My first apartment in Denver had an incredible view that overlooked one of the large parks in the city: Cheesman Park. Cheesman Park was beautiful and active during the day and surprisingly clean and safe at night, so naturally one of my favorite stories to tell visitors was that under those gently rolling hills were several thousand restless bodies.
You see, Cheesman Park used to be the location of Denver’s city cemetery, way back before it became the somewhat posh neighborhood it is today. Back before the turn of the 20th century, however, the cemetery had fallen into disuse and there was a desire to relocate it to somewhere more out-of-the-way in order to turn that prime land into a park for public use by the growing city. A plan was approved.
For families that still remembered and cherished their dead, several years were given to move the bodies of their loved ones to a new resting place. But by the time 1893 hit, few graves had been claimed and there were still over 5,000 bodies needing to be moved. The task of moving the remaining bodies was contracted out and work begun, but several days into the mass exhumation whispers of a growing scandal reached the ears of a local journalist. They visited the cemetery and found a mess of a situation, with workers “breaking up” whole bodies into multiple boxes, bystanders robbing jewelry from the dead, and a ghastly scene described with a quote on Wikipedia thusly:
“The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody by the appearance they presented. Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies…All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk.”
This ended up on the front page of a local paper, and the public scandal drew a quick end to the task of relocating the unclaimed corpses. And in the wake of this whole affair, a new contractor was never brought on to finish the task. When the city finished paving and landscaping the beautiful new park in 1907, they did so on ground that still held the unmarked remains of most of those 5,000+ unclaimed bodies. Many of the trees you see around the park were planted in the disturbed earth of open graves: ready-made holes that marked where a body was torn apart and stuffed into small boxes. As for the graves that weren’t opened, the bones are still there to this day – waiting to be dug up.
I never experienced any hauntings in my 3 years living on Cheesman Park, but the vivid true story of the park’s past is shadowy enough to give substance to anyone who claims they have. As for me, that quote on the Wikipedia page left me wanting to read more of the author’s description of the scene. I tried to track down where the quote originally came from in the hopes that it had more context, but it seems that the earliest I can find that text anywhere on the internet is from a 2009 edit of that Wikipedia article itself. Two books were written in 2011 with the quote in them, but they seemed to be amateur works that lifted the quote directly from Wikipedia. So, I had to find a copy of the original article the hard way (ie, without using Google).
A call to the Denver Central Library revealed that they had newspaper records going back to the mid 1800’s, including copies of The Denver Republican where the story first broke. Unfortunately, that paper was not yet digitized in the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Fortunately, they still had copies available on microfilm at the physical library location. I was running errands around downtown this past Saturday, and it was easy enough to stop by for a half hour to track down this little white whale of mine. And so that no ghost-hunters have to do the laborious task of retracing my footsteps, I captured scans of the article to post online.
You can read the article from my microfilm scan below, or from my direct transcription below that. Interestingly, the quote which originally grabbed my attention doesn’t actually appear in the article! It certainly sounds like a plausible first-hand account of the scene, but it must have come from somewhere else, with later authors copying down the quote without checking the original source. (I feel like this happens a lot, and this comic comes to mind.)
Even without that quote however, the article doesn’t disappoint. It’s punchy, surprisingly readable with great prose and some solid quotes (one notably dated), and paints a picture of not only an affront to humanity, but a scandal of multi-layered corruption that was snuck through the city government while the Mayor was out of town. It’s what I want pretty much all good journalism to be like.
But I’ll stop explaining the article and just let the interested reader go through it themself. Two points of reference that I needed to look up, which may be useful for your understand:
- “Jobbery” is the practice of using a public office for one’s personal gain, with a “job” being that act of corruption (rather than the neutral connotation the word has today).
- The $10,000 referenced in the article as an estimate for the whole contract would be worth $280,000 in 2018 dollars, and the $1.90 per box removed would be $53.23 today. (Honestly not a bad deal!)
THE DENVER REPUBLICAN.
DENVER, COLORADO, SUNDAY MORNING, MARCH 19, 1893.
THE WORK OF GHOULS
One of the Most Disreputable Jobs in the Tammany Administration.
HUMAN BODIES TORN TO PIECES
And All for the Purpose of Plundering the Public Treasury.
“CAP” SMITH AND M’GILVRAY DO IT
Bodies Taken From Their Resting Places In the City Cemetery, Distributed Each Among Three Boxes, Carted Off to Riverside and Charged as Three “Bodies” — A Contract to Remove Full Size Bodies in Boxes Forty-Two Inches Long a Job on Its Face — How “Cap” Smith and John D. McGilvray Engineered the Contracts Through the Council — Some of the Workmen Explain How They “Break” Fresh Bodies to Fit Boxes — Most Inhumane Proceedings and a Most Extensive Swindle Possible.
One of the most disreputable jobs which Tammany has perpetrated upon the public since the election of two years ago, and one in which there is a competency for Tammany’s leaders, is that in connection with the removal of the dead from the old City cemetery to Riverside.
Mayor Rogers and Health Commissioner Steele opposed the proposition to transfer the bodies when McGilvray introduced the resolution almost a year ago. They declared it was a needless expenditure and exposed the city to all sorts of diseases. They declared that the bodies could better rest under green earth than to be exhumed, jostled through the streets and buried again.
McGilvray, Currigan, and “Cap” Smith said the public sentiment demanded the removal. THE REPUBLICAN said there was a job in it. Latest developments establish the correctness of this assertion.
“Cap” Smith submitted some of this figures and said it would not cost more that $10,000. Four days have been spent in removals and the expense to the city is about $4,500. Undertaker McGovern says the work cannot be finished in less than a month. If the present practices continue is will cost the city from $25,000 to $30,000, and probably more, and there will be more “removals” than the whole number of people who have ever died and been buried in Colorado.
According to the contract entered into between McGilvray and E. P. McGovern for the removal of the bodies, Mr. McGovern is to be paid $1.90 for each unclaimed body removed to Riverside. B. A. Harbour was to remove the headstones at $2 each,but his contract was transferred to one of Currigan’s friends. These two contracts are on file with the city clerk, but that with Riverside cemetery, in which it is thought that $5 a grave is the specification, is not on file anywhere, so far as can be learned.
But Tammany and the contractors for the work of exhumation have their own ideas as to what constitutes a “body,” and the result of putting into practice those ideas is a discredit to all those connected with the work at the cemetery, and an outrage to the most sacred sentiment of civilization — respect for the dead.
From what was seen at the cemetery yesterday, and according to the admissions of the workmen, the remains of the unknown and nameless ones are being removed from there in fragments to their final resting place at Riverside. One body is often made to fill two and sometimes three of the boxes in which they are conveyed to the new burial place.
As the boxes used are only three feet six inches long, it is not easy to conceive how it can be otherwise. How the body of a full-grown man could be crammed into a forty-two-inch box of no great depth is a question rather difficult to answer. As the old City cemetery is situated upon the crest of Capitol Hill, and the soil there is remarkably dry, many of the buried ones are in a fair state of preservation. When the contract was made everybody connected with it knew that no such body as described above could be crowded into a box only large enough to hold a baby. It was not calculated that it should. John K. Wood, who is superintending the work of removal for the Denver Health department, must have known the same thing. But he is evidently employed not to find it out.
John D. McGilvray engineered the scandalous deal, and John E. Wood has evidently been specially appointed by him to aid in the job, so the gruesome work goes on merrily, and nothing is said.
M’GILVRAY WORKED IT.
When Supervisor John D. McGilvray, now Tammany’s candidate for the office of mayor of Denver, about nine months ago introduced a resolution into the City Council, providing for the removal of all unclaimed bodies from the City cemetery, the move was at once denounced by THE REPUBLICAN as a piece of gruesome jobbery. The facts now brought to light bear out the correctness of the position taken by this paper.
The work of removing the unclaimed bodies has now been in progress four days. During that time 491 “bodies” have been boxed up and carted away, at least those are figures given by John E. Wood, Mr. McGilvray’s recent appointee to the Health department, and receipted for by A. Forsythe, superintendent for Riverside cemetery.
Anyone who visits the scene of the disinterment at the old city cemetery and glances at the number of graves opened and coffins exposed will be somewhat puzzled to tell where all those “bodies” came from.
VISIT TO THE CEMETERY.
A short visit to the cemetery yesterday accounted for the mystery.
Out of one grave, where only a single coffin was visible, three of the forty-two-inch boxes were filled. Into the first box some bones were cavalierly tossed by a workman. He then pulled another box to the edge of the grave, and into this he tossed one bone, some earth and portion of the coffin. After this the son of toil rested awhile. The graves on each side of him were being excavated by other workmen, and he evidently did not care to move, so he called for another box.
At this juncture a man came along with a pot of paint and brush and numbered and lettered the two boxes already filled from the single grave. John E. Wood, the representative of the Health department, also came up. When he saw the third box he asked the man in the grave what it was for. “Oh, I guess there’s another one here,” said the grave-digger, as he threw a shovelful of earth into the box. Mr. Wood looked into the grave, said “Humph,” and walked away. Another shovelful of earth and some crumbled wood was then thrown into the box, the “remains” were disinfected, the lid fastened on and the “body” of “274, B. H.,” shipped to Riverside.
SENT FOR BURIAL
This box, with its freight of earth and decomposed coffin lid, is charged up to the city, and the tax-payers of Denver will pay $8.90 for its removal to Riverside.
In two other graves were found little boxes, not much bigger than cigar boxes. They did not appear to contain anything; when buried they might have held belongings of the one in the coffin. But no examination was made of their contents, and each was shoveled into a box and booked as a “body.”
A talk with some of the workmen elicited the information that this practice of breaking the body into fragments and putting each fragment into a separate box was a common one.
One of the workmen, Dan Vogel, who until recently was a bartender in Steinke’s saloon, Twenty-first and Larimer streets, was asked if the men found any fresh bodies and what was done with them. He said: “Yes, we find some, and we generally break them up and put them into two boxes, as one is not big enough.”
“Did you find any to-day?”
“Yes,” he said. “I found a nigger this morning and I broke him into two pieces and put a piece into each of two boxes.”
HOW THEY WERE COUNTED.
In order to ascertain if each box was credited to E. P. McGovern’s account against the city, A Forsythe, Riverside’s superintendent, was seen last night. He was found in McGovern’s undertaking rooms on Arapahoe street.
He showed a number of receipts for the boxes delivered to him up to date. There were 491 boxes as the quota for the four days the work has been going on. He said John E. Wood gave him the figure and he gave Mr. Wood a receipt for the number of boxes given into his possession. Each box contained a body, he said, and he would bury them according to the order in which they were lettered and numbered by Mr. McGovern’s men at the City cemetery. The city would pay the burial expenses.
NO COMMENT NECESSARY.
Comment is scarcely necessary on the above state of affairs. Beside the outrage offered to humanity in the method of dismembering the dead described above, an opportunity is also offered to those connected with the work to swindle the city out of thousands of dollars.
What is to prevent the persons interested from making four parts out of each corpse and charging the city for the removal of each fragment? When John D. McGilvray made his first essay to railroad the contract with McGovern through the City Council, for the removal of the bodies, it was estimated that the work would cost $10,000.
This piece of jobbery offered an opportunity to those in the deal to swindle Denver’s tax-payers out of $30,000 for a work that has been pronounced unnecessary as well as dangerous to the health of the people. But Tammany’s heelers had to be paid even if it bankrupted the city treasury and spread the seeds of disease and death among the people.
THE FIRST MOVE.
About nine months ago the proposition to remove the unknown dead from the City cemetery was first brought up. John D. McGilvray introduced a resolution into the Cit Council advertising for bids for the removal of the bodies, the removal of the tombstones, and the reinterment at Riverside. When the matter came up for consideration it was bitterly opposed by the late Dr. H. K. Steele, then health commissioned, and Mayor Rogers.
They opposed the proposition on the grounds that the removal of the bodies from the cemetery was an unnecessary step. They also denounced it as dangerous to the health of the community, as many of the bodies were comparatively fresh.
Repeatedly in the columns of THE REPUBLICAN the scheme was denounced as a piece of rank political jobbery. The opportunity given under the terms of the contract to swindle the city was pointed out again and again. The objections made were sustained by public opinion, but Tammany was insatiable, and an attempt was made by McGilvray and his confreres to engineer the job through.
“CAP” SMITH’S APPROVAL.
City Auditor “Cap” Smith was appointed to pass on the bids. “Cap” recommended that the bids of E. P. McGovern for the removal of the bodies, B. A. Harbour for the removal of the headstones and the Riverside Cemetery association for the re-burial, be accepted. As the whole thing was denounced on all sides, the contracts were referred to the Heal committee of the council, and there they slumbered until three weeks ago.
During the recent absence of Mayor Rogers Tammany found an opportunity to dig up and ratify the nefarious contracts.
Dr. Steele was dead, Mayor Rogers was out of town and John D. McGilvray, who first championed the shamfile job, was acting as mayor. This gave the ghouls a clear field, and they were quick to take advantage of it.
PUSHED IT THROUGH.
The contracts were brought forth from the Health committee’s pigeon hole and rushed through both branches of the city government. They were signed by John D. McGilvray in his dual capacity as acting mayor and president of the Board of Supervisors.
Of course common decency suggested that the work of moving thousands of bodies of people, whose deaths might have been caused by any and every form of malignant disease, through a thickly crowded community, should receive some sort of supervision from the Health department. But the entrusting of this task to a known official might be inconvenient for the purposes of McGilvray. And so an official was purposely creased for the work. John E. Wood, a staunch Tammanyite, was appointed to the office for the especial benefit of McGilvray and his contractors. The appointment was made by Acting Mayor McGilvray, and the work is now being carried on under the superintendence of the ready-made-official.
While the bodies are now being divided into only three parts, as the work progresses, were nothing done to expose the job, there is nothing to prevent the burial of thousands of empty boxes. There would be no check on the number of bodies removed, for there is no record of the number buried.
As Riverside is outside city limits, there is no danger of Tammany trying to register the men supposed to be in the empty boxes.