Some More Couch Tomb Info

The “Couch Tomb” in Lincoln Park absolutely haunts me. I have dreams about going inside of the thing all the time (in my dreams it’s usually bigger on the inside). Newly discovered info is making it even MORE intriguing. In a recent post, we noted that Ira J. Couch, grandson of Ira, the man for whom the tomb was built, said in 1911 that two of his brothers were in the tomb.

Now, this was sort of a shocker, since all available evidence was that Ira J. Couch didn’t have any brothers.  However, newly discovered info in his grandmother’s probate files have him giving sworn testimony that his parents had two stillborn babies who died unnamed. He also indicated that his grandparents (Ira himself and Caroline) had three such unnamed children in addition to Caroline, their only known child.

This isn’t necessarily a smoking gun – those babies would both have been born well past the age when it was actually legal to inter bodies in what was, by then, Lincoln Park, and Ira was probably not old enough to remember the only one of these that was born in his lifetime.  However, between Ira J’s comments and some gossip in newspapers of the day, I do tend to get the impression that the city and the family had different concepts of what could legally be done with the old crypt, so for there to be two stillborn babies in the tomb is not fully out of the question.

And here’s something new for me: I recently located a copy of Caroline Couch-Johnson’s death certificate. Caroline was Ira J’s mother, and Ira-of-the-tomb’s daughter (and, yes, the number of people named Ira and Caroline in this saga can make things a bit confusing). As expected, the death certificate indicated that she was buried in Rose Hill, where the Couches were being interred by the time of her death in 1885, at which point her mother was still alive.

But there was one thing I was shocked to see: the birth certificate mentioned that she was born in the Tremont House, the hotel that her father owned:

It’s awfully unusual to see things like this on a death certificate; they seldom make any comment unless there’s something to note about the cause of death, like when the specify that it was a death by legal execution, or a drowning in Maple Lake, or if the gun-shot that killed the person was an accident or suicide.  Most of them are very matter-of-fact, and I’ve never seen a detail like this added into the birth information. Neat!
However, Caroline and her mother (Ira’s wife) are both certainly at Rose Hill, not in the old tomb. Her mother’s probate file contained some interesting info, like the itemized receipt for her funeral, which indicated that she was buried in an $80 coffin – very nice by the standards of the day. 
My upcoming Ghosts of Chicago book that Llewellyn will put out this Fall will have a section on the tomb and the occasional bits of ghostlore that have sprung up around it, as well as a photo or two of what’s behind the door (don’t get too excited – it gets us no closer to solving the mystery!)  Pamela Bannos, author of the Hidden Truths website about City Cemetery, is preparing a book, as well, which I can’t wait to see! 

Who’s Buried in Ira Couch’s Tomb? Some new info.

One of my favorite topics – one that pops up in my dreams all the freaking time – is the Couch Tomb, the mysterious vault that stands at the south end of Lincoln Park, the most visible reminder that the place was once City Cemetery (we spoke of the tomb in a podcast some time ago).  It was built in 1858 after Couch died in Cuba  (the Tribune once joked that he was among the first Chicagoans to go south for the winter) and was set up to hold about a dozen bodies; estimates often say that it’s about half full (or, uh, half empty). It cost $7000 and was made of several tons of Lockport stone (reports vary between 50-100)

 Odds that there’s anything in there now always seemed slim to me – it’s not exactly air tight, so most anything that was ever there has probably rotted away by now.  I was never persuaded, though, that the bodies would have been moved.  This was a really, really expensive crypt, after all –  $7000, the cost of it, was about the same amount spent on the Republican Wigman a year or two later.

But I just ran across a thing in the Chicago Examiner archives from May, 1911, when the tomb was set to be opened for reasons unclear. This is a few decades beyond the last time the thing was known to have been opened – one later article said that the family had been unable to get it open without dynamite in the early 1890s (this would probably be the case now – it’s awfully well sealed on all four sides of the door).

But in May, 1911, locksmith William McDougald was notified that he was to bring the proper tools to the vault and opened it – an order that made the Examiner. The park commissioners would not say WHY it was being opened – the paper dramatically stated that they maintained “a deep silence.”

The order appears to have been a prank. The next day, the park commissioners said they knew of no such orders, and placed a policeman on guard. A.S. Lewis, the superintendent of the park, stated at the time that the tomb had not been opened since 1880 – and when it was opened then, all the bodies were removed. John Lindroth, a civil engineer who worked for the park board for years, concurred, stating that “I was in it ten years ago. There were no bodies in it at that time.”

Meanwhile, though, the paper sought out Ira J. Couch, grandson of the original Ira Couch, who stated that “My grandfather, his father and mother and two of my brothers are buried in the tomb. I have heard, also, that four other people are buried there. The bodies have never been removed. We hold the title to the vault and can open it if we want to, but we do not want to.”

Well, folks, this is a veritable treasure trove of primary sources! For one thing, we have a first-hand account of being inside of the tomb around 1901 – certainly the only such account that I know of. However, Lindroth saying it was empty isn’t necessarily proof positive that there were no bodies in it – it could simply be that they had all rotted away by then. For a coffin to rot away the twenty or thirty years it would have been since the last interment would not be impossible. Also, I’m not sure he was telling the truth; this might have just been Lindroth’s way of getting people to leave the thing alone. I really wish he’d said more about how he got in, as it was generally said at the time that one couldn’t get in without blasting it open (it’s not just locked, it’s sealed), or why he would have been inside, or how he got the legal clearance to open the tomb without Ira J. Couch knowing about it.

After all, of course, we can’t discount the testimony of Ira J, who presumably would have been in a position to know whether or not the bodies were moved. He may have been mistaken, but I can imagine that this was the sort of topic that came up around the Couch family dinner table occasionally. Particularly given the fact that his brothers were there – if they had been moved in 1880, he should have known, and he should certainly have been informed if the tomb had been opened in 1901 (the Couch family was still prominent in Chicago then). He had been in charge of the family’s estate since 1899, when his grandmother died;  some have pointed to the fact that Mrs. Couch is at Rose Hill, not interred in the tomb, as an indicator that the bodies had been moved, but the cemetery was long out of use by 1899 (I had no idea she died so late until today – the park hadn’t been a cemtery in decades by then, and that would have been years after the supposed incident when they couldn’t open it without dynamite to put Ira’s brother in).  Incidentally, Mrs. Couch’s obituary states that her husband and father-in-law are in the tomb; a 1936 article on the family in the Trib said that Ira J. and his son, Ira L, made an annual custom of visiting the tomb. Ira L eventually moved to Omaha, and said as late as 1960 that there were seven bodies in there. In a 1993 article the family no longer knew for sure.

So, we have some fine new information here from 1911, but still no proper closure! I wish Lindroth had explained why he would have been in there ten years earlier.   For much more about City Cemetery, see Pamela Bannos’s “Hidden Truths”  As a minor update, Pamela tells me that, even having traced all of the Couch family genealogy, this would be the first she’s heard or Ira J having any brothers. Perhaps they were stillborn? Furthermore, Ira Couch’s parents died well after the era when it would have been legal to inter them in Lincoln Park. However, if they died within Ira J.’s lifetime, one would assume that he knew where they were interred. Curiouser and curiouser!

Abraham Lincoln in Chicago: Ebenezer Peck’s House

In 1860, just after the election, President-elect Abraham Lincoln came to Chicago, where he’d been a regular visitor for years, to meet Hannibal Hamlin, his running mate, for the first time. They met up at the Tremont House, the hotel at Dearborn and Lake where, a couple of years before, Lincoln had made a version of his “house divided” speech from the balcony. Now, a public reception was held for well-wishers to greet the president elect at the same hotel.

But perhaps the most momentous event of that Chicago stop was the day the party met at “Lake View,” the mansion of Judge Ebenezer Peck, and had a long discussion about who would be in Lincoln’s cabinet. Here’s the mansion:

The house stood at the northeast corner of Clark and Fullerton. It survived the fire, being just a couple of blocks north of where it ended, and was still there as of the early 20th century, but seems to have been torn down some time before 1920. When it was built, it stood on seven acres, through Judge Peck’s daughter noted in 1900 that it was now surrounded by so many buildings that it would be hard to see from the road; this would put it around the spot where the fullerton plaza hotel stood as of 1923.

“They had hardly become seated in the parlor,” Peck’s daughter recalled, “before a curious crowd gathered before the low windows, which reached to the floor. Mr. Lincoln was greatly upset by the people peering at him. He never could beat to keep people waiting…to get out of the difficulty Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Hamlin went to a bedroom in the southeast part of the house on the second floor and there they secured at last a chance for uninterrupted conversation. They were together many hours, and there the first cast of the Cabinet was made up.”

Peck’s daughter saw Lincoln off and on in Washington, where her father moved during Lincoln’s term to be a judge in the U.S. Claims court. One particular night, she said he saw Lincoln at the White House, where he found him walking up and down in the deepest agony, lit by a single gas jet. “This is Friday, hangman’s day,” he said. “I had to sign the death warrants by which five poor boys were shot today.” He paced about, saying “Shoot a farmer’s boy for going to sleep!”  He remarked that the generals said these executions were necessary for military discipline, but “he had and idea that it was a good thing for military discipline to have his own way once in a while about shooting farmer boys for going to sleep.”

I believe that this is as close as Lincoln ever was to what is now Lincoln Park; he probably would have passed by it on Clark en route to Peck house. In 1860, the tower window would have quite likely given you a  view of the green area that would soon bear Lincoln’s name, but which was, at the time, the  City Cemetery. It’s tempting to imagine Lincoln standing in the tower, looking out at the graves and contemplating the Civil War that was looming ahead of him. 

Robbin’ Graves and Takin’ Names

You can’t rob graves like you used to. The days when you could just dig down to the head of the coffin, cut a hole in it, and drag the body out on a rope are over. You basically need a jackhammer to get into a casket nowadays.

But do you know that that is? It’s quitter talk!
The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing is now available (in a newly-formatted edition) on the ibook store via iTunes for use on your iPad! Here’s everything you need to know to launch YOUR career as a 19th Century Resurrection Man – the smart aleck way!  

And don’t forget to check out our FREE podcast on Grave Robbing in Lincoln Park and our posts from Grave Robbing Week!

The Smart Aleck's Guide to Grave Robbing - Adam Selzer & Smart Aleck Staff

Also available on Kindle or Nook.  Click the banner below for more info!
BANNER GRAVE ROBBING

Mystery at the Couch Tomb

The following (fake) newspaper article was found taped to the back of the Couch vault:

Though the article is too funny to be real, the date is a giveaway – it’s dated 1857, several years before they started naming parks (or anything else) after Lincoln. The space was still called City Cemetery then
Nearby was another item, a fake section of Ira Couch’s will:

Besides the fact that printers didn’t exist in those days (or ballpoint pens, with which the signature appears to have been added), I’m pretty sure Couch’s net worth was more than 210k.
So, I assume this is part of a scavenger hunt, letter-boxing, or “How to Host a Murder” sort of thing? Well done, in any case!

New podcast episode: “Ghost Hunting in Lincoln Park”


New Episode!
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

More Podcasts

Lincoln Park is one of those places that certainly OUGHT to be haunted, given its history. Plenty of bodies remain from the land’s stint at the chicago City Cemetery, upwards of 100 people committed suicide by jumping off the “high bridge,” known as “suicide bridge,” and there were plenty of murders over the years. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Tribune said that there had been enough violent deaths in the park to furnish a ghost for every nook and cranny.

We didn’t find any ghosts, but we did have a good time tromping around looking!

Here’s the long-demolished Suicide Bridge:

And the Couch Tomb (a regular tour stop for me these days) as it appeared with me in front of it a couple of years ago:
A close-up on the door:
Related Posts:

ghostsofchicagobanner

Grave Robbing Week: The Scandal of 1857

New Podcast
Episode:
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park



Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

More Podcasts

Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!
Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:

Q: How do you enjoy the work?
A: Well, it wasn’t very pleasant at first, of course, but anyone gets used to it. It is for the good of science, and I think it is just as right and honorable as for the man what does the dissection.
Q: How many do you suppose you have furnished in your experience as a body snatcher?
A: Maybe 500. I got about forty last winter. But it wasn’t a very good winter for it.

                – Cincinnati Equirer, 1878, “A Talk with a Professional Subject Gatherer.”

In 1835, Chicago decided it was time to designate some far-out-of-the-way space as cemeteries. Two spaces were decided on: one on the south side (about where 26th street is now) and one on the far north – just above Chicago Avenue, stretching from Clark Street to the Lake. At the time, this was so far out of the way that no one thought the city would ever expand so far North. It was only a few years before they realized that they were wrong, and the two cemeteries were abandoned. Little is really known about those two graveyards, but it’s generally agreed that plenty of bodies are still there.

In 1840, the city opened The Chicago Cemetery, which would eventually be known as City Cemetery, and then, eventually, as Lincoln Park (after the gravestones and most (well, some) of the bodies were removed). 
Grave robbing was a problem in the city right from the start – in 1844, a new mayor mentioned the problem in his inaugural address.  But the problem really made the news in 1857, when it turned out that the sexton – the city cemetery manager – was digging bodies back up to sell to medical colleges, who always needed bodies for dissections and tended to have “no questions asked” policies.
 In October of 1857, four bodies were buried in the Potter’s Field – the section where the poor and unclaimed bodies were buried, usually in unmarked graves (located right about where the Lincoln Park baseball fields are now). When Joe, the gravedigger, noticed that that grounds where he’d buried them was disturbed, he investigated and found the coffins had been broken into and the bodies were gone. He contacted the local alderman, who bypassed the police and put Alan Pinkerton and his squad of detectives on the case.
Pinkerton’s men determined that the robbers had entered the graveyard with a wagon at the North end and proceeded down to North Avenue (which then divided the Protestant side from the Catholic side). Seven or eight men were placed on guard of the “infected district”for several nights.  Finally, one night a wagon appeared. The detectives followed along, crawling on all fours among the graves, then finally running them down before catching up with cart at Chicago Avenue. The men in the wagon were Martin Quinlan, the city sexton, a student from Rush, and an unidentified third man. As they fled from the wagon, they left behind a canvas bag containing the bodies of a man and a woman.The man, who was missing his legs, was identified as Louis Steff, a man who’d recently died in a lumber accident (actually, the amputation probably killed him) and the woman was Mary Ann Best, said to be a friend of Steff’s.
A later search turned up two more bodies hidden in the cemetery bushes. Another grave was found in which a hole had been dug and a rope placed around the body to be pulled up, but the smell had given it away as a smallpox victim and the robbers had decided not to steal it. Quinlan and York, the student, were quickly captured.
Grave robbing, it seemed, was a common problem. A couple of years before, it had been necessary to dig a guy up and rebury him, and it turned out the coffin was empty – and so were 9 out of ten of the coffins buried nearby!
Eli York, the medical student, had an alibi and was dismissed from the courts three days later. The head of Rush stated that all students had been directed to have nothing to do with body snatching. However, medical colleges quickly pointed out that they NEEDED bodies, and argued that they should be given first dibs on any body that was going to be buried in the Potter’s Field. One letter to the editor pointed out that if you should ever need your leg amputated, you’d better hope to get a surgeon who had experience tracing the arteries and knowing how to keep you from dying of the operation (one wonders if this was he problem the legless man had had).  Meanwhile, makers of harder-to-rob metal caskets immediately began advertising their wares.
The papers began to argue about whether Quinlan was a democrat or republican. He was a democrat (and an Irish one, as the Republican Tribune was only too eager to point out). 
Eventually, Quinlan was indicted for robbing nine graves, and pleaded guilty to stealing the bodies of Steff and Best, the two with which he was caught. The defense argued that since the people buried in the Potters Field had no friends to be upset by their disinterment, it was a victimless crime, but the court was unmoved. Quinlan was fined $500 (250 per body) and freed.  A few years later, having been removed from office, he spent a year in prison for stealing cows.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for more stories about Chicago body snatching! We’ve got bodies in barrels, bodies in bags, grave robbing gangs…and lurid, semi-erotic descriptions of corpses in a story that may provide a back story for the supposedly-haunted Hooters on Wells! It’s going to be a gruesome week, folks.

Podcast: Grave Robbing in Lincoln Park


New Episode!
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

More Podcasts

The first week of april will be grave-robbing week here at Chicago Unbelievable – we’ll be talking about a bunch of cases of grave robbing in Chicago. As a preview, Hector and I have journeyed out to the old City Cemetery to talk about grave robbing with Daniel Kraus, author of the new book, ROTTERS, which is all about father-and-son grave riggers. It’s out on April 5th!

Grave robbing in 19th century Chicago was very common – even during periods when the bodies bound for the Potter’s Field (where they buried the unclaimed bodies of the poor and friendless) were given to medical schools first, there was still plenty of money in digging up bodies to ship to the University of Michigan medical school (U of M seems to have had a real reputation as a good place to sell bodies; I have to wonder whether this what attracted H.H. Holmes to the school!)
Kraus’s book may be a novel, but it’ll tell you all you could ever need to know about robbing graves for fun and profit. How long should
In Chicago, even city sexton (cemetery manager) got in on the act of digging up bodies to sell, and people were always getting caught with wagons, barrels, and sacks full of corpses. This seems to have happened in most of the local cemeteries, but for this podcast, we’ll be talking about the big City Cemetery that was the city’s main burial ground from the 1840s until the late 1860s. All but a handful of grave markers were removed over a century ago when the space was converted to Lincoln Park – but it’s well known that plenty of the bodies were never moved. You know that little parking lot near the south end of the park that you use during Green City Market (when it isn’t full)? When they dug out for the lot in the 1990s, they found dozens of bodies.

Next week (starting April 4th) is Grave Robbing Week here at Chicago Unbelievable – we’ll be telling tales of grave robbing from Chicago history all week long!  We advise you not to check the blog too close to meal time for
a while.

For more about City Cemetery, see Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths Website.

PICS:

    Above: the Couch tomb in Lincoln Park – the oldest surviving
   structure in the “fire zone.” But who’s inside?

    

Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!
Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:
Above: illustration I made for the WEIRD CHICAGO book, back when I worked with them.