While cutting my hair one day, my barber asked me if I knew of any famous people buried in Colma. It got me wondering, so I called up Michael Svanevik, a local historian and co-author of "City of Souls: San Francisco's Necropolis at Colma." He told me there's two categories of famous dead folks in Colma: the household names and the people who've made a mark on San Francisco in particular.
Find a map of these graves at the bottom of this post.
Joshua Abraham Norton, aka Emperor Norton
Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in San Francisco just before he turned 30. He had done business in South Africa before immigrating and started investing in commodities when he arrived in San Francisco. He was quite wealthy and influential during the early years of the Gold Rush. But a bad investment and subsequent legal battles left him bankrupt at the age of 38. Norton went quiet for a time, but reemerged on the scene by proclaiming himself to be the first emperor of the United States in San Francisco's Daily Evening Bulletin.
He issued many proclamations after that, many of them quite progressive for his time. He was a well-known character around town, so when he collapsed on the street and died of a suspected stroke, thousands of people attended his funeral. By then he was a poor man, but his old friends in the business community interceded and paid for his burial.
Since his death more than 140 years ago, Emperor Norton has become a beloved San Francisco icon. Respected for his panache and tolerant views, he has captured the imaginations of generations of San Franciscans.
His grave is at Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Francis Joseph "Lefty" O'Doul
Born in the Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco in 1897, Joseph "Lefty" O'Doul was known for his pitching and hitting while playing baseball for the San Francisco Seals, a Pacific Coast League team. Eventually he was drafted into the major league and moved to the East Coast. O’Doul spent time playing for the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Phillies and Yankees throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. In 1935, O'Doul took a job managing the San Francisco Seals, solidifying his status as a hometown hero. He was also a baseball ambassador to Japan both before and after World War II. He was inducted into both the U.S. and Japanese Halls of Fame. Look for Lefty's name on the Oracle Park entrance near the Third Street drawbridge, which is also named after O'Doul.
O'Doul is buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.
Born in Martinez and raised in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, Joe DiMaggio is a celebrated baseball player known for his hitting. He started his career as a player with the San Francisco Seals. In 1935, DiMaggio became the Pacific Coast League MVP after helping the Seals win the team's ninth consecutive championship. This was the same time that "Lefty" O'Doul was managing the team. DiMaggio went on to play professionally for the New York Yankees, becoming a household name after the team's 56-game winning streak. He's also known for his marriage to film star Marilyn Monroe — the couple were even married at San Francisco City Hall — although the marriage lasted less than a year.
DiMaggio is buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery.
The Hearst family (George, Phoebe and William Randolph)
Many in the Hearst family have achieved fame and fortune, starting with George, a miner who made smart investments in gold, silver and copper mines. He acquired large swaths of land in California and the West, and soon became a millionaire. George bought The San Francisco Examiner in 1880 and then went on to serve as a U.S. senator. George's wife, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, used the family's wealth to fund local philanthropic projects. She put up a big portion of the money that started the University of California, Berkeley.
George and Phoebe's son, William Randolph, took over ownership of The San Francisco Examiner from his father. He built the paper into a successful enterprise and then expanded into the East Coast media market when he purchased The New York Daily Journal. Today, Hearst Communications owns more than 360 businesses.
The Hearst family is buried in a mausoleum in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park that looks like part of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, and is made entirely of marble.
Local people history forgot
While there's at least a chance you’ve heard of Joe DiMaggio or William Randolph Hearst, chances are you may not have heard of some other local legends buried in Colma. They may not be as famous nationally, but they made a mark locally.
Born in San Francisco in 1887, Beachey was a well-known stunt pilot. He was best known for a trick called the "suicide dive," in which he would fly as high as he could, turn off his engine and then hurtle toward the ground. Just before impact, he would switch the engine back on and pull out of the dive. The trick gave crowds a thrill. He performed it at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in front of thousands of fans. Sadly, this would be his last attempt. When Beachy went to restart the motor after his free fall it malfunctioned and he crashed to his death.
Beachy is buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. Look for a grave with a biplane engraved on it.
Local historian Svanevik says, "This duel was a personal thing." It may have been a personal dislike, but it also was political. The two men were members of opposite political parties and regularly argued about the issue of slavery, then a hotly debated topic throughout the country. Both men had written harsh things about one another in the press, and their arguments were highly publicized.
The opponents met at Lake Merced on September 13, 1859, along with a surgeon and witnesses. 3 … 2 ... 1 … boom! Terry fired a fatal bullet, puncturing Broderick's lung. The senator would die three days later and be buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery in San Francisco under a huge monument. When the city of San Francisco dug up its buried bodies, Broderick was transferred to Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma. There's a monument marking the site of the duel near Lake Merced.
Some of the Bay Area's most iconic buildings are the work of architect, and local notable, Arthur Brown. San Francisco City Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, Berkeley City Hall and Hoover Tower at Stanford all are his designs. He also was involved with designing Coit Tower. Svanevik calls Brown "the architect that designed San Francisco."
Brown is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.
Born and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown, Betty Ong was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to be hijacked on September 11, 2001. She became a national hero after alerting authorities about what was going on, leading the Federal Aviation Administration to close the national airspace. The information she provided also helped the FBI in their investigation of the attacks.
Ong's body was never found, but her family has memorialized her at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.
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