Hidden Truths began when I discovered the recent Internet release of the historical Chicago Tribune. I wanted to know why there was a cemetery tomb in Lincoln Park. Contemporary references only implied the Couch family vault sat where there was once a cemetery. No one seemed to know why that last vestige of the graveyard remained.
Searchable by keyword, dating back to 1849, the Tribune database revealed information about the Chicago City Cemetery that had become obscured in its re-telling. A chronology of articles revealed stories that not only embellished previous accounts, but often replaced earlier, accurate information. Contemporary newspaper reports, as well as current Internet information, vary widely from the original accounts of the cemetery and its transition to Lincoln Park. Most of the written information about the Chicago City Cemetery says that all bodies were removed to other burial grounds when the cemetery began its conversion to Lincoln Park in 1865. Yet, I read many newspaper accounts, from as early as 1899, that have reported the discovery of skeletal remains during various construction projects.
Evidence shows that the story of the Chicago City Cemetery has been inaccurately told since the burial grounds were in transition during the 1870s - the decade of the Great Chicago Fire. In 1983, city records that were assumed to have burned in the fire were discovered in a Chicago warehouse. Those files are now searchable online. Much of the story I have pieced together on this Web Site is available by searching the original documents and newspaper stories on the Internet. In addition, as I was researching this story, entire relevant books were continually being uploaded to the GoogleTM Book Search Web Site. Within many 19th century books, also searchable by keyword, I found multiple references to the Chicago City Cemetery.
As technology carries us into the future, it has also brought me into a hidden past.
This project details my research, beginning with the original documents, and shows how the cemetery became Lincoln Park. It also reveals how the physical remains of earlier Chicagoans became buried within the layers of written history.
From 1843 through 1859, the only graveyards in the city of Chicago were in the area of the southern edge of Lincoln Park and the neighborhood now known as the Gold Coast. This cemetery cluster consisted of the City Cemetery, the Potter’s Field, the Jewish Cemetery and the Catholic Cemetery. During these sixteen years of exclusive use, there were more than 20,000 interments.
In 1859, with the opening of Rosehill Cemetery, followed the next year by the Graceland and Calvary Cemeteries, there became additional options for burials of the deceased in the fast-growing city. In 1866, further burials in the cemeteries by the lake were prohibited. From 1860 through that time, an additional 15,000 interments had taken place in those locations.
In 1866, it was determined that city officials had illegally acquired a 12-acre parcel of land within the cemetery grounds, known as the Milliman Tract. For the next two years, the remains within the graves in this area were relocated to other cemeteries and the land was returned to its rightful owners. The two-year disinterment period of this section of the 57-acre City Cemetery seems to be where the history of the cemeteries’ removals becomes confused.
In 1869, the city officials passed control of the cemetery grounds, along with the northern 50-acres of unused area of the cemetery property, already used as a park, to the Lincoln Park Commissioners. The Commissioners spent the next few years landscaping the park grounds north of the City Cemetery.
In 1871, the Chicago Fire ravaged the City and Catholic Cemeteries’ grounds, effectively destroying and eliminating grave markers.
In 1872, the potter’s field disinterments commenced. The Chicago Tribune claimed the potter’s field disinterments occurred in 25 days, even though by their own calculations at the rate they estimated, it should have taken more than a year. (The ten assigned gravediggers were estimated to be able to disinter 20 bodies per day.) There were also nearly 4,000 Confederate prisoners buried in the potter’s field. In his 1999 book, To Die In Chicago, George Levy writes that many Confederate soldiers were likely left buried in what are today’s baseball fields.
In 1874, The Lincoln Park Commissioners condemned the grounds of the unclaimed cemetery lots, incorporating that area into the park. Fewer than 1,000 disinterments occurred after this point, leaving thousands buried in the park grounds.
In 1875, The Lincoln Park Commissioners removed the 150 remaining headstones with their graves to a one-acre fenced area within the park. In 1883, the stones were removed, leaving those graves in the park.
In 1877, the Chicago Tribune reported that all remaining vestiges of the City Cemetery had been removed except for the Couch Tomb, which was deemed too expensive to move. The newspaper wrote, "....the Commissioners have determined to let it remain, and plant trees thickly around it" to hide it from view.
In 1884, A.T. Andreas published the second volume of his three-volume History of Chicago. In addressing the closing of the City Cemetery, he misrepresented the 12-acre Milliman Tract disinterments, stating that those exhumations represented the entire 57-acre City Cemetery.
In 1899, the Chicago Tribune published the first story about unexpectedly finding skeletal remains in Lincoln Park. By this time, it appears that the presumption that the cemeteries had been totally vacated was incorrect.