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Tribute to the First Gravedigger
Alex Giardino discovers very San Francisco history beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

By Alex Giardino

If you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, you race over the crushed tombstones of thousands of early San Franciscans. I recently learned about two men whose gravemarkers met such a disrespectful fate. They were founders of our city's theater tradition.

On January 2, 1875, an actor named William Barry died in his hotel room at 118 Post Street. Barry had made a name for himself as the First Gravedigger in "Hamlet," a role he played to rave reviews innumerable times on our city's stages. He died of drinking and a broken heart because, at age 63, he had recently been recast as the Second Gravedigger.

Fellow actors with the California Theatre Company arranged Barry's funeral and buried him in the same plot with Barry's old friend, a female impersonator and comedic actor turned police sergeant, James Evrard, who had died in 1871. Barry's obituary said, "The name BARRY has been familiar among Californians. He has ever been a favorite on the stage." Elsewhere, Barry was described as "eccentric," a "comedian of rare merit" and Edwin Booth's "boon companion."

Evrard and Barry reposed together in the Masonic Cemetery for 56 years, until the early 1930s when all the cemeteries in San Francisco closed. Since Evrard and Barry had no families, the two actors were moved to their second final resting place, to Colma's Woodlawn Cemetery, to a mass grave with all the other unclaimed dead. The city repurposed their original tombstone, along with thousands of others, as landfill in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge approaches.

How ironic it is to think of the many times Barry tossed skulls to Hamlet and wisecracked that only gravediggers build the most enduring houses.

I discovered Evrard and Barry while researching early theater history because they animate the archives. They spent decades entertaining San Franciscans and, in the process, established our theater tradition. These men belong to us. They're our collective ancestors. I wish the mass grave at least listed their names.

They deserved that much.

With a Perspective, I'm Alex Giardino.

Alex Giardino is a writer, translator and community college instructor.

 

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