Walking with the dead

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By KATIE DREWS

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More than 200,000 people are buried in Forest Home Cemetery, but to Laurel McMahon, the graveyard is a lively place.

The cemetery really did seem to come alive on Oct. 17 as McMahon, along with other volunteers from the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society, led walking tours around the tombstones while costumed actors personified some of the lost lives.

The 22-acre cemetery in Forest Park, bordered by Roosevelt Road, Desplaines Avenue and the Eisenhower Expressway, remains the final resting place for a number of interesting characters, including the Haymarket martyrs, the set designer for the Wizard of Oz and the composer who wrote the state song, to name a few.

But why here - in Forest Park?

For one, the City of Chicago in the 1860s made it illegal to bury anybody within the city's limits, most likely because they didn't understand much about contagious diseases at the time, McMahon said. This particular graveyard also accepted all people, regardless of religious background. What's more, the land closer to Chicago was a natural swamp. The ground in this area, however, was more suitable terrain for a gravesite.

"This was high, dry land," McMahon said. "If you went a few blocks east and dug a grave, it'd fill with water."

This area was so popular for cemeteries, in fact, that the number of buried people in all of Forest Park's graveyards is 30 times the living population of the village.

Taking a look specifically at those buried inside Forest Home, the OPRF Historical Society during the tour on Sunday highlighted the lives of 10 individuals who stand out as heroes.

"Please don't forget the fallen heroes we've lost over the years," proclaimed one woman, acting as a widow of a fallen Chicago police officer.

Here are the stories behind just a handful of these honorable individuals.

William McLaughlin

Just five weeks after the Iroquois Theatre opened in 1903, the downtown Chicago stage became home of the deadliest single-building fire in history. During a performance of "Mr. Blue Bird," a defective stage light sent sparks flying, and soon after the theater was up in flames. As the Iroquois filled with smoke, the audience panicked and ran for the exits. Many were trampled to death. Some reached a fire escape door only to discover that the staircase was missing. That's where William McLaughlin comes in.

A young man at the time, McLaughlin was walking down Randolph Street when he spotted the disaster. Running to help, he quickly designed a makeshift bridge that carried hundreds of people to safety. McLaughlin, sadly, was caught in the blaze and did not survive the flames.

Martha Louise Rayne

Martha Louise Rayne was a pioneer female journalist at a time when women were not taken seriously at newspapers. Her editor at the Chicago Tribune added a note after all of her articles, which read, after a few kind words, "but please remember, she is a woman." Rayne - who often used the pen name "Vic" - interviewed big name players, including Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland and General Ulysses S. Grant. She was the only person that Mary Todd Lincoln spoke to while confined in a mental hospital after President Lincoln's assassination.

Rayne also established a school for journalism - one that also allowed women to become writers.

Jacob Straman

Jacob Straman was a fireman who died in the line of duty during a grain elevator fire. During the disaster, there was a huge explosion that sent one man flying into the Chicago River. Straman became trapped by the elevator and the flames became too intense.

Firefighters at that time didn't have much to work with, explained the woman portraying Straman's wife, Rose. Horses pulled the fire engines. Men had to use hand pumps to get the water. Their helmets were only made of leather at the time.

"Every firefighter is a hero every time they answer that bell," Rose said.

Dr. Bernard Fantus

Born in Budapest in 1874, Dr. Bernard Fantus died in 1940 after several achievements in the medical field. He started the first blood bank in 1937 at Cook County Hospital, which revolutionized the process for major surgeries at hospitals across the country. Before his innovation, doctors needed the presence of the donor right there during the moment of need. The blood bank saved thousands of lives, especially during World War II, and continues to do so today.

Fantus also perfected the process of candy-coating pills and adding flavor to medicines.

Haymarket Martyrs

People come from all over the world to visit the Haymarket Martyrs' Monument, which commemorates the lives of four workers executed after one of the worst tragedies in the Chicago labor movement. On May 1, 1886, approximately 35,000 workers walked off the job to fight for an 8-hour workday and other workplace rights. A terrible riot ensued after someone threw a bomb and police opened fire, killing some of their own. A number of people were tried for murder, and four were hung in Cook County Jail. The German Waldheim, which used to be its own cemetery but later combined with Forest Home, was the only graveyard willing to accept the men's bodies.

The striking workers weren't "the German Menace" as many called them, said one man pretending to walk the picket line. "We're intellectuals, we're thinkers; we want justice and hope that it will come one day."

 

Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer | Click here to buy one of these photos and see more in our photo store.

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