In the southern part of the Albany Rural Cemetery, a fine monument towers over the intersection of Linden and Cypress Avenues. Atop the monument, a marble angel looks towards Heaven with a little child in its arms. Small granite headstones are arranged below it Lot 1, Section 108. A closer look, however, reveals that something is missing from this lovely family plot. The base of the monument has an empty pedestal and a pair of small iron spikes meant to secure a statue in place.
Bertha Isabel Cleveland was born on September 28, 1875 to Frederick W. Cleveland and his wife, Gertrude Van Vranken. Her father, in partnership with his brother George, had become wealthy as the owner of Cleveland’s Superior Baking Powder Company (which was eventually sold to the Royal Baking Powder Company for half a million dollars).
In 1872, Frederick Cleveland used his wealth to built a mansion for his family along what is now Van Rensselaer Boulevard. The beautiful home (called Greyledge), unfortunately, had a deadly flaw which would claim the lives of two of the Cleveland children. Unknown to the family, sewage had seeped into the mansion’s water supply.
In May of 1882, two-year old Edith Cleveland began gravely ill with what was described by the doctors as “malignant diphtheria.” She in her father’s arms on May 10 and was buried at Albany Rural a day later. The child in the arms of the angel represents little Edith. Only six months later, seven-year old Bertha also fell ill with nausea, fever, diarrhea, and delirium. Despite the efforts of three doctors, her condition deteriorated quickly. On November 3, 1882, she promised to buy Christmas presents for her loved ones and then said, “I want to rest, let me rest” before passing away with her mother at her side. She was buried at Albany Rural the next day. It was only after a third child fell in that the family was advised to move from Greyledge temporarily and the source of the illness discovered in a contaminated well.
The Clevelands commissioned a beautiful statue of their little Bertha to grace the family plot. The marble figure was based on photographs and wonderfully detailed, depicting the girl in a pretty dress with high-buttoned shoes and books in her hands.
The marble likeness stood watch over the graves of the Cleveland family until 1993 when, one night, it simply vanished. At the time, Albany Rural and other local cemeteries had been hit hard by thieves who would target statues, stained glasses windows, and urns to sell to out-of-town antique dealers and collectors. Others stole ornamental metal objects to sell as scrap. Along with the statue of Bertha Cleveland, a massive marble bench (recovered) and bronze eagle from the nearby monument to General Adolphus Von Steinwehr (still missing) were taken. The prime suspect in these thefts was Gary Evans, a serial killer and native of Troy who was well known for antique thefts. After his arrest in 1998, he admitted to five murders and numerous thefts in local cemeteries (including Albany Rural and neighboring Saint Agnes). If he indeed took the statue of little Bertha, he also took that secret with him when he died in fall from the Troy-Menands Bridge during an escape attempt on August 14, 1998.
So, the whereabouts of Bertha Cleveland’s touching portait in marble remain unknown. Though the story of the missing statue appeared in local newspapers, it’s possible that the statue was transported and sold to an antique dealer or collector who was unaware of its true provenance. Little Bertha might still be out there somewhere, waiting to be returned to the Cleveland family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.
If you recognize this statue or have any information on where it might be, please contact the Menands Police Department (518- 463-1681), the Albany Rural Cemetery office (518- 463-7017), the Historical Society Town Of Colonie, New York (518-782-2601)or send a message to Paula Lemire’s Facebook page Albany Rural Cemetery -Beyond The Graves