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How A Black Angel Statue In Iowa Went From Heartfelt Memorial To Spooky Legend

Suzanne Hogan
KCUR 89.3
The Black Angel sculpture of Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery is one of the most iconic symbols of the city.

This story first appeared on KCUR's Question Quest. You can find the episode here or wherever you download podcasts.

The Black Angel of Iowa City, Iowa, is one of the most iconic symbols of the city. It attracts visitors from around the region to a plot in Oakland Cemetary. There are plenty of rumors and wild stories about the statue's origin, about it being cursed and a lot of lore about why it turned from bronze to black.

Rumors and legends

The angel statue sits upon a headstone that reads "Rodina Feldevertova," which means "the Feldevert family" in Czech. It's where the remains of Teresa and Nicholas Feldevert and Teresa's son Eddie Dolezal lay to rest.

The statue has a big presence at almost 13 feet tall. One winged arm is spread out to the right and the angel's head is hunched over looking down at the grave below.

Iowa City is a big college town, and around the University of Iowa Campus nearly everybody has heard some story about the Black Angel.

"If you kiss somebody at the Black Angel at midnight you die or something like that?" says Jamie Tucker at a bar near campus.

There are a lot of different versions of that one. Stories that say if you touch it you'll die, if a virgin is kissed by the Black Angel then the statue will turn white. It goes on and on. 

People say it's been struck by lightning, that it came over on a boat from Europe and fell into the sea, and that the woman who is buried there committed adultery then killed herself.

Russell Buffington is the grounds keeper at Oakland Cemetery. He says people leave money and flowers for the angel. He's found bottles of liquor given as offerings, and a lot of people have been married in front of it. He says the most bizarre visitor he encountered was just a few months ago.

"She said her and her husband came here several years ago. They both kissed the Black Angel on the foot. He got some rare disease," says Buffington. "They were convinced it was the curse from the Black Angel."

Buffington doesn't believe in curses or those types of things in general. In the past three years that he's worked there the only problem with the statue he's had, is that he frequently bumps his head on the wing.

He believes that the true story, the story of Teresa Feldevert and her family is a sad one. But it's a story that's far more interesting than any of the local lore.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Author Tim Parrott has always been taken with the story of the Black Angel. He wrote a book about its history based on oral histories from his family, and from going through Czech newspapers and town records.

The true story

Terezie Karásek, or the anglicized Teresa, was born in 1835 in the village of Strmilov, Bohemia, which is now in the Czech Republic. When she was 30, she married a doctor from Moravia named František Doležal. Two years later they had their first son, Otto. He died when he was two weeks old.

Soon after this loss, Teresa decided to be come a midwife. She got her certificate in Vienna then moved back to her home town where she delivered nearly 100 babies. In her late 30s she had her second son Eduard. When Eduard was four she left her husband and her hometown and she brought her son to America. Why she left? We don't really know.

A lot of people from what was Bohemia and Slovakia ended up in Iowa during that time, to farm and work on the railroad. Teresa moved to a neighborhood in the northern part of Iowa City called Goose Town, where a lot of immigrants from Bohemia ended up. 

"She lived with Josef Kriz, and he was actually a relative of mine," says Tim Parrott.

Parrott is Czech and his family came to Iowa City then. He's always been taken with the Black Angel. He wrote "The Black Angel A Centennial History 1913 - 2013," based on oral histories from his family and Czech newspaper archives.

He says Teresa found midwife work quickly in Iowa City. She was hard working and so was her son Eduard, or Eddie, as he became known. He dreamed of becoming a doctor.

"He was already working part-time as a teenager at a pharmacy," says Parrott. But then Eddie fell ill, and at the age of 18 he got meningitis and died. 

Teresa had him buried at Oakland cemetery in a crypt. And she had a stone sculpture of a tree cut short made in his honor. Parrott believes this loss forever devastated Teresa.

"She really had nothing left," he says. 

After Eddie's death Teresa moved around a lot. She went to Chicago. She married a guy in Minnesota, but that didn't work out. She eventually ended up in Eugene, Oregon, where she met her third husband, a German rancher named Nicholas Feldevert. It was his third marriage too and he had also lost his only daughter when she was a child.

Nicholas Feldevert passed away in 1911, and he had no heirs. So after Teresa sold the ranch she inherited all the riches from his estate.

Teresa started to send money back to her home town Strmilov for various scholarships and public works projects. This is also when she decided that she wanted to make a monument for her son and late husband, and to setup a place to be a grave for herself someday.

She wanted a bronze sculpture of an angel and replica of the tree trunk on Eddie's crypt to be part of the memorial. She hired a Czech artist, Josef Mario Korbel to do the piece. But he never included the tree trunk. She fought him over payment, but ended up having to pay for a monument that wasn't what she had envisioned.

In 1913 when the statue was put up in Oakland Cemetery, Teresa had her late husbands remains placed beneath it, and she had the tree monument and Eddie's remains moved from the crypt to the angel. But within less than 10 years of the statue being up, while Teresa was still alive, the stories started because the bronze angel had turned black.

So what made it turn black?

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
There are a lot of variables that can make a bronze sculpture turn different colors. The patina, environment and metal combination of the alloy. They can turn black, gold, green and blue.

It's actually not that weird. Bronze sculptures, especially those that are not well kept change colors all the time. They can end up being gold, brown, green or blue. 

Bronze is an alloy made up of Copper and Zinc and sometimes even other metals like Aluminum, Manganese, Nickel or Zinc. So that metal combination can change the color. Also chemical combination called a patina is added to the surface of Bronze sculptures and that can create some interesting color changes.

Paul Benson is an art conservator for the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and he also says the environment can play a big role.

"Put a sculpture out in Kansas City, put another one out in New York City they may turn completely different colors," says Benson.

But Legends Live On

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
This is Jeff Chamberlain's second time visiting the angel. He traveled from Davenport, Iowa, to bring the statue a quarter to say thanks for the luck he feels like the statue brought him after his first visit.

Parrott believes you can take away lot about how Teresa felt about all the stories and rumors about the Black Angel based on an interview she did with a reporter from Des Moines, Iowa a few years before she died.

"Her concern wasn't for the Black Angel. It wasn't about anything except her son and her last husband. She seemed very concerned about people knowing who they were," Parrott says

Teresa passed away in 1924. On the grave you can see the birth years and death years for her son and husband, but for Teresa it's just her birth year. And that's because she had no heirs to see that it be carved in after she passed away. 

And though she had the wealth from her estate sent to her home in Strmilov, the citizens of the town would only enjoy the inheritance for less than a decade before the area was taken over by Nazis in 1939. After the occupation the whereabouts of the rest of the money was unknown.

"Most of the information about her is so much hearsay. It's so inaccurate. I just think of her as kind of a lonely elderly woman with a lot of money who decided she wanted to do some good things for people. She's certainly not an evil person that turned some statue black," says Parrott.

But legends and wild stories live on. As Parrott and I were talking in front of the statue, a visitor from Davenport, Iowa came to see the angel.

"I came to bring it a dime or a penny," says Jeff Chamberlain. "Actually I'm going to give it a quarter." This is his second time at the statue. He believes the angel has a different power.

"I believe it blessed me actually," he says. "Don't be afraid to touch it. Believe!"

Tim Parrott who's holding the book he wrote about all the history, stands off to the side and laughs as Chamberlin places his quarter at the base and has his picture taken in front of the Black Angel.

"I think people prefer the mystery and legends," he says.

Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, producer and announcer for KCUR 89.3 and co-host of the podcast Question Quest

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