Final resting spot for 'bravest woman' an unmarked grave?

Riverview Memorial Park
Riverview Memorial Park general manager Sonya-Elizabeth Trachtman points to the unmarked grave believed to be that of the celebrated circus performer Lucia Zora. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO


In life, she was celebrated as the “bravest woman in the world,” riding around a circus ring on the trunk of an elephant or entering a steel cage with deadly lions and tigers. Her feats were celebrated in newspapers across the country and in her autobiography, “Sawdust and Solitude.”

But in death, Lucia Zora almost certainly lies in an unmarked grave in the Riverview Memorial Park cemetery in Fort Pierce, virtually unnoticed since her passing in 1936.

The burial spot believed to be Zora’s is in the family plot along with two other graves thought to be those of her parents, Milton and Myra Card. No memorial stones mark any of the graves, though cemetery officials confirm that three burial vaults are beneath the ground.

“It was just the three of them — she was an only child,” says Linda Bailey, a genealogist who has researched and written about the woman whose stage name was Lucia Zora but who came into the world as Zora Lucia Card. “I assumed nobody took care of it and for whatever reason didn’t do anything. It’s a mystery.”

Riverview cemetery records show that Mr. and Mrs. M.E. Card bought six burial plots in 1923. Milton Card, who established a sprawling pineapple plantation on South Indian River Drive south of Fort Pierce, died in 1927 at age 83, and Myra Card died in 1932 at 77, according to Bailey’s research. Zora, who had retired to Fort Pierce with her husband, elephant trainer Fred Alispaw, after their circus careers and an earlier retirement in Colorado, died just four years later at the age of 59. Her newspaper obituary says simply that she was buried “in the local cemetery.”

Bill Yates, whose family has been in the funeral business in Fort Pierce since the 1930s, says the “local cemetery” reference was to the Fort Pierce Cemetery, now known as Riverview Memorial Park.

Sonya-Elizabeth Trachtman, Riverview’s general manager, says the Card plot in Section O, Block 22 of the cemetery was thought to be vacant until the 1992 and 2004 burials of Bill and Marion Greenwood, when the three vaults were discovered. Mrs. Greenwood was a niece of Mary Esther Alispaw, the second wife of Fred Alispaw, who inherited the Card estate.

“According to cemetery custom, the man is buried on the left and the woman on the right — like a marriage ceremony — and the children are put at the feet,” Trachtman says. The Card burial plot shows three graves arranged according to that custom, Trachtman says. “I don’t know who else it could be.”

The names of the Cards and Zora are not in any burial records at Riverview. Both Trachtman and Yates explained that in the early days of the cemetery, which was run by volunteers, detailed records were not kept and burial permits were not required.

It’s anybody’s guess why no monument was erected. Zora would have had nine years before her own death to arrange for her parents’ gravestones. “They had that big house, and why they didn’t put a monument there I don’t know,” Yates says.

Zora had no children and was survived only by Alispaw. He married Mary Esther Hoeflich several years after Zora’s death and they lived in the sprawling house Milton and Myra Card built on South Indian River Drive. Fred died in 1957 and Mary Esther sold the house in 1964.

Mari-Lynn Herringshaw, Mary Esther’s great-niece, says the three vaults can only be those of Milton and Myra Card and Zora. “If there were three vaults there she’s got to be there,” Herringshaw says. “I can’t see Fred buying another plot for Zora when they already had six up there.”

Herringshaw dismisses any notion that the lack of a gravestone might have been intentional on Zora’s part in an effort to achieve the solitude she so desperately sought after her life in the circus.

“Whatever money Fred had, he was extremely tight with my aunt, and I’m sure he was with Zora, too,” Herringshaw says. “That was the main thing everybody said about Fred is that he was just so tight — or maybe he didn’t have any money.”

Herringshaw’s family inherited the Cards’ burial plots through their relationship to Mary Esther, who was buried in another part of the cemetery. Herringshaw, fascinated with Zora’s life since she was a young girl, says she’s always wondered where the circus celebrity was buried and only put the pieces together during the course of the reporting of this story by Indian River Magazine. She says she would have no objection if a monument were erected at the grave site to celebrate Zora’s life. “I think it would be neat,” she says.

The grave situation echoes the circumstances of another celebrated Zora who died in Fort Pierce — the author Zora Neale Hurston. Her grave was unmarked until fellow writer Alice Walker came upon it in 1973 and placed a headstone proclaiming her “A Genius of the South.” In October, a sculpture was also placed at the gravesite of Hurston, who was best known for her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

The lack of a grave marker at the Card plot is an ironic twist for a family that built an imposing home on South Indian River Drive three bricks thick. The house, a Fort Pierce landmark that still stands, is often referred to as “the elephant house” or “circus house” because of its connection to Zora and Fred and the widely circulated story that they raised a baby elephant there.

Herringshaw says the story goes that someone had sent the elephant to Fred — perhaps as a joke — and the animal was penned inside the grounds by a fence erected around the estate’s brick columns. “My mother recalled that he just sort of ran around the front yard,” Herringshaw says.

Edith Hoeflich Luke, who spent her preschool years growing up on the drive and is Mary Esther’s niece, says that when the Cards lived in the house one of the most prominent features on the estate was a large dock with a narrow-gauge track that extended to the front of the property. A push cart would be rolled down the dock to load pineapples aboard cargo boats.

Luke, 94, recalled the excitement that surrounded Zora when she arrived in Fort Pierce in the late 1920s.

“I remembered that she joined the Woman’s Club,” Luke says. “She was invited to everything. She showed the ladies her scratches and scars from training animals and so on. She was a very popular person.” Luke says the performer always went by one name. “She was never called anything but Zora, and she was billed as Zora — a single celebrity name.”

Luke frequently visited the house after her aunt married Fred Alispaw. Luke says it was decorated throughout with mementos from Fred and Zora’s life in the circus. “They had some skins of some of the big cats. The heads were on them and they were mounted on a pedestal — it was quite impressive. Some of the school classes were invited into the house to see the animal skins. The kids were crazy about it.”

Herringshaw recalled a baby elephant hide over the staircase as well as leopard and lion skins in the library and elephant tusks over the fireplace. “With beautiful script on one was the name Snyder,” says Herringshaw, referring to Fred and Zora’s favorite elephant, which went berserk after their retirement and had to be put down.

Herringshaw says an alligator head and hide, native American artifacts and snow shoes — perhaps from the Alispaws’ days in Colorado — also were in the house, as well as a huge gun cabinet, an elephant hook, a collection of ivory elephant statues, bullhorns, circus posters and Zora’s costume collection. “It was like going to a museum, but I had free run of the house,” she says.

Herringshaw says Fred was a rather stern man who lightened up when the circus came to town. “He’d grab me and take me there,” she says, and they’d receive the VIP treatment behind the scenes. “Everyone knew who he was,” she says.

Luke says Fred went out west to visit his sister in Arizona, and died there. Mary Esther sold the house in 1964 to Frank and Bennis Sumner, who have lovingly cared for it since.

Mrs. Sumner says the Cards began building the house in 1910 and completed it in 1914. Three rows of bricks were used on the façade of the house, undoubtedly in an effort to make it hurricane proof.

A solarium, perhaps used as a health treatment by the Cards, goes around the perimeter of the house, whose best-known feature is its many windows — 76 in all.

The Sumners say they had no idea who the former residents were when they bought the house nearly a half century ago, but they fell in love with it, the river, and the view. “We only knew that a famous lady had lived here, but we didn’t know who,” says Mrs. Sumner.

One of the first things the Sumners did was remove the elephant hide hanging over the stairway. Besides the hide, the only items left in the house were five trunks, some with Fred and Zora’s name on them, a dining set, a lamp used to signal boats on the river in the early days, and a collection of newspaper clippings.

As only the third owners of the historic residence, the Sumners have appreciated it not just as a house, but as a home.

“It’s just been a privilege to live here,” Mrs. Sumner says.

Various touches throughout the grounds and house pay tribute to the former owners. Lion statuary guarding a gazebo pays tribute to Lucia, while elephant statuary in the front yard is a nod to Fred. Edie, a yapping beagle-mix stray the Sumners rescued during a trip to Tennessee, continues the home’s tradition of love for animals.

Except for a kitchen renovation and the removal of a windmill, a 5,000-gallon water tower and a cistern, little has changed since the days of the Alispaws, or the Cards, for that matter.

“We’re just caretakers,” Mrs. Sumner says. “We’ve tried to maintain it as it was and we really haven’t altered anything except with paint.”

Although she never met Zora, Mrs. Sumner feels a special connection to her. She says she recently found a letter written to Zora in the months before her death. In it, a friend expressed sympathy for the pain and suffering Zora was enduring in her final months of her life. That she apparently lies in an unmarked grave is especially unsettling to Mrs. Sumner.

“It just seems like all the pieces of the puzzle are falling together. An unmarked grave — how sad. She was truly a brave lady. I can’t believe it.”

See the original article in the print publication

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