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November 26, 2014

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Back in the day, even Las Vegas had a ‘Boot Hill’

Woodlawn Cemetery in Las Vegas

A view of Woodlawn Cemetery Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Opened in 1914 on 10 acres of donated land, Woodlawn, the oldest cemetery in Las Vegas, is coming up on its 100th anniversary. Launch slideshow »

Before the creation of cemeteries in Southern Nevada, transients buried their dead in the desert, noted with markers that soon disappeared or were forgotten. The small population of white settlers buried their dead on family ranches, and some were transferred later to more permanent burial sites.

The region’s first formal burial grounds, Boot Hill Cemetery, was developed around 1900 on what is now the eastern end of Woodlawn Cemetery and near what is now Rancho High School.

By the time Las Vegas was founded in 1905, two other cemeteries were created near Boot Hill: Ranch Cemetery and Paiute Cemetery.

The next cemetery came in July 1909, when pioneer E.W. Griffith opened his Las Vegas Cemetery Association facility about 1 1/2 miles south of town near the Union Pacific railroad tracks. But because it was so far from where most Las Vegans resided, it closed in December 1909.

The Las Vegas Cemetery opened Nov. 28, 1910 — the third cemetery to be opened near Boot Hill. That facility closed in 1915 after its undertaker, L.D. Smith, was accused of burying something other than the baby he was supposed to have interred in a plot he had sold to the child’s grieving parents.

Reportedly, Smith took the dead infant to his home and conducted experiments on it. His indiscretion was uncovered when the baby’s body was discovered in a blanket under a bush at the edge of town. The man Smith had paid two dollars to bury the baby in the desert instead dumped the tiny corpse and pocketed the cash.

One of the last people buried in Smith’s cemetery was Domenica Marchetti, the mother of Hotel Nevada owner John Miller. Marchetti, like nearly everyone else who was buried locally before 1915, was reinterred at Woodlawn Cemetery.

During its history, Woodlawn was not without controversy of its own.

Until 1939, Woodlawn management chose the gravesites for blacks. Black residents, angered by the out-of-the-way plots their loved ones routinely had been assigned — and the lack of care afforded to those gravesites — petitioned the city for the right to choose their own plots at Woodlawn.

As a result, a delegation from the black community was permitted to choose a section of the cemetery exclusively for burials of blacks. Also, city government promised that Woodlawn would provide proper care of black gravesites.

The earliest burials at Woodlawn were bodies transplanted from the area’s closed cemeteries. The first non-reinterred body to be buried at Woodlawn was that of James Crowley of Searchlight. He was interred on Nov. 24, 1915, after dying at Las Vegas Hospital from infection from an ulcerated tooth.

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