Outcast Cemetery

Laid to rest in a spot no one would find.

Several hundred yards away from the weather-worn fence surrounding the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Bodie, California, a single tombstone stands alone in the brush. The crude markings on the rock grave are of a cross and the name of the person buried underneath. There are no dates or sentimental verses etched on the stone. It simply reads ROSA MAY. Rosa May was a prostitute who moved to the wild, gold mining camp of Bodie in 1891. The thirty-year-old “sporting woman” was born in Pennsylvania. She came west at the age of twenty with the hope of making a fortune off the gold and silver miners. Prostitution was the single largest occupation for women beyond the Mississippi River, and Rosa May was a success in the line of work. She settled first in Virginia City, Nevada, but had a business in Carson City, Nevada, as well. Although she had regular customers in every location she worked, her heart belonged to bartender Erni Marks. She followed her lover to Bodie, where he served drinks at a saloon owned by his brother. Erni would not call on Rosa May during the day for fear of soiling his reputation, nor would he openly admit an association with the petite beauty. While he adamantly denied having a relationship with Rosa May to his family and friends, behind closed doors he professed his love to her. She returned the sentiment and dreamed of the day they could leave the area and marry. But both Erni and Rosa May struggled with various debilitating illnesses that shortened their life expectancies. Rosa frequently suffered from chills and fever, a condition that originated when she lived in the cold, flimsy parlor houses in the East. Erni was hampered with gout and had contracted a venereal disease. Erni promised to handle her funeral arrangements and see to it a monument was erected as her gravesite if Rosa May were to die before him. In 1911 Rosa contracted pneumonia and died at the age of fifty-seven. Erni’s always bleak financial situation prevented him from purchasing the headstone he assured Rosa he would buy. What’s more, attempts to have her buried within the cemetery were thawed. Prostitutes were not allowed to be “laid to rest” alongside members of “polite society.” Erni was forced to inter Rosa May in what was referred to as the “outcast cemetery.” A wooden cross marked the spot. Erni continued to work at the bar until 1919, when Prohibition drove him out of the saloon business. Relatives back East supported him until his death in 1928. Legend has it that he asked to be buried next to his “little girl,” Rosa, but he was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, far away from the outcast graveyard located in the Basin Range, east of the Sierra Nevada, thirteen miles east of U.S. Highway 395 in central California. In death as in life, Erni was publicly distant from Rosa May.