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Art Installation, Web Site Explores Lincoln Park's Grisly Past

May 16, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold

Pamela Bannos on the hidden truths of Chicago's Lincoln Park

EVANSTON, Ill. --- It was the Couch Tomb that first caught the attention of Northwestern University faculty member Pamela Bannos and led her to undertake a year-long art project about the 19th century transformation of the Chicago City Cemetery into Lincoln Park.

What, the Chicago-born artist wondered, is a large mausoleum doing in the popular north side park?

Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday, May 21, Bannos will answer that and other questions when -- with permission of the Chicago Park District -- she ceremonially installs six historical signpost markers that tell the story of thousands of abandoned graves that remain in Lincoln Park.

The historic markers, which will be in the park through Nov. 21, will point visitors to the Web-based portion of Bannos' latest project, "Hidden Truths: The Chicago City Cemetery and Lincoln Park." Launched this week, the site is at http://hiddentruths.northwestern.edu.

Bannos' richly documented, interactive project uses newspaper stories, maps, photographs and historical documents to challenge the belief that nearly all bodies were removed to other burial grounds when the cemetery became Lincoln Park.

"It's no secret that Lincoln Park was once a cemetery," says the senior lecturer in art theory and practice in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "It's in the history books, and there's a large tomb there that's tough to miss." Still, she says, few people who walk or play on the park's baseball diamonds today realize that the remains of cholera victims, Confederate soldiers and indigent Chicagoans lie below.

In past art projects, Bannos shifted the focus of photographs to reveal details that viewers otherwise might overlook. In researching Chicago City Cemetery's transition to Lincoln Park, she quickly learned that "just because there is no marker doesn't mean there is no body." And that "truth" became a mantra for her project.

Leading Bannos to "Hidden Truths" was her discovery of the Chicago Tribune's online historical archive that allowed her to read news accounts of the day about the cemetery and the creation of Lincoln Park in chronological order and of Google Book Search, which allowed her to easily do keyword searches of 19th century books.

Using documents from the Chicago Park District, Illinois State Archives, Chicago City Council, Catholic Archdiocese, Chicago History Museum and other institutions, Bannos peels back layers of history that reveal a history obscured in its re-telling.

The official story is that by 1877 -- with the exception of the Couch tomb and the Kennison Boulder (supposedly marking the grave of the last surviving soldier at the Boston Tea Party) -- all vestiges of the city cemetery had been removed to make way for Chicago's new park.

But the news stories and historical documents Bannos presents, and the audio interviews she conducts with historians, archaeologists and the executive director of the Museum of Funeral Customs, tell a different story.

The "official story" fails to account for bodies commemorated by headstones and markers destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871, Bannos says. It fails to explain the consequences of an 1874 condemnation of more than 700 burial lots (with a capacity to hold nearly 6,000 bodies). And it ignores accounts of the removal in 1883 of some 150 headstones that, in earlier reports, were dubbed "the graveyard in the park."

In a section titled "The Numbers," Bannos boils things down to arithmetic. Quite simply, she says, the documents indicating the number of relocated bodies to Graceland, Roseland and other cemeteries and the number of bodies that cemetery documents indicate were buried in the city cemetery don't compute.

Visitors to "Hidden Truths" can read the very first story the Chicago Tribune published (in 1899) about the unexpected finding of "the remains of several coffins and a quantity of bones" in what was once the city cemetery. Similar accounts, Bannos says, have appeared in the newspaper every decade since.

Another article published in 1899 and viewable on the Web site describes how "row after row of the heads of coffins" were exposed on land that once was part of the old Catholic Cemetery, one of the six sites Bannos will designate May 21. (Just this month, the Tribune published an article about finding human skeletal remains in an area that may have been part of Catholic Cemetery).

The highly "clickable" contents of "Hidden Truths" range from the charming to the grisly -- from the watercolor drawing of a picket fence built in 1852 to keep wandering cows and pigs out of the cemetery to a never-before-published video depicting the 1998 discovery of an iron coffin. (In addition to the coffin, an estimated 81 bodies also were unearthed at the same time.)

"Hidden Truths" will appeal to amateur genealogists, Chicago history buffs and just about anyone who may have encountered the Couch Tomb in Lincoln Park and, like Bannos, wondered what it was doing there.

For Bannos, the site is as much about her process of discovery as it is about dead bodies in Lincoln Park. Not surprisingly, one of her favorite sections is called "Picturing the Research." In it, Bannos provides visual glimpses of her research process and invites her audience to explore the path that -- through the use of 21st century technology -- led her to uncover a little-known and hidden past.
Topics: People