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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Walking among the Dead
Richard Andis & the Concordia Cemetery

El Paso, Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When Richard Andis goes to work every day, he spends his eight hours walking among the dead. And he loves it.

A retired submariner who came to Texas from Washington State to help take care of his elderly parents, Andis is with a private security company retained by the Concordia Heritage Association to keep an eye on the sprawling El Paso cemetery and its 65,000 or so graves. Considered one of the more historic grave yards in the West, it covers 54 acres and is the final resting place for both the respected and disreputable, rich and poor of all ethnicities.

A trapper turned trader, Kentucky-born Hugh Stephenson and his wife Juana Maria began ranching in the area in 1842. Twelve years later, he built a chapel named San Jose de Concordia el Alto for his family and others in the community.

On Feb. 6, 1856, a pet deer fatally gored Mrs. Stephenson. The distraught rancher buried her near the Concordia chapel, the cemetery’s first grave. When Stephenson lost his land following the Civil War, his son-in-law bought it at a forced sale in 1867 and in turn sold Stephenson’s heirs equal portions for $1 each.

As El Paso boomed after the arrival of the railroad in 1881, the city purchased some of the Stephenson land for a pauper’s cemetery. Over the next decade, various groups acquired sections to serve as their cemetery. Today, African-Americans, Chinese, Euro-Americans and Hispanics share the cemetery. Its various sections include sections those set aside for Catholics, Jews, Mormons and Protestants as well as assorted fraternal organizations and military veterans.

These days, the sprawling grave yard is a popular tourist destination. But back in the 1960s and 70s, gang members and other unsavory types liked to hang out there, causing far more fright than the permanent “residents.”

Two of Concordia’s more famous gravesites lay empty. During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa’s ally Pascual Orozco was buried at Concordia, but later his remains were returned to his native country. Orozco’s one-time enemy, former Mexican President Victoriano Huerta also was buried at Concordia, but his body was later moved to El Paso’s Evergreen Cemetery.

The grave attracting the most interest is that of John Wesley Hardin, the Old West’s most sanguinary shootist. Pick a number, he’s blamed for as many as 41 killings. While he probably didn’t shoot that many people, by most accounts Hardin was not the sort you’d want to annoy, especially when he was in his cups.

But on Aug. 19, 1895, along with ample sips of whiskey, he took three .45 slugs in El Paso’s Acme Saloon. A century later his descendants tried to get Hardin’s body reburied in Nixon in South Texas, but a district court injunction barred that.

For years, there wasn’t much to see at his grave site, just a flat granite marker. Today, to prevent vandalism or worse, his grave is protected by a stone and metal-barred enclosure fittingly reminiscent of a small jail.

John Selman, the man who killed Hardin, also is buried at Concordia.

In addition to his activities on both sides of the law, during the Civil War future El Paso constable Selman served in the Confederate Army. Because of that, he has a traditional white marble veteran’s monument giving his outfit.

Two recent visitors noted a pair of quarters lying on the base of Selman’s marker.

“That’s a veteran’s tradition dating back to the Vietnam War era,” Andis explains. “When a veteran puts a penny on a grave, it stands for respect. A nickel means you went through boot camp together. A dime means you served in his unit. A quarter means you were there when he died.”

Given that Selman was shot to death by U.S. Marshal George Scarborough on April 6, 1896 less than a year after Hardin’s smoky demise, no one who served with him, much less anyone who saw him die, could possibly be alive. So, either a couple of veterans with senses of humor recently visited the grave or there’s a ghost or two about.

Indeed, with so many graves, the cemetery could be the home of many a ghost. But Andis says none have ever manifested themselves in his presence.

“The only ghosts I see are the white plastic bags that fly by when the wind’s blowing like it is today,” he says.

Clearly a tidy-minded sort, Andis picks up trash as he makes his daily rounds in the cemetery.

In addition to watching over a fair-sized city’s worth of graves, Andis is an unofficial public relations guy for the cemetery. He carries copies of a brochure offering an overview of the cemetery’s history and brief stories of some of its more famous occupants and if he’s not busy, can be persuaded to give a free, unofficial tour. He also helps people find graves.

A history buff, in an ongoing project, Andis has identified and marked on a Google Earth map the graves of 203 veterans whose service dates back as far as the Mexican War in the mid-1840s.

While respectful of the dead and those who come to visit their graves, Andis has a decidedly lively sense of humor.

“When people ask about my job, I tell them it is pretty dead around here, but I get very few complaints,” he says. “In fact, my customers are eternally grateful.”

© Mike Cox February 26, 2015 column
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