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Uncover the History: The Black Angel

This blog was written by Richard Warner. Richard Warner serves as president of Preserve Council Bluffs and as an officer of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. He has edited the Historical Society’s member publication for over thirty years and co-authored four books about local history. He also hosts the podcast “Accidentally Historic” and is a frequent speaker on topics of local history. Dr. Warner is a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Creighton University (BS, DDS) and UNO (MA).

She doesn't look like she's trying to kill you. Yet, the Black Angel has inspired so very many malevolent tales in her time at the edge of Fairview Cemetery. She has been standing there, gazing west, for over 100 years. She appears very serene, with an expression of sadness or maybe hope... she extends her right hand, as though welcoming a visitor. Or rather could it be luring the visitor in?

It’s the eyes… it’s got to be the eyes.  Sometimes they have the disconcerting ability to follow you as you move… those eyes can imprison the viewer and not release their hold… and there is the curse of her stare… Tales are told of those who looked into her eyes at midnight and suffered an early demise.  And her occasional flight from her perch when she thought no one was watching… or perhaps she didn’t care… because that rather fulfills her destiny.  After all, she was intended to symbolize continued life after death.

Ruth Anne Dodge, the wife of General Grenville M. Dodge, it seems was prepared for her passing through a series of dreams. She found herself on the rocks of a lonely shore she had never seen before. It was a peaceful place, with a peculiar brooding stillness. She recalled it seemed nature held her breath while she sat there… as though something of great importance was to happen any moment. Suddenly out of the mist a boat appeared, moving evenly, steadily, and coming nearer… but it was an unusual boat… it had no sail or visible means of locomotion, yet moved gracefully over the water, and was covered with roses.

Standing at the bow of the boat was a beautiful young woman. She seemed to look at Mrs. Dodge but yet look through her. She was carrying a vessel, like a Grecian urn, the other arm extended in an inviting gesture to partake of what she carried. Mrs. Dodge declined, and the vision went away. Three nights the spirit appeared; twice she refused, but on the third night she drank the water.

Suddenly she felt younger.  She felt uplifted, and music started and angels sang and she was freed from every burden… in describing the tale to her daughter she said she drank of the water of life, and it gave her immortality.  Mrs. Dodge departed her earthly existence a few days later.

So if the Black Angel is intended to be an angel, why is she taken as being so morbid and mystifying?  Maybe it’s because she stands at the edge of a cemetery… or perhaps it's her uninviting dark color… or that fact that she was inspired by a ghost.  Or that the human model the sculptor used when he made her was implicated in a sensational murder in New York, fled the country, and spent the last 64 years of her life in an insane asylum.   Maybe the angel is ashamed.  The Dodge family spent a fortune to have her made by the most expensive sculptor in the country, but were so embarrassed by the scandal over her model they didn't even hold a public dedication for her.  She just appeared one gloomy day without fanfare... and has been sitting there at the edge of the cemetery ever since.

Interested in learning more about the Black Angel? Tune into the Accidentally Historic Podcast episode "The Black Angel's Secret" for more! 

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