said. “All through history we find this happening. When I see that vandalism, I can’t even talk about it too much.
“But now we’re in the stage,” she said, slamming her fist on a projector table, “to do something about it.”
Helping them decide was Jenny McWilliams, with the Texas Historical Commission in Austin and its program coordinator for cemetery preservation.
“Many of you already know what has to be done,” she said, “because even though your cemeteries have been vandalized, it will happen again, so it’s time to be prepared.”
The vandalism here was not unusual, but it was extreme. The reason it was extreme is because the vandals felt very comfortable. They could do whatever they wanted; no one was watching.”
The very nature of cemeteries, what makes them so attractive, is that they are peaceful, pastoral, secluded and dark at night – the very characteristics that make them appeal to vandals.
“Darkness attracts nonsense,” McWilliams says.
She profiled the typical vandal.
“Research generally shows they are 18 to 25 years old,” she said. Unfortunately, few are caught.
She predicts the desecration at the Beeville cemeteries was done by one or more individuals knocking the tombstones over with their feet.
To prevent access at night seems obvious, she said. “Think of what kind of damage could be done if they got in there with a pickup that has a grill guard.”
Guarding St. Joseph’s, Glenwood and St. Rose cemeteries and Potters Field against future attack is as simple as it is expensive:
•Lock them up (gates closed at night)
•Better lighting, triggered by motion detectors.
•Security cameras, considered an empty threat because, to be effective, they need to be equipped with high definition night vision and triggered by motion detectors – at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
All three are expensive.
But other solutions, which McWilliams also favors, are cheaper. All involve increasing the number of daily visitors.
“Plant wildflowers to encourage photographers to visit the cemetery,” she says. “Encourage the elderly to conduct evening cemetery walks as a physical-fitness exercise.”
Shirley O’Neil, with the Bee County Historical Society, offered another idea.
“Put out birdseed,” she suggested, “and have the birdwatchers come.”
The more people potential vandals see in a cemetery, the more likely they will leave it alone.
Beeville Police Chief Joe Treviño told the group that his department “has a game plan” that he would not divulge but also noted the police have few clues, despite a $5,000 reward offered by CrimeStoppers.
The conversation turned to another, longer-term method of raising the public visibility of a cemetery: tours—something that is growing in popularity around the state.
An annual two-night event in Victoria, for instance, has actors dressed in period costume standing beside individual tombstones at the city’s historic cemetery. Groups stop at each site while the actors portray the people buried there. Victoria Preservation, Inc. started the event about 15 years ago; revenues amount to $5,000 a year.
In other cities, cemetery organizations have organized self-walking tours linked to a cellphone. Rest the cellphone atop a tombstone, and it plays a recording of the history of the person buried there.
“It’s called ‘talking tombstones,’” someone said.
Representatives from the cemeteries have been meeting to formulate a joint fundraiser to better protect them.
Repair work on the toppled tombstones is pending because the putty type glue used to adhere the stones works only when the temperature is above 70.
While no firm consensus resulted from the meeting, the Rev. Richard Gonzales, the priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, said he was encouraged by the number of ideas proposed and the unity exhibited.
So was Dougherty, one suspects.
While vandals toppled a couple of family tombstones adjacent, they left her altar-sized memorial untouched.
As they left the meeting, few of those attending paid any attention to her portrait.
Had they looked, they would have noticed that if her face was not exactly smiling, it conveyed approval.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.