ROSEHILL CEMETERY & MAUSOLEUM
5800 N. Ravenswood Avenue
Bella Morte Rating: 4 Tombstones
Before commencing our discussion of Rosehill, the proprietors of Bella Morte would like to qualify the 3 Tombstone rating by saying our explorations were largely focused within the cavernous corridors of the Community Mausoleum. You see, our visit was ill-timed on two counts. First, our day had been occupied in traversing other Chicago cemeteries and we arrived at Rosehill too near its closing to allow sufficient time for proper investigation (we had to leave the following morning, so that was our only opportunity). Second, our summer trip to Chicago coincided with an enormous "hatch" of West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes. Shooting tombs outdoors was an exercise in endurance as the little vampires bloated themselves at our expense. The last straw came when photographing the awe-inspiring monument of Frances Pearce and child (see image above). A black cloud of bloodsuckers descended upon us. The photographer was forced to stand amongst them while a fellow Bella Morte staffer valiantly waved an improvised "fly-swatter" (consisting of a gypsy-style skirt) in what proved a vain attempt at staving the crimson tide. Alas, retreat was the only option, though not before we stubbornly fired a volley of camera shot at the memorial--the results, literally bought with our blood--are nothing short of stunning, rendering the sacrifice sweet.
All of this is related by way of expressing the tentative nature of our rating. Rosehill deserves a second look, to be certain, and we have vowed to return for future "re-evaluation."
Now, to the results of our "preliminary" investigation.
With an address straight out of a Victorian ghost story, Rosehill, located on Ravenswood Avenue, lays claim to the title of Chicago's largest cemetery. Its castellated main gate dates to 1864 and was the brainchild of architect William W. Boyington (who also designed the Old Chicago Water Tower. Fittingly, his grave is within sight of the cemetery entrance). With its myriad turrets, arched windows and faux battlements, the grand facade caused more than one Bella Morte staffer to flash back to a medieval lifetime. Such a dazzling entrance would, one should hope, open to a vista so rich with funerary splendour the eyes would nearly burst from their moist sockets. Sadly, there was more bang than buck once we got into the cemetery. For, after passing through the visually arresting gate we saw only common markers that made us fear we may have travelled to the wrong graveyard. Undaunted as ever, we pressed on and hit pay dirt when, before us, the Rosehill Mausoleum loomed in all of its Poe-like, shuddersome grandeur. As it was near day's end, we could not help but think of the aforementioned author's famous lines:
...at length I found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was --but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.
Quite so, Mr. Poe. This sprawling house of the dead seems to occupy miles of ground. Of course, that isn't actually the case, but it may as well be true. We are not kidding when we tell you this place is enormous and, as we would soon discover, filled with all the thrills of a good haunted house.
The first fright we got was of a different nature altogether. It came when we tugged on the front door and found it locked! No! It couldn't be. Could Fate be so cruel? We raced to the southwest entrance and discovered the door partially open as if an unseen hand held it so for our passage. A cool, slightly-fetid breeze issued from the tomb, giving the impression the great building was alive and we, soon-to-be-trespassers, were enveloped in its mighty exhalation.
And so we entered Chicago's largest public mausoleum. Designed by Sidney Lovell (whose remains lie in a crypt within), the edifice was open for entombment in 1914. The interior, we soon discovered, seems to be constructed entirely of marble and a number of private family crypts boast windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany. In fact, Rosehill Mausoleum houses the world's largest collection of Tiffany glass in a building dedicated to secular use.
We spent nearly the last of the day's visiting hours in this two-story monster...though it might as easily have been a handful of moments, or several days. Time seems not to exist inside. Adding to the feeling of timelessness is its desolation. During our foray we came across not a single other living soul.
Just past the main entrance lies the Memorial Chapel of John G. Shedd (1850 - 1926). This is easily the largest tomb within the mausoleum. Shedd, who served as second president of the Marshall Field Company, was a multi-millionaire and generous philanthropist. He is best known to Chicagoans for the public aquarium which still bears his name.
Not surprisingly, the chapel has an aquatic theme. Bronze chairs with backs carved in the shape of shells and seahorses and several other "fishy features" are displayed. Also showcased in the chapel is a Tiffany window commissioned by Shedd who made the designer sign a waiver stating he would never duplicate it. This skylight is ringed with a Grecian pattern and leaves which twine around a fanciful trellis. The center is a simple, geometric pattern. We observed a single panel (featuring the leaf motif) is turned 90 degrees from its nieghbours, interrupting the pattern's seamless flow. Could Tiffany have been so careless? No. The rotation is deliberate and derives from an Islamic tradition wherein the artist consciously flaws his/her work in order to pay tribute to the idea that only God is capable of rendering a thing truly perfect.
The focal point of the chapel is the massive doorway which stands between two pedestals surmounted by brass candelabras. Behind the doors, the Shedd's sleep in the eerie silence, their tombs visible behind the protective glass. Watching over them from an interior window is a white-robed figure holding a flaming torch. Another creation of Tiffany's, this predominantly blue piece washes the incoming light in ultramarine so one feels as if s/he is standing below the waves in Neptune's watery halls.
Stepping back to observe the room as a whole, one is tempted to wonder what Shedd must have been thinking in choosing his design. Marble benches, set in a rectangle around the room's periphery, face each other across the wide, empty floor. Between each, one or two bronze chairs break the sameness of the marble. A podium before the crypt doors makes the scene even more surreal. True, these things would have been used on the occasion of a Shedd entombment, but they exist beyond that need and seem to stand ready for a conclave of spirits. Who knows, perhaps Shedd himself orates at the podium to a gathering of the mausoleum's other famous citizens, two of whom we will mention momentarily.
But first we want to describe the private family crypt rooms that border the chapel area and extend in short corridors to either side of the Shedd Memorial. Each is locked and sealed behind a sturdy bronze door with a small window that resembles nothing so much as what is often depicted on the outside of a padded cell! The name of the family who owns each room is engraved on the window panel. Inside each crypt, marble tombs hold the remains of countless souls, but there is no ornamentation and this furthers the impression that one is standing in a mid-19th century insane asylum!
Though there are a number of famous individuals entombed in the mausoleum, we will mention only two:
Aaron Montgomery Ward (1844 - 1913) and Richard Warren Sears (1863 - 1914). The former created the world's first mail-order business. The latter co-founded the department store chain of Sears & Roebuck. We single these men out because they are the subject of the building's most popular ghost story. It seems Sears and Ward were sworn enemies in life as each sought to dominate the lucrative world of mail-order commerce. This animosity must have been carried to the other side by at least one of them, for Mr. Sears is said to wander the mausoleum from time to time. Numerous visitors have espied his revenant, tall and top-hatted, moving within the locked Sears crypt. This spectre passes through the door and moves off toward the tomb of his arch-enemy before vanishing like an exhalation of frozen breath.
Many of the corridors we traversed were darkened, presumably as the cemetery strove not to waste resources. Where possible, we allowed the ambient light spilling through the grimy windows to guide our steps, though there were numerous occasions when exploring the lower (partially underground) level where the squid-ink blackness swallowed us. At such times, we'd stand in silence for a minute or two, listening to the various sounds and imagining horrors like the wet slap of decomposing feet approaching. This is definitely a place where one's imagination can come out and play!
Emerging from the mausoleum just before it was scheduled to close (an hour before the cemetery itself) we came across a motley collection of contemporary stones set in seemingly random order in the narrow space of a garden surrounded on all sides by the roadway. It seemed a sorry little grouping and we must not have been alone in that feeling as few had been sold.
With the limited time we had left, we set out to find two special memorials. Along the way we spotted the plain, flat stone set in memory of Oscar F. Mayer (1859 - 1955)...yes, he of wiener fame. We also discovered the delightfully unsubtle stone of Larry Seewald and Michael DiPaolo. Consisting of a single piece of black granite chiseled in two, each fragment is engraved with a different surname. What's remarkable is the clever means by which the two halves have been reconnected. Driven at a slight angle from the Seewald side, and extending through DiPaolo's, is a gigantic bronze screw. We take it the symbol indicates fondness. not animosity. Most amusing, gentlemen!
After a frantic search we reached our first goal...the memorial of Lulu E. Fellows. Aside from her name, the stone bears only these notations:
Died Nov. 23, 1883
Aged 16 Years.
Many hopes lie buried here.
Housed in a Plexiglas chamber very much like that of her ghostly sister, Inez Clarke at nearby Graceland, Lulu's marble replica has not weathered the years' storms with the aplomb of Ms. Clarke's. The tip of her nose, along with most of her right hand and a goodly portion of the chair upon which she is seated, shows severe wear with considerable loss of the original detail. Such indignities notwithstanding, Lulu is still quite a lovely young lady. She sits, book in hand, with one foot demurely tucked behind the other. Like the figure of Inez, she holds a withered flower (symbolic, we suppose, of a life cut far too short). Dried flowers moulder at her feet while faded artificial blooms lay on the open pages of her book. But Lulu is not reading. Instead, she stares vacantly into space as if pondering her untimely passing. Visitors to her memorial have made a habit of slipping coins through the vented enclosure and these lay in silent tribute at her feet.
Speaking of visitors, our examination of Lulu's figure was cut short by a strange woman who insisted upon standing slightly off to our side the entire duration of our stay. She was clearly agitated by our presence and we inquired if she was a relative, thinking our "touristy visit" might be the source of her discomfort. She immediately disavowed any relation and then fell into silence, quite obviously awaiting our departure. After what seemed a respectful few moments of sending good wishes to this child, dead over 100 years, we retreated. The woman rushed to Lulu's case and began a full-throated conversation with the marble girl. Quite strange!
We had one more monument to find...no map...and absolutely no idea in which direction to search. Yet, as so often happens in our case, we seemed to be inexplicably guided to our destination, no small feat given the size of the burying ground and the fact that this memorial is in a section of the cemetery where, if we remember rightly, absolutely no other sculptures rest.
The object we sought was the grave of Frances M. Pearce and her infant daughter who shares her mother's name. There are several versions of the Pearce story so we cannot be certain if mother and child died together or not. Some say the infant was stillborn and the mother died while giving birth. Others insist the mother died (though in childbirth or from another cause is still debated) and the babe followed several months later. What cannot be argued is that both lie together now in Death's chill embrace.
The grief-stricken husband and father (Horatio Stone) commissioned a dramatic sculpture to commemorate the two females who were originally buried in the Old City Cemetery and subsequently moved to Rosehill when the former was converted to Lincoln Park.
The statue (signed, C.B. Ives, Roma 1866), unlike that of Lulu Fellows, is extremely well-preserved thanks to its immediate housing in a Plexiglas case which protects the fragile marble from Chicago's harsh weather and acid rain. It depicts mother and daughter in repose upon a bed. The mother's head is supported by two plump, tasseled pillows, the seam of the topmost being touched by the mother's outflung left arm. The pudgy infant, clothed in a simple nightdress, sleeps in peaceful abandon within the protective shelter of her mother's right arm. Peeking from beneath the hem of Mrs. Pearce's long robe is a sleek, elegant slipper. Also of note are the exquisite buttons fastened on the short sleeves of the mother's gown.
Not surprisingly, the monument is the subject of one of the cemetery's better ghost stories. It seems an ethereal white fog fills the glass case each year on the anniversary(s?) of the occupant's passing.
And now, since we can't report on other stones as our time at Rosehill ended in a mosquito attack just before the cemetery was due to close, we'll relate two haunted tales before leaving you.
The first is not an ongoing phenomenon. It is a single incident which took place in October of 1995 when a cemetery employee was combing the grounds for stragglers before locking the gates. He spotted a woman standing beside a tree located on the cemetery side of Peterson Avenue. He parked his truck and approached, intent on advising her to move along...but as he drew closer he noticed something strange. The woman was wearing a dress that seemed to hail from a different era...Victorian, perhaps. As his gaze travelled down the length of the gown, he was terrified to see her feet were suspended above the ground! Before he could even scream, the apparition lost its solidity and then simply vanished in a milky haze. Obviously shaken, the employee drove to the office and reported the incident where it was duly, though dubiously, noted by his fellows.
The following day, however, a strange set of events vindicated the spooked man. It seems a woman from Des Plaines, Illinois telephoned the cemetery administrator asking that a stone be placed on the unmarked grave of her aunt. She nervously explained that her deceased aunt had come to her in a dream the previous night and asked that her life be honoured by way of having a stone set. As the grave was on a family plot, the staff dutifully went to the location in order to determine the type of marker that would be most fitting. To their surprise, the unmarked grave was located in precisely the same spot where their fellow employee had encountered the apparition the previous night! A stone was immediately put on order and subsequently placed. Apparently, the aunt was pleased as she has never been seen since.
Our last tale involves the restless spirit of Charles Hopkinson whose family mausoleum stands in Rosehill. Having made his fortune in real estate, Mr. Hopkinson determined to get himself a piece of eternal property. Accordingly, he commissioned the construction of a somewhat ostentatious mausoleum. Building had barely commenced when the family who owned the plot behind the Hopkinson's became incensed because the cathedral-shaped structure would obstruct the view of their own, more humble, monument. The ensuing legal battle raged its way up to the Illinois Supreme Court where it was determined no family had the right to dictate the type of memorial any other could build. And so the painstaking construction of the Hopkinson mausoleum began anew and the memorial was completed without further incident. But apparently Mr. Hopkinson is still angry over the delay...or else he has another reason to be discontent...for those who happen to be near his crypt on the anniversary of his death will likely hear a series of long, drawn-out moans of agony or rage which will be followed by a great rattling of chains.
We will someday return to explore the two lakes and 25 miles of road that winds through Rosehill's 350 acres. In the meantime, we leave it with 3 Tombstones and a hope that number will merit increase.
UPDATE: Seven years have passed since our 2003 visit but, at last, we made it back to Rosehill for further investigation. Happily, this opportunity allowed us to upgrade our rating from 3 to 4 tombstones. While Rosehill is not a perfect cemetery, it comes tantalizingly close in a host of ways. The cemetery grounds are well-maintained and everywhere dotted with lovely monuments. Probably the most elegant section is the lake which is graced by several truly impressive private family mausoleums. A look at our updated gallery should bear out the veracity of our observations. One monument we'd missed the last time around, but happily located on this trip, was erected in memory of George S. Bangs. It is a stone one must pay attention to as it is carved in the shape of a tree. Such memorials are not uncommon, and therefore, easy to overlook. If one keeps an eye toward the base of the tree, however, the delightful form of a train can be seen as it enters a tunnel in front of the tree's stone trunk. The railroad car is inscribed as follows:
UNITED STAES RAILWAY POST OFFICE | LETTER BOX
The significance of this can be ascertained when a portion of the stone (cut to resemble peeled bark) is read:
George S. Bangs
Died November 21,1877
Aged 51 years, 8 months, 21 days
His crowning effort
The Fast Mail
A bit of research reveals Mr. Bangs was the gentleman who originated the idea of transporting mail via rail. This new "speedy" method reduced mail delivery time from weeks to several days or less and raised Bangs to something near hero status.
Rosehill's most spectacular feature, however, is still the enormous mausoleum which covers several acres of the grounds. It is easy to become lost amidst the long marble halls which seem to extend endlessly, perhaps into the "great beyond." During this trip, we were trying to locate the Shedd Memorial which we'd initially visited in 2003; however, the aforementioned corridors refused to give up their secret. Fortunately for us, we ran into the building's sole caretaker, a bright and engaging gentleman named Ralph. He gave us directions which had us to the Shedd Memorial in no time at all. Our explorations then took us to areas of the building we'd missed when last we walked within that amazing structure.
Probably the two most notable areas were the Sears Memorial and the Thorne Crypt. The former is located on a hallway that seems to lead nowhere but an exit. However, should one travel down that short corridor and turn to the left, the cavernous space sacred to the memory of a number of Sears family members can be viewed, complete with a painstakingly rendered mosaic depicting Jesus as The Good Shepherd. The latter is just off the mausoleum's atrium (which boasts the Shedd Memorial), situated next to the Ward crypt. We are referring to the enormous Thorne tomb. Like his neighbor in death (Ward), Thorne was one of the pioneers of the retail industry. The opulence of his family crypt bespeaks wealth, elegance and a family close enough to have chosen to rest side by side for eternity.
Alas, eventually, we had to leave in order to see the rest of the cemetery grounds...but just as we were about to depart, we ran into Ralph again. He was busy clearing away cobwebs. Spiders, he later told us, are the real owners of the place...their nightly weaving requires his constant attention. Ralph took the time to tell us about his experiences in the mausoleum where he has worked for the past three years. He maintained he'd never witnessed any ghostly apparitions or manifestations. This, despite the fact a number of visitors have reported all manner of haunting phenomena. Ralph did admit winter evenings, when the light vanishes much earlier beneath the horizon, were initially a bit unsettling for him, particularly when passing planes from nearby O'Hare create an eerie moaning sound which seems to initiate from all directions at once. Some of the marble crypt fronts, loosened by time, also rattle--creating the uneasy feeling that someone (or something) inside is preparing to step out.
After speaking with Ralph about all sorts of things (he is a well-read, well-informed man and a delight to speak with) we mentioned we wanted to find the Pearce monument on the cemetery grounds but had thus far failed to do so. One might think we would stop at the office for a map when we explore a necropolis but that seems as abhorrent to us as reading an instruction manual! But we digress.... Ralph actually took the time to hop into his van and lead us to the spot! As we said our farewells, we promised his kindness would earn him mention on these very pages. He smiled and suggested we conclude our tale by telling our readers we turned away from him for a moment and, upon glancing back, discovered he'd vanished. Alas, while that would be a fabulous story, it would also be untrue. Even so, there was something about Ralph that made us wonder. If we returned to the mausoleum and searched for him, would we find him walking the halls, duster in hand, once again? Or might we find, instead, a crypt-front bearing his name and a date of death from long ago...