I first noticed Francois Thomas’ tombstone several years ago in a promiscuous section of Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery. (Promiscuous here meaning that the area is populated by single graves rather than family plots.)
This particular section is far from the entrance, near the chain link fence that separates the burial grounds from the railroad tracks. Extended distance between tombstones likely suggests that unmarked graves outnumber the marked.
I can’t say with certainty that this is a pauper’s lot because in all my time researching Green Hill I haven’t determined which lands were designated for the poor or unclaimed bodies.
Francois Thomas is a mystery that I’ve never walked away from despite continually coming up empty-handed.
The inscription on his tombstone is the main reason why I continue to search:
“In Memory Of
A Stranger in a strange land
who died in Danville Oct.
2, 1874, aged 22 years
Regretted by all his friends
Requiescat in pace”
The haunting phrase “A Stranger in a strange land” combined with the implication that friends instead of family erected his headstone leaves me with an almost melancholic feeling.
I suppose a more positive outlook is to realize that at least Francois had acquaintances who cared enough to prevent him from being completely lost to history.
Still, there are many unanswered questions surrounding Francois’ life and death.
What was he doing in Danville and how long had he been there? Were his friends in town or did they find out about his Green Hill burial after the fact? What caused him to die so young?
Since 2013 I’ve intermittently checked birth and death records, historic newspapers and the other sources from which I unearth my micro-biographies.
Green Hill’s mortuary reports begin at 1883, nine years after Francois’ death. There were no accidents, fires, murders, suicides or other tragedies in the newspapers for October 1874 that matched his description. I also researched disease outbreaks and epidemics in the area with no results. I’ve accepted that I may never know what happened to this Stranger, to whom I oddly feel connected.
As usual around the holidays Francois crept back onto my radar and I opened up the channels again.
This time I found an 1870 Census record from Richmond, Virginia that *could* be our Francois, although he was listed as “Frank.” The head of the household’s name is Francois so it’s not unreasonable that the then 17-year-old went by a nickname.
If this is the same Francois Thomas then we know a little bit more about him, although not very much. He was a white male, born in Maryland and employed as a painter. His father, aged 55, had been born in France and was a shoemaker. The 40-year-old female in the household, Allin, (presumably the mother or step-mother) was a housekeeper who’d been born in Virginia. Her name has a “?” written beside it, so her name could’ve been something similar like Helen, Ellen or Aileen.
Other residents included Timon Thomas, aged 21, also a French-born shoemaker; Blanche Thomas, aged 2 and born in Richmond; and domestic servant Sophie Jones, aged 23.
Putting together the birth dates and places sent me down a rabbit hole where I found an 1865 marriage record for a Francis Thomas and Ellen Cummins in Richmond. The couples’ birth years were fairly close to those from the 1870 census. This is what led me to believe that Allin/Ellen was Francois and Thomas’ step-mother instead of biological.
There’s a lot of speculation in this entry which I normally try to avoid but in this case I made an exception.
Francois Thomas, regretted by all his friends in 1874 and still today.