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Grave Robbing 101 Tour Digs Into Lincoln Park's History As A Cemetery

By Ted Cox | August 25, 2017 5:42am | Updated on August 30, 2017 8:03am
 Adam Selzer uses this photo to promote his Grave Robbing 101 tours through Lincoln Park.  It  shows Chicago police exhuming the body of one of serial killer Tillie Klimek's husbands to see if it contained a lethal amount of arsenic.
Adam Selzer uses this photo to promote his Grave Robbing 101 tours through Lincoln Park. It shows Chicago police exhuming the body of one of serial killer Tillie Klimek's husbands to see if it contained a lethal amount of arsenic. "It did," Selzer says. "A lot of it."
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Facebook/Illinois Obscura Society

LINCOLN PARK — Know any place that stills pays cash for dead bodies — human bodies, that is? If so, Adam Selzer can set you on the way to fortune and, well, infamy.

Selzer leads the Grave Robbing 101 walking tours through Lincoln Park, which was the city cemetery in the decades before the Great Chicago Fire. He resumed the tours for the first time this year on Sunday, with a sold-out walk for 35 people, then has another set for Wednesday and another Sept. 20.

"It's a fun thing for me to dig up information about," Selzer said this week while preparing for the tour.

After the fire in 1871, the bodies were removed — most of them, anyway — and the area was converted into the park we all know and love, to serve the new residents as the exodus moved north from the fire zone.

But before that, Selzer said, the park was a haven for grave robbers.

The mid-1800s, he said, was "right when medical schools realized you can't really train a doctor without getting dead bodies to practice on, but before anybody actually started donating their bodies to science."

Chicago medical schools of the era, Selzer added, had an "open-door policy" on cadavers.

"You showed up with a fresh corpse, you could turn it in for cash or prizes — no questions asked," Selzer said.

The pay was more than a miner might make in a month — to compare vocations based on digging things up from the ground.

The $20 walking tour steps off from the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., at 7 p.m. and stops at one of the places bodies are still buried in Lincoln Park: the Couch family tomb, just south of the LaSalle Street spur running to Lake Shore Drive.

 Grave Robbing 101 tour guide Adam Selzer is shown in front of the Couch family tomb in Lincoln Park with a tool of his trade.
Grave Robbing 101 tour guide Adam Selzer is shown in front of the Couch family tomb in Lincoln Park with a tool of his trade.
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Adam Selzer

"There are a lot of conflicting opinions on how many people are in there — or were ever in there," Selzer said. "It hasn't really been opened in a good 100 years."

But if family patriarch Ira Couch is still in there, Selzer added, it's possible he could be very well preserved, as he died in 1857, when the Fisk metallic burial case, invented nine years earlier, was in vogue.

"They were supposed to preserve your body pretty well forever," Selzer said.

The tomb, however, is equally impervious. Selzer said he's only succeeded in taking photos of the inside using what he calls a "Tomb Snooper 500" (an iPhone taped to a wire hanger).

"Grave robbers would generally regard that kind of tomb as a pretty poor score," Selzer said. "It's too hard to get into, without being able to cover your tracks.

"Generally, it was a lot easier for a grave robber to go out to the potter's field," Selzer added, "where the baseball fields are now."

The indigent were buried without much ceremony in those days, and the pickings would have been readily available, what Selzer has called "a regular smorgasbord for grave robbers."

From there, Selzer leads his group on 2-mile tour of Lincoln Park, dispersing details all the way. The tour runs rain or shine, and those taking part are advised to wear good walking shoes and to bring cameras. Selzer calls it "family-friendly," but warns that "parents have to keep an eye on their kids."

Selzer runs a series of tours through his Mysterious Chicago website. He's also done tours of Graceland Cemetery, but said, "I wanted to branch out into stuff that was a little less paranormal."

The Atlas Obscura website and its Illinois outlet encouraged the Grave Robbing 101 tour, and the groups act as hosts.

"They attract a very diverse sort of curious people," Selzer said.

Selzer has written several books, including "H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil" and "The Ghosts of Chicago," as well as a novel, "Just Kill Me," about "a ghost-tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people there."

So yes, do keep an eye on your children — and yourself — when you take Grave Robbing 101.