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Sarah Bernhardt

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Every small town needs a good mystery to keep things going—to set it apart from all the other villages. Rochester, Iowa, on the banks of the Cedar River not far from Interstate 80 has a good one.

This is fortunate, for things have not gone well for Rochester. Laid out in 1838 at the site of a ferry crossing, the struggling little village soon lost out to Cedar Rapids and nearby Tipton. It was briefly important as the county seat, but that moved when the cedar river flooded most of the community. Silver was discovered in the land around Rochester in 1871, but the boom ended when it was discovered that mining costs exceeded the value of the silver recovered. Today, Rochester remains unincorporated.

But what a mystery it has. Near the turn of the century a widow named Mary King died and was buried in the Rochester cemetery; subsequently, her home burned to the ground. Several years later, in 1904, a heavily veiled woman appeared in town in a hack rented in Iowa City. She took two bricks from the charred foundation and asked to be taken to the grave, and then laid the bricks and a wreath near the headstone.

Who was the woman? Then someone remembered that Mary's daughter, Sarah, at the age of 13, had run away with a traveling troupe who had put on Uncle Tom's Cabin in town. Her mother had disowned her for "embracing a life of wickedness." Someone else remembered that the famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt, was playing in Iowa City? Could it be?

Sometime later, while Sarah Bernhardt was appearing on stage at the Burtis Opera House in Davenport, a veiled woman arrived from Davenport in a cab, scooped up some pebbles from Mary King's grave, and left. Sarah King's cousin went to Davenport and watched a Bernhardt performance, and left convinced that she was indeed Sarah King. Years later, another Rochester resident claimed to have talked with Bernhardt after a performance in Seattle, and said she admitted she was really Sarah King.

Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, taking the truth with her. That's as it should be. It's hard to get much mileage out of the truth, but a good mystery lasts forever.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.