Mystery Tombstone and Druid’s Temple

by Seana Miracle

In late August of 2001, a board member of the Colma Historical Association was taking a walk along the old Southern Pacific railway line in Colma, California, the only Necropolis, (City of the Dead) in North America, when he discovered a large tombstone half buried in the dirt.  The 1000 pound tombstone was beautifully carved and bore some unusual markings, including an inverted triangle with the Eye of Providence.  The tombstone was near a local monument maker, who agreed to retrieve it and hold it in safe keeping until it’s proper location could be determined.


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In the meantime, the Secretary of the Historical Association, Richard Rocchetta, set about to see if he could find where the missing tombstone rightfully belonged.  He discovered that the tombstone had originally come from the Odd Fellows cemetery in San Francisco.  When cemeteries were forbidden in San Francisco at the turn of the century, most of the bodies were reinterred to Colma, California.  In searching the old handwritten burial records, Rochetta discovered that an H.J. Hartnagel had been buried in a mass grave at Greenlawn Cemetery along with 26,000 unclaimed bodies from Odd Fellows Cemetery.  Because the tombstone was found along the old railway line, Rochetta speculates that it may have fallen off the train car in transit to it’s new location, and the body placed in a mass grave when it could not be matched to a headstone.

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You can’t put an individual tombstone on a mass grave, and it would be impossible to locate or identify individual remains, so the hope of reuniting the headstone with its rightful owner quickly dissipated.  The only thing left to do was to find the proper home for Hartnagel’s headstone, which after presumedly sitting buried in the mud for nearly a century, was currently sitting in the back of the monument maker’s lot.  It was decided that the best place for the “Mystery Tombstone” was at the Colma Historical Association.  The monument maker installed it in a prominent place outside, and graciously applied his art to making a plaque that told the story. 

THE UNITED ANCIENT ORDER OF THE DRUIDS

Herman Joseph Hartnagel was an officer of the United Ancient Order of the Druids. The Druids were a fraternal organization very similar to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, or Knights Templar of the 19th century.  All of them claim ancient historical origins, and share similar rites, hierarchal structures and symbolism.  Like the Masons, the Druids were a mutual aid society, with no religious affiliations. While the Masons formed “Lodges,” and the Templars formed “Commanderies”  the Druids formed “Groves.” Whereas the Masons based their symbolism and rites on the Legend of Hiram Abiff, and the secret brotherhoods of ancient trade guilds, and the Knights Templar were based on the traditions of the medieval knights, the “United Ancient Order of the Druids” based their traditions on Merlin the Magician and the Arthurian legends.

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The symbolism featured on the “Mystery Tombstone” features an inverted triangle with an Eye of Providence, and a wreath made of oak and mistletoe.  Oak and mistletoe was considered extremely sacred to the ancient Druids.  According to Pliny’s Natural History,  when the rare mistletoe was discovered in large amounts in the branches of an old oak tree, it marked the tree as favored by the gods and was considered a good omen.  On the fifth day of the moon, the Druids would climb up into the sacred tree and cut the mistletoe down with a golden scythe.  They would then offer up two white bulls as a sacrifice, and celebrate with a large feast.

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 For the Ancient Order of the Druids, as opposed to the ancient Druids, the main significance of the oak tree and mistletoe has to do with the legend of Merlin the Magician.  In Wales there used to be a giant old oak tree in the middle of town known as “Merlin’s Oak.”  According to legend, Merlin was fathered by a demon and birthed by a witch inside of an old oak tree, where he was abandoned, and subsequently found by the Druids.  He then grew to be a very powerful Arch-Druid himself.  In his old age, Merlin was seduced by the Fairy Queen Vivian and tricked into giving away a very dangerous secret spell.  Vivian then turned his own magic against him, and used it to capture and entomb him inside of an old oak tree.

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In the initiation rites of the United Ancient Order of Druids, the story of Merlin and the oak tree is told without ever referring to his true name.  He is instead referred to as “Togo Dubeline.”  I suspect that “Togo Dubeline” was meant to be an anagram of “Do Not Beguile.”  This is done in the Masonic tradition and is similar to the Bohemian Club’s motto: “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.”  Both phrases are literary references that serve as talismans against deception and trickery, and remind members of the importance of upholding the sacred vows of secrecy.  Similar to the Masonic Legend of Hiram Abiff, Merlin was being unduly pressured to give up the tricks of his trade, and when he faltered and was tricked into giving his power away, it inevitably led to his own destruction.

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Birmingham Pageant Druids prepare to make a human sacrifice Photograph Birmingham Post and Mail

 

THE DRUID MECCA

 California became the mecca for the United Ancient Order of Druids after the first Grove was started in 1859 in Placerville.  There you will find a “Druids Monument” that features the same symbol found on the Mystery Tombstone, except that instead of an epitaph, in the center of wreath is a stone and lintel altar with a burning offering.  Placerville was an appropriate location for a Druid mecca, as it is known for it’s old growth oak forests, and is practically dripping in mistletoe.  Placerville was originally called “Hangtown” for its practice of hanging criminals in the branches of an old oak tree in the middle of town, eerily echoing both “Merlin’s Oak” in Wales, and the Druid practice of offering up sacrifices under the oak tree.

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The Ancient Order of the Druids was started in England in the 18th century, and they claimed William Blake as a honorary member or patron saint. The writings of scholars William Stukely and John Aubrey, who first proposed that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, were hugely influential to the Druid Revival.  Though their theories were later proven false, their writings stoked interest in the ancient Druids to at an all time high. Lacking much reliable historical information, the main sources of inspiration often came from fictional tales of King Arthur, which talked about the magical practices of mythical Druids such as Merlin or Morgana.  Perhaps not coincidentally, 1859, the same year that the United Ancient Order of Druids came to California, is when Lord Alfred Tennyson, who was enormously popular at the time, started writing “The Idylls of the King,” a cycle of twelve narrative poems about the Arthurian legends.

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Archdruid: Brother Guardian, are the Secret Avenues secure?

Guardian: They are all secure, Noble Archdruid. …

Archdruid gives Primitive knocks, Brothers resume seats, except Bards, who remain standing. A Past Archdruid lights Sacred Fire with lamp or taper. All other lights are now extinguished except candles. Director of Ceremonies instructs candidates to remove right hand from breast.

Archdruid: In your present state of darkness, what is it you most desire?

Candidate(s): Light.

Archdruid: Unveil their eyes and let them behold it.

THE DRUID TEMPLE

Our mystery man H.J. Hartnagel served as Grand Secretary of The Grand Grove of California of the United Ancient Order of the Druids, which was founded in San Francisco in 1865.  The original Druid’s hall was located near Bush and Kearney, but in the Golden Age of Fraternalism, it was quickly outgrown.  The Druids soon bought a nearby lot at 413 Sutter Street and built their first “Druid’s Temple” a few years later. It was here that H.J. Hartnagel, described as a quiet, dignified and trustworthy man, worked until the day that he died at the the tender age of 29. The Druids Temple is also where his funeral was held before he was buried (for the first time) in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in 1875.

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Another example of a United Ancient Order of Druids gravestone

The Druid Temple stood at 413 Sutter Street until the Great Earthquake of 1906, when it was reduced to rubble. In 1912, the Druids bought a lot at 44 Page Street and rebuilt a grand “New Druid’s Temple” that featured eight lodge rooms, a club room, a parlor, three banquet halls, three kitchens and a grand ballroom. Today, the New Druid Temple at 44 Page Street serves as the Kanbar Center for the Performing Arts. The lot next door to the original Druid’s Temple on Sutter Street, originally the site of the Temple Emanu-El, was used to build the colloquially named, Mayan themed “Temple of Doom.”

THE SACRED GROVES:

Sacred Groves are consecrated or sanctified natural outdoor spaces usually located among stands of old growth trees. Today there are several such sanctified groves in and around the Bay Area.  The privately owned 2700 acre Bohemian Grove  is nestled amongst trees that are thousands of years old and over three hundred feet tall. The AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park is another example of a Sacred Grove.  The most prominent Sacred Grove in San Francisco, most frequently used for Druidic ceremonies today, is also located in Golden Gate Park.  It is called the Monarch the Bear Grove, or more commonly referred to as the “Druid Circles.”  

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Bohemian Grove

The Monarch the Bear Grove, or Druid Circles, is located near the Academy of Sciences, in the old bear enclosures, which for many years housed the beloved “Monarch the Bear,” a grizzly bear that spent most of its life in captivity in Golden Gate Park.  Monarch the Bear is also an icon of the spirit of San Francisco; Monarch is the mascot featured on California’s state flag and Great Seal, but most importantly he came to represent the indomitable spirit of San Francisco following the near total devastation of the Great Earthquake in 1906.  As noted by the Monarch the Bear Institute, Monarch the Bear was captured at Samhain, which is an important Druid festival. Samhain occurs at the fall equinox when the hours of night start to overcome the hours of day, marking the beginning of winter.  As the Sun God descends into the Underworld, it is believed that the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin.  The timing would also explain why such a magnificent creature such as Monarch could be easily captured, as he was getting ready to hibernate for the winter.

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The bear is a very important symbol to the Druids. In the Arthurian tradition, the bear is a symbol of King Arthur, the once and future King.  The Name “Arthur” is derived from the Celtic word “artu,” which means bear, and King Arthur is known as the “Bear King.” Its not hard to see why an ancient elder bear, the last of it’s kind, named “Monarch the Bear,” or “King of the Bears,” would be held especially sacred to the modern day Druids.

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While little remains of it’s former bear inhabitants, the Monarch the Bear Grove is most well known today for it’s stone circles, where modern day Druids congregate and perform important ceremonies.  Like the mythical Stonehenge, the large stones used to form the Druid Circles in Golden Gate Park were brought from a far off land by the work of a sorcerer.  Similar to the Arthurian legend, where Merlin used magic to bring the ancient stones from Ireland to Stonehenge, in 1931, William Randolph Hearst brought the stones of a portion of an ancient abbey in Spain all the way to San Francisco.  The city could not afford to reassemble them, and so they sat in Golden Gate Park near the old bear enclosure for over 50 years, gradually becoming the “ancient ruins” of the park’s landscape.  As it turns out, they had not yet reached their final destination.

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It is not known when the modern day Druids started to perform ceremonies in the old bear pits, but presumedly it was sometime after the 1930’s, when the stones arrived.  The formal practice most likely began in earnest in the early 1960’s, when the modern day Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids was started, the Order which still utilizes and maintains several Sacred Groves throughout the Bay Area.  Unlike the UOAD, (United Ancient Order of Druids) which was a mutual aid society that disavowed itself of religious affiliations, the ODOB one was overtly Pagan, and modeled itself after the spiritual practices of the ancient Celts.

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In the early 1990’s, the stone blocks were bought by the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Cistercian monastery in Vina, California. The 800 year old limestone blocks are called the “Sacred Stones” by the Trappist monks at the Abbey, who, understanding their importance to the Neo-Druids, agreed to allow a number of the stone blocks to remain in the park. When park gardeners attempted to move the stones to use them elsewhere in the park, they met fierce opposition from the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, who insisted that the Monarch the Bear Grove was the equivalent of their church, and the ancient blocks were holy stones that helped to delineate a very sacred landscape.

The Mystery Tombstone at the Colma Historical Association could also rightfully be considered a “sacred stone” to the Druids. Like the sacred stones from Stonehenge and the sacred stones of the 16th century Spanish abbey, the headstone traversed a great distance, from one sacred place to the next.  Taking over 100 years to complete the long and arduous journey, the thousand pound, elaborately carved, Druid’s tombstone has finally found it’s final resting place, though not it’s rightful owner.

ADDITIONAL READING:

Special Thanks to historian Richard Rochetta for his original research, which is available to the public at the Colma Historical Association, where they are warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic about our wonderfully weird history.

“Resume of Arcane Associations 1896” – International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP)

“A Natural History” by Pliny the Elder, Book 16, Chapter 95 “Historical Facts Connected to the Mistletoe”

“The Idylls of the King” by Lord Alfred Tennyson

“The Golden Bough” by James Frazier, Chapter 68

 “Initiation Ritual” of the United Ancient Order of the Druids

“Placerville Now a Mecca for the Druids”  San Francisco Call, Volume 86, Number 20, June 20, 1899

“San Francisco is Proud of It’s Druid Temple” by C. A. Guglielmoni, California Druid Magazine, May 1925

“Temple Emanu-El of SF” by Chris Carlsson for FoundSF

“Sacred Groves of Northern California” by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids

“Phallic Religion in the Druid Tradition”  by John Michael Greer, The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, 2003

“Golden Gate Park Druid Circles” by Annetta Black for Atlas Obscura

“Where’s Ursus? Tracking Bear In San Francisco” by Tramps of San Francisco