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A buried mystery: Who’s the wayward American beneath the Colombian gravestone?

The tombstone of Geo Frederic Joseph Russell in Turbo, Colombia, remains a mystery for locals.
The tombstone of Geo Frederic Joseph Russell in Turbo, Colombia, remains a mystery for locals. Miami Herald

Near the entrance of a waterlogged cemetery in this sweltering port town is a century-old mystery etched in granite.

Chiseled into the face of an unassuming headstone is “Geo Frederic Joseph Russell —American Journalist —1874-1897.” There’s no epitaph, no place of birth, no clue about what might have led the young man to be buried in this far-flung nook of South America on Colombia’s Atlantic coast.

Update: Readers shed light on Russell

Local historians said they’re unaware of the tomb’s back-story. And the long-defunct Pisisi newspaper (a historical name for the region) didn’t mention the wayward American in its 1897 editions.

Colombia’s National Library — the equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress — turned up no clues, and databases in the United States also proved to be dead ends.

The man who seems to know most about the headstone knows very little about the 22- or 23-year-old journalist it belongs to. When Ebelio Cortéz first became the gravedigger and caretaker of the cemetery two decades ago, he found the granite slab knocked over in front of a crypt.

 

“People were using it as a bench,” said Cortéz, 59, as he surveyed the cemetery, which was flooded after a hard rain. “I don’t know where it was originally, but I thought it looked good over there.”

Indeed, the tombstone seems to have a place of honor: on a dry patch, near the cemetery’s main sidewalk, under a bush.

Buried Oddity

Russell is something of an oddity in the graveyard. While his is a marker without a body (at least not directly bemeath it) the site is full of bodies without markers.

Many of the anonymous dead here are from Colombia’s half-century civil conflict that hit this part of the country particularly hard. Others belong to the ranks of undocumented migrants who have drowned in the Gulf of Urabá, or perished in the jungles of the Darién, as they tried to make their way north through Central America.

Luis Vélez Arias, a historian and author, said Turbo was considered such a backwater that it had very little recorded history before he began conducting interviews in the 1980s. To complicate matters, most of the historically significant headstones — those belonging to families of merchants and shippers — are long gone.

“This is a town that has neglected its dead,” he said. “This is a town that doesn’t know its own history.”

While he has never discovered any details about Russell, he speculated the young man might have been felled in his prime by malaria.

But what would have brought him to this niche of South America in the first place?

The rubber boom of the 19th century attracted U.S. economic interests and explorers to the area, Vélez said. At one point, there were enough Americans in the region to merit an informal consulate.

“There was more than enough going on here to attract the interest of a journalist,” he speculated.

History also provides some intriguing options.

Why Here?

▪ War: In 1895, two years before Russell’s death, Colombia was wracked by a brief civil war that was put down by the Miguel Antonio Caro administration. Did Russell come to cover the South American tumult?

▪ Canal intrigue: During Russell’s time, the entire region was caught in the thrall of the greatest engineering challenge in history: building a trans-oceanic canal. In 1888 the French-backed Panama Canal Company had gone broke, and it wouldn’t be until 1903 before the United States reached an agreement to complete the Panama route (and in the process encouraged the isthmus to break free of Colombia). In the interim, however, other routes were being studied and promoted. Among them were two routes through Panama’s southern Darién jungle. One of them, the Atrato Napipi route, would have begun just yards from Russell’s tomb, in Turbo’s Gulf of Urabá, and ascended 150 miles up the Atrato River. That route had always been considered a long-shot, however, because it would have required digging a “ship tunnel” through the Napipi ridge in the heart of the jungle. But did Russell come to the region drawn by the tales of alternate canal routes?

▪ Gold: The discovery of gold in Canada’s western Yukon sparked the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99 that is thought to have attracted more than 100,000 prospectors. Decades earlier, during the California Gold Rush (1848-55), many East Coast speculators made their way to California by crossing the continent at Nicaragua and Panama. By the time of the Klondike, however, the Pacific Railroad was providing fast and cheap service to California, eliminating the need for the slow and dangerous Central American voyage. But could Russell have been on his way West, taking a historically significant and romantic route?

Several years ago, Cortéz the gravedigger said some people tried to haul away the mysterious tombstone as a curio, but he stopped them. “I told them that it belongs here,” he explained.

Maybe Russell’s story is also supposed to remain a mystery that doesn’t go beyond Turbo’s graveyard walls. But if Miami Herald readers have any theories, tips or hunches, please pass them along: jwyss@miamiherald.com

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