Review: All Those People, All Those Lives, Where Are They Now?, Graceland Cemetery, by Adam Selzer

Chicago is young. Compared with the large cities of Africa, Asia, and Europe—hell, compared with the Native American metropolis that occupied the Cahokia Mounds—Chicago is a mere toddler of 189 years. Lacking centuries of aristocrats, battles, and cultural upheavals, the city’s history is measured in teaspoons not gallons. What little history this town possesses, however, is retained in its boneyards. Oak Woods, Bohemian National, Calvary, and Rosehill cemeteries contain an abundance of content, both cadaverous and textual.

Yet, as replete as these boneyards may be, few match Uptown’s Graceland Cemetery for beauty, history, and pure Chicagoness. While not the draw that Navy Pier and and Millennium Park are, Graceland still attracts its share of tourists, both local and out of town, with its lush grounds, beautiful memorials, and of course, its many stories. Graceland’s grounds have been well-covered and -traveled throughout the years, but not so well-documented. Numerous articles, essays, and pamphlets have appeared, usually in the form of walking tours concentrating on the 19th century fat cats and architects buried there, and particularly striking memorials. As Adam Selzer’s new and comprehensive book Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets indicates, there’s more going on beneath Graceland’s surface than previously shown or known.

Established at the intersection of Clark and Irving Park in 1860, Graceland was conceived of as a place where the dead could find eternal rest and the living a restful retreat. The idea of Graceland was also sparked by businessman Thomas Barbour Bryan’s reaction to the sorry state of the city’s burial grounds. When he and his wife buried their five-year-old son at the City Cemetery—located where Lincoln Park is today—Bryan was appalled at conditions; the grounds in a state of disarray and coffins rising from the muck. Graceland is an prime example of the then newish concept of the garden cemetery, as opposed to the typical hodgepodge churchyard layout and or the bleak regimentation of potter’s fields. Originally designed by Swedish landscape artist Swain Nelson, the park was later tweaked by other landscape artisans and engineers to feature native plants, charming ponds, and lyrical paths that fit the gentle rises and dips of the land carved by the last ice age. Bryan wanted a more respectful resting place for his son and others. Graceland became more than that as rich, poor, celebrated, and unknown Chicagoans filled its earth throughout the next century.

Potter Palmer and Bertha Honoré Palmer mausoleum Graceland Cemetery. Photo © Jeremy Atherton, 2006.

Selzer, a local author of fiction and nonfiction, previously intertwined death and Chicago in his book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, an account of the titular 19th century conman and serial murderer. Emblematic of an interesting local trend of hipster tour guides and TikTok historians making Windy City history more accessible, Selzer also works as a Chicago guide, conducting walking tours of Graceland in particular. As a side note, it’s odd that with so much of the old, wild, and gritty city gone, we now have a dedicated and cheerful army of historical gleaners sifting through the rubble in search of tidbits to share. And more power to them.

Luckily, Selzer goes beyond mere trivia. He turns up fascinating individual stories of cemetery residents without leaning too heavily on the big names. An impressive feat with a graveyard that, by rough estimate, has some 175,000 interments. Selzer does hit the unmissable graves like the Potter and Bertha Palmer’s pantheon, George Pullman’s angry-worker-proof memorial, Burnham Island, and Lorado Taft’s chilling “Eternal Silence” statue at the Graves plot. But the book’s strength lies in the lesser-known tales he turned up about individuals buried in the spaces between the gaudy mogul monuments (“MAUSOLEUM, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.”—Ambrose Bierce). Selzer trims the fat without sacrificing the meat of an anecdote. For this book it’s a necessity. Most human beings resting in Graceland’s folds weren’t movers and shakers. Most were simply present for a time, but nevertheless interesting through some brief brush with greatness or ignominy. Selzer gives these fascinating transient creatures a few more moments in the sun.

Flipping through, we meet Perry Smith, a railroad magnate. Less interesting for any deals he brokered than for being burgled by an 1870s sneak thief named “Handy Andy.” Andy’s modus operandi involved breaking into mansions to purloin jewels and whatnot, but not before visiting the library and writing comments in the margins of particular books. We learn activist, balladeer, and martyr Joe Hill was executed in Utah but cremated at Graceland, keeping with his request to friend and Wobbly founder Big Bill Haywood, “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” And we make the acquaintance of under-sung heroes like Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an African-American surgeon who performed the first successful open-heart surgery in Chicago in 1893. All that is the merest sampling of what’s inside Selzer’s book.

Ostensibly a guidebook, Graceland Cemetery is probably best enjoyed at home. The book’s format provides a series of suggested routes to take to see the most of each cemetery section. In truth, a comprehensive visit to Graceland is neither possible or desirable. After years of taking friends and family there and giving tours of the highlights myself, a visit can be lovely, interesting, and amazing for a half hour or so before growing tedious. Outside of receiving a tour from Selzer himself, dipping into his book of mini-histories from the comfort of your favorite chair may be more enjoyable than a visit with it. But consider stopping by the next pleasant day you can spare and hear Graceland’s stones “speak” in person.

Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets is available at most bookstores and through the 3 Fields Books website.

Check out TCR writer Patrick T. Reardon’s account of walking through Graceland Cemetery with and without Selzer’s new book.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.