I recently came across an unusually-placed grave marker on a vacant lot in Detroit and went down a research rabbit-hole trying to figure out how it got there.

Catharine Rinn’s grave marker/memorial is sitting in the middle of what was once a dense residential block in Detroit. It faces the street and is in good condition; there are no signs of damage or vandalism, and someone recently planted two small evergreen trees on either side of it. The most recent Google StreetView image of the site–taken in September 2013–shows an empty lot, indicating that the marker was placed there within the last 4 years. StreetView also shows us that there was a vacant house on the lot in 2007, and that this house had been torn down by 2009.

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StreetView image from 2007 showing the lot on which the marker currently sits (where the front porch steps of this home were).
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A 2013 StreetView image of the lot where the marker is currently located. Notice the house at the back left, which can also be seen in my photo of Catharine’s marker.

According to Loveland’s data, the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) currently owns the open lot on which the marker sits. The lots to either side are also open, owned by the DLBA or subject to foreclosure, and there are vacant houses on both ends of this set of parcels (all of these lots are maintained). There is an occupied home directly across the street; these neighbors certainly know about the marker and are likely its caretakers, but no one was home when I visited.

Who was Catharine Rinn?

In the process of trying to understand how her marker ended up where it is, I learned a little about Catharine Rinn and her family. She was born Catharine Mayer in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, in 1868, and was one of 7 children. Her parents, Alexander and Susannah Mayer, had both immigrated to Canada from Bavaria, Germany. In 1887, Catharine married Frederick Heimrich, who was a carpenter. Their daughter Freda was born two years later, in 1889, and Frederick died that same year of tuberculosis at just twenty-four.

Susanna Heimler Mayer
Catharine’s mother, Susannah Mayer (neé Heimler). Photo via Ancestry.com

I couldn’t find out much about Catherine’s life in the decade after her first husband’s death. But in 1902, she married Herman Rinn and they moved to Detroit, possibly following Catharine’s older brother John and his family, who had relocated to the city several years earlier. Herman Rinn had immigrated to the US from Germany in 1892 and was a teamster. The Rinns had a daughter, Maculetta (also called “Immaculate” or “Immaculata,” b. 1905), and a son, Alexander (b. 1911).

Catharine passed away on November 19, 1916, at age 48. She suffered from a heart condition–mitral regurgitation–as well as chronic interstitial nephritis, which can result in kidney failure; these conditions were listed as the causes of death on her death certificate, and both can result from infections (like rheumatic fever) and autoimmune diseases (like lupus).

I expected to find some kind of connection between the Rinns and the location of the grave marker in the records. According to the Detroit City Directory, the Rinns lived at 786 Illinois from 1914 to 1916; due to the citywide street renumbering that took place in 1921, this address would be 3300-3450 Illinois today. But Catharine’s grave marker is currently over a mile away, on a different street.*

I didn’t expect Catharine to be buried at her place of residence, a practice that would not have been common in urban areas at this time. This area of Detroit was densely populated in 1916, and burying someone in the backyard or side lot probably wasn’t possible from a legal or social standpoint (especially if you were renting or boarding, as many working-class residents like the Rinns were). Furthermore, her death certificate indicates that she was buried at Mt. Olivet, Detroit’s Catholic cemetery, and lists an undertaker (W.H. Cavanaugh) and a date of burial (November 22, 1916).

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A Google Streetview image showing two houses on the 3300 block of Illinois Street, where the Rinns were living when Catharine died. These homes were built c. 1910.

Mt. Olivet, however, has no record of Catharine’s interment there. Most of the cemetery’s records are digitized and available online, so the fact that nothing turned up for Catharine was unusual. I visited Mt. Olivet to inquire in-person about records for Catharine and cemetery staff confirmed that there are no records for her there. I also checked the records of Mt. Elliot cemetery (which was closest to the Rinn residence at the time of Catharine’s death), but found nothing.

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Catharine Rinn’s death record

Interestingly, Catharine’s nephew, Dr. William Mayer, was listed as the attending physician to his aunt when she died. He had graduated from the Detroit College of Medicine–which would later become part of Wayne State University–in 1914, and had attended Catherine for over two months before she passed away. At that time, Dr. Mayer was living with his parents (Catharine’s brother John and his wife) and siblings on Jay Street in Eastern Market, a few miles away from where Catharine’s marker is located today. Dr. Mayer lived and practiced medicine in Detroit and the suburb of Grosse Pointe Woods until his death in 1964, and he and his wife are buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery with other family members.

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William Mayer’s photo in the 1914 Erythrocyte, the yearbook of the Detroit College of Medicine. Photo via the Walter Reuther Library.
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Another photo from the Erythrocyte (1914) showing the Detroit College of Medicine’s baseball team. William Mayer is pictured far right, wearing a sweater. He played third base. Photo via the Walter Reuther Library.

After Catharine’s death, Herman, Maculetta, and Alexander Rinn moved to Washington Township, Michigan, in Sanilac County, and the 1920 census lists them as living on a farm there. Herman is listed again in the 1930 and 1940 censuses, still living in Sanilac County. He died in 1944 at age 76 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Port Huron, Michigan. His grave marker there includes Catharine’s birth and death dates and appears to have been chosen by one of their children.

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The Rinns’ grave marker in Port Huron, MI. Photo via Findagrave.com

I was unable to find additional information about Catharine’s daughters, Freda and Maculetta, but I learned that Alexander Rinn married in 1937 and the couple had four children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Alexander died and was buried in Carsonville, Michigan, in 1985.

The Mystery Endures

I can’t find any records that tie the Rinns to the address where Catharine’s grave marker is currently located. The fact that there appears to be no damage and it’s clearly being cared could suggest that it wasn’t removed from Mt. Olivet randomly (as an act of vandalism, for instance). During her approximately 14 years in Detroit, Catharine lived relatively close to where the marker is now located, and her brother lived nearby at the time of his death in 1940, which also suggests that the placement of the marker isn’t a coincidence. Then again, it’s not uncommon for family members to replace a loved one’s grave marker and for the original marker to be moved around (update: see the comments on this post for some examples). Perhaps someone simply found this marker in the process of maintaining the open lots in the neighborhood and decided to care for it. But that still wouldn’t answer the question of how the marker became “stranded” in the first place.

In 2008, Charlie LeDuff wrote an interesting article about how Detroit cemeteries like Mt. Olivet were losing hundreds of burials each year as suburbanites transferred their loved ones’ remains out of the city and into the suburbs, following the pattern of postwar “white flight” outmigration. Mt. Olivet was losing 100-200 burials a year at the time the article was published, and LeDuff says that this estimate was likely low. Suburbanites moved their loved ones’ remains for different reasons, including a (racialized) fear of Detroit (i.e. of having to travel through–now predominantly black–neighborhoods that they would otherwise not go through in order to visit a loved one’s gravesite), because some Detroit cemeteries were underfunded and poorly maintained, and because having loved ones interred nearby made it easier for family members to visit. By the time the article was written, a generation of Metro Detroit residents with roots in the city had grown up and lived their adult lives in the suburbs, and many of them wanted to be buried there, with their relatives.

Perhaps Catherine’s family was part of this movement out of Detroit? We know that her husband and two youngest children had left the city by 1920, and it’s possible that they moved her remains to Port Huron when Herman died (1944) or thereafter. This would explain why Mt. Olivet doesn’t have any burial records for Catharine and why her original marker ended up elsewhere. Or perhaps her brother John and his wife kept Catharine’s original marker when she got a new one in Port Huron, and when they passed away and their house was torn down (as it was), the stone was relocated to a nearby open lot.

I’m officially stumped. The next step is to go back and reach out to the closest neighbors. In the meantime, please feel free to share any information/theories you might have about the marker and/or Catharine Rinn.

Catharine Rinn’s Timeline:

  • January 11, 1868: Born in Waterloo, Ontario, to Susannah and Alexander Mayer
  • 1887: Marries Frederick Heimrich, a carpenter, in Waterloo, Ontario
  • 1889: Daughter Freda is born
    • Frederick Heimrich dies of tuberculosis at age 24
  • 1902: Marries Herman Rinn, moves to Detroit
  • 1905: Daughter Maculetta is born
  • 1910: Herman and “Katie” Rinn are listed as living at 96 Preston St. (3500 block today) in Detroit in the 1910 census, along with daughters Freda and Maculetta. The census record indicates that their street was largely occupied by other first- and second-generation German immigrants.
  • 1911: Son Alexander is born
  • 1914-16: The Rinns are living at 786 Illinois Street in Detroit in the City Directory
  • November 1916: Catherine passes away from complications of mitral regurgitation and interstitial nephritis. Her nephew, Dr. William Mayer, was her attending physician, and she had been ill for at least 2.5 months preceding her death. Her death certificate indicates that she was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit on November 22nd.
Dr. William Mayer
Dr. William Mayer with his sons. Photo via Ancestry.com
  •  1920: Herman, Alexander, and Maculetta Rinn are living in Washington Township in Sanilac County, Michigan in the census
  • 1930: Herman and Alexander Rinn are living in Sanilac County in the census
  • 1937: Alexander Rin marries Esmerildia “Essie” Smith in Croswell, Michigan
  • 1940: Herman Rinn is living in Washington Township, Michigan in the census
    • Brother John Mayer dies in Detroit and is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. At the time of his death, he and his wife were living on Sylvester Street in Detroit.

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      John Mayer and his wife, Catherine Lienhardt. Photo via Ancestry.com
  • 1944: Herman Rinn dies and is buried in Port Huron, Michigan
  • 1985: Son Alexander Rinn dies at age 74 and is buried in Carsonville, Michigan