James Betelle’s death is one of the more curious aspects of his story. He died in Italy, ending up in an unmarked pauper’s grave, while in Delaware, a stone with his name on it sits quietly in an old cemetery. How did he come to be buried (as it were), in two places?
I’ve already known from his will he desired to be buried at his family plot in Wilmington, the stone being evidence of that. And yet, upon his death in Florence on June 3rd, 1954, he was buried there, and not returned to the U.S. per his request. Why?
Up until now, I wondered why his attorney, William K. Flanagan, had not honored his will. I once spoke to Flanagan’s son, who knew Betelle, and recalled his father “going to Italy” about the time of the death, but knew nothing else.
Recently however, Ancestry.com released “death reports submitted by American Consuls abroad for the years 1835 through 1974.” I was amazed to find 15 pages of records regarding Betelle, consisting of his official death notice and cables between Flanagan and the US State Department. Piecing the sequence of events together, I’ve pretty much settled what happened.
Betelle died at 2:30 PM on June 3rd. At 10:51 PM that evening, a cable arrived at the State Department:
“Notify William K. Flanagan, 625 Kinney Building, Broad & Market Streets Newrk, New Jersey, death heart failure James Oscar Betelle June 3 Florence. Burial $230, cremation air $320, surface $450, shipment New York air $950, surface $650. Hours 48.”
The next day Flanagan replied, “Executor desires local burial Betelle remains.” He included a Western Union money order of $230 to cover the burial. Why not instruct him to be brought home? Perhaps he felt the cost and logistics involved were too great.
On June 16, Charles S. Reed II, the American Consul General, wrote to Flanagan:
Dear Mr. Flanagan:
I was very sorry indeed to have to inform you of the death of your friend and client, James Oscar Betelle, of heart failure on June 3, 1954.
Mr. Betelle had suffered an attack previously and was confined to his room at the Pensione Chiari for about a week, under the care of Dr. Antonio Torrini of Florence. On Thursday, June 3rd, he had a final attack and died at 2:30 PM.
A simple but impressive ceremony was held for him on June 15th at the Asilo Mortuario, Florence, at which the Reverend Victor Stanley of the St. James American Church officiated. The service was attended by a member of this Consulate and other friends whom he had made during his stay here. He was buried at the Florence Communale Cemetery.
Apparently Flanagan was concerned with Betelle’s wishes, as Reed wrote him again on July 2nd, “You state that you may decide to bring Mr. Betelle’s remains to the United States for burial with his ancestors, and request information concerning the procedure to be followed.”
However, Reed continued, “local laws do not permit disinterring during the summer months, and it would not be possible to move the body until late September.” Clearly, given these other obstacles, Flanagan decided to let it be. He visited Florence in August, to both visit Betelle’s grave and collect his effects, ending the matter.
Meanwhile, the family stone Betelle purchased in Wilmington is inscribed with his name and “1879 ~ 19 “, in anticipation of his arrival and someone to chisel out the last two numbers.