The secret history of Lincoln Park’s cemetery

November 10, 2012

Chicago’s toniest green space, Lincoln Park, was once the final resting place for more than 35,000 Chicagoans. And it may still serve as the graveyard for as many as 12,000 people buried during the mid-1800s.

The City Cemetery predates the city itself, according to Chicago artist Pamela Bannos, whose Hidden Truth project tries to uncover the real story behind that first cemetery, how it became Lincoln Park and why so many bodies were left behind in the process.

She's done extensive research that she's catalogued and made available on her website.

In 1842, when Chicago was a mere town of 7,000 people, the cemetery was carved from 100 acres of undeveloped land beyond North Avenue (then Chicago’s northernmost point), and set aside. 

“It’s just land at this point,” Bannos said. “Section Two [of the article of sale] says [that the land]: ‘Shall forever remain a public burial ground and shall never be used for any other purpose.’ But if you think about what I’m saying, it still is – it still is a burial ground if you believe that there are still bodies buried there.”

Almost immediately there were problems with the cemetery: Burying bodies in loose, sandy soil so close to the lake meant that some corpses didn’t stay buried for long. And getting permission to bury a loved one was an arduous, complicated process.

“If you wanted a grave, you had to buy the lot, and it’s a real estate transaction. You owned the deed to that ground,” Bannos explained. “So you had to go through the proper protocol to acquire that deed and it was kind of a baroque system. People circumvented the system and, like, went with their own shovel.”

Dozens if not hundreds of people were buried there illegally every year in unmarked graves. When official grave diggers went to bury people with the proper documents, often times they’d find a body already there.

And, shockingly (or not) corruption was rampant: The city had to pass a regulation stipulating that you could only buy plots from the city sexton. Bannos said that implied “someone [else] was selling lots!” All of this resulted in a wildly disorganized system in which thousands of bodies went unaccounted for or were buried in unmarked graves.

Many factors contributed to the demise of the land as a proper cemetery, according to Bannos, starting with those sanitary concerns, which led to an ordinance banning the burial of bodies close to water. Then Chicago’s major private cemeteries – Rosehill, Graceland and Oakhill – came online in the early 1860s, providing a more attractive and better-run option for the city’s elite. 

Ultimately, the unused portion of land originally designated for the cemetery was rolled into what’s now the park. (Bannos also tells a very complicated story that involves the city being sued by four orphans. That case led to the removal of 1,600 bodies from a 12-acre tract of land and hastened the cemetery’s demise.) Damage caused to grave markers by the Great Chicago Fire sealed the deal. Wooden markers burned, marble ones crumbled and the cemetery grounds were trampled by people fleeing the Loop.

The city tried passing a regulation saying individual families, not the city, were responsible for moving the bodies of their loved ones.

"The city didn’t have the money," Bannos said. "[The land] was owned by the Lincoln Park Commissioners at this point – it was not yet the Chicago Park District – they didn’t have the funds.”

That helps explain why so many graves, even the marked ones, didn’t get moved: Families didn’t have the money either, or they'd already left town or had buried loved ones illegally in the first place.

Even now, Bannos estimates that as many as 12,000 bodies may still be buried underneath Lincoln Park. Many have been already been unearthed.

“Every time they dig in the park, they find bones,” she said. “Every time I found an article saying where they found bones, I put a dot on my map. The next thing I knew, my map had polka dots all over it. They left bodies everywhere.”

In the audio above, Bannos shares her favorite of these discovery stories. It's set right at the foot of the Chicago History Museum, where she delivered a recent lecture. The story involves an archeologist, a parking lot and a very creepy iron coffin. (See the video she refers to in her audio here.)

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Pamela Bannos spoke at an event presented by the Chicago History Museum earlier this month. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.