This article was originally published in 2015.
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COUNCIL BLUFFS — The winged figure looms over a quiet grove. On a clear afternoon, she’s draped in sunlight, and a breeze gently shakes the leaves from surrounding trees. Brown and black squirrels scurry around the scene.
The angel extends her right hand, as if inviting a viewer to join her on the prow of the ancient vessel she stands on. In her left, she holds a dish, eternally overflowing into the basin beneath her. Her gaze is fixed westward. Her expression, serene.
She doesn’t look like she’s trying to kill you.
And yet, the Black Angel of Council Bluffs, standing near the edge of Fairview Cemetery, has inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds, of malevolent myths in the decades since her dedication.
Some say she springs to life after sundown and, borne by her powerful wings, zips around the nearby graves. Others say she shoots jets of fire from her eyes when the clock strikes midnight. Some whisper of children running behind her base only to disappear forever. Others recount the curse of her stare — look into her eyes at midnight, they say, and prepare for an early demise.
The superstitions fascinate scholars of folklore, who consider the local legends powerful social connectors. And they baffle historians who know the story behind the angel — the story of Ruth Anne Dodge, wife of the legendary Gen. Grenville Dodge, and the dreams she had just before her death.
Kori Nelson, executive director of the Historic General Dodge House and a Council Bluffs native, grew up with the legends. She’s heard the vague warnings against meeting the angel’s gaze or touching her outstretched hand.
She and her colleagues regard the stories with weary acceptance.
“It’s just a statue with a fountain. I mean, that’s really all it is,” she said. “I think it’s our job to put out the story of what actually is true.”
That story begins with Ruth Anne Browne and her marriage to Grenville Mellen Dodge, brother of businessman Nathan Phillips “N.P.” Dodge, in 1854. The couple moved west from Illinois to the Nebraska Territory before finally settling on the Iowa side of the river.
Grenville would go on to distinguish himself during the Civil War — initially commanding the Fourth Iowa Infantry, he rose through the ranks from captain to colonel to general. When the war ended in 1865, he returned to Council Bluffs and eventually took a job as surveyor and chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. A few years later, he completed his family home on Third Street.
The home is now a museum. Gen. Dodge’s military accomplishments and contributions to the nation’s railways are celebrated in his adopted home. His wife’s memory, Nelson said, has been mostly overshadowed.
She was spunky, said Danette Hein-Snider, membership and special projects coordinator with the Dodge house. She could shoot and ride. And in an era when women usually deferred to their husbands on matters of opinion, she spoke her mind.
Once, when she learned of a man severely beating one of his female slaves, she wrote a letter of complaint.
“I think it is horrible and outrageous,” she wrote. “How I would like to see him shot.”
Mrs. Dodge worked to establish the first free public library in Council Bluffs, helping to organize fundraisers for its creation.
“She wasn’t just a sit-at-home, meek and mild woman. She was feisty. And I don’t think the general would have married someone who wasn’t,” Nelson said.
The Dodges raised three daughters — Lettie, Eleanor and Anne. In January 1916, Gen. Dodge died. In September of that year, Mrs. Dodge followed. But first, she told one of her daughters a story that would come to define her legacy.
Before she died, Mrs. Dodge had a dream.
She was standing on a rocky shoreline, shrouded in mist. An ancient boat emerged from the fog. In the prow of the boat, a beautiful woman, whom Mrs. Dodge guessed was an angel, stood holding a small bowl overflowing with water.
“Drink,” the angel said. “I bring you both a promise and a blessing.”
Mrs. Dodge chose not to.
“I was not yet ready for this supreme blessing. I felt unworthy, and it seemed to me it would be presumption on my part to partake of anything so wonderfully pure, so heavenly, so spiritual,” she later told her daughter, Anne.
The angel appeared to Mrs. Dodge a second time. Again, she chose not to drink.
When the angel came to her a third time, she accepted the offer. After drinking from the bowl, Mrs. Dodge felt that she had been “transformed into a new and glorious spiritual being.”
“I drank of that wonderful water of life and it gave me immortality,” she told her daughter, Anne, who later wrote of the story.
Mrs. Dodge died shortly after.
The following year, Ella and Anne commissioned celebrated sculptor Daniel Chester French to immortalize their mother’s vision in bronze. The angel statue was dedicated in 1920. French, who would go on to sculpt a seated Abraham Lincoln in marble for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., reportedly considered the angel his favorite of his works.
Though the statue stands at the edge of Fairview Cemetery, the Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial is not a grave. Mrs. Dodge and her husband rest in a mausoleum at Walnut Hill Cemetery, about 2 miles from Fairview. The memorial has become one of Council Bluffs’ most iconic monuments, said John Batt, assistant director of parks, recreation and public properties for the city. In 1980, the National Park Service added it to the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the years, the statue became a target for vandalism and graffiti. The bronze developed a dark patina. Water stopped flowing from the bowl.
In 1984, restoration efforts began. Since then, Batt said, security measures have been installed to discourage vandals. Motion-activated cameras photograph late-night visitors. An audio system warns against trespassing. For the past several years, he said, the area has been mostly quiet.
“Most people have respected the angel for what it is, I believe,” Batt said. “Overall, people have treated the area with what seems to be a lot of respect.”
No one can say for sure when or why the memorial became shrouded in legend. As early as 1975, a World-Herald reader complained that a recent article had misrepresented the statue as a grim characterization of the Angel of Death.
Todd Richardson, an assistant professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Goodrich Scholarship Program who teaches folklore, said that when it comes to urban folklore, specific origins are almost impossible to pin down. In general, he said, superstitions such as those surrounding the Black Angel emerge because people want to live in a more interesting reality — a world where magic and demons and the Angel of Death could exist.
So when an imposing statue surrounded by gravestones sheds a bronze luster for a dingy shade of gray, it ignites the imagination.
“In the case of the Black Angel, it sounds creepy and it looks creepy,” Richardson said. “It would make more sense to have a nice marble angel representing the flight to heaven, whereas the black angel represents something more ominous.”
Once they develop, the legends are shared. They change with each retelling. Parents share them with children. The children journey to the places mentioned in the tales in “legend trips,” Richardson said, which serve as rites of passage. The cycle continues.
Though each area has its own interpretation, the tales themselves are rarely unique, Richardson said.
The Black Angel is no exception. Another Black Angel, in another cemetery, stands in Iowa City.
For Richardson, legends like that of the Black Angel are archetypes that create common ground for members of communities all over the world.
For Nelson, they’re a way to spark interest in a neglected page of history.
“If it’s a ghost story that gets them interested ... if they can do it in a fun, lighthearted way and then they can find out the real story, that’s great,” she said.
For better or worse, the stories bring visitors to the grove year after year — in a way, fulfilling the angel’s promise.