The Black Angel of Council Bluffs: The Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial

The Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial (also known as the Black Angel) is one of the most famous cemetery monuments in the Midwest. (Bob Sessions photo)

Because I love angels in all forms—stern archangels, little plump cherubs sitting on clouds, ethereal spirits, and big muscular ones blowing golden horns—I’m always on the lookout for them on my travels. In the western Iowa city of Council Bluffs, I found a splendid angel—and she comes with a great story too.

While best known as the Black Angel, the statue is officially the Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial. She stands near the entrance to Fairview Cemetery, the town’s historic graveyard-on-a-hill overlooking the city. Graceful and tall, she has one hand outstretched, while in her other hand she holds a basin that drips a steady stream of water.

Ruth Anne Dodge was the wife of Grenville M. Dodge, one of the most accomplished men of the nineteenth century. Trained as a civil engineer, he rose to the rank of general in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war’s end, he helped plan and direct the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad, a mammoth engineering feat involving thousands of workers.

Ruth Anne Browne married Grenville M. Dodge in 1854.

Ruth Anne was a fitting match for her talented husband, often accompanying him on his business dealings around the world. She loved gardening, music, and art, and was also a skilled horsewoman and excellent marksman. An avid reader, she helped found the first public library in Council Bluffs and was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage. (You can visit the Historic General Dodge House in Council Bluffs to learn more about their lives.)

Thanks to her unusual memorial, however, Ruth Anne is better known in death than in life.

After her husband’s death in 1916, her own health rapidly declined. One night, she had a dream, so vivid it was more in the nature of a vision. She was standing on a rocky shore when a boat approached her out of the mist. It was carrying an angel, tall and beautiful, who held a basin of water.

“Drink,” the angel said. “I bring you both a promise and a blessing.”

The patina on the angel’s fingers indicates many people haven’t been afraid to take her hand. (Bob Sessions photo)

Ruth Anne declined the offer, later telling her daughter Anne, “I felt unworthy, and it seemed to me it would be presumption on my part to partake of anything so wonderfully pure, so heavenly, so spiritual.”

Then the dream came to her again a few days later, the same as before. Once again Ruth Anne told the angel no. But when she had the dream a third time, she accepted the offer of water, and in the process, felt that she’d been “transformed into a new and glorious spiritual being . . . I drank of that wonderful water of life and it gave me immortality.”

A few days later, Ruth Anne died.

Deeply moved by what their mother had told them before her death, two of her daughters commissioned one of the country’s leading sculptors, Daniel Chester French, to create a monument in her honor. French did his best to portray what Ruth Ann had seen in her deathbed visions.

Dedicated in 1920, the monument stands amid a grove of trees. While the bronze isn’t actually black, it’s dark enough to give that impression. Thanks to the skill of the sculptor, all the parts of the story are there—the boat, the beautiful angel with an outstretched hand, and the basin of overflowing water.

The monument was erected by two of Ruth Anne’s daughters. (Bob Sessions photo)

French would later go on to create the famous statue that stands at the center of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. But despite the acclaim given to his subsequent work, he’s said to have considered the Ruth Ann Dodge Memorial his favorite piece.

Ruth Anne’s body is interred in a mausoleum in Walnut Hill Cemetery, about two miles away. But her memorial has taken on a life of its own. Even if local residents don’t know of the Dodge family’s many accomplishments, they know about the Black Angel overlooking the city.

A small votive candle was burning near the angel when I visited. (Bob Sessions photo)

Not surprisingly, there are many stories told about the angel. One says that she leaps off of her pedestal at night to fly around the nearby graveyard. Another claims that if you look into her eyes at midnight on the anniversary of her death, you’ll have an early demise.

As for me, I thought the angel entirely benevolent. And if I were on my deathbed, I’d love to see her coming towards me. I’d be eager to drink from the water of immortality that she offers.

There was one other detail that charmed me about the memorial. When I visited the Black Angel of Council Bluffs, I saw a burning votive candle near her feet. Even though the Dodge family no longer lives in the area, someone had obviously been there on a weekday morning to pay their respects.

It pleases me to know that the beckoning hand of this angel is still drawing people close.

Look at the wings on this Black Angel! Even by heavenly standards, they’re impressive. (Bob Sessions photo)

More information on tourism in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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