The dead tell stories.
The trick is to listen and when you do, you’ll learn that the tomb of the great architect Louis Sullivan “wasn’t marked at first (When he died in 1924He was old fashioned and in dire financial circumstances).
You will meet Thomas Barbour Brian, founder of Graceland Cemetery, a man who, among many accomplishments, spoke six languages, built railways, founded Elgin, wrote comic poetry, and was “probably the only person who knew both Abraham Lincoln and H. Holmes.”
You’ll also know that “Wolves are common in urban cemeteries. Shy of people, Graceland’s resident coyotes are a vital part of the cemetery’s ecosystem.”
These interesting bits of information are provided by Adam Selzer, a prolific and elegant writer, tireless tour guide, podcaster and avid researcher. They arrived in his latest book, “Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets” (3 Fields Books, an imprint of University of Illinois Press).
In his book he says, “All in all, these Graceland stories offer a unique lens through which to view American history. And there’s always more to find.”
Born and raised for a time in Des Moines, Selzer grew up more near Atlanta, came to Chicago after college, and began working on a ghost tour while writing youth novels.
“I loved doing ghost tours,” he told me. “But some of the stories I was telling people seemed suspicious to me, so I started doing more research to make things not only more accurate, but amusing as well. I never tried to deceive people.”
He likens his passion for research to “those who hunt or fish” and credits the internet with making his task easier, saying “The Daily News is now digital.” Although he never stopped organizing tours of all kinds, he began drifting off young shelves almost after a dozen books with his book, Alec’s Clever Guide to American History. He also wrote a well-received 2017 book on that most notorious domestic killer, “HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Demon,” which respected local author and historian Richard Lindbergh called “an important contribution to our understanding of American criminal history.”
He enthusiastically treated Graceland on Clark Street, Chicago’s most famous cemetery.
“I started doing tours there a few years ago,” he said. “There are a lot, of course, a lot of people who have written books about them, but I have been finding stories about some of them and looking for them. There are about 175,000 bodies out there and that makes a lot of stories.”
Or, as he writes in the book, “Most everyone who has lived here long enough plays games, tells jokes, sings songs, pranks, falls in love, loses love, gets diarrhoea, takes up hobbies, gets into trouble. Sometimes, however, stories remain.
I’ve always been fond of cemeteries and burial places, even since I tried when I was a kid to break into brown shrine of a man named Ira Koch in 1857 and still standing in a part of Lincoln Park that was once the city cemetery of Chicago; visit Ivanhoe Cemetery and the grave of a man named James Joice, a freed slave who came here after the Civil War; Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side, the final resting place of Enrico Fermi and Ida B. Wells, as well as “Big Jim,” “Big Bell” (gangster Giacomo Colossimo and Mayor William Hill Thompson, respectively) and Harold Washington, in a shrine with the inscription, “Remember Me” As someone who tried to be fair”; Wandering south and east from the intersection of Petersen and Western Avenues, Rosehill, the city’s largest cemetery, covers more than 350 acres, and is home to celebrities like Oscar Mayer and Aaron Montgomery Ward, as well as amazing volunteer firefighters. Monument erected in 1864, Before The Chicago fire.
Seltzer gave tours of other cemeteries and details in this book about the early and ugly years of the cemeteries here but how over time “some notable people began building new monuments for themselves in Graceland, often long before they were needed…(was) a once garden and an open-air museum and art gallery.”
Although the book can be used as a guide for your do-it-yourself walking tours, it is such a pleasure to read on the sofa. It is a book that, as Selzer writes, “people who were famous in their day but have not written anything about them since their tombstones were carved. … Easy to forget, but good to remember, that the people here were once alive.” and that their lives were more than commercial transactions and weddings.”
She has already received justifiable praise. Robert Luarzel, author of the wonderful Walking Chicago, describes it as “a new way of looking at the city’s history: a compelling group portrait of Chicagoans from all walks of life.”
A celebrity in Selzer’s book is George Pullman, a railroad magnate. He died in 1897, and because of the poor ways in which the workers in his town on the South Side were treated and the violence in which they were targeted during their strike in 1894, he died a hated man. Selzer explores some of the myths surrounding his family’s fears that his body would be stolen and held for ransom.
Seltzer lives in the city with his wife, editor and author Ronnie Davis, and the son of Columbia College student Aidan.
The book release events for “Graceland Cemetery” will be held on August 14, with more information on the site mysteriouschicago.com. In all that quiet time this guy is thinking about tackling some cemetery in New York City in book form.