Sarah Carney is buried next to her son, but you’d never know it. Her bones are resting beside him under an unmarked patch of grass in the family plot of the Riverview Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. I’d show you a picture of her headstone, but there never was one.
Directly adjacent to Riverview is one of Richmond’s most popular tourist attractions: Hollywood Cemetery. If it weren’t for the headstones, a visitor to Hollywood might think she had stepped into a lovely park: gracefully curving roads lined with stones, fully grown trees dappling the grass with sunlight, a view of the James River that can’t be beat. Add the headstones and you still have a place of beauty along with several notable dead Virginians. You get the picture.
Riverview is different. It also borders the river, but that is about the only similarity. The place is not run-down by any means, it’s just stark. Modest headstones are arranged line-by-line for as far as the eye can see. The city maintains the cemetery and does the best job that it can using inmates to bear the burden of keeping up the landscaping.
Of course, only so many of the local prisoners pass the behavior screenings that permit them to work outside of the city jail walls. So, when I was last there, on a hot summer day, the handful of available inmates were working feverishly to keep up with the grass, which seemed to grow like weeds right in front of me. I tried seeking out the grave on my own, really never minding a stroll through a cemetery. But it was sweltering, so I enlisted the help of the manager of the cemetery to try to physically find my third great grandmother Sarah, since she had been eluding me on paper.
The manager searched the digitized cemetery records and found Sarah Carney listed there among a few other McKenney relatives, including her son and his first wife. He made a copy and showed me that she was there, right beside them — had been all along.
How could that be, I wondered. I’d been there at least a couple of times before to find the family and to gather information and I’d never seen her grave. So, the manager kindly walked me over to the family’s plot. Not too far from the offices of the cemetery and even closer to the old carriage house that would have been there when Sarah’s coffin had arrived that February day, he pointed to where she had been buried: Plot I, Division 6, Section Number 6, Grave Number 4.
The slight indention in the ground, the proximity to her kinsfolk, and a piece of paper were the only things revealing the secret to where she had been all of those years. No one had been there when she died. No headstone had ever been purchased by her family to mark her grave. She had passed on less than 100 years ago, yet she had been long forgotten.
Now that I have found her final resting place, I want to know about her life.
Here is what I have found:
- Sarah had one son, William H. “Michael” McKenney, who was born October 15th, 1859.
- On the 1937 death certificate of Sarah’s son, her maiden name is listed as what looks like “Sarah Llearthers” of Orange County, Virginia.
- Family lore has it that William H. McKenney’s parents were William “John” McKenney and Sarah Leathers, both of Orange County, Virginia. William H.’s mother’s maiden name on his death certificate was provided by Sarah’s granddaughter, Elizabeth (Lillie) McKenney Hicks, and if we can read her name as a hastily written Sarah Leathers, these two pieces of information would be consistent.
- On the register of William H. McKenney’s November 24th, 1880 marriage to Judy A. Alexander, he lists his place of birth as Orange County, Virginia and his parents as John and Sarah McKenney.
- The record of William H. McKenney’s marriage to Martha V. Kates in October 1915 (a second marriage), lists his place of birth as Richmond and his parents as John and Sarah McKenney.
- On the 1880 and 1900 census records, Sarah is found in the city of Richmond, Virginia listed as Sarah Carney. She can also be found in Richmond in 1910 listed as Martha Carney. In all of those records, she is classified as widowed and as being born in both 1840 and 1845.
- Sarah and William and/or John cannot be found together in the 1860 or 1870 census records in Virginia — at least, not by me. I’ve tried to find them separately or alone under many variations of the surnames Carney, McKenney, and Leathers.
- There is a Sarah Leathers, born about 1837, living in Orange County, Virginia on the 1850 census. I just can’t be sure this is my Sarah Leathers/McKenney/Carney. A circumstantial clue, though, is that one of Sarah’s grandsons, William E. McKenney, does marry a woman by the name of Mary E. Leathers. This same Mary E. Leathers was the granddaughter of Sarah Leather’s brother, Levi Leathers.
- In several iterations of the city directory for Richmond, Virginia, Sarah is listed as Sarah Carney, widow of John Carney. I did not find any directories listing her as residing with a living John Carney (or John McKenney, for that matter).
- It appears that Sarah spent most of her live as a tenant in other family’s homes, moving frequently.
- Sarah M. Carney’s death certificate from February 26th 1916, shows that she had been living at the White City Home in the Madison Ward of the city of Richmond. She had been there for two years and one month and was seen by the same doctor throughout her stay there. Apparently, no next of kin was there at the time of her death and the night clerk, W. J. Tyler, signed as informant on her death record. Her place and date of birth were unknown, as were the names of her parents. The next day, according the document, she was buried at the Riverview Cemetery. Her age was documented as 78, which places her birth around 1838.
- A quick Google Books search turns up a 1915 annual report from the city’s mayor. In that report, the City Home is described as a place where the poor are cared for and allowed to convalesce until death.
- It occurred to me that, since Sarah gave birth to William H. in 1859, but no record of her living with a husband was found, that she might be a widow of the Civil War. However, I was not able to find any documentation of Sarah requesting a Civil War pension.
- I did a quick search of the records of Orange County, Virginia at the Library of Virginia to see if there had been any wills under the surnames Carney, Leathers, or McKenney that could tie those families to my Sarah, but did not come up with anything. I will need to go back to complete a more deliberate, exhaustive search of their Orange County, VA records.
And so, for now, the paper trail has turned into a brick wall. I am more intrigued than ever to find out who Sarah was. Where did she come from? Who were her parents? Who was the father of her only child? Who did she marry and how was she widowed? How and why did she come to Richmond? What was her daily life like? What were her relationships with her son and grandchildren like?
Many of these questions cannot and never will be answered. It is my goal, though, to study advanced genealogy methodology and research techniques so I can solve at least a few mysteries like the one of Sarah Carney.
I also plan to properly mark her grave. Better 100 years late than never!