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A Conservatory, a Zoo, and 12,000 Corpses

An artist digs for the truth about Lincoln Park and the Chicago City Cemetery.

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One day in the 1970s, when Pamela Bannos was a teenager, she was riding in the back of her father's car as he turned off Lake Shore Drive onto LaSalle Street. Looking out the window, she noticed an old stone structure standing in Lincoln Park. Surrounded by a chain-link fence and a wall of weeds, it looked like it might be a tomb. The word couch was just visible on its crest. What is that? she wondered. And if it is a tomb, what's it doing in the park?

It was in fact a tomb, and as she would later learn, the park had once been a cemetery. On a winter night about a year and a half ago, Bannos—now an artist and a senior lecturer in photography at Northwestern University—drove down the same stretch of LaSalle. Once again the Couch mausoleum caught her eye. But the Park District had cleaned it up in 1999 and now it looked beautiful, all lit up on the snowy ground behind the Chicago Historical Society. She started wondering again what it was doing there.

Not long after that she noticed that the Chicago Tribune had made its entire archives, dating back to 1852, searchable online. First, like anyone discovering a new search engine, she typed in her own name. And then she ran a search for "couch tomb."

Numerous articles popped up—and numerous explanations for why the grand tomb of millionaire hotelier Ira Couch had been left behind when the Chicago City Cemetery was transformed into Lincoln Park. Some reported that the Couch family had fought against it being moved. One speculated that political clout was involved. Another made a vague reference to an Illinois Supreme Court case. Other reporters wrote that it had simply been too heavy.

Intrigued by the way the story seemed to change each time it was told, Bannos began searching for articles about the cemetery itself. It didn't take her long to notice something else that was strange. Although history books suggest all the graves were moved out in the 1860s, bones have turned up since then, both in Lincoln Park and in an adjacent area where the Catholic cemetery was located. The question of what actually happened to the bodies became an obsession for Bannos, who's explored it in a multimedia art project called Hidden Truths, opening this week in the park.

"I feel like I've given up my life to this project," says Bannos, now 48. "I've been working for 16 hours a day on this for the last year."

This week, with permission from the Park District, Bannos will place six signs in Lincoln Park, each telling a part of the cemetery's forgotten history. Made with $10,000 in grant money from Northwestern, they'll stay up until November 21. Bannos is also launching a Web site, hiddentruths.northwestern.edu, with hundreds of documents, articles, maps, and pictures—her favorite being an 1852 watercolor of a picket fence by the man who bid successfully on a contract to build a mile-long fence around the cemetery. Bannos plans to write a book about her findings as well.

While the project may sound more like historical research than art, she says, "what an artist does is show you something in a new way.... There's always something more than what meets the eye."

Russell Lewis, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Historical Society), says Bannos's new project is the most thorough exploration of the cemetery's history he has seen. "I don't know that anybody else has done the work that she has done," he says. "She found some very impressive stuff."

"It's really fascinating," says Julia Bachrach, the Park District's historian. "There's never really been a reason for me to go into the early history. She was focusing on the cemetery. I've always focused on the parks."

The story Bannos pieced together begins in 1843, when Chicago established the City Cemetery northeast of Clark and North. The grounds eventually extended north, approximately to Armitage. The poor were buried in a potter's field, located where baseball diamonds are now. In 1859 John Rauch, a prominent Chicago physician who would later become the city's sanitary superintendent and president of the Illinois State Board of Health, began calling for the cemetery to be closed. He feared that corpses were oozing disease into Lake Michigan and contaminating the air.

City officials set aside 60 acres north of the cemetery as a park in 1860, naming it for President Lincoln after he was slain five years later. In 1864 an ordinance instructed the city to end burials in the City Cemetery except in lots it had already sold, and to turn the cemetery's north end into parkland as well. But the burials went on. During the Civil War almost 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners at Camp Douglas on the south side were buried in the City Cemetery, including 1,107 in the first eight months of 1865. That September the Common Council passed a resolution insisting that its 1864 ordinance be followed, and the following April it approved an ordinance ending burials completely. (Some families were already moving bodies to newer cemeteries, such as Graceland, that they considered more elegant. An April 1866 letter in the Tribune complained that undertakers were violating the law by filling up the recently emptied graves with fresh bodies.) In 1867 most of the soldiers' bodies were moved to Oak Woods Cemetery, near what's now Jackson Park.

In 1869 the new Lincoln Park Commission took control of the land, but documents show it lacked the money to make any improvements. A year later the Tribune reported that half the cemetery's purchased graves were still there, along with all 25,000 bodies in the potter's field. "It is rapidly falling into decay," the newspaper said.

Officials implored the owners of cemetery lots to move the bodies, but few complied, Bannos says. A Common Council document from April 1871 had park officials reporting that they'd "devoted their attention" to protecting the shoreline and constructing Lake Shore Drive. There was no mention of the graves.

Then came the Great Chicago Fire, sweeping through what remained of the cemetery on October 9, 1871, and destroying many markers. (As she delved into the history of the Chicago City Cemetery, Bannos found herself sniffing old property records and council minutes, convinced that she could smell the fire on them.) Afterward officials removed the remaining headstones and vaults—except for the Couch tomb. Bannos now believes that tomb stayed where it was because the park commission couldn't afford the $3,000 it would've cost to move it.

The city began transferring bodies from the potter's field to a graveyard for the poor at Dunning, the poorhouse, TB hospital, and insane asylum run by Cook County on what's now Chicago's northwest side. On September 18, 1872, a Tribune headline announced: "The Remains of Over 10,000 Dead Persons Still to Be Taken Away." The article said a crew of ten men was hauling out bodies at the rate of 20 per day. Less than a month later, the paper reported that nearly all of the bodies had been removed without explaining how the task had been completed so quickly. Bannos is skeptical.

In April 1874, park commissioners, apparently tired of waiting for the families to step up, condemned 712 cemetery lots, each of which could have contained as many as eight graves. Park records show bodies being disinterred as late as 1887.

Asked why she thinks some were left behind, Bannos says, "It's not as if someone wasn't doing their job or someone was lying. It just got very confusing."

Historian A.T. Andreas only made things worse when he published his three-volume History of Chicago between 1884 and 1886. Andreas inaccurately described the Milliman tract, a 12-acre section of the cemetery that had been the subject of a lawsuit, as if it were the entire cemetery and implied that the cemetery had been emptied. "That was the basis of several of the history books," Bannos says. "That becomes the source material, and that gets quoted."

Based on the records she examined, Bannos tallied 35,000 people buried in the City Cemetery and the Catholic cemetery, which was on the other side of North Avenue between Dearborn and Astor, extending south to Schiller. After counting the bodies moved to Graceland and estimating the number moved to other cemeteries, she calculated that no more than 22,500 bodies were taken out of the Lincoln Park graveyards. That leaves more than 12,000 unaccounted for.

"The numbers are astounding," Bannos says. "To say thousands, which sounds exorbitant, is conservative."

Asked if it's likely that thousands of bodies were left behind, the History Museum's Russell Lewis says, "A lot of these things are speculation. Her speculation is as good as anyone's, but some of these are questions that can't be answered."

The Park District's Julia Bachrach says the ground is undoubtedly filled with bones, but she prefers not to use the word "bodies" to describe them. "That makes it sound like a graveyard, and it's not," she says. "The land has been disturbed too much. It's skeletal remains."

Bannos found ten reports of bones being discovered on parkland, plus nine more in the residential neighborhood where the Catholic cemetery used to be. In 1899, when workers were digging in that area, the Tribune reported that "recent excavations exposed row after row of the heads of coffins in a state of good preservation."

Former Lincoln Park Zoo director Lester Fisher told Bannos that workers found a skeleton and casket when they dug the foundation for the zoo's barn in 1962. After getting no guidance from bureaucrats on what to do, they reburied the casket and poured the foundation on top of it, Fisher told Bannos. (A recording of the interview will be on her Web site.)

When archaeologists oversaw the excavation for the Chicago History Museum's parking garage northeast of Clark and LaSalle in 1998, they found pieces of what appeared to be 81 different skeletons as well as an iron coffin containing a body, Bannos says. The coffin was reburied in another cemetery, and the loose bones are now in the Illinois State Museum's collection. To this day, "anytime you do any digging out in the park, it's not unlikely you'll find some human bones," Lewis says.

Just last week construction workers unearthed another bone at 1453 N. Dearborn, between Burton and Schiller; at press time an investigation was under way but police speculated in the Tribune that the site might have been a cemetery. They might want to give Bannos a call.v

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