Times Past

Dorn Pyramid stands as a tragic monument in Odd Fellows Cemetery

The Dorn Pyramid at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Luis Obispo
The Dorn Pyramid at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Luis Obispo

The Dorn Pyramid in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Luis Obispo has stood for more than 100 years, a Masonic symbol sheltering the mortal remains of a mother and child.

But as the years have passed, a veil of mystery has come to surround the Dorn Pyramid. The mystery is compounded by the inscriptions on the marker at the entrance to the pyramid noting the burials within: Cora Russell Dorn (1868-1905) and Fred Adolphus Dorn, Jr. (1905 - 1905).

What happened to the father, Fred Adolphus Dorn? The entrance was made still more eerie by the prominent notation, “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH.”

When I first visited San Luis Obispo in the 1940s, the pyramid quite naturally piqued the curiosity of a 6- or 7-year-old. Our host family told us a horrifying — but as we now know — totally untrue story. It dealt with the murder of a spouse and child and a fleeing husband who was later lynched in Grass Valley in the northern Mother Lode.

When I came to teach at Cal Poly in 1971, local residents told me bizarre embellishments of this story. The truth of the tale was ultimately disclosed by my friend and mentor, Dr. J. Barron Wiley, a longtime historian for King David’s Masonic Lodge in San Luis Obispo.

Fred Adolphus Dorn was born in Marysville and grew up in San Francisco, where he studied law. In 1887 he moved to San Luis Obispo and three years later married Cora B. Russell. In 1894 he was elected district attorney. In 1899, he entered a lucrative private practice with contacts both in San Luis Obispo and San Francisco.

He was a highly respected citizen and a Master of King David’s Masonic Lodge. In May 1905, Cora gave birth to a son, Fred, Jr., who died within hours. Three days later, Cora died.

The grief-stricken husband wanted to pay tribute to his beloved wife and son. He had the means to construct a 25-foot-tall granite memorial to his wife and child. Because of his role in Freemasonry, he decided to have the monument constructed as a pyramid.

Pyramid monuments were fashionable for a number of non-Masonic wealthy Victorians who buried their families in elegant tombs and graves in London’s fashionable Highgate Cemetery. This practice was emulated in cemeteries in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Dorn purchased granite quarried in Porterville. It was freighted into San Luis Obispo via the new Southern Pacific Railroad connection. Here it was hand cut and assembled. The massive pyramid weighed so much that it couldn’t be supported by the soft, alluvial subsoil along San Luis Obispo Creek in the Odd Fellows Cemetery. A new section had to be opened on the southeastern side where there was an outcropping of serpentine rock capable of bearing the weight. The alignment and other geometric features were made to conform to the historic designs of Freemasonry. The monument is estimated to have cost between $75,000 and $100,000.

As the inscription indicates, only Cora and Fred Jr. are buried in the space. Fred Dorn Sr. intended to be buried there. But he moved to San Francisco and remarried. He died there in 1940 at the age of 74 and is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, San Francisco’s famed “city of the dead.” His memorial is a small brass plate, flush with the surrounding lawn for easy maintenance.

Other mysteries continue to surround Cora and Fred, Jr.’s pyramid, but those are for another Halloween journey in Times Past.