The mystery of The Reclining Lady of Iowa City

The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.
The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.

OAKLAND CEMETERY, Iowa City—What do you see in her? I am amazed at how many of you are drawn to this photograph of The Reclining Lady with her soft white curls and gentle curves. She touches something inside you.

She lies a little apart from the other stones in her cemetery, separated from the poets and ghost stories. I call her a lady, but if she is an angel, I do not envy her her tragic assignment, guarding the souls of a father and son who barely knew each other.

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In the early 1990s, air force psychiatrist Thomas Brigham and his colleague Alan London of Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Wash., found Dean Mellberg unfit for duty. Though Mellberg was reassigned for some time, it became obvious he did not have the mental stability to continue in the forces and was dishonourably discharged.

Brigham called the airman “a dangerous paranoid bordering on paranoid schizophrenia,” Brigham’s wife, Susan, told in January 2013. She recalled that the family talked about being prepared in case the man came after Brigham for ending his career. “We had loaded shotguns in the house, even with small children. … An entire mental hospital was warned.”

It wasn’t enough. Warned, yes, but staff of the base hospital could not have known Mellberg, after a night of carousing at an adult nightclub, would get in a cab carrying a bag with two assault rifles, then walk right through the hospital’s front doors to London’s office and shoot him to death. Brigham was the victim of Bullet No. 2. An 8-year-old girl, a middle-aged woman and a young woman’s fetus were the next to die. More than 20 people were wounded before Mellberg was shot to death in the parking lot.

It was 1994 and Brigham was 31 years old. He left behind his wife, daughter and 6-year-old son, Madison Thomas Brigham.

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“He entered his life premature and left prematurely,” Madison’s obituary says. “God speed on angel wings, my son, be held and loved in your father’s arms. “

Madison died in a car accident on a rural road in 2004. He was 16 years old.

It’s hard to know him, going on little more than his obituary, which paints the picture of a determined young man known for his love of the outdoors, hard work on the tennis court and fascination with American history. But looking deeper and following the little trail his mother has left, a more detailed picture emerges.

An accomplished horseman, he spent hours riding alone in the Iowa countryside. It appears the quiet Madison didn’t make friends easily, though he was fiercely loyal to those chosen to be in his circle. And so many were loyal to him, including the people who mentored and fathered him in the absence of Thomas Brigham.

Nearly two years after his death, his mother and stepfather founded Catalpa Corner Horse Park on their land in his honour. The community’s response to the eventing area speaks louder than even the most loving obituary. In August 2005, The West Branch Times wrote: “Phil Sawin and Dan Stark, both professional eventing course designers, came to lend their expertise. Paul Welsh, of Iowa City, engineered the magnificent water complex on the cross country course. Local business Cargill, which sponsors horse eventing nationally, agreed to donate feed for the horses and help with future events. Amish carpenters helped build several of the jumps. A Southeast Iowa Ambulance worker has agreed to donate his time, which would typically cost $120 per hour, at future Catalpa Corner trials. The list goes on and on.”

Madison’s picture hangs at the start of the course. “But it still doesn’t bring him back,” Susan told the West Branch Times.

He rests with his father, and The Reclining Lady watches over their souls.

The black angel and wild rumpus of Iowa City

The black angel of Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City.
The black angel of Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Iowa – “We’re off to have a wild rumpus!” declared one of the Aunties. “Would you like to join us?”

We were in the cemetery to see the black angel. She is tall – nine feet atop her four-foot pedestal – and beautiful. Her face is sad, chin turned slightly downward, her wings spread out at an angle. She is at once menacing and comforting. Legend says if you kiss her, you will die instantly.

The Auntie who spoke to us had a wide, friendly grin. The other stood shyly back. The young woman with them had a face shaped like the angel’s except her round blue-grey eyes were laughing. Soft brown hair fell straight down her back and over tattooed arms. The lone man in the group had his hair tied back and his long, full beard was not unkempt. Each young adult had a little girl on their back and two more – all of them blond and appropriately wild – wove around the party eager for the rumpus to begin.

Two friends pay their respects.
Two friends pay their respects.

Though we said we couldn’t join them – we were four hours from Omaha and it was nearly sunset – we let our own blond Wild Thing out to meet the menagerie that walked with them – a tiny dog named Penny and two waist-high wolfhounds, Tilly and Dashiel, who wanted nothing more than to lick a fresh baby face.

“But if you go this way,” the Auntie told us, swinging her arm (the one without the beer) toward the far side of the graveyard, “you’ll find a white angel reclining in the tall grass. You should see her, too.”

Trevor and I drove on ahead, leaving Melani and Jilly to join the rumpus.

“We might have lost them,” I sighed. “We could turn a corner and just never see them again.”

The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.
The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.

And yet, they turned up at the white angel shortly after we did. All the little girls were on their feet by then, zigzagging around headstones and perching on angels.

iowa“We call this Poet’s Corner,” the quiet Auntie told me. “Engel was a professor at the University of Iowa. Justice was a Pulitzer Prize-winner.”

The adventurers had gone on without us, meandering to a hill overlooking a devastatingly sad mausoleum with the statue of a mother in a rocking chair looking wistfully at her lost child. The first Auntie hushed everyone so we could hear the owl hooting from his home high up in a sycamore tree.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to Melani, “but if we’re going to make it to Omaha tonight, we have to leave.”

“But first follow the road to the left,” the Auntie advised. “There’s another person there, lying on her grave with her arms crossed. You’ll want to see her, too. Don’t worry about getting lost on the way out. Just remember: The black angel is always looking toward the exit.”

They waved us off as we said our thank yous for the company and the tour. We drove away, but their wild rumpus went on.