Dr. Baxter: Grave Robber

Today I’ll be running my Grave Robbing 101 tour in Lincoln Park, the old City Cemetery, as part of Obscura Day 2016. It’s sold out, so no need to promote further, but since I’ll be quoting a bit of Dr. A.J. Baxter’s memories of robbing that particular graveyard, I thought I’d post his whole bit.

In 1890, the Tribune published an article called “Doctors All Agree,” in which doctors told some of the great stories they accumulated in their profession. One was Dr. A.J. Baxter, who told a long story about his adventures robbing the old city cemetery. I suspect that the reporter embellished a bit (the “what, going already?” at the end is a bit too cute), but it does tell us a lot of interesting things. Such as:

  • What conditions were like in the City Cemetery in the 1860s (by which time it was competing with Graceland and Rosehill)
  • What early medical colleges in Chicago were like.
  • Attitudes of Chicagoans towards the police in both 1890 and a generation earlier.

It also just happens to be amusing as hell, if rather dated in its attitude toward race (some lines about his assistant would have probably been seen as ‘all in good fun’ at the time, but would get you fired with good reason today; I’ve left them in for historical sake. Consider yourself warned).

DR BAXTER’s reminisces:out-67_pdf__1_page_

I will tell you, the starched and ramrody medical college professors of today would have opened their eyes if they had been around with the boys in the early sixties. The college were just gasping along, everybody was playing Ambition to win, and Get There for a place, and red hot hustle was going around on the run. A college professor then had not only to do his professoring but pretty nearly everything else around the shanty, including the chorea and the crowing. We were young, but we were right up to date and devilment.
It was 63 or 64 when I was first pressed into service by one of the budding colleges – now a high and mighty institution – so I won’t ‘give it away’ as well as myself. To my surprise I found myself Presenter of Anatomy, and almost before I had time to realize it I also had a private class in surgery.
A pooh-bah of Anatomy and Surgery requires some material to anatomize and surgerize upon or he might as well shampoo his scalpels. But cadavers were frightfully scarce. The hospitals were very small and awfully unaccommodating, and, anyway, people were not dying just then with any praiseworthy rapidity; probably they were too busy or doctors were not thick enough.  Science could not be allowed to suffer, however, and as I had no surplus of funds to hire a deputy I was perforce compelled to become a bold and burking resurrectionist.  With a light wagon or cart, a pick and shovel, and an assistant – in the shape of Nigger Jack, who hung around the college and is still alive and kicking – I made weekly or even more frequent visits to the cemeteries. We usually started out about 11pm and got through by 2 in the morning.
For a few weeks everything was high O.K. and the pickling vat and surgery class waxed strong and mighty in the land, but too soon, alas! Dame Fortune began to show the vinegarish side of her visage. The police  – who at that period were not loafing or interviewing bartenders all the time – got wind of my periodical night jaunts and began to take a hand. It soon resolved itself into a contest between mind and matter, and mind did not always come out topside up.
Was I ever caught? Never mind about that; anyway, a gold piece spoke just as many languages then as it does now. But I had many an awful close shave.
My favorite hunting field was the cemetery, then at the lake shore, and Schiller Street – right out in the country, for Chicago Avenue was the city limits at the time. It was a dismal, neglected place, and the burial ground was usually ankle deep in sand. One murky, chilly night late in the fall we started out at the usual time, and meant business, for the pickling vat was quite empty. On the road we discovered that the pick and shovel  had been forgotten, and stopped at the engine house, then at North Clark and Huron, to borrow one.  Chief Swenie, who was Captain there, obliged me and winked his dexter eye as he handed them over
We reached our destination just about the hour when churchyards are supposed to yawn (as for me, I’ve never seen one even gape) and, stripping off our coats, got right to work. In about an hour and a half we had three beautiful stiffs.  We had just loaded them in the wagon and were getting ready to skip when about half a dozen blue-coats swooped down and ordered us to surrender. I shoulted to Doc to sling the stiffs out of the wagon and trot for his life, and I took to my heels. I was a pretty swift runner those days, but one of the cops (who I afterwards found out was Officer Tom Speden) was no slouch at it himself. Three or four shots were fired at me, but of course I wasn’t hit, and Speden stumbling over something, managed to get clear off. 
Jack got away too, but it was a could of hours before I found him in the basement saloon on Kinzie street. The scare had almost made a mulatto out of the coal-black coon. I thought that the engine house pick and shovel (left behind at the cemetery) would cause trouble, but they didn’t, for I never heard anything about them from that day to this.
That month was very unlucky, anyway, for about two weeks after I had another unpleasant experience. We had got away with a couple of cadavers all right, but the police were on watch at the college when we returned and I had to temporarily deposit the stiffs at my office on Lake Street.
Next morning when I got down the office door was open, the place hadn’t been cleaned, and the old Irishwoman who attended to that was nowhere about. She didn’t show up either for fully ten days, and when she made her reappearance she cut loose in great shape. It appears that she had lifted the tarpaulin, caught sight of the stiffs, and then ran all the way to her home on the west side. She swore by all the stains that she had been so sick that they had to keep her alive on whiskey and handed me a bill for $16.75 – and whisky was awful cheap those days, too. Kicking didn’t count; I had to settle.
What, going? Well, when you feel melancholy and want cheering up drop around again and I’ll repeat the dose.”
Grave Robbing 101 runs today in Lincoln Park at 4. It’s sold out, but will surely be repeated, and is available as a private walking tour  any time. Email for info!

The Ghostly Woman of the LADY ELGIN Graves

In 1860, the sidepaddle steamer Lady Elgin was wrecked about nine miles off Winnetka – another ship had collided with it, and the ship was busted up by breakers. Just under 400 people were on board, bound to Milwaukee from Chicago, allegedly after having seen Senator Douglas speaking in his campaign for the presidency (though the real reason was apparently raising funds to preserve an anti-slavery miltia; Douglas was not in town).

Another ship collided with Lady Elgin, and it was overturned and destroyed by breakers, resulting in the loss of around 75% of those on board.  At the time, it was the greatest tragedy that had ever befallen either Chicago or Milwaukee, and is said to have cost each city more lives than any single battle would in the coming Civil War.

The event is now recorded, but not really underlined, in Chicago history. Over time, it’s been overshadowed by disasters like the Great Fire and the wreck of the Eastland, or thought of as more of a Milwaukee disaster, since most of the passengers were from there.

But Chicago was the scene of many of the more gruesome aspects. Bodies were initially taken to City Hall for inquests, then moved to City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park). Contemporary newspaper articles make it look as though the bodies were set up in the “Dead House,” as they called the morgue in those days, but a 1908 reminiscence published in the Tribune described seeing close to ninety bodies lying on the ground in City Cemetery, waiting to be identified. It was certainly more than the dead house could have held.  Most of the bodies who were never identified in Chicago were eventually taken to the receiving vault at Rosehill, and about 27 were buried in a mass, apparently unmarked, grave.

Many of the bodies who came ashore closer to the site of the wreck wound up in a mass grave in Highwood, a small town in the north suburbs. And it was there that a ghost was seen throughout the late 1800s.

Wreckage on the shore at Winnetka. It was still there as of 1892,
when Joseph Kirkland’s Story of Chicago was published.

According to an 1899 Tribune article, the mass gravesite became neglected over time, and was marked only by two small wooden stakes at the turn of the 20th century (Indeed, the site was eventually lost to history altogether, until researchers at the Highwood Historical Society triangulated the location in just the last few years – see their newsletter (pdf link)).  That same 1899 article states that in the 1870s, when houses were being built in a mini “boom” in Highwood, there were stories of a ghost on the grounds – that of a beautiful woman in a black gown that was dripping with water. The ghost had a gold chain on her neck and diamond earrings in her ears, and was often seen waving her hands, as it to drive the builders away. She was particularly said to haunt the site of one particular construction site where the house was never completed. Some probably said that they stopped building the house because of the ghost.

The Tribune tracked down a man named Henry Mowers who said that he knew exactly who the ghost was – or, anyway, he knew which unidentified body it was.  “Yes, I was on the beach immediately after the wreck of the Lady Elgin,” he said. “For days afterward bodies continued to be washed up by the sea on the beach just below the lighthouse. I’ll tell you of one specific case which to me was at once the most pathetic and the most horrible of all. A woman clad in black silk and showing, despite the fact that she had been wave-tossed and beach-beaten for several days, that she had been a woman of beauty, was finally thrown up by a wave of sufficient strength to give her body lodgement on the sands below the bluff on which stands the old lighthouse. We found her there and carried her to a building some distance from the water.

“An examination showed that on the body was a handsome gold watch, a thing somewhat rarer than it is now, while about the neck was a fine gold chain. On the fingers were several rings, two of them containing large solitaire diamonds. The effects were left upon the body and the proper officials were notified…. the next morning, when the officials arrived, the door was opened, but there was neither ring, watch, nor necklace upon the body of the woman…. I saw the chain with its gold piece pendant hanging from the neck of the wife of a prominent Lake County official not six weeks afterwards. The man had entered the building in the the night and stolen the jewelry from that poor drowned woman. A nice sort of official was he not?  The stealing of the jewelry was undoubtedly the reason why the body was never identified. I made a coffin for her with my own hands, and made it rather better than I did the others…Yes, she lies up yonder unknown and forgotten by all save two or three of us. I suppose there is rubbish on her grave, and I know that cows are pastured there, but time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Over the 100th anniversary of the Eastland wreck, there were many astonished stories of how few people in Chicago today know about the disaster. But it’s certainly better known than the Lady Elgin, which seems to have been almost totally forgotten by 1899, even in the small town near which the wreck was eventually found in the 1980s. I haven’t looked into this extensively, but from a quick search I could find nothing about there being a grave site in Rosehill. As Mr. Mowers said, “Time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Inside the Couch Tomb: New Eyewitness Accounts?

We talk quite a lot about the Couch Tomb here – the mausoleum that was never moved from City Cemetery after it became Lincoln Park. No one is entirely sure why it wasn’t moved (probably money, though there are rumors of a lawsuit) or who all is in it, if anyone. But we’re always finding new info.  We’ve got “tomb snooper” photos of what’s behind the door (another door), and did a podcast recently chatting with Mr. Couch’s third great grand-daughter.

We also uncovered a 1911 article in the Examiner about a day when a locksmith received a prank order to open the tomb. At the time, a city employee claimed to have been inside of it some time around 1901 and seen nothing. At the same time, though, Couch’s grandson said there were about eight bodies in there, including two of his brothers.

Now a Daily News article from the same day – May 5, 1911, has been found. In it, the city employee goes into a bit more detail:

John Lindroth, a civil engineer in the employe of the Lincoln Park board for the past thirty-five years, said to-day that thee were no bodies in the Couch tomb, as they have been moved thirty years ago. 

The tomb, with Mr. Lindroth on the left. This was published in the
Daily News but doesn’t seem to be available in better quality
in their online archive.

“Ten years ago I was in the tomb,” he said. “We were laying out a road and it was necessary to open it. At that time there were no bodies there. They were probably moved, with other bodies in what was then a cemetery, to the lot east of where the band stand now stands, after the Chicago fire. At that time there were three cemeteries in what is now the park – the Catholic, Jewish and the Lutheran Episcopal.”

So, this gives us a little bit more info than we previous had about when he went into the tomb and why, and remains perhaps our best eyewitness account. However, Ira J. Couch, denied that the bodies had been moved (and was in a position to know).

“The last one to take an interest in that tomb was my grandmother, who is buried in Rose Hilll,” said Mr. Couch. “She died in 1899. So far as I know her husband, my grandfather, and his father and mother and two of my brothers are still buried in the tomb. There are four others from what I have heard, but I do no know who they were. It is absurd for any one to say that the bodies were removed after the Chicago fire or at any other time. No one had the right to do any such thing.

Mr. Lindroth is not, however, the only witness we have.  When James Couch, Ira’s brother, died in 1892, papers spoke about the tomb in great detail, and there were rumors that the family was considering putting him in the vault – the debate over whether it could be allowed created quite a stire down at the health department Several Chicago city officials were spoken to at the time, and none of them were under the impression that the bodies had ever been moved. Chief Sanitary Officer Hayt said he’d probably have to allow James Couch to be interred in the tomb if the family showed up with a properly signed death certificate and asked for a permit. 
Buried among the debate about the tomb in the Chicago Evening Post was a quote from one Robert Fergus, a printer who had known Ira Couch in the old days:
“I think there is only one body in it,” adds Robert Fergus. “In fact, I am sure  of it, for I remember having peered between the iron bars and seen but one coffin resting on the slab.”
This is interesting for a number of reasons. We know that the slab/door on the tomb is not “original,” and that it was originally just iron bars at the front. But we also know from our tomb-snooping adventures that there was another, larger door behind those bars. When could Fergus have seen all the way in? Was the interior door a later addition, as well? Were those bars once the only thing blocking coffins from the elements?
The Couch Tomb remains a mystery, and every primary source we find only tangles it further! For more on City Cemetery, be sure to check out Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths

David Kennison: Boston Tea Party Vet or Early Chicago Fraud?

excerpted from one of the sections I wrote for the Weird Chicago book in 2008, with a couple of additions:

Plenty of bodies besides that of Ira Couch are still in Lincoln Park, which was once City Cemtery, but only one of them besides Ira Couch still has a grave marker there – David Kennison, one of Chicago’s first great con artists.

Kennison was an old man living in the care of the William Mack family (or Henry Fuller, depending on which source you’re reading) when he came to Chicago in 1848. At the time, he claimed to be 111 years old, and that, while he was mostly bedridden, he could still get up and walk 20 miles in a day if he felt like it. He further claimed to have been the last surviving participant of the Boston Tea Party, and bequeathed to the historical society a small vial of tea leaves that he swore were from the tea party itself – the Chicago Historical Museum still has a box of tea leaves with a signed note from Kennison today. 

But his participation in the Boston Tea Party was the only the beginning of Kennison’s story. He further claimed to have been present at the Boston Massacre, the Battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington, Brandywine, and just about every other major battle of the Revolution, up to and including Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. And, even though he was in his mid-70s when the War of 1812 broke out, he had fought in seven battles in that war, as well. He even claimed to have been at Fort Dearborn for a while.

The story was awfully farfetched, but Chicagoans ate it up. When he died in February of 1852, hundreds attended the funeral at Clark Street Methodist Church, a military band (his favorite kind) accompanied the funeral procession, and he was buried with full military honors in City Cemetery. The local Daughters of the American Revolution named their chapter in his honor, and a generation of Chicagoans considered him one of the greatest heroes of the city’s pioneers.

After the cemetery was moved, Kennison’s body was left, but the marker disappeared. In 1880, the Chicago Tribune launched a search for old-time residents who had attended the funeral and could remember exactly where he was buried. Those who were still present were able to pinpoint the spot within a few feet at a spot just North of the Couch tomb, and a flag was raised on the spot until a more permanent monument could be erected. Today, a large granite boulder stands on the spot within a few feet of his burial place with an aluminum plaque listing his accomplishments.

(added paragraph): According to some terrific research done by Pamela Bannos, the city’s resident expert on City Cemetery, they put him in the wrong spot. The boulder was placed on the site where the funeral services were held, but the actual burial was a few days later, near the site of the Couch tomb. Actual burial services were seldom attended in those days – you have to remember, City Cemetery was a very early example of a “garden” cemetery. Most people buried in large cities were buried in crowded churchyards, where the stench was thought to be hazardous to one’s health, and where every turn of the shovel was likely to turn up something unpleasant. This wouldn’t have been nearly as big an issue at City Cemetery as it was in churchyards, but burial services were not exactly customary yet. Kennison’s remains were placed in a vault for a few days after the cemetery, then buried in the grounds. 

Several official city sources still speak of Kennison as a hero of the Revolution, but this only speaks to his real skill – Kennison was one of Chicago’s first great con artists. Throughout his time in Chicago, he took several opportunities to use the story of his life to hit people up for donations. But the story was just that: a story. At the time of his death, researchers have now learned, he was actually only in his mid 80s. Any historian who gave his stories even a cursory glance had known that they were full of holes since at leat the 1910s, and by the end of the 1970s historians had determined that his stories of being a Revolutionary War hero were entirely made up. 

Still, he seems to have made good use of his powers as a con man – thinking they had a hero in their midst gave some of the earliest Chicagoans a reason to be proud of their city. And, when a group met in Chicago to debate whether or not slavery should be expanded into Illinois, Kennison is said to have attended and to have proclaimed that he had fought for the freedom of all people, not just the white ones, and urged all those present to do everything in their power to abolish slavery. Perhaps a few of the Chicagoans were thinking of his words when they volunteered for service in the Civil War a decade later…

coming tomorrow: a bit about the only actual Revolutionary soldier thought to have been buried in Chicago proper….

Podcast: Geeking Out Over Mr. Couch

Hear the podcast  at archive.org,  or on 
feedburner (scroll to the bottom),  or via iTunes
Etching of the tomb above was found among
the papers.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Rachel Williams, a great great great grand-daughter of Ira Couch, the man whose family tomb still stands in Lincoln Park, and the subject of one of our early podcasts. She had seen my recent post about “tomb snooping” and documenting the door behind the door, which is as far into it as we can see anymore, and offered to share some old family documents with us – we recorded a portion of our time geeking out for this new podcast!

We’ve spoken about the tomb, the last noticeable vestige of City Cemetery, before, with such posts as “Who’s Buried in Ira Couch’s Tomb? New info” and More Couch Tomb Info (Probate Files, etc), as well as an early podcast.  Most of the gravestones and many (though certainly not all) of the bodies were removed when the cemetery became Lincoln Park after the Civil War. No one is entirely sure why the Couch tomb wasn’t moved, but it was probably simply a matter of the city not wanting to spend the $3000 masons said it would cost – you can find more info on the tomb and the cemetery over at Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths website.

We expected to see a scrapbook with newspaper articles, and found that and SO much more. Ms. Williams (who was great fun to talk to!) had a huge stack of letters, checks, telegrams, articles, legal documents, and more. Much of it related to the Couch estate and bankruptcy suit from the 1880s, and with the management of the Tremont House hotel (the wine stock list I posted the other day was among the stack). This was traveling mystery solvers’ heaven!

And so we sat around the table and absolutely geeked out, and had a fantastic time! Listen in on the podcast at archive.org,  or on feedburner (scroll to the bottom), or via iTunes , where you can subscribe for free. Or just listen on this nifty little widget:

What we didn’t find, of course, was the answer to the riddle of who all is in the tomb, if anyone. There were some new articles and reports, but they just further confuse the matter. One witness said that he looked through the iron bars once and only saw one coffin, but the others might have been behind slabs (it was apparently set up with notches on the wall for 10 coffins, with a slab for another in the center, though descriptions of the inside are a bit at odds with each other). How he saw behind the second door is ayone’s guess – maybe it was open at the time?

 In the same article, William H Wood, a trustee for the estate (Ira’s brother-in-law) said that several Couch family members are there, including Ira’s parents and wife. But he doesn’t mention that he had a kid of his own in there (according to his son Frederick in the 1930s), and seems oddly unaware that Ira’s wife wasn’t dead yet. Perhaps the reporter transcribed something incorrectly?

The city occasionally claimed (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) that there were no bodies in the tomb at all, but the family has always disagreed. The fact that the family seems to have discussed putting James Couch there in 1892 indicates that if the bodies were removed, the family wasn’t notified, which was probably not legal.

Some pictures:

Rachel’s mother (Ira’s great great granddaughter) in front of the tomb in the 1970s. No one is sure when the current door (which is greenish here and black today) was put in; pictures of the tomb from 1960 indicate that it may have still just been iron bars on the front at that point (as in the etching above).
The tomb as it appears today.
One of the telegrams from the 1870s and 80s, most of which relate to lawsuits over the Couch estate.
A large article from an unknown paper – I’ll have to hit to microfilm room to find out which paper this was from. It’s from some defunt paper from the second week of Feb, 1892, when James Couch died. This had a few new “eyewitness accounts” as to who was in the tomb, though some of the facts are pretty shaky – particularly the story that Ira had already built it prior to his death. The tomb was built in 1858, a year after he died. The fact that so much time elapsed (along with the fact that the body had to be transported from Cuba) support the theory that he might have been placed in a Fisk Metallic Burial Case, a really ornate metal coffin with a viewing window over the face. All the rage in the 1850s, bodies buried in them are still in decent shape about half the time. 
One of our “interior” shots of the tomb, showing the inside door. The guy who said he looked through the grate and saw one coffin must have been looking on a day when this door was open? Early articles about the construction of the tomb speak of a marble slab at the entrance behind the iron bars. Better pictures may be possible this fall….

Podcast: Rambling in Rose Hill

Here’s a shot that should tell you just about all you need to know about how our trip to Rose Hill went:

Yeah. About like that. We were joined by Susan Sherman, who explains how she is now part corpse due to a recent surgery, and was with me at the “Murder Castle” investigation a couple of years ago.  We wandered around Rose Hill trying to talk history, but getting distracted by our inner 12-year-olds as we saw graves with names like “Butts.”
You can download the 36 minute podcast from archive.org , or on feedburner (scroll to the bottom), or via iTunes , where you can subscribe for free. Or just listen on this nifty little widget:

Some pictures:
Charles Hull gets a fine statue while his wife, kids, and housekeeper get some little plaques. His wife Mellicent, buried near him, is sometimes thought to haunt Hull House, his Halsted Street home that became a settlement house under Jane Addams.

The Couch Family plot makes it look as though Ira Couch is here, though there’s no record that he (or any other body) was ever removed from the tomb at Lincoln Park. His wife is definitely here at Rose Hill, though; I’ve seen the probate record, and the funeral expenses mention Rose Hill. Her son James had been buried there in 1892 when the family decided against using the Lincoln Park tomb (though newspaper accounts make it look as though people thought the option was on the table. 

Exterior and Interior of the Harris (of Harris Bank) mausoleum, with a pit and a ladder leading down into a crypt (or underworld, maybe). 
You are in a mausoleum. Hallways stretch north and east. A staircase leads down. 

The Tiffany stained glass window in the Shedd crypt shows a dude in a hooded robe with a sword in one hand, a torch in the other, and a key dangling from his neck. It is impossible not to start singing “Stairway to Heaven.”

The reclining statue that was moved here from the old City Cemetery in Lincoln Park (whether the actual bodies were removed is probably anyone’s guess, though there hasn’t been nearly as much speculation as there was about Ira Couch).
Another episode will be coming soon! 

Hyena Jim Terrorizes Chicago, 1897

Newspaper archives are full of odd stories about the Lincoln Park Zoo (which was, after all, built on top of the old City Cemetery). One particular story that amused me last week concerned a guy in the early 1920s who was devastated to hear that his pet monkey was the wrong kind of monkey to use for “gland transplants,” a then-in-vogue operation in which ape…parts…would be surgically attached onto one’s one in order to rejuvenate one’s youthful vigor. The article about the guy ended with him hopping a cab to the Lincoln Park Zoo to scope out the action at the monkey house to see if any of the apes had more suitable…glands…that he could use.

But few zoo stories stayed in the news quite as long as the tale of Jim, the hyena who escaped from the zoo in 1897, a story that lasted a good week and kept the north side in a state of panic.

Skeleton of a “cave hyena” from an 1880s issue of
Scientific American

Jim escaped from the zoo by gnawing a hole into his cage in June, 1897. Since hyenas can be deadly, mothers on the north side were told to keep their children indoors – as the Tribune put it, “the watchful mothers of Buen Park were kept in a constant tremor all day by the dear that their little ones should be picked out to supply the “piece de resistance” of a black Forest feast. Reporters noted that the north side ws awfully quiet; in an age when kids generally roamed free in the streets, scarcely any were allowed outdoors for fear that they might meet with Jim.

 Forty-eight hours after the escape, Jim had taken up residence in Graceland Cemetery, where he scared the crap out a night watchman – imagine being a night watchman patrolling a cemetery and have the shadowy, lanky figure of a hyena cross your path. By the time the zookeepers arrived, the whole north end of the cemetery was full of laborers who had stories to tell about “how narrowly he escaped from being devored alive.” One employee said that “Jim” was as big as any lion, and twice as vicious.

A storm came down and put a stop to the hunt, and Jim took the opportunity to flee the cemetery – workers continued to scour graceland, then expanded the search to Calvary cemetery, as well, figuring that perhaps Jim had decided that cemeteries were the place to be. The next day, he was found to be lurking around Edgewater, then apparently made his way out to the west suburbs, where he was finally shot outside of an old folks’ home near Forest Park.  By then, his reign of terror had lasted nearly a week.  His body was supposed to be stuffed and mounted, though I’ve no idea what became of it.

Even now, large animals still find refuge in Graceland now and then. Coyote sightings there are common.

Inside the Couch Tomb: Pictures!

The Couch Tomb at the south end of Lincoln Park has been sealed for at least a century. We’ve spent a few previous posts going over what might be inside, including:

Who’s Buried in Ira Couch’s Tomb? New Info
Some More Couch Tomb Data (Couch family probate and death records)

The short version is this: at the south end of Lincoln Park stands the tomb of Ira Couch, the last major relic of the days when the park grounds were City Cemetery. Couch died in 1857, and
may have been joined in the tomb by as many as seven other people, ranging from family members to family friends and perhaps a stranger who died in the Tremont House, the hotel Ira owned at Dearborn and Lake (where the parking garage is now). Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth both stayed there after Ira’s death.

Ira died in 1857, and was interred in the tomb when it was built the next year. Why the crypty remained on the grounds after the rest of the cemetery was moved is something of a mystery itself, but the mystery that occupies us the most is whether Ira (or anyone else) is still in the tomb. The are no markings on the tomb saying who might be in there other than the name COUCH up at the top.  Ira’s grandson estimated that about 8 people were in there as of 1911, but there are reasons both to doubt him and to believe him.

The front is covered by a large metal door that is very well attached to the stone – if you think I’ve never had a drunk on the tour hop the fence and try to open it, you’d be wrong. Plenty of people who grew up in the city, especially in the 90-or-so year period when there was no fence around the mausoleum, have stories of trying to break in; there’s even a nick near the door handle where it looks as though someone tried to crowbar their way in. But it’s stayed sealed.

The door is not really a door at all – it’s a metal slab with a handle that’s probably just for decoration. There’s no keyhole, no latching or locking mechanism, and no hinges. It appears to be welded to some L brackets on the inside. But on a tour last winter, I noticed a bug crawling underneath it and realized that there was a crack under the “door” about the size of one’s pinky finger.

A thorough check of the Cemetery Care Act didn’t make me think it was illegal to take pictures of the inside of a tomb, so, using some very high tech equipment that I call The Tomb Snooper 500 (an iPhone taped to a wire hanger), I’ve been able to get some photos of the inside of the tomb, one of which will be published in GHOSTS OF CHICAGO, my new book on Chicago ghostlore.

   I was going to hold off on publishing the photos until the book came out, but I’m scheduled to sign advance copies at the Llewellyn booth at the ALA (American Library Association) conference here in Chicago on Sunday, June 30 at 1pm. So the cat’ll be out of the bag as of then, and I might as well publish here, for the first time, photos of the inside of the Couch Tomb.

What’s behind the door is…. another door. Behind the slab/door is a small antechamber headed off by a larger, more impressive door.

It’s so covered in dust and grime that it’s difficult to tell what it’s made of; there are some early references to the tomb having a marble door or slab behind the front door, but there are some spots that might be rust. On the right is a shot of the stone wall on the left, and the door (with a knob of some sort visible) on the right.

It’s a pretty large and impressive door, with a rounded protrusion on the right on which the door probably pivots when opened.  These are the two best shots that I could get; getting a good picture in such a small, enclosed place is difficult even when you can focus properly. 

This door may have once been the front door, really. Some early drawings show a sort of gate where the front “door” is now. THis might have been visible through the gate for the first 50 odd years of the tomb’s existence.

Cool as this is, it gets us no closer to determining who is or isn’t inside of the tomb.  I feel as though I’ve gotten past level one, but I’m stuck on level two. There are times when my job is not unlike being stuck inside of one of those “interactive fiction” text adventure computer games from the 80s. Interactive nonfiction!  Hector and Erin joked on our last podcast that if we ever see inside of door #2, there’ll be a person inside saying “sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another tomb.”

As we’ve seen in previous posts, no one is sure who is/isn’t in the tomb anymore. Rose Hill says Ira is there, but have nothing more than his name on a family plot to back it up. There’s no record one way or the other regarding IRa, or any of the others entombed here, being moved.

Of course, anyone who wants to learn more about the tomb and City Cemetery should peruse Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths. I called Pamela and sent her the “door” pictures a few months ago; Pamela is reasonably sure Ira is in the tomb, and probably in one of those Fisk Patent Metallica Burial Cases, the really ornate metal coffins with viewing windows over the face that were all the rage when Ira died. He had to be transported back from Cuba, necessitating a good casket, and, anyway, if you’re springing for a $7000 tomb, why not pay the extra hundred for the best coffin on the market at the time? If he is in there, and in one of those cases, there’s a chance that he could even still be recognizable. I run into stories of Fisk cases being dug up fairly often; the corpse seems to be in good shape about half the time.

My new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book covers the ghosts that have been reported in Lincoln Park since the very early days of the park, when police officers there were more apt to blame the ghosts on the suicides that often occurred in the park in those days. It’s out in September, but up for pre-order now, and will be officially released in September. On Sunday, June 30th, I’ll be signing copies (presumably the typo-laden advance proofs!) at ALA at 1pm at the Llewellyn booth.

More pics:

Here’s a small shot of the back side of the front door (well, mostly the wall next to it), showing what appears to be the metal to which the front door/slab is attached:

And here’s a shot of the lower left portion of the interior door, showing the ground in front of it. There doesn’t seem to be a crack under this one. There appears to be some metal hooks at various points around the edges of the door.

And one more shot showing the door and the ceiling above it, view a view of the doorknob: