(Nota bene: when sending out this link, I mistakenly gave Claude the title of “Blessed.” Somewhere along the line of investigating his life, I had heard him referred to as Bl. Claude Newman. He does not appear to be formally enrolled in the list of the Church’s blessed and saints, but his repentance and love would certainly be strong arguments for his inclusion!)
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, there is a cemetery that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Beulah Cemetery was founded in the 1880s, and it has served the black population of Vicksburg. Somewhere within it lies the remains of Claude Newman, an executed murderer and saint.
In 1943, Claude Newman was sentenced to death by the electric chair for the murder of Sid Cook. One night, he was awakened in his cell by a touch on his wrist. When he awoke, he saw “the most beautiful Woman that God ever created.” She said, “If you would like me to be your mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” Claude received instruction in the Faith, and was executed on Feb. 4, 1944. He was 20 years old.
Before he was executed, Claude had been offering his prayers and sacrifices for a fellow white criminal, James Hughs. James was described by the priest who knew Claude (and who also knew of Claude’s secret intercession for James) as the most immoral man he had ever met. James was scheduled for execution on May 19, 1944. As he was asked by the sheriff if he had any last words, James began to blaspheme. Suddenly, he began shrieking and asked for a priest. James told the priest that he had seen Claude in the corner of the room with Mary’s hands on each of his shoulders. James was shown a vision of his place in Hell. He confessed with deep repentance and was executed.
I had the chance to visit Beulah Cemetery on March 1, 2014. I knew that finding the grave of Claude would be nearly impossible. Back then, executed criminals’ final resting places were not a top priority. Perhaps a “good riddance” was murmured as the disturbed soil was scraped over the casket. A grave marker would most likely be cheap, easily overturned, and prone to leave the body in anonymity.
Beulah Cemetery lies at the end of the road of one of the most depressed areas of the city. I have seen cemeteries that were in disrepair, especially in the South. Crypts that are collapsed inward, leaving the bones in full view. Headstones that are knocked to the ground. What I would see at Beulah was so heartbreaking that I still can’t honestly believe that the dead would be so forgotten.
The gnarled hills of Beulah had some marble headstones, but these were a minority. Small metal frames littered the rotting leaves. Most of these frames were simply scattered on the ground; very few of them were upright. At first, the lack of any names or dates on the frames made me wonder what they were for. As I looked closer, some of the frames revealed their purpose: a paper form was filled out with the name, birth and death dates, and age of the deceased, and then slid behind the glass of the frame. My heart broke at the number of these frames the bore no paper.
Did the cemetery have records of those buried? Were these dead now consigned to an anonymous resting place? I looked over the hills of Beulah, and saw perhaps four or five plastic bouquets of flowers. How can a loved one visit a grave that has lost its marker?
I wandered the lonely grounds, praying that I might know where to go to find Claude’s grave. “Don’t you see,” he seemed to say, “the vast number of these unknown children of God? Who remembers them, and who visits them now?” I realized that finding his grave really didn’t matter. I had brought a bouquet of roses for him, but I saw a grave with one of the metal frames that had no paper. The ground was soft and sunken; perhaps the family could not afford a proper vault. This anonymous grave was as good a place as any to pay my respects. I asked Claude Newman to pray for me as he had prayed for James, and I’m sure we both were praying for that poor soul in its unmarked Mississippi grave.
For a more in-depth biography of Claude and his conversion, please visit http://www.mysticsofthechurch.com/2011/12/miraculous-story-of-claude-newman-his.html.
Beulah Cemetery is not forgotten. A movement is underway to try and restore markers and clean the grounds. Please visit http://beulahcemetery.org to assist with these efforts.