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!