What is the meaning behind Key West Cemetery’s Bound Woman statue?

By on April 11, 2016

No one knows why this statue of a nude woman in historic Key West Cemetery is depicted with her hands bound behind her back.
Bound Woman statue in the Key West Cemetery
The Bound Woman statue on the grave of Archibald John Sheldon Yates, Key West Cemetery

Beneath the blue skies and palm trees of Key West, Florida, the historic Key West Cemetery is the final resting place of numerous tragedies, including slave burials, brutal murders, Civil War soldiers, sailors who died when the USS Maine was blown up in 1898, even the bizarre story of Carl Von Cosel’s demented love affair with a corpse.

Established in 1847, the cemetery was built on the highest point in Key West after a hurricane wiped out the old graveyard and scattered bodies the previous year. Among the monuments and above-ground vaults are legendary locals like barkeep “Sloppy” Joe Russell, and humorous epitaphs like “I’m just resting my eyes,” “A devoted fan of singer Julio Iglesias,” and hypochondriac B.P. “Pearl” Roberts’ “I told you I was sick.”

But perhaps the strangest thing you will find while wandering around the Old Town cemetery is the grave of Archibald John Sheldon Yates, adorned with a statue known as The Bound Woman. The figure, said to represent Yates’ wife Magdalena, sits nude above his head, her hands tied behind her back.

In the book The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, Joy Williams writes:

She’s no angel certainly and her posture seems to suggest something other than grief, but Archibald John Sheldon Yates really, really wanted her on his grave and there she is.

Front view of the Bound Woman statue in Key West Cemetery

Tied hands of the Bound Woman in Key West Cemetery

The Bound Woman has been mystifying visitors for years. No one knows why Yates insisted on having this statue placed on his grave, or what it is meant to represent.

Images via cruisingat60

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  1. Jennifer Elias

    September 25, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    If you knew my Grandmother you would know that she didn’t put up with nonsense. She had him in check and finally divorced him when she had had enough.

  2. Ernestus Jiminy Chald

    April 20, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    This is clearly a statue of Andromeda (who was bound to a rock nude as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus). You can even see an indication of waves carved below her. Mystery solved.

    • Jennifer Elias

      September 25, 2016 at 1:12 pm

      This is actually my grandfather’s grave and my father placed the statue on his grave after my grandfather died of cancer. The statue used to be at my grandfather’s home and he requested that my dad bring it to his grave when he died. My grandfather called the statue “The Lady” and it had no special meaning other than he liked it. The woman buried next to Sheldon Yates is my great grandmother Magdalena and she died shortly after him. It’s clear by the dates on both graves that Magdalena was not his wife. There is no mystery! Just a lot of speculation and misinformation.

      • Ernestus Jiminy Chald

        September 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm

        I knew that it was an Andromeda statue the minute I saw the photo. I have seen countless statues of Andromeda that look just like this one (I am a stone carver by trade). The bound hands and waves are a dead giveaway. Your grandfather had great taste in art.

  3. LiveGirlNuri

    April 15, 2016 at 11:05 am

    What is more strange to me is how you can have such a famous graveyard as the Key West one and not take care of it. Collapsed graves, the grass is a mess, fallen stone work everwhere. Thousands of people visit every year. They couldn’t take better care of it? Such a shame.

    • branden shoma (@nobodyknows808)

      April 22, 2016 at 4:58 am

      the grass is cut well and well hurricanes hit that area frequently or strong storms. you think the county will have funding for masons to keep the concrete from cracking and caving in everytime a hurricane comes passing through?

      • LiveGirlNuri

        April 22, 2016 at 8:05 am

        I lived in Key West for many years and have spent a great deal of time in that cemetery I am very aware of its upkeep and local weather. It is a listed historical site under the care of the Keys parks facilities and the city, plus it has a historical volunteer society. Many tour guides make a living showing people the cemetery and have to pay an operating fee. The city also hosts paid tours directly. It is not a forgotten private graveyard but a major attraction to the area that brings in millions of dollars to the community. Between taxes, fees, donations, and grants from the national parks services there should be plenty of money to maintain the cemetery regardless of weather. Cemetary managers and parks workers around the Gulf are well trained to handle summer rains and hurricane damage. Yes I do expect the staff of a famous landmark to repair basic damage to their site on a regular basis. The grass is not well maintained and is not cut often enough. Which leads to intermittent sandy and overgrown patches. There are sinkholes several feet deep that could cause injury that are not tended to. Homeless and drug addicts sleep in the graveyard at night. I have found trash, hypodermic needles, condoms, and human waste in between and on graves. Collapsed graves and damaged stonework are not the results of storms but of poor grave and soil management. When graves collapse it is very common to have bone dislodged from the graves by carrion feeders. While a tourist might love seeing a stray jawbone in the grass. To the locals that actually have family buried there it is very upsetting. Especially since the cemetery became a historical landmark they are no longer able to replace their relatives headstones or repair damage themselves without approval. The grave management is clearly not equal either. The large monumental graves of wealthy people are often well cared for while simpler graves and the graves in the African American section are in a terrible state. Tourists come expecting a spooky ruin and that is what the city is letting it become to keep them coming even if it means upsetting the community that used that graveyard for over a century. The grave of the bound woman is a well-known grave and often visited by tourists, but tourists like it in this state. This grave is just 50 years old, I’ve seen 300 year old graves in better shape. Yates still has family and friends in the area. Would you want your grandmother’s grave to be treated in this way? And all the money that should be going towards upkeep and repairs is going where? The ten years I was there I never heard a straight answer.

        • Jennifer Elias

          September 25, 2016 at 1:16 pm

          I am Sheldon Yates’ grand daughter and Magdalena’s great grand daughter. I live in California and the last time my father and I visited key west was 1991. The story behind this grave and the meaning of the statue is all wrong. I’m visiting Miami in December and hope to go down there to see what’s going on.

  4. Tony Ingham

    April 12, 2016 at 10:23 am

    She was his. Duh.
    That, or she would keep leaving the kitchen.

What do you think?