On a cool, autumnal day, just a fortnight from Halloween, Jack Eilrich of Oak Park, and about 400 other local cemetery history buffs, settled into the grounds at Forest Home and German Waldheim cemeteries, 863 S. Desplaines Ave. in Forest Park, to linger over markers, marble benches, ornate obelisks and historic monuments during the 20th anniversary staging of the “Tales of the Tombstones,” the award-winning, annual educational cemetery walkabout hosted by the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest.
Video courtesy of Kevin McCarey
This year, as in the past, back stories were, if you’ll excuse the expression, unearthed and dramatically recreated by about 60 local and satellite volunteers. They have been excavating fun facts for months, and many have been pitching in at the event for years.
For Eilrich, who said he has voluntarily dug a grave or two himself, the interpretative walk is a top season pick, and like a favorite Tivo-ed show, he keeps returning to it – six or seven times now.
“It’s a nice walk, plus you get more information about these old cemeteries, which is really quite interesting,” said Eilrich.
In mid-October, his undying fascination with learning about the local lore, not to mention resurrecting some blood and gore from sealed vaults, isn’t surprising. It’s Halloween season, after all, a time when many people turn to the local cemetery for a chilling tale or two.
At Tales of the Tombstones, they’ve got that and then some.
“You may not know this, but there are mobsters, mob enforcers, serial murderers and killers buried at Forest Home Cemetery,” said the character William Bixby, characterized by Bob Keller. “Today you will have the very rare opportunity of meeting two of the most notorious serial killers of the century.”
Local “histGOREians” met Belle Gunness (played by Nancy Greco), the so-called “Lady Bluebeard” who allegedly murdered 30 people, including women, children and male suitors she found through a lovelorn column in the Norwegian American Newspaper. Bad Belle was laid to rest here 103 years ago – or was she? Early CSI investigators wonder.
Nearby stood Doug Deuchler, aka Adolph Leutgert, the “Sausage Vat Killer,” all sinister and smirking. With unnerving calm, the local wife-killer wielded a razor sharp cleaver and a very large knife. To make matters worse, the hot-tempered German immigrant was wearing a bloodied white apron – an ominous sign that this guy was grinding up more than sausage, perhaps?
But these cemeteries hold more than murderers.
“People’s minds tend to go to cemeteries in October,” said Laurel McMahon, past-president of the Historical Society, who has been involved with the cemetery walk since 1997, “but this is primarily a history tour. We’re bringing notables back to life for one day.”
On a grassy knoll stands a stoic German man in a black stovetop hat and suit coat. It is John Peter Altgelt (played by Glenn Braun), the controversial governor of Illinois in the 1890s, most famous today for extending some measure of justice and mercy to the “Haymarket martyrs.” Even though he is not buried there, because of his life’s work, he said his spirit clings to this place. Sharing this final resting place is Lithuanian-born Emma Goldman (Georgia Braun), otherwise known as Red Emma, as she was branded. Her grave is only a stone’s throw from where the group is standing.
Adelaide Hemingway (played by Susan Lindberg) rests here, too. On this day, she enjoyed a heartwarming reunion of sorts with her celebrated grandson, Ernest (played by Bob Messer). This year we’re observing the 50th anniversary of his demise.
Meanwhile, still debating whether Dear Old Oak Park should stay “wet” or go “dry,” was plucky German saloon owner Sophia Kohn (played by Mary Ann Porucznik) and staunch anti-drinking advocate Henry Austin (played by Michael D. Stewart).
What volunteer guides conveyed during the approximately two-hour narrative tour, said docent Jan Dressel, is the rich tapestry created by two active cemeteries that have been combined. Here in Forest Park, there are more dead people than living, she notes, which translates into myriad stories to regale the curious.
As an aside, Kline pointed out an undisturbed Potawatomi Indian burial mound, a monument designed by Tiffany, memorials made out of white bronze, stone, bark and twigs, resembling tree trunks.
Two sections are devoted to the local nomadic “Gypsy” population. Forest Home/Waldheim Cemetery is nondenominational and has a history of welcoming people who were not welcomed anywhere else, even in death, said Dressel, pointing to a particularly unusual and brand-new monument located just ahead.
“With this stone you will notice by the date that the person hasn’t died yet, but they [the Gypsies] like to be prepared,” said the retired Hatch Elementary School teacher and past president of the Historical Society. They have even incorporated a hutch to hold a video screen that will allow relatives to learn about the decedent’s life story after they are gone.
Other notables buried within the cemetery’s confines are Billy Sunday, the professional baseball player-turned-preacher; William Gray Purcell, the nationally known Prairie-style architect; modern dance pioneer and choreographer Doris Humphrey; the Kettlestrings, the earliest settlers in Oak Park; and Minnie and Ferdinand Haas, the founders of Forest Park and Forest Home Cemetery. Circa 1900, also laid to rest on the grounds was Sophy Drechsler, the local undertaker’s wife who witnessed so many children’s deaths due to fatal diseases. Dramatic re-enactments of the latter two were featured in the tour.
Tales of the Tombstones began as a fundraiser in 1991 when Frank Orland, the president of the Historical Society of Forest Park, informed his Oak Park-River Forest counterparts that the obelisk memorializing Ashbel Steele, early River Forest pioneer and postmaster, was in a grave state of disrepair. To restore it, they staged their first interpretive cemetery walk, which has since become an annual event that many folks are dying to attend – no pun intended.
“This is the 20th anniversary of our cemetery walk and I love the fact that we have been doing this for two decades and so many people come back year after year,” Kiline said. “Some repeaters have been here seven, eight, nine and 10 times. That is a testament of what a great event it is.”
All of the actors are volunteers, McMahon noted, and this year the girls playing teenagers who died from deadly diseases and disasters are all from OPRF High School. The volunteer who played Ernest Hemingway won a look-alike contest in Oak Park in 1999 during the centennial Hemingway celebration in Scoville Park.
“Bob [Messer] has such a wonderful resemblance to Ernest, so it qualified him immediately for the part,” McMahon said. “His enthusiasm and performance were wonderful.”