I was starting to think flatlanders aren’t supposed to find it: the Atlanta cemetery, the final resting place of Dutch Em, that is. Don’t get me wrong – no one was unkind or tried to light us on fire. They were polite. Hospitable, even. But we’d driven up, down, back, and forth on Main, Pine, Coffin, Alturas, and Alpine Streets. We couldn’t find it.
A community well-acquainted with (and likely weary of) inquiring minds, Atlantans must tire of visitors with questions, I thought. Asking about the winters, the isolation, and the bad roads in and out. About their rowdy reputation with folks down the hill in Boise, their lifestyle, and their dead.
You know me though. I asked anyway.
Ever since the Professor and I topped James Creek Summit on our ramble to Atlanta, Idaho, I’ve been obsessed with the story of Peg Leg Annie and Dutch Em. Annie was the entrepreneurial madam who lost her feet to frostbite from exposure in a snowstorm on Bald Mountain in 1896, and Em, the prostitute who died there. While more is known about Annie, only a smattering of details remain about Em.
That bothers me. I thought her grave might tell me more… if I could find it.
“Did you go down Main Street?” asked the bearded man at the Beaver Lodge when out of desperation we returned to the bar and asked – one last time – for directions to the cemetery.
“Yes, several times,” I replied, smiling in what I hoped was a charming manner, “and every other street in town.”
“It’s right there,” he insisted. “Did you see the two apple trees? It’s just past the two apple trees, on the right.”
I guessed. “By a little pullout next to some big boulders ?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s it.” His beer buddies nodded their heads like the Dachsund bobble head in the back window of my parent’s old ’62 Impala.
There were lots of other things still to see in Atlanta – the jail and a miner’s cabin as it might have looked 100 years ago – but it was after 3:00 pm and we were expected back in Boise by 5:00 (that didn’t happen). Annie lived into the ’30s and is buried in Boise, but I couldn’t leave Atlanta without seeing the final resting spot of Emma von Losch – Dutch Em.
So we retraced our steps past the two apple trees and found it. The cemetery can’t be seen from the road (despite Beard’s assertion to the contrary), but looking up behind the boulders there were big piles of brush and a small, steep track leading uphill, evidence there was something of significance up there in the trees. A short hike and we were at the old cemetery.
Dutch Em was there allright, but I learned nothing more. Her grave kept its secrets and there’s precious little to be learned on the Internet.
I don’t like to think of Dutch Em as an ancillary character or a sidekick to someone considered more important, but as a young woman who did what she thought she had to do to make a living. Who performed difficult (and dangerous) work to make a living. Miners were frequently rough men. Sexual diseases were rampant and pregnancy could ruin a whore’s earning potential for months.
Dutch Em was a real person who had thoughts and feelings and who felt joy and pain, both emotionally and physically. Not just a character in a frontier myth or legend, she loved and she hated. I’m remembering Dutch Em because few others regard her as more than a footnote. I couldn’t even find a photo. History has obscured almost every trace of her.
It’s suspected that Dutch Em was born Emma von Losch in East Prussia in 1846. That she was the daughter of a ship’s captain and widower who lost everything to the bottle. Her older sister ran away and it’s believed that Emma married and came to America but later divorced. What is known is that Dutch Em was a prostitute in Atlanta who lived with Annie, liked to drink in the bars, and foolishly struck out for Rocky Bar one night in a snowstorm.
While Dutch Em supposedly died on Bald Mountain in 1896 (none of the stories I have read cast any doubt on that), she may have had a daughter who corresponded with Em’s older sister from somewhere on the East Coast in the 30s. Online census records for 1920 and 1930 also show Emma von Losch residing in Ada County, Idaho. Was that Dutch Em or did she get pregnant and have a daughter living in Boise while she worked the mining camps? Maybe. Or is the story just a folktale? Did she make it off the mountain alive? Was Dutch Em also Emma von Losch? So many things I wonder about and so many questions I’d ask.
I’d ask her why two women were walking by themselves over a high mountain pass in a snowstorm and what was so important in Rocky Bar that they couldn’t wait for morning? Why hadn’t they worn gloves and hats and coats? Did she have a come to Jesus deathbed moment and did she cry out for her mother and sister, for a daughter? Was she too drunk to notice she was dying? Did she lie down to sleep insisting, “Please let me sleep a few minutes, Annie, I’m so tired”?
I’m sorry I don’t have more answers for you, but I don’t know and never will. I never expected our day trip to Atlanta would leave me this way: haunted by answers, haunted by questions.
Unanswered questions are killing me. I miss my dad.