Human Bones Uncovered During Construction Reveal Gold Coast's Haunting Past
GOLD COAST — No one told Gerardo Munoz about what's buried under some of the fanciest parts of Chicago.
If they had, the construction worker wouldn't have been so stunned last week while digging in a garden apartment in the Gold Coast.
Just 6 inches under the loose soil, he found a bone. At first, he figured it was from an animal.
"We kept digging, and it was more bones and more bones," Munoz said.
When one of the milky-white pieces was 12 inches long, he changed his mind about where it came from.
"Human bones — it was the ribs and the leg bones," Munoz said. "I thought, 'Now this looks a little weird.'"
Munoz called the building's owner, who called the police. Officers came to retrieve the remains shortly after and handed them over to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, which confirmed they were human remains.
But the Chicago Police Department isn't investigating. Since the late 1800s, when the cemeteries became Lincoln Park, Lake Shore Drive and residential space, human bones have popped up regularly whenever there is construction.
A researcher estimates more than 35,000 people were buried in the area, and the bones of 10,000 to 12,000 bodies remain there to this day.
"It's almost safe to say that if you dig on Dearborn or State Street you'll find something," said Pamela Bannos, a Northwestern University researcher and artist who compiled the most comprehensive history of the cemeteries on her website "Hidden Truths."
In the mid-1880s, the public Chicago City Cemetery stretched north of North Avenue to what is now the southernmost part of Lincoln Park Zoo, near Wisconsin Street. It included a Jewish cemetery, located under what is now the northernmost baseball diamond.
Where Munoz was digging in the Gold Coast, in the 1400 block of North Dearborn Street, was the Catholic Cemetery, stretching east from Dearborn to Astor streets, and north from Schiller Street to North Avenue.
"This is quite a spooky and haunted area," said Jill Austin, of the Chicago History Museum. "It looks so peaceful and quiet and beautiful and serene, and there's a lot going on here. When you go out into those grounds and you just imagine 10,000 more people buried on this parkland that has people playing and running and going to a museum. It’s a spooky feeling."
That feeling was echoed by Sarah Wagner, 29, a Gold Coast resident who was tossing a softball with a friend in Lincoln Park Saturday afternoon.
"It's a little unsettling," said Wagner, who was surprised to learn about the bones beneath the park that was full of life with joggers, flag football games and picnics.
A cemetery once known as Potter's Field is just north of where Wagner lives off Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast — one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, and the country, as of 2011. Potter's Field was where Chicago's poorest residents used to be buried, along with cholera victims and Southern soldiers during the Civil War.
Wagner and her friend Michelle Pike, 33, of Fulton River District, were concerned about respect for the dead people beneath where they played toss Saturday.
"There could be worse ways it's memorialized," Wagner said of the field.
"It's a happy place," Pike said. "At least it's not a garbage dump."
But the cemeteries weren't exactly well taken care of, Bannos said.
"It's kind of a mess underground over there," she said.
The poor quality of the soil meant bodies and caskets were constantly shifting and emerging from the sandy, moist and moving lakeside ground. The grounds also were ravaged by the Great Chicago Fire and trampled as Chicagoans fled the flames, so many headstones and grave markers were destroyed.
The land began being turned into residential space as the city's population swelled, and lakeside real estate was determined to be prime for a park.
The bodies were supposed to be removed and reburied in other cemeteries after it was deemed illegal to bury anyone there after 1866, but corruption, a lack of money and a lack of oversight led to many bodies being forgotten, said Bannos.
When Potter's Field was ordered to be cleared, for example, 12 workers were given 25 days to complete a task an 1872 Tribune article estimated would have taken 500 days, according to Bannos' project.
And that's just the beginning of a long, confusing and mostly forgotten history of the city's North Side that Bannos pieced together.
"The history is kind of a mess," Bannos said. "What's under there is still kind of under speculation."
Because they are more than 100 years old and from "unregistered graves," unearthed bones become property of the state under the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act. Many become part of the collection of the Illinois State Museum.
Though the odds might not be on his side, Munoz hopes he doesn't unearth any more human remains in the Gold Coast.
"I'm not really interested in finding more bones," Munoz said. He added, laughing, "I hope I find some gold."