In 2002, a friend of mine and I took a trip to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois, about twenty miles outside of Chicago. An enormous Catholic cemetery, it had one major draw for us at that time: gangster graves.
Although it might seem a bit strange to some, grave tourism is a popular pastime for many historians and history buffs across the world. These graves are where the last vestiges of these famous – and infamous – individuals lay at rest. As such, it’s the closest that we will ever get to these figures on this earthly plane.
The Beer Wars, fought in Chicago between the North Side and South Side Gangs during prohibition, have left an indelible mark upon the American psyche. Although these events happened very nearly 100 years ago, names like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre still conjure images of some of the ruthless tactics utilized by these old-time criminals.
These men had made an impact on history, and we wanted to see their final resting place.
Al Capone was undoubtedly the best known out of any of these figures. Although he died in Florida, his body was transported back to Chicago and interred in the family plot at Mount Carmel.
For those of you who may not know, a family plot usually consists of one large, very impressive stone that is engraved with the family name. Each individual is then buried next to it, their graves marked with a much smaller stone giving their name, and perhaps their birth and death dates. The Capone plot was exactly like this, and it only took a few moments of scanning the stones until I found him.
Although it was neat to be there, and I appreciated the moment, I also couldn’t help but notice something strange. For the life of me, it seemed like someone had reached into the dirt and taken a handful from the sod covering Al Capone’s grave.
I thought for sure that I was seeing things. I mean, who would do that? Curious and confused, I looked a little closer.
Although there was a light dusting of snow on the ground, there could be no doubt that’s what it looked like. I called my friend over and told them to look at it. Sure enough, they saw the same thing. Someone had taken a handful of dirt from the grave.
That didn’t track with me at all. I couldn’t think of any reason why someone would do that. Still, there hadn’t been any lasting harm done. The chunk of earth missing wasn’t that big, and animals like groundhogs could have certainly done a worse job if given the chance.
A week or so later, long after we’d gone back home, I got a phone call from my friend. They were just as curious about that handful of missing dirt as I had been, and decided to look into it a little closer.
As it turned out, there was a group of people who, not unlike ourselves, liked to visit famous graves. However, while we took pictures, they took grave dirt.
Yup. Dirt. From the grave.
Apparently, they would take the dirt and put it into a small container, then carefully label it. After that, they displayed it for friends and family. While it seemed a little odd even for me, they still insisted that they sought to cause no harm to the plot.
While it’s not something that I would do, there wasn’t any lasting harm done. Seventeen years later, the grave is still respectfully covered and full of dirt.
There are others, however, that aren’t as respectful of the dead and their resting places. For various reasons, certain individuals have done far worse things to not only the memorials of our predecessors, but also to the dead themselves.
When I was a kid, I have very clear memories of my Dad taking me to City Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa. A big history buff, Dad used to take me to all kinds of cemeteries while doing family history, or just some personal research on something.
One of the older cemeteries in the region, City Cemetery is, by comparison to places like Mount Carmel, relatively modest in size. Many of the tombstones date from the 19th Century, with all the careful and grand designs that were so indicative of that era.
The roadways that wind through that cemetery are rather narrow, obviously built more for horse-drawn hearses rather than the modern automobile. You have to pick your way carefully along the path, otherwise you could very easily drive into a tombstone.
Toward the middle lies the sextants office, a small, utilitarian building designed to house the tools of their trade. While at that time it really wasn’t much to look at, there was still something that caught my eye.
All along the side were stacks of broken tombstones. Thinking about it now, there were probably about ten whole stones there, small and rectangular, carved from white limestone and marble. Someone had shattered them into pieces with a sledgehammer.
This was the first time that I came into personal contact with such destructive vandalism, but it would be far from the last.
Years later, I would discover that City Cemetery had been vandalized several times in the past. Unfortunately, in spite of tremendous efforts by concerned historic preservationists, it continues to be. Tombstones have been knocked over and broken on several occasions, and one tombstone was apparently so appealing that someone decided to take it home with them.
For genealogists and historians, a tombstone can provide a wealth of information. This can include names, various dates, and sometimes even random biographical information. They’re a record of a person’s life written in stone, making them an important source of historical knowledge.
For a loved one, a tombstone is, more importantly, a last testament that a person ever even existed. Without any kind of record or grave marker, a person’s name can easily disappear from both the historical record and living memory within a generation or two. That marker is a declaration to the living world that this was a person, that they lived and died, had experiences, and touched on the lives surrounding them.
When someone decides to come along and wreck it, they’re also wrecking all of this. Every time an act like this occurs, that individual is destroying a piece of history. And it’s more common than you might think.
In 2013, it was discovered that someone had been going through Springdale Cemetery in Clinton, Iowa knocking down tombstones. Cameras were set up to discover the culprit, and they eventually revealed a young man maliciously throwing a headstone to the ground.
In November 2014, a person drove a truck through a cemetery near Bondurant, Iowa, destroying four tombstones in the process.
In June 2016, a small cemetery in Honey Creek, Iowa, was seemingly torn apart by vandals. Several tombstones there were knocked over or broken. One, apparently, was even shot! It was hard to determine who was buried where; it was so bad.
While all the reckless teenage vandalism is a heartbreaking and senseless crime in these cases, there are other people in the world who commit these crimes with malicious, deliberate intent.
In April of 1992, some all-terrain vehicle riders were travelling near Hickory Hill, a rural pioneer cemetery east of Charlotte, Iowa. At that time, there was no controlling organization that was taking care of the cemetery. It had long-since been abandoned and allowed to become overgrown with knee-high grass and checkered with large, volunteer trees that were never intended to grow there.
Nestled in the midst of a forested area about a quarter of a mile from the main road, there were several people who were completely unaware that it even existed. Locals knew about it, of course.
A clear area at the end of the access road had become a popular gathering place for teenagers and partiers. It was a perfect place for people who didn’t want to be disturbed. Being located in a remote area just outside the gates of an abandoned cemetery and far from bright city lights, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some people started to tell ghost stories about the place.
Tales of a ghostly little girl telling visitors to leave, and of the ghostly sounds of crying babies are still rumored to haunt the remote burial ground. Although the truth behind such stories can and will be argued, the ATV riders that cool Spring morning were confronted with a surprising reality.
As they rode past Hickory Hill, they noticed that one of the graves had been dug up. The Clinton County Sheriff’s Department was notified and began a prompt investigation.
A twin grave, belonging to a husband and wife within the Illeman family plot, had been completely opened. Although the vaults were clearly visible and the handles to them had been uncovered, neither had been opened.
Investigators discovered that twine had been run between the gravestone and some nearby trees. Not wanting to attract unwanted attention, the perpetrators could hang blankets or some other covering around the site to help keep their work light hidden. The perpetrators had left muddy footprints on the vaults themselves, and a broken shovel that was assumed to have been used in the excavation was found in the area. And why did someone do all of this? The Sheriff’s Department had theories, but no strong leads.
It might be a case of grave robbing. Perhaps the grave had been excavated because the plot looked like the biggest and most important one there, making it the most likely to have money and jewelry. Surviving relatives of the Illemans however, informed investigators that the deceased couple hadn’t had much money and there probably wouldn’t be anything of significant value buried with them.
Simple vandalism was another possibility. Although there weren’t any gravestones broken or knocked over, smaller objects from the monuments, such as crosses, had been seemingly removed. However, the grave was about six feet deep and ten feet wide. The conditions were muddy, and care was taken to hide their activities from the road. Wouldn’t it have just been easier to break a few stones and walk away?
In the end, it was all speculation with no clear reason. No one was ever caught for the crime. The graves were refilled and things returned to normal. After a while, the whole incident was forgotten by many.
There is, however, an interesting side note to this story.
After the issue had settled down, a relative of one of the other families buried at Hickory Hill decided that his ancestor would never be disturbed like the Illeman’s had been.
One day, he began to pour a concrete pad over the graves of his relatives. The pad grew in size until it became big enough to park a car on. It may not have been a foolproof method of deterring someone from digging up those remains, but they were going to have to try a whole lot harder now.
As a monument to the memory of the deceased, we often look upon graveyard vandalism as a kind of betrayal. We are expected to be respectful, and to leave the dead and their markers to rest easy.
The very idea contains hints of the supernatural. Many people do not view the deceased as just bits of decaying matter, but rather as a human being worthy of respect. They are resting, and should remain at rest. We have given them a place to dwell for eternity, and there better be a really good reason for bothering them.
There are all kinds of stigmas for dealing with the remains of the dead. For professions that deal with the deceased, such as those in the funeral, medical, or forensics fields, these matters are usually carried out with a purpose in mind. As a society, we accept those reasons are able to move on with our lives.
When someone outside of this carefully-constructed societal norm commits these kinds of acts, however, it violates the sanctity of the dead. Our brains just don’t handle it well. As such, many of us, when faced with such a situation, allow ourselves to completely jump outside of the box.
While robbing a grave for money is considered unsavory, it’s still a reason that we understand. We can process it. When it’s for any other reason, we often consider it a desecration. Being so far outside of our understanding, occult practitioners are often blamed. With the practice of magic and sorcery being generally regarded as being outside of the societal norm, it stands to reason that anything that can’t be carefully boxed within a logical category of motives be thrown into the mysterious junk-box that is the occult.
Let us take the example of a young man named Richard Edwards living in Davenport, Iowa during the 1970’s.
Fairmount Cemetery is large and old, and was about half a mile west of the Davenport city limits when it was founded in the late 1800’s. Over time it grew to hold hundreds of people, but even with major population growth, the cemetery still sits on the very edge of the city.
It covers dozens of acres, and winds its way steadily up the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The area is a fair distance from the major developments and major urban areas of the city, marked with deep ravines and covered in thick woods.
Being there conveys a feeling of isolation, even on the edges of the grounds where well-developed neighborhoods of houses had long been established. It might have been this sense of remoteness that encouraged Edwards to break into several crypts there in 1977.
In at least one crypt, Edwards destroyed a casket and then pulled out the body. He also stole a human skull. Police arrested him for his crimes, and the crypts were re-sealed.
Twenty years later, the crypts were broken into again. This time, no suspect was ever found.
Richard Kronfeld, who was the cemetery superintendent of Fairmount at the time, believed that the robbery was linked to Satanists because the bodies were ransacked and it was quite possible that they had taken some bones with them. The robbery had also taken place during a full moon, which might have further coincided with occult activity.
Kronfeld also believed that these break-ins were related to an earlier theft that had taken place a short time before, where a power saw had been taken from Fairmount’s main mausoleum.
In Fall 2008, the crypts were broken into yet again, this time being by far the most disturbing.
Body parts had been thrown around the interiors, and in at least one instance rearranged. One police officer even stated that it felt like there was something else going on with the break-in outside of a simple act of vandalism or robbery.
Of course, the occult can’t always be blamed. If there is a bizarre crime or act that makes no sense, and can’t be blamed on the villainous forces of the supernatural, there is always another path – insanity.
In 1957, a woman named Bernice Worden went missing from the hardware store that she ran in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. The local sheriff’s department lost no time in searching for her when traces of blood were discovered in the building.
Small towns across the Midwest are very similar. Most people who live there know each other. There are only so many businesses, so most everyone in the area frequent them. If you grow up there and stay in the region, you eventually get to at least recognize local faces. Going to church and school, as well as attending various social functions, serves to further solidify those bonds.
You know each other. To at least some small extent, you trust each other. You also know the locals that are a little off.
In Plainfield, that would have been Ed Gein.
Born and raised in the area, Ed Gein was accepted and trusted by most of the locals, but there were several people who thought he was a little strange. After the death of his mother and brother, Gein lived alone on the family farm outside of town.
As the search progressed, evidence found at the hardware store led the sheriff to suspect that Gein was somehow involved. Officers immediately began to make their way across the frozen November roads to his house.
What they found has inspired countless horror novels, films, and nightmares, for generations.
While looking for Gein, officers came across the mutilated corpse of Bernice Worden. After he was arrested, police returned to the farm to gather evidence. They discovered numerous body parts, as well as the decapitated head of a woman that had gone missing in the area several months before.
Investigators ultimately concluded that he had been digging up the corpses of freshly-buried locals and bringing them back to the house. Once there, they were utilized to fuel his insane fantasies and desires. Perhaps most infamously, he would turn some of the faces into masks, or sew their skin into suits that he could wear.
Early the next year, Gein was declared insane and spent the rest of his life in Wisconsin mental institutions.
Usually when we think of true crime, our minds automatically go to murder. If that isn’t it, then it almost inevitably goes to some kind of armed robbery, forgery, or con artist scheme. Grave robbing and the desecration of the dead are on the back burner.
And yet, very few, if any, would argue that they are crimes. The main difference is that the victims are no longer able to speak for themselves. Their voices have been forever silenced, and so the living must now speak for them.
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‘Man Held; Graveyard Vandalism.’ Quad City Times, 6/24/1977
‘Grave Robbers Hit Davenport Crypt.’ Quad City Times, 4/25/1997
‘Human Remains Disturbed During Mausoleum.’ Quad City Times, 9/10/2008
‘Stoneking Cemetery.’ Supernatural Dares, http://www.youtube.com
Myers, Frank D. ‘Tombs With a View II: Stoneking.’ http://www.lucascontyan.blogspot.com, 12/31/12
dpaulson. ‘These 10 Haunted Cemeteries in Iowa Are Not For the Faint of Heart.’ http://www.onlyinyourstate.com, 8/7/16
Grave-Robbing. The Kansas Chief, 12/19/1895
Brecht, Tory. Aldermen to consider ways to curb precious metal thefts. Quad City Times, 6/17/2008
Trio Admits Vandalism in Cemetery. Quad City Times, 10/30/1962
Offer Reward in Effort to Halt Wave of Vandalism in City’s Fairmount Cemetery. Quad City Times, 10/21/1948
Kohlstedt, Kurt. Grave Guns & Coffin Torpedoes: Vintage Defenses Aimed to Foil Grave Robbers. www.99percentinvisible.org
2 thoughts on “Defiling the Dead”
I’m definitely a taphophile, but I would never dream of taking anything from a cemetery, not even dirt! I can’t understand the people who vandalise graves either – those people are seriously the worst.
I’m with you. I personally have never had the desire to take any kind of graveyard souvenir. I figure let what belongs to the dead stay with the dead.