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What Lies Beneath Lincoln Park

An artist researches what remains of the old Chicago City Cemetery - it's more than anyone thought.

    Pamela Bannos has been digging to uncover the truth about Lincoln Park for the last 15 months, but not by dredging in the soil, which would very possibly reveal human remains, perhaps almost anywhere she put a shovel. Bannos has been instead digging through Chicago’s archives to piece together information on the Chicago City Cemetery, a 57-acre graveyard that served the entire city and existed on the southern portion of Lincoln Park before it became a park—or, depending on if you believe a cemetery is still a cemetery, even without the headstones, still exists. From her research, Bannos estimates that in the cemetery’s some 20 years of operation, beginning in the mid-19th century, more than 35,000 people were buried there, and approximately 12,000 bodies still remain, embedded in the ground that today holds homes, a zoo, a conservatory—everything we know to be Lincoln Park.
    “It just scares me, which is why I hedge and say thousands,” says Bannos about the possible number of human remains. The senior lecturer in art theory and practice from Northwestern University is a photographer, but with this project, she threw herself into historical research, studying documents and city records so old, so untouched, they smelled of the Chicago fire, she says. “I don’t really want to know what’s under there. I’m interested in the idea, the possibility. I’m interested in having people walk in the park and visualize what it may have been like as a cemetery. I’m just trying to get you to think differently, which is what an artist does.”
    With a $10,000 grant from Northwestern, Bannos’ project “Hidden Truths: The Chicago City Cemetery and Lincoln Park” involves six historical markers in the park, on display until November 21, and a Web site with such depth it could be studied for weeks. 
    Hiddentruths.northwestern.edu is embedded with document scans, video, audio of interviews and a one-hour podcast tour that people can download before visiting the park. Bannos also took the names of the cemetery lot occupants and created a catalogue, proceeding to plot out 600 by 80 feet of ground from Wisconsin Street down to Menomonee Street and show who owned it by piecing together bits of information. Even Bannos admits she goes crazy thinking about how she meticulously compiled the data.
    This is the story of a long-forgotten cemetery, something the history books have always known was there, but most residents have been oblivious to, even while being cognizant of the last remaining above-ground vestige, the Couch tomb, a 112-square-foot mausoleum at the southwest corner of the park. Erected in 1858 for real estate tycoon Ira Couch, it’s possibly the oldest structure still standing in the area hit by the Chicago Fire, according to Bannos. But as much as her story is a chronicle of a long-lost cemetery, it’s also a narrative on how stories shift with time and the Chicago Tribune. Yes, the Tribune. Bannos’ project began when she noticed she could search the Tribune’s archives back to 1852. Her last project had involved an in-depth, obsessive study of a glass negative of a street scene in New York, in which she found everything she could about the image, using the New York Times archives. When Bannos found the Tribune had the same searchable database, she started searching, plugging in all sorts of things about which she’d always been curious.
    “I remembered coming off Lake Shore Drive, my dad driving, and me seeing the Couch tomb there,” says Bannos, with a fixed smile of excitement about her project. “At the time, it was wrapped in fencing, and there were bushes and stuff around it, but you could still see it and read the word ‘Couch.’ People didn’t seem that interested or curious. You see it and you wonder, but then you don’t find the answer and go on to something else. So I put random things in the Tribune search. I put in ‘Couch tomb.’ And all of the sudden I got all these articles.”
    The articles started in the 1850s, with references to the cemetery, and then went to descriptions of the tomb being the last thing left. There were then articles questioning why the tomb was there. Bannos then entered the words “Lincoln Park” and “cemetery.”
    “Every time those words came up together, it’s because they accidentally found a grave in Lincoln Park,” Bannos says. “And that article was like, ‘Why are there these bones in Lincoln Park? I think it’s because it used to be a cemetery.’ But it’s the same newspaper that was telling these stories, and if you read the articles in order, you almost start to see how they change. This person wrote this article five years after this one, and maybe in that time they didn’t have the resources to go see what someone else had written. But it’s like, do you read your own newspaper?”
    And the Tribune is still relaying the evolving story. In early May, the paper reported that workers had found human remains at a construction site at 1453 N. Dearborn, raising the possibility that the area had once been part of an old cemetery, a notion Bannos now calls fact. Weeks later, the paper ran an article on her and her project, forever throwing her into the archives she so laboriously studied.
    The irony of it for Bannos is that while photography has been her expertise, she found not a single photograph of the park. The camera was already invented, but she’s been unable to find any type of image.    “The closest I came to being able to see it was a photograph that was taken the day after the Chicago Fire from the Water Tower, looking north, and you can kind of tell where Lincoln Park is, and you can see that everything is kind of obliterated in the landscape,” she says. “I’m trying to build for you the photograph without showing you the image.”
    The city established the City Cemetery in 1843, just past the north edge, North Avenue, and began selling lots and filling them south to north, beginning at Wisconsin. But as the city rapidly grew, so did a movement to bury bodies farther away, with a concern for sanitation, health and being so close to the lake, the water table. Bannos found such words used as “percolating” and references to graves being dug and the hole being full of water even before the coffin was lowered. The entire area actually encompassed four cemeteries—the City Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery, a Jewish cemetery and Potter’s Field, the large anonymous graveyard for the poor, where the baseball diamonds are now located.
    The terrain of the unplotted area was marsh-like—there was a slough that ran through the grounds, exactly where the garden in front of the Lincoln memorial is now. Bannos found documents describing a 20-foot alley that ran along the cemetery, parallel to Green Bay Road, today’s Clark Street. People could see the cemetery from Green Bay Road, and there were three gates to enter—two along Green Bay and one at North Avenue. Later people entered Lincoln Park from the south through the cemetery. Bannos found an 1852 watercolor rendering of the mile-long picket fence that surrounded the cemetery, which was six feet tall and meant to keep pigs and cows out from the north.
    “The fence watercolor is my favorite image because it was the closest I came to seeing a photographic depiction of the grounds,” Bannos says. “The watercolor—and because it is in color—felt like I was really there when I first saw it. It was almost magical the way I felt taken back to that place and time. Maybe because it was the only graphic depiction I found that wasn't a map. Also, it was so carefully and artistically rendered. It made me think of the carpenter or the fence builder as an artist. His name was Ellis Smalley, by the way.”
Most of what imagery Bannos was able to visualize came from narratives she read that were written just after the Chicago Fire, in 1871. By then the cemetery was abandoned—no one had been buried there for about five years. Starting in the early 1860s, Rosehill and Graceland cemeteries were open, much farther outside the city. The city urged families to move the graves of loved ones to another cemetery. Lincoln Park was already established, and the city was working to landscape it above Webster Street. As the fire charred the ground of the old cemetery, it hastened erasing the signs of a graveyard the city no longer wanted.
    “The fire burned markers, a lot of which were wood apparently,” says Bannos. “And the flames cracked and charred and broke marble headstones. So what happened is when a stone got removed, you lose a body. If there’s no marker, you don’t know what’s there. I’ve read all these narrative accounts. People are talking about running from the flames and running to the lake and running through the cemetery, and there are these legendary accounts of people actually jumping into graves that had been excavated to avoid the flames of the fire.”
    On her Web site, Bannos quotes the 1871 book The Great Conflagration by James W. Sheehan and George P. Upton: “As a general thing surviving friends, who had the means, long since removed the bodies of their kindred; those who remained had been the husbands, wives and children of the poor, but were none the less dear. These graves were marked with wooden boards, upon which were painted or cut the initials of the dead, and occasionally some beyond. In even one yard, the inscriptions were in German. Even in these abandoned cities of the dead, hundreds would spend the long summer afternoons trimming the sandy mounds, straightening the loose boards, and bringing water from the lake to refresh the parched plants and flowers which affection had planted upon the graves.”
    “It still looked like a cemetery,” Bannos says. “There were still tombstones, and they would have had Victorian fencing, iron fencing, around the different plots because I read that the person who bid to disinter the bodies from Potter’s Field, which didn’t happen until a year after the Chicago Fire, in 1872, and in the bid, he said, ‘I will be removing the stones and the iron fencing,’ so he’s describing the things that were there. I may not have pictures, but reading these documents, I’m putting the pictures together. It sounds like it was getting decrepit. The families were responsible for upkeep. The southern part of the cemetery was the oldest section, so by the time they decided they were going to make this into a park, that being the oldest section, those were the most forgotten.”
    Because lots had been sold by the city, families were also responsible for moving the buried remains. The city took out ads in the newspaper, urging people to claim loved ones in Potter’s Field or move remains in the plots to another cemetery. It was costly, and while the city would cover some of the cost, many just ended up being forgotten as the landscape changed.
    “One the best articles that I saw, the Tribune wrote a story, just a blurb, that said, ‘We’re about to start removing the bodies from the Potter’s Field.’ The headline says, ‘More than 10,000 Remain,’ which I think is conservative anyhow. ‘We’ve got 10 gravediggers, who we’ve estimated can each remove 20 bodies a day,’ and I’m thinking wow, that’s kind of amazing. They are just guys and shovels. So I’m thinking, ok, doing the arithmetic, I’m figuring that should take 500 days. Three weeks later, the Tribune reports, ‘Within the next week, we’ll be finished removing bodies from Potter’s Field.’ What? This is the year after the Chicago Fire and people were thinking about living. For 20 years, people were digging bodies out of the park.”
    By 1874, 700 lots were still left unclaimed, and by 1875, 150 tombstones were left in the park, according to Bannos. That year, the city took the tombstones, along with the graves they were marking, and moved them to a one-acre plot by today’s south field house and put a fence around it, calling it the Cemetery in the Park. “Never mind the hundreds of graves that weren’t marked anymore,” Bannos says. “Eight years later, they cleared the stones. I found this article from 1903 that said an engineer in the park district found a map in a pigeonhole in his desk, a chart that said where these 150 bodies were buried and people were like, what 150 bodies?”
    What happened to those 150 tombstones? Bannos believes she found the answer. It’s her “unsubstantiated theory” that they’re part of a wall at Graceland Cemetery, one that looks different from all the rest and is composed of headstone-like stones, charred, possibly from the Fire, and even inscribed, like one reading, “asleep in Jesus.”
    The last record Bannos found of a body being removed from Lincoln Park was from 1887, but remains have been found since, usually making their way down to Springfield to be held in historical archives. Bannos found 10 reports of bones being found in the park, along with nine findings in the residential area where the Catholic cemetery used to be. Because most people were buried in wooden coffins and weren’t embalmed, little is left except fragments of bone. Lester Fisher, former Lincoln Park Zoo director, told Bannos that while digging the foundation for the zoo’s barn in 1962, workers uncovered a skeleton and a casket, and after getting no answer regarding what to do with it, it was reburied and the foundation poured on top. In 1998, in the midst of the construction of the parking garage in Lincoln Park, the remains of 81 people were found, along with one iron coffin, an expensive but popular casket in the 19th century. The iron coffin perfectly preserved the contained body as it was airtight, but the coffin was sheared during construction, immediately beginning to decompose the body, releasing a putrid odor. After much bureaucracy, the archeologist ended up buying a new coffin and a cemetery plot for the iron casket and long-deceased occupant.
    After months of 16-hour days researching and working on her project, Bannos is in the midst of writing a book, furthering her process of storytelling. “It’s the story of the story and how history gets written, wrongly or inaccurately,” she says. “And I’m writing it again, and now I’m part of the story.”

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living


Whistling past the graveyard...
Interesting, well-written article. Helps with my research. Thanks!
Briggs W. T. Schoonmaker, Oct-05-2017