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Grave Mistake

How did the old county cemetery get in the way of Ridgemoor Estates?



"Here . . . lie the social ciphers. Individuals interred at potter's field are stripped of all the symbols which classify them as human beings. They are buried without flowers, without clothes, without graves, and without names." —W.M. Kephart, "Status After Death," American Sociological Review, October 1950

"Average people think there are lots of laws keeping cemeteries in place, that they're practically sacred. But cemeteries bounce around. So do the people in them." —Thomas Emerson, chief archaeologist, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Forty-four-year-old Adam Huber of 2026 N. Paulina became a "social cipher" around midnight Saturday, March 17, 1894. According to the Sunday Tribune, the immigrant German carpenter had been beating his wife, Katherine. Then his son George intervened, shooting his father in the chest and killing him instantly.

Huber's death certificate, prepared the next day by Cook County Coroner James McHale, bears the laconic notation: "Co. Undertaker. Dunning." Perhaps because the family was left without resources, Huber was buried at taxpayers' expense in Dunning Cemetery, the county cemetery on the semirural far northwest side of the city.

There may have been a grave marker--but if there was, it did not last long. Huber's remains vanished into the cemetery, along with those of thousands of other people--the poor, the insane, the tubercular, the stillborn, the vagrants--whose only crime had been to die in Cook County without friends and without money.

In all probability it was not the body of Adam Huber that appeared March 9, 1989, in a pile of dirt behind the Dunning Square shopping center at Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue. It was the top half of a remarkably well-preserved 19th-century man, complete with a handlebar mustache and muttonchops, wrapped in the remains of a shroud. He had been laid to rest right in the path of a sewer line for Ridgemoor Estates.

Earlier that day, construction workers had dug through human bones with no apparent qualms. "We hit one spot where there were solid bones for two feet," one worker told Norridge News writer Elizabeth Voss. The mustached man, however, smelled bad enough to make them worry. Thinking that the body might be relatively fresh, the foreman called police that evening. It wasn't, and that ended police interest in the matter.

The body is still in the custody of the Cook County medical examiner, and will be until someone can decide what to do with it; eventually it will be reburied somewhere. However, the bones--fingers, legs, vertebrae, pieces of skulls--have lain scattered around all summer, some picked up by ghoulish scavengers, most just bleaching in the sun within shouting distance of the Jewel, the Burger King, and the new condos on Narragansett.

The developer, Pontarelli Builders, and the local alderman, Thomas Cullerton, at first tried to deny that the sewer line had desecrated the abandoned Cook County Cemetery (Dunning Cemetery, Ridgemoor Cemetery, County Burying Ground, Poor House Cemetery, Insane Asylum Cemetery, Cook County Poor Ground, and Chicago State Hospital Cemetery). Nowhere else in the country has a cemetery with hundreds or thousands of graves been so nearly forgotten that a developer had to rediscover it by accident. "It is a very unusual situation," says assistant city corporation counsel Nancy Marin, with characteristic understatement. Many a cemetery has been moved--normally with the consent of surviving relatives--but, she says, "usually developers know it's a cemetery when they get involved in it." This time they didn't, and despite the best efforts of all concerned, no one has yet been able to find someone to blame.

In 1851 Chicago was a bustling metropolis of 30,000, getting farm produce and immigrants aplenty via the three-year-old Illinois and Michigan Canal. The new Galena and Chicago Union Railway was inching its way west from Elgin toward Belvidere.

Then, as now, those in charge wanted to get the riffraff out of downtown. To that end the county board bought 80 acres of farmland ten miles northwest and built a three-story "poorhouse" to accommodate those sent to work on the farm. One wing was devoted to the insane and, according to an unpublished historical sketch written in 1915 by Henry M. Hurd of Chicago State Hospital, it had "Small barred windows, iron doors, and heavy wooden doors outside, with apertures and hinged shutters for passing food. The cells were about seven by eight feet; they were not heated, except by a stove in the corridor, which did not raise the temperature in some of them above the freezing point; the cold, however, did not freeze out the vermin with which the beds, wall and floors were alive.

"The other buildings were all frame; they were more like barns or barracks--immense areas of bare floor, crowded with cheap iron strap bedsteads. The heating was insufficient; there was no ventilation; the arrangements for bathing were so imperfect, there being no hot water, that during the winter months the inmates were not bathed."

This was the home for the homeless. The Cook County Department of Public Charities instructed its agents in September 1872, "You will, furthermore, inform applicants that the County Agent's office never paid rent for anybody, and does not now; but that all parties belonging to Cook County, who are without a home, are welcome to Cook County Farm, if not able to get along with what the County Agent has a right to give."

At some point--we don't know just when--those who died at the poorhouse began to be buried on the farm. It was a long trip back to the city, and anyway Chicago, which had more than tripled in size during the 1850s, was fast outgrowing its own cemeteries. By the time Lincoln and Douglas had finished debating in 1858, the city cemetery and potter's field, at Clark and North, were no longer at the edge of town. At the insistence of north siders, no more plots were sold there after 1859, and further burials were forbidden in 1866. Those who could afford to pay for their final resting places were directed to the recently incorporated Graceland, Rosehill, Oak Woods, and other private cemeteries. Those who couldn't pay went to the County Farm.

Where at the County Farm? Since the reappearance of the body this spring, three real estate developers, two departments of Cook County government, three departments of the city, six departments of the state, several archaeologists, one neighborhood church, and an amateur historian have all wanted to know.

The most successful of the bunch has been the amateur, 44-year-old Barry Fleig, who is cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society. Fleig is compiling a Chicago and Cook County Cemetery Guide. "I knew [Dunning Cemetery] was there, and I suspected it was larger than most abandoned cemeteries," which are usually tiny family plots, he says. But he didn't start researching it in depth until the body turned up. Because Fleig had a head start, Chicago Historical Society assistant librarian Emily Clark has referred many inquiries about Dunning to him: "He's probably as reliable a source as you can find in the city on this."

Fleig has found documentary evidence that 16,315 people (which doesn't include cadavers donated to medical schools) were buried on the former County Farm grounds through 1912. Extrapolating from the incomplete records, he estimates that the actual total may be around 38,000. According to Loyola University archaeologist Anne Grauer, this figure would be consistent with Chicago population and mortality rates during the last half of the 19th century.

"It's all speculation," insisted Pontarelli Builders vice president Dennis Biedron in the Northwest Side Press on April 26, one of the few occasions the developer responded to press inquiries. "This guy's all wet with his figures. There are sidewalks, water lines, fire hydrants, roads and building foundations all over out there." How could there be a cemetery too?

As in life, so also in death. The first written mention Fleig has found of the county cemetery is in the Cook County board minutes for September 1869--and that mention was a complaint that the deceased poor were, already, getting in the way of new construction. "The 20 acres now devoted to the burying ground at the County Farm is too close to the Insane Asylum," declared the Committee on Poor House and Paupers. The committee recommended that all the bodies be moved "60 rods west . . . as soon as circumstances will permit." (Fleig says that later board minutes--often filled with arguments over details such as the price of a can of peaches--show no evidence that this recommendation was ever acted on.)

So where exactly was this 20-acre burying ground? A better question, says Fleig, is where wasn't it? "We know it's close to the insane asylum. We know it has to be in the first 80 acres. [The county ultimately bought more than 200 acres there.] It has to be where buildings and ponds aren't." The 1905 Sanborn fire-insurance map shows just one such area--and it includes the spot where the body and the bones turned up in March.

The simple County Farm grew, in parallel with Chicago, into a smaller city of outcasts, which included an insane asylum and a tuberculosis hospital. To its cemetery came not just the terminally crazy and consumptive, but anyone with nowhere else to go. According to Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlain's 1872 book Chicago and the Great Conflagration, after the Chicago Fire "The dead bodies were gathered up as soon as possible by the coroner and given interment at the county burying ground." (At least 107 bodies from the fire were never identified.) In 1872 the county board agreed to the removal of remains from the city's old potter's field--now Lincoln Park--to the county cemetery, as long as it didn't cost the county anything. The board's concern for economy resurfaced in 1877, when it awarded the county coffin contract to M.W. Bonfield at $3.40 per coffin--but only $1.40 for the "cheaper coffin for unknown bodies."

Most of the new burials were institutional. In 1884, for instance, 263 came from Cook County Hospital, 239 from the county infirmary, 115 from the county insane asylum, 69 from the Home for the Friendless, 22 from the Foundlings Home, 20 from Alexian Brothers Hospital, 16 from the House of Correction, et cetera, for a total of 996 in that year alone. A random selection of death certificates (which Fleig's research in the Mormon genealogical repositories in Salt Lake City made available) are a sobering reminder that not all the "wretched refuse of your teeming shores" did so well in their new home. Benjamin Severson, a 54-year-old peddler from Norway, died of syphilis May 13, 1886. Harry Parker, a four-month-old black infant, died of pneumonia on May 1 that year. Fifty-seven-year-old Richard Wille succumbed to "nervous prostration . . . occasioned chiefly by one use of morphine" on May 18, 1893. Cabinetmaker Christian Gjersten, 22, born in Norway, died July 5 of tuberculosis complicated by "acute melancholia." Edna Bennett, a 74-year-old missionary and nurse, died of apoplexy August 22.

Chicago was like a young boy outgrowing his clothes several times a year. In 1875 warden George Kimberly was simultaneously praising the county board for building a new addition to the insane asylum and pleading for more. "It will afford great relief, the present building has been so long overcrowded . . . . It now presents a truly imposing appearance, with its long facade overlooking the level plain before it; but, great as its proportions seem, I desire to urge upon your Honorable Board the urgent necessity of preparing for another addition at an early day."

In September 1882 the Tribune noted, "The burying-ground at the County Farm is to be enlarged by the addition of a strip of land 50 by 200 feet north of the present morgue." It wasn't enough. In 1890 county surveyor J.T. Foster surveyed an additional five acres straight west of the 20 acres. (Most of the addition now lies beneath the parking lot of Chicago Read Mental Health Center, just west of Oak Park Avenue. This is probably where Adam Huber was buried.) The five acres was referred to as "new grounds" in death certificates starting in 1893, but Fleig believes it may have been almost full in as few as seven years. In 1893 someone stole the county board's $400 map of the County Farm--apparently a detailed map that might have settled the cemetery's location long ago.

Still the city-outside-the-city grew, founded on the philosophy expressed in 1914 by a committee of the Illinois State Hospitals' Medical Association: "segregation of the unfit, the insane, the feeble-minded, the defective, delinquent, the criminal and the like." A new nine-building infirmary complex was erected in the early 1880s. After a patronage scandal in 1885, the asylum was eventually removed from the patronage system and placed under civil service. Building continued apace: several new dormitories or "cottage wards," a tuberculosis hospital, a new morgue, and several more buildings for the tuberculous.

Not that all construction meant improvement. "These rambling buildings are of frame," wrote an appalled A.L. Bowen, executive secretary of the State Charities Commission, in 1914. "How they ever passed as a hospital for tuberculous patients is beyond comprehension. I thought the old poorhouse was the limit, but I was mistaken. The floors are of a rough composition. The dormitories are big, housing as many as seventy in one room. There are no bathing facilities. Toilets are delapidated [sic], run down and filthy. Two stools and one wash basin for seventy people was a liberal allowance. The heating apparatus is as near primitive as one could imagine. A special dispensation of providence exempting this place from the laws of combustion is all that has saved it from destruction."

With such accommodations for the living, it is not surprising that we know little of the whereabouts of the dead. The state of Illinois took over the grounds and the 30-odd buildings from Cook County in 1912--300 of the 3,000 inmates were sleeping on floors--and renamed the complex Chicago State Hospital. In the next seven years the state spent $1.5 million and built 13 new buildings; most of the existing structures were refurbished, demolished, or added to. By about 1930 seven or eight state buildings had appeared where Fleig believes the 20-acre county cemetery had been.

But when the state took over, the paper trail stopped--or at any rate no one has yet found where to pick it up. The state's Institution Quarterly for those years contains information about Chicago State Hospital, but mostly about the treatment of the mentally ill, not their burial. If the state's ambitious construction projects unearthed any bodies, the news didn't make the magazine. (Its editors weren't too squeamish: they published a grisly account of a Peoria State Hospital patient's unauthorized digging in that institution's cemetery.)

When paper runs out, we look to the dirt--but the Dunning site is an urban archaeologist's nightmare. Loyola University archaeologist David Keene has done salvage work at the construction site and consulted with city, state, and developer. "If this was a normal cemetery," he says, "we could have a bulldozer strip off the surface and count the graves." Grave digging churns up the natural soil horizons, so the top of the grave--minus grass and flowers--is instantly recognizable because it is a different color from the surrounding undisturbed ground. Unfortunately, the entire area at Dunning has been disturbed, in some cases more than once. Keene points out that it might have been regraded and disturbed even before the graves were dug.

So you can't find the graves just by looking. And you can't assume that there are no bodies under the old buildings. For one thing, the state buildings may not have gone deep enough to disturb the graves. At least some of the new cottage wards had only shallow crawl spaces and no basements, according to Tom James, coordinator of internal review at Chicago Read Mental Health Center and unofficial institutional historian. The lack of basements was perhaps not accidental. In 1914 A.L. Bowen inveighed against putting basements into mental-health buildings after he found an "unventilated, unlighted, small excavation, designed solely for machinery, in full use and patients at work there, assorting and mending clothing. When you put a hole under a building in an insane hospital, it is as sure to be used as the sun is to rise. The only way to keep employees and patients above ground is to erect your buildings flat on the ground."

Basements or no, the buildings may well have been built on fill laid over the top of the defunct cemetery. It is also possible, says James, that the 20-acre cemetery might not have been one contiguous rectangle, but a checkerboard of smaller graveyards in between the buildings. The body that started this affair came from between cottage wards 25 and 16 and beneath a sidewalk, according to James. Keene says that it was eight feet down and that the top six feet were fill.

But what happened when state workers did run into bodies, as they surely must have on occasion? Barry Fleig says he has evidence, which he can't make public, that "when buildings went in at Chicago State, bodies were taken out. It was a constant nagging problem that nobody owned up to. I'm not quite sure what they were doing with them."

However, David Keene is skeptical that the problem could have been so easily covered up. In 1914, he points out, even the oldest graves in the 20 acres would have been only 60 years old, and the most recent 21 years. Construction workers using hand tools, he thinks, would hardly have put up with casually exhuming such relatively fresh bodies unless authorities were dealing respectfully with them--either by reburial (but where?) or by cremation (there was a small crematorium on the site in 1905). Until records are found or the entire area is dug up, no one knows how many bodies this might subtract from Fleig's count of those buried there.

The developers might take comfort from this, except that even after 1912, when the county moved its potter's field to Oak Forest, the state continued to bury Chicago State Hospital inmates on the grounds. Exactly where is not known, as usual, but Fleig has a number of death certificates labeled "Chicago State Hospital Cemetery," one as late as 1922. (The Institution Quarterly, in a brief discussion of "the insane who die abandoned," indicates that 140 people died unclaimed at Chicago State Hospital in 1916 and 1917, and were buried in the hospital cemetery.)

The Mormons' genealogical records don't go any later than 1922, but Chicago State Hospital forms used in 1928 instruct users, "if interred at institution cemetery, give location of grave." What evidence we do have is confusing. A former hospital employee told reporter Terri Kruszczak that the death register she used between 1931 and 1941 contained only 198 names, with none added during that time. Nevertheless, as late as the administration of Governor Adlai Stevenson (1949-53), the state's "Manual for Relatives and Friends of Patients in Illinois Mental Hospitals" indicated that a patient who died without relatives or resources would be interred in the "hospital cemetery."

It must have been a minimal affair, aboveground at any rate, because a November 12, 1939, aerial photograph of Chicago State Hospital shows no grave markers, even under a magnifying glass. And the five-acre "new grounds" had become a plowed field.

The Dunning cemetery was never quite "forgotten" in the strict sense of the word. In his 1952 University of Chicago master's thesis, "Land for the Dead of Chicago," William Pattison mentioned the cemetery and included it on a map. In 1959 workers digging trenches between Chicago State Hospital buildings came across bodies in mostly decayed wooden caskets that were buried about four feet deep, according to Terri Kruszczak's report in the June 28 Norridge/Harwood Heights/Norwood Park Times. Tom James also says, "There was some notion handed down from one staff generation to another that there was some poorhouse cemetery here." (He has charted "fourth-hand" staff reports suggesting that there may be bodies buried in several places outside the five-acre and twenty-acre plots.) Former neighbors such as retired teacher Marie Sperks remembered the burial ground being called "Ridgemoor Cemetery" in the early 1920s. "We took it for granted," she told the Norridge News. As recently as 1981 a Chicago Tribune feature on the Cook County potter's field mentioned the Dunning site in passing.

But the crucial institutional memory was lacking when the state--having given up on the "segregation" policy for the mentally ill--moved its mental-health center west to Chicago Read, abandoned the Chicago State Hospital buildings, had them demolished, and eventually declared much of the land surplus. Somehow the chunk of land north of Dunning Square Shopping Center passed from the state Department of Mental Health to the state Department of Central Management Services to the village of Norridge to Pontarelli Builders--presumably without any of the parties being aware that they were handing on a hot potato. The attorney general's office has commissioned a detailed title search in an attempt to find out who goofed.

The body and the bones have not completely stalled the progress of Pontarelli's Ridgemoor Estates development. Oddly enough, when the body was unearthed in March neither the police nor the Cook County medical examiner contacted the city health department, even though it is in charge of preventing unintended exhumations. Not until another company trenched into more bones on May 5, and a reporter telephoned supervising health-code-enforcement officer Roger Cieslik, did the agency become aware of the unseemly happenings at Dunning. "They had dug a water-supply-line trench," says Cieslik, "and in the walls of the trench you could see mass graves, some quite shallow, perhaps 18 inches down, and some quite deep."

"Since this is not a case of foul play, the medical examiner is not concerned. And this department's concern is narrow--no further remains should be disinterred without a permit." A permit, he added, would be "extremely difficult" to acquire without some kind of court order.

At first Cieslik ordered that all digging stop. Then, after he had seen some of Fleig's research, he limited his order to the northwest corner of Pontarelli's planned development, a one-acre area with 15 to 20 prospective lots. The builder was not supposed to do any digging without a health-department inspector on hand. "We're trying to be reasonable," said Cieslik in July. "This is a $25 million project. To say 'Stop!' would be ridiculous." Since mid-August the arrangement has been that digging may continue as long as Pontarelli has consulting archaeologists (the Loyola team) monitor the trenches and call a halt if human bones reappear. (The bones already on the surface were another matter. While the city had the power to prevent further exhumations, its authority to dispose of bones on private property is less clear. This may be why the bones were left lying around for so long.)

The poorhouse dead have laid clammy hands on two other building projects in the neighborhood as well. On May 9 Cieslik shut down the digging for a new steam tunnel underneath Oak Park Avenue at Chicago Read Mental Health Center: the trench had apparently cut into the edge of the five-acre "new grounds." "Our legal office looked into it a little bit," says Mia Jazo, public information officer for the state Capital Development Board, which was in charge of the job, "and it got so complicated, we just turned it over to the attorney general." Jim Carroll, the attorney general's director of government representation, planned to deal with this problem in tandem with the other cemetery issues. But the state has decided to speed up existing plans to build a new boiler across the street, making the excavation unnecessary.

Just north of the Pontarelli development on Narragansett is more surplus state land, some of which is owned by another residential developer, and some of which had been spoken of as a new site for the overcrowded Eli's cheesecake factory. Negotiations to allow the Alter Group to develop the area had been made more difficult by Alderman Thomas Cullerton's apparent ambivalence about having a "factory" on Narragansett, even before the discovery of the cemetery. The only party to these negotiations who would comment, city Economic Development Commissioner Joseph James, says only, "Mr. Alter is a very qualified developer. I'm sure he's very carefully analyzing the situation."

But should the cemeteries be regarded primarily as an obstacle to progress--or as a sacred trust? Reverend William Brauer, pastor of the nearby Portage Park Presbyterian Church, defended the integrity of the cemetery in letters to local newspapers and to his own church's board of elders, and instigated the formation of a Presbyterian task force to study the issue. As he wrote to the local Times on May 31, "To ruthlessly rip this burying place apart in order to cater to the purchasers of luxury homes, under the cover of an American flag being waved with frenzy by super-patriots, is to me almost as hypocritical an act as I can imagine."

Brauer is actually more soft-spoken than that passage might suggest, but he remains firm, referring to prophetic texts in Amos and Isaiah and describing the United States as having "a kind of golden-calf economy, where the desire for profits tends to outweigh anything else. Here we have an actual cemetery that was about to be desecrated simply for the sake of one more luxury-housing development. To put it in rather strident terms, they would convert holy ground into somebody's backyard swimming pool." What's more, he says, "It's an utter impossibility to me that we can divide people into two categories: those who deserve consideration and those who don't deserve consideration." The local church's board of elders has passed and circulated a resolution calling for a memorial park to be dedicated on the site. The Chicago Presbytery task force urged that a "suitable memorial" be erected but took a more compromising position than Brauer, adding simply that construction on the site should go forward with "due care."

City and state officials involved in several months of negotiations over the cemetery's future speak more softly. "Basically we want to make sure the cemetery is not desecrated," says Jim Carroll of the attorney general's office, "that we follow the law and make sure that whatever we do is not going to upset anybody." Not that there is much law to follow. Dunning appears not to have been formally registered as a cemetery, and a newly enacted state law against grave robbery offers little help, according to Tom Emerson of the State Historic Preservation Agency, because it applies only to burials more than 100 years old.

One gets the impression that most parties involved would be happy to see the site developed, provided that any remains are reburied reverently, a small memorial park is set aside somewhere in the area, and the whole affair is kept quiet. The problem is that there are too few precedents and too many participants. ("Every time we go to a meeting," says one, "there's another new attorney there.") Now that the body has been unearthed and the media spotlight invoked, someone may have to foot a big bill, either for reburial of the bodies or for abandoning at least part of the planned development. Negotiators have mostly kept quiet, but when a Pontarelli official suggested that the graveyard was really the state's responsibility, State Senator Walter Dudycz asked in the Harlem Foster Times, "Had the developer found gold on the property, would they make the claim that the profits from the gold belonged to the state?"

If the negotiators do come up with some deal for development and reburial, it is not even clear who might have legal standing to object. "If we go the litigation route," says Carroll--which would at least give all parties some definite direction--"one problem is, how do we file? Who do we bring in as a representative of the people there?" Normally when cemeteries are moved, the closest living relative of each person buried there must agree to the process. To date only three or four people have appeared claiming to have relatives buried at Dunning, and they of course have no idea where.

The issue of how many people are buried and where will not be any easier to resolve. Even the archaeologists, who early this summer were confident of their ability to deal with a cemetery, are advocating more historical research and less digging. "Everyone's so worried about finding the perimeter of the 20 acres," says David Keene. "But there may be nothing inside it now [if the state cremated or removed the bodies]. A little historical research into the correspondence at the time could establish perhaps that there is no problem." (That may be optimistic, given Tom James's collection of staff reports suggesting miscellaneous burials elsewhere.)

"We don't want to stop the development of anything," says a city spokesperson. "But we also don't want to desecrate a grave site." Accordingly, and since no more remains appeared during digging this August, the city is allowing more ground to be excavated than Cieslik had permitted earlier. The provisos are that all digging must be monitored by a representative of either the city health department, the city legal department, or the Loyola archaeologists; and that the digging must stop as soon as anything suspicious turns up.

"Barry Fleig likes to say that you can tell the character of a civilization by its treatment of the dead," muses Reverend Brauer. "So this becomes in a way a drama, a parable--the outcome of which I would argue will say quite a bit about what kind of society we are. What do we mean to be? What will we do with burial grounds when they get in the way of development?"

It's a stiff test, given that we can put few names to the bones, and those few are hardly household names. But it's ironic that these "social ciphers" can disrupt so many Chicago plans. Powerless in life, the paupers and the babies and the crazies would have been equally powerless in death--if only the state and the county had kept decent records of their burial. Now these dead have at least the power of unpredictability. You never know what the next bite of the backhoe may bring up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow, courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

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