Hollywood Cemetery, located in the Oregon Hill neighborhood, ranks high on most Richmonders’ lists of places to show visitors. It was established in 1847 by private citizens who wanted a cemetery to rival Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. It was founded in 1849 as a “rural decorated cemetery” and as early as 1851, the cemetery had become a public park. It now contains more than 52,000 monuments and graves of many famous Americans.
One of the best liked and well-known monuments is the cast-iron Newfoundland standing guard over a grave. Iron Dog is by far more famous as a curiosity than for the person buried there. In fact, there are many versions of the Iron Dog story, and the Valentine Richmond History Center helped to identify several.
What is fairly certain is that a female toddler is buried there, last name Rees. I’ve seen at least three first names — Florence, Elizabeth and Bernadine, with the latter being the most likely. She apparently died of a childhood disease (maybe scarlet fever) in 1862 before she reached the age of 3.
A fine article by Walter S. Griggs Jr. in the Summer 2006 Richmond Guide has three versions of how Iron Dog got to the area he notes became known as “Black Dog Hill”:
- It was moved to the gravesite to keep it from being melted down to make bullets. “Even a desperate nation did not melt down cemetery monuments.”
- Iron Dog’s owner remembered how much the girl liked to pat the statue, so he gave it to her family to guard her grave.
- The girl’s family bought Iron Dog and placed it at the grave as a memorial to her.
Yet another version of the story has her father placing Iron Dog on the burial plot long before the girl died, as detailed in this undated entry from the Richmond Times-Dispatch archives:
Some local historians think Rees’ father was simply preserving a family treasure in hard times. The Confederate government was confiscating cast iron from families during the Civil War. Even local churches — with the exception of First Baptist Church on Monument and Boulevard — gave up their church bells during the war years.
Another twist that seems easy to debunk is that the Iron Dog came from Petersburg. That seems erroneous. A letter to the editor at the RTD (date unknown) says the dog belonged to Charles R. Rees who ran “photography gallery” in Richmond during the Civil War. Iron Dog was kept at the store and was moved by Rees to Hollywood Cemetery to keep it from being melted down for bullets. The letter was penned by a woman named Ada R. Bailey who claimed to be Rees’ granddaughter. She said Rees moved to Petersburg in 1880 — several years after the dog was first placed in the cemetery — backing the theory that the dog was from a Richmond store.
No matter which version you want to believe, the lore of the story is what people seem to love most. Trinkets, toys, coins and flowers are often said to be found at the grave and on the black Iron Dog, as if we all have some relation to the little girl and her famous guardian.