Rafael Mamudes Old Town


Rafael Mamudes Old Town Grave Digger of San Diego

Rafael Mamudes of Old Town is not a household name to San Diego’s residents. The name doesn’t hold the legacy of any of the early San Diego Pioneers. The only remaining evidence of Rafael is a grave at El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town, San Diego. Rafael’s grave along with the resurgence of interest in the paranormal could change our view on his legacy.

Rafael Mamudes Biography

Rafael Mamudes of Old Town was born in Hermosillo, formerly called Pitic, a city located in the center of the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora. As a youth Rafael was brought up in a Catholic mission and served as an alter boy. He was once a baker and followed his trade at Monterey. He made a sea voyage from Guaymas and mined in Calaveras County.

Rafael Mamudes

And Coffin House

Fair use Popular Mechanics, Volume 12 Dec, 1909 edited by Henry Haven Windsor

Rafael ended up in San Diego around 1850. And a “Rafael” is listed on the 1850 Census as being 25 years old. He lived as a recluse and survived as a day laborer chopping wood, hauling, digging wells or cleaning them out. Rafael is also believed* to be a gravedigger for El Campo Santo Cemetery.

Rafael was married at some point. How or what happened to his wife is unknown. Legend has it he was an abusive husband, and even goes so far as to say he murdered his wife. As of 1903 Rafael still had an older sister with whom he continued correspondence.

Rafael Mamudes built a home 10 feet from the first cobblestone Jail in San Diego (HRB site#46 2360 San Diego Ave). The house was partially built out of and furnished from coffins and other items from graves. The house and its gravely features were well written about. The “coffin house,” lead to suspicion of grave robbing, witch craft, and a myriad of other urban legends.

The San Diego district attorney was even consulted however Rafael was never spotted taking any items from El Campo Cemetery. In all probability the coffins and other artifacts were collected by Rafael when rain washed them out of the ground. In older times graves were dug more shallow than those in modern times.

Rafael Mamudes of Old Town is also well written about. He was on all accounts small in height yet physically well built for his age (about 50 years). On his brow was a rugged scar possibly a wound from a well directed bullet. He had deep set, black eyes, and only spoke a rather Incoherent mix of English and Spanish. Rafael was described as pleasant, is even affable by multiple sources. Many local residents offered him clothes, blankets and food.

Rafael was described as a devote Catholic, never missing church. He would ring the old town adobe chapel bells when directed by the priests. Nightly Rafael would go to El Campo Santo Cemetery and offer prayers at the gate.

It is unknown when Rafael Mamudes died, and how exactly he came to be buried in El Campo Santo Cemetery. The last recorded Burial for the cemetery occurred in the 1880’s. While we don’t know when Rafael died we do know based documentation, he was alive at least until 1909. According to historian William Smythe, Rafael had claimed to be 100 years old in 1908 though Smythe felt his actual age was closer to 50. USGenWeb lists Rafael +100 years old at an unknown year of death.

Questions Unanswered

*Most available sources including Mamudes grave marker claim he was a gravedigger at El Campo Santo Cemetery. These sources however leave out a critical piece of information that his house and furnishings were comprised of caskets. It is logical that had Mamudes been a gravedigger it would be easy for the District Attorney to claim that is how Rafael got the caskets. The District Attorney could not find any evidence of Mamudes grave robing.

Brief History of El Campo Santo Cemetery

El Campo Santo Cemetery is considered the third burial site for the Spanish expedition explorers and first cemetery of San Diego. Established in 1849 as a Roman Catholic cemetery, there were 477 bodies buried here through 1880. Among those interred is a marker for Rafael Mamudes. In 1889 a streetcar line was built through part of the cemetery. In 1942 that path was paved over, being known as San Diego Avenue. More than 20 bodies remain buried beneath the pavement of the street and sidewalk in the 2400 block of San Diego Avenue.

The Paranormal Reemergence in Pop Culture

A strong shift in belief and interest in the paranormal starts with the emergence of the Ghost Busters movie franchise. Over the next 40 years a slew of paranormal movies, television, radio, and internet shows are aired. Historic paranormalists such as Ed and Lorrain Warren, Hans Holzer, and many others whom were often criticized for their early work earned the respect of a new army of independent paranormal researchers and the public.

How The Paranormal Shed light on Rafael Mamudes Grave

A strong interest in the paranormal has lead many ghost hunters seeking out places open to the public for investigations. Old Town San Diego has long been considered a location of interest for the paranormal. Boasting the most haunted house in San Diego, the Whaley House, as well as the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and La Casa de Estudillo, Old Town is a paranormal tourist destination.

El Campo Santo cemetery is only a block away from these locations and as such draws many visitors including paranormal investigators. Because the cemetery is small it allows for more detail on the plaques and grave markers. Probably the most famous grave is that of “Yankee Jim.”

James (aka Santiago) Robinson was convicted of attempted grand larceny in San Diego in 1852, and hanged on a gallows off the back of a wagon on the site where the Whaley house now stands. According to the San Diego Union, “soon after the Whaley family moved in, heavy footsteps were heard moving about the house. Thomas Whaley (father) described them as sounding as though they were made by the boots of a large man. Finally he came to the conclusion that these unexplained footfalls were made by Yankee Jim Robinson.”

Interest sways from Yankee Jim to Rafael Mamudes

Rafael Mamudes grave gets a make over in 1995 and a descriptive marker by the group, “Friends of El Campo Santo Cemetery.” The inscription reads,

“Rafael Mamudes of Old Town was a native of Hermosillo and led an adventurous life. He was once a baker and followed his trade to Monterey. He also mined at Calaveras County and made a sea voyage to Guaymas, Mexico. When he came here to San Diego, he supported himself by doing day labor. He owned a little plot of land on which the old cobblestone jail once stood.

Legend has it that this hoary old Mexican man made a murderous attack upon his good wife. His penance was to ring the church bells whenever the occasion demanded. Rafael worked industriously chopping wood, hauling, digging wells, or cleaning them out, but his most noble work, was to dig graves every time the Angel of Death came to Old Town.

This weather beaten old man was a devotee who came to be seen trundling his wheelbarrow down the road daily. Never did he miss a church service. With abject humility and self-abasement, he would bow beside the basin of the chapel and cross himself with the Holy water. He’d gaze at the alter then edge toward it in rapt devotion, before sinking to his knees in prayer.

From the notes of Miss Lilian Whaley, she writes, “It was the most vivid impression upon me as he (Don Rafael) knelt one day in the little south wing of the old church, which was filled with saints and holy images. Near the door of the little confessional chamber, he leaned sideways against the wall of the room. He clasped his hands rigidly before him and grasped his rosary and crucifix. His head was thrown back. His eyes closed while agony and supplication imprinted themselves upon his brown rugged features. To complete the striking picture, a ray of sunlight streamed through the window, falling full upon his rapt unconscious face and unkempt hair, and bathing the kneeling figure with a beautiful silver halo.”

The addition of this marker to Rafael’s grave site, as well as a shovel to denote his role as a grave digger has added increased interest in his life and death. Some visitors to his grave claim to have psychic experiences with him communicating directly to them . Is the spirit of Rafael still present at El Campo Santo?

Miss Lilian Whaley refers to grave digger Rafael Mamudes as Don Rafael

Although the term “DON,” was originally a title reserved for royalty, select nobles, and church hierarchs, it is now often used as a mark of esteem for a person of personal, social or official distinction, such as a community leader of long standing, a person of significant wealth, or a noble, but may also be used ironically. Based on the context of Rafael’s life it is clear Miss Whaley is using the term don as a matter of respect.

Researching Rafael Mamudes

After researching extensively into Rafael Mamudes there is a lot more to his life and death than the placard at El Campo Santo Cemetery. Rafael is referenced in at least five other major publications which is highly abnormal for an average person but Don Rafael Mamudes was hardly average —

A: History of San Diego, 1542-1908 by William Ellsworth Smythe pages 198 and 264

B: Popular Mechanics, Volume 12 Dec, 1909 edited by Henry Haven Windsor. -page 804 photo titled “Negroe recluse and coffin house” and article “house patched and furnished with coffins.

C: page 6-c The San Diego Union Sunday Morning, December 24th, 1939 tales of the old southwest by Winifred Davidson.

D: San Francisco Call, Volume 106, Number 6, 6 June 1909 Old Town house of a hundred coffins Rafael Author: H. J. Rogers

E: An article by Johm Collis Moore in the Silver Gate, a monthly magazine published in San Diego at the beginning of this century by James A, Jasper

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