Graceland Cemetery in Chicago

If you suddenly find yourself laid off from a job that you enjoyed, and are given more free time than you have had in a long time, what do you do?  When this situation happened to me, I tried to look for inexpensive ways to keep myself busy and de-stress.  As morbid as this may sound, I found myself exploring cemeteries.  My favorite was, undoubtedly, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

This creepy but amazing tombstone was built for Dexter Graves, one of the earliest non-Native American inhabitants in Chicago.

Founded in 1860, Graceland is in the northwest part of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field, where the baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, plays.  This area used to be just outside of the city’s limits, when cemeteries were prohibited from being built within the city’s borders.  However, as Chicago grew, so did its borders. 

A few blocks away from Graceland Cemetery is the even older Jewish cemetery, the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery, founded in 1851. Unfortunately, unlike Graceland, its plots are overgrown and neglected.

What makes Graceland such a pleasant place to visit is the fact that it is a rural cemetery.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, most people in the United States and Europe buried their dead in the churchyard.  However, as the population increased, so did the need to find more land to bury the dead.  Architects soon developed rural cemeteries, which also functioned as public parks, since parks were not commonplace yet.  Therefore, people would actually picnic and spend their leisure in these rural cemeteries.  Characteristics of these rural cemeteries included huge mausoleums and ponds.  Nowadays, cemeteries tend to be simpler, and certainly not places that people visit for fun.

As you walk through Graceland Cemetery, the huge monuments make it clear that the people buried there were once the wealthiest individuals in Chicago society.  Because of this, there were many other visitors touring the cemetery for fun when I was there.  In fact, the Chicago Architecture Center actually offers formal tours of this historic graveyard.  When I arrived at Graceland, I first entered the visitor center, where I watched a brief video summarizing the history of the cemetery, and also picked up a free map that points out where all of the famous Chicagoans are buried. If you ever visit Graceland Cemetery, make sure to pick up a map at the visitor center, or print one from their website. Looking for famous people can be a fun type of scavenger hunt.

Louis Sullivan, a famous architect buried in Graceland, designed this impressive mausoleum, which is also found at Graceland.

Graceland Cemetery is best known for being the burial ground of famous Chicago architects such as Daniel Burnham (who helped design Chicago) and William Le Baron Jenney (who built the first skyscraper ever).  Additionally, if you live in Chicago, you will notice that many of the tombs match the names of famous Chicago streets (e.g. Wacker, Kimball). Another famous person buried at Graceland includes Allan Pinkerton, a pioneer detective in the United States, and someone who helped stop an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, Marshall Field, the founder of Chicago’s Field Museum and the Marshall Field’s Department Store, is buried there.

Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper, is buried at Graceland Cemetery.

Since I enjoy Charles Dickens’ books, my favorite tomb at Graceland was of his younger brother, Augustus.  In the 1850s, Augustus abandoned his wife after she became blind, and ran off with another woman to Chicago. It sounds like something a Charles Dickens character might do!  After that, Charles Dickens broke ties with his brother. According to a June 24, 2004 article in The Chicago Reader called “The Dirty Dickens,” Augustus’ tomb in Graceland Cemetery did not receive a monument until his great-great-great-great grandson decided to put one up in 2004.

Being the third largest city in the United States, most of Chicago can be a loud and busy place. However, once you enter the brick walls of Graceland Cemetery, you completely forget that you are still in Chicago. The peaceful surroundings make you feel as if you walked into a different world, full of interesting stories now mostly forgotten underground.

Sources and Further Reading

Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries.” The Atlantic, March 16, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/ (accessed March 7, 2020).

Rodkin, Dennis. “The Dirty Dickens.” The Chicago Reader, June 24, 2004. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-dirty-dickens/Content?oid=915864 (accessed March 7, 2020).

Sclair, Helen. “Cemeteries.” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/223.html (accessed March 7, 2020).

“The Story of Graceland.” Graceland Cemetery. https://www.gracelandcemetery.org/the-story-of-graceland/ (accessed March 7, 2020).

Windsong, Juniper. “Eternal Silence.” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/eternal-silence (accessed March 7, 2020).

Sheldon Peck Homestead and the Underground Railroad

In United States history, a person became a member of the “Underground Railroad” if he or she assisted slaves from the Southern states to escape to free areas where slavery was illegal (often the Northern states or Canada).  Nobody had to formally join an organization called the Underground Railroad to become a member.  The phrase was more of an allegorical term for the many people who assisted runaway slaves until 1863.  Members of the Underground Railroad did not solely consist of white abolitionists, but also included former slaves.  For example, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who in ten years, repeatedly returned South to help bring approximately 300 slaves to freedom.  (The new 2019 film Harriet is about this, and is worth watching.)

In 1998, the United States National Park Service began the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which requires them to identify and preserve sites throughout the United States that were involved in the Underground Railroad.  However, since participation in the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, it is not easy to find documentation of who was involved.  This was especially the case after the Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793, and then further enforced in 1850.  These laws punished those who assisted runaway slaves, and allowed Southerners to search for and recapture their runaway slaves in the free North.

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom has documented 626 Underground Railroad sites in the United States so far (as of the end of 2019).  A map depicting how many sites are currently documented in each state can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm

Ohio and Maryland currently tie for the most sites: 83.  Next comes New York with 66, Pennsylvania with 54, and Virginia with 41.  Illinois ranks at number 9 with 24 sites.  I have visited two Illinois sites so far, the Sheldon Peck Homestead and Wheaton College.  Both are in the western suburbs of Chicago in Du Page County, which also has a few other sites. 

Sheldon Peck was a farmer and folk artist.  He built his home in rural Lombard, Illinois in 1839, and eventually opened up his home to be used as the first school in the area.  He was also a radical abolitionist (meaning that he wanted the immediate rather than gradual cessation of slavery) and worked as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad.  The evidence of his involvement comes from his son’s oral testimony and diary.  Historians currently believe that the runaway slaves hid in his barn, which no longer stands, and not in his home, which does still stand.  This home is currently owned by the Lombard Historical Society.  It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 and Saturdays from 10-2 (however, it is closed in December and January).  Admission is free.

Sheldon Peck Homestead located at 355 E Parkside Ave. Lombard, IL 60148.

Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois was founded by Wesleyan Methodist abolitionists in 1860.  Its first president was a staunch abolitionist named Jonathan Blanchard, who was also the College’s first president.  According to a sign about Wheaton College’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, located in the campus’ oldest building, Blanchard Hall, Wheaton became the first college in Illinois to graduate African Americans.  Blanchard Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall located at 501 College Ave. Wheaton, IL 60187.

Bonus Photo

Scotsman, Allan Pinkerton, is known as the founder of one of the first detective agencies in the United States. He helped prevent an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln. However, his home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, as is attested by his wonderful tombstone at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Sources and Further Reading

“About the Network to Freedom.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Blanchard Hall.” Wheaton College. https://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/visit-wheaton/campus-buildings/blanchard-hall/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Harriet Tubman.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Path to Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad.” Enjoy Illinois. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/illinois-underground-railroad/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“The Pinkertons.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-25/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1281.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Lombard Historical Society. https://www.lombardhistory.org/ugrr (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Underground%20Railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Wheaton College. http://a2z.my.wheaton.edu/underground-railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).