Mystery solved: Herald readers shed light on century-old American grave in Colombian town

The tombstone of Geo Frederic Joseph Russell in Turbo, Colombia, remained a mystery until Miami Herald readers solved it.
The tombstone of Geo Frederic Joseph Russell in Turbo, Colombia, remained a mystery until Miami Herald readers solved it. Miami Herald

That didn’t take long.

Less than 24 hours after the Miami Herald posted a story seeking clues about Frederic Joseph Russell, who was buried in Turbo, Colombia, in 1897, several readers had unearthed details

While we couldn’t find traces of the wayward American in Colombia’s national archives or major databases, genealogical research sites did shed light on the young journalist. The Salt Lake Tribune of May 16, 1897, carried his obituary under the title “A Youthful Livingstone — Died of Jungle Fever in the Wilderness of Colombia.”

“The readers of this and other newspapers will recall with pleasure a series of travel sketches written from the wilderness of British Guiana and Venezuela and published under the name of G. Frederic Russell,” the paper wrote.

Born Dec. 10, 1874, in Indianapolis, Russell abandoned his studies at 17 “to take up the more serious work of life”

Another reader tracked down Russell’s passport application in Philadelphia. On the Feb. 14, 1896, form, Russell was described as being 5 feet 8 inches tall, with “full lips” and teeth that were “large, white and regular.”

His listed profession was “journalist” and it said he planned to return to the United States “within a year.”

In South America, Russell wrote about “swizzle” — a once famous cocktail in Guiana that’s now virtually extinct, and wove tales about gold mines “in the rank jungles of Guiana,” and the “fever haunted swamps” of the Orinoco along the Venezuelan border.

As local historians in Turbo suspected, it was a fever (likely malaria or yellow fever) that killed Russell.


His obituary said the 22-year-old had survived “one attack of fever” in Colombia before succumbing to a second round on Jan. 11, 1897. At the time of his death he was on a boat on the Atrato River trying to make it to a U.S. consulate.

“He died in his state-room, attended only by a native, as nearly as can be ascertained by the [meager] reports that have come,” the obituary stated.

When the current cemetery caretaker, Ebelio Cortéz, found Russell’s granite tombstone two decades ago, it was abandoned and being used as a bench. Cortéz moved it to a spot near the entrance of the graveyard, beneath a bush.

According to a document unearthed by another Miami Herald reader, Russell’s original marker was a simple cross made of green wood and tied together with a vine.

A few months after Russell’s death, William Willard Howard went to Turbo to visit the site at the request of the U.S. consulate in Cartagena.

Howard provided this touching description of the grave:

“By some strange coincidence, which one might almost regard as an intelligent sympathy in nature, a slender clinging vine has sprung from the earth at the foot of the cross, and has twined itself about the shaft in regulated spirals until its top waves a few inches above the top of the cross,” he wrote. “A bud is growing on the vine near the arm of the cross, and probably it will blossom in due time.”