Haunting & historic

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By SETH STERN

Though Halloween is still a couple weeks away, The Historical Society of Forest Park's annual Haunted History and Mystery Walking Cemetery Tour brought the holiday's spirit into full effect last Sunday.

Two groups of Forest Parkers, one departing at noon and one at 2:30, were given the opportunity to learn a little Forest Park history during tours of the Forest Home cemetery given by Historical Society president Rich Vitton.

Before the walk began, tour groups were met at the cemetery's front gates with a display of famous photos of suspected ghosts and haunted houses, from Illinois and other sites worldwide. One such house was the McPike mansion in Alton, Illinois. The owner of the mansion, Sharyl Luedke, believes the house is haunted by the ghost of former owner Paul Laichnger and a former domestic servant named Sarah Wells.

Vitton said he has visited the home and that there did appear to be a strange presence. He said that flashlights seemed to die inexplicably and that a strong scent of lilac, rumored to be Wells' perfume, lingered in the attic.

Also on display was a 2003 photograph of the Altenheim Old People's Home. The photograph appears to contain a concrete staircase up to a door leading into the chapel. Such a staircase, however, does not actually exist. Vitton said that when the Historical Society researched the architectural history of the Altenheim, they discovered that the staircase had once existed, but was removed 60 years before the photograph was taken.

For those not sufficiently spooked by the display, the tour itself included a stop at the grave of Adolph Luetgert, a German meatpacker who ran a sausage plant at Hermitage and Diversey in Chicago in the late 19th century. After his wife, Loisa, disappeared in 1897, family members became suspicious and contacted police.

According to an account written by Vitton's good friend Troy Taylor, an employee of the sausage factory reported seeing Louisa enter the factory on the day of her disappearance. To make a long story short, officers eventually drained a vat next to a meat smoking furnace and found a small piece of skull fragment as well as a ring with Louisa's initials. Luetgert was eventually sentenced to life in the state prison at Joliet, where he lost his sanity and regularly claimed that his wife was haunting him. According to Taylor's story, titled "The Sausage Vat Murder," sightings of Louisa's ghost have been reported both near the family's home and in the area of the sausage factory.

Among the many famous historical figures buried in the cemetery is Michael Todd, a former husband of Elizabeth Taylor who died in a plane crash. Twenty years ago, Vitton said, bandits dug up his body in an attempt to steal a ring given to him by Taylor. They soon realized that the ring had disintegrated along with the body in the crash, and left what remained of the body leaning against another nearby tombstone under a tree.

Vitton even showed the group the graves of Forest Park's own Frankenstein family. Maximillian Frankenstein died in 1898, while Bessie Frankenstein died six years later.

Still, the purpose of the tour was not only to spotlight the paranormal, but also to spread word of the rich history of the cemetery, which is built on land that was originally a Pottawattamie Indian burial ground. After all, he said, in a town where over 596,000 people are buried, some of the gravesites must have a story to tell.

A tombstone belonging to a Charles Chamberlain, who died in 1894, is lettered from top to bottom with what appears to be a verse from a song. Vitton revealed to the group that the verse was actually from the official Illinois State Song, of which Chamberlain was the author.

Another notable grave at the cemetery belongs to Henry Austin, the man who first signed the bill to eliminate liquor in Oak Park. According to Vitton, Austin proposed that Forest Park do the same but he was laughed out of town by German brewers.

Another tombstone bears the name of Dr. Frank Orland, who began the Historical Society of Forest Park in 1975 and taught Vitton much of the knowledge he passes on today. Vitton said that Orland is not buried at the cemetery, as his ashes are actually at the home of his wife, Dr. Phyllis Orland, who is still alive and remains a friend of his.

Also buried at Forest Home is the cemetery's own founder, Ferdinand Haase, a Prussian immigrant who bought the land from Leon Bourassa. Bourassa's wife, a Pottawattamie, is also buried at the cemetery. Haase originally opened the site as a public picnic ground, and helped to have a railroad constructed toward the area for easy access.

After cemeteries were outlawed in the city of Chicago in the mid 19th century, Haase sold one section to a group of German Masonic lodges, who converted the land to the Waldheim cemetery in 1873. Then, in 1876, Haase and a group of partners opened Forest Home on the land south of Waldheim (which Vitton said is actually German for Forest Home), according to the web site www.graveyards.com.

The two cemeteries merged in 1969.

Though her tombstone is not the most impressive in the cemetery, one of the most significant historical figures buried at the cemetery is women's rights and labor rights pioneer Emma Goldman. Goldman, who emigrated to the United States at 16 but was later deported to Russia after protesting World War I, asked as a death wish in 1939 to be buried in America near Chicago's famous Haymarket Martyrs, who also have a monument in their honor at Forest Home.

"If it wasn't for Emma you wouldn't have your medical plan or Social Security," Vitton told the tour group.

More information on the Historical Society of Forest Park and how to support the tour and all of their other projects is available by calling 366-2865.

Those who missed the Historical Society of Forest Park tour can take a walking tour of the cemetery next week with the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

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