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Monday, December 9

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Airbags

Although few people know who he was, most everyone in Chicago knows he's dead. The mausoleum of Ira Couch sits incongruously in the southernmost section of Lincoln Park, just behind the Chicago Historical Society. Though now a curiosity for joggers, cyclists and dog walkers, the tomb is also a lingering reminder of the city as it used to be.

Ira Couch and his brother James likely came to Chicago in the early 1830s. Ira was, by some accounts, a tailor and haberdasher by trade, but in the late 1830s he built his fortune as the successful proprietor of the Tremont House, one of Chicago's earliest and most fashionable hotels.

Tremont House stood at the corner of Lake and Dearborn, already a prime location in Chicago's burgeoning business district. The Tremont House building was designed by John M. Van Osdel, often described as Chicago's first architect. In addition to the Tremont House, Van Osdel designed the city's courthouse in the 1850s and the Palmer House hotel in 1873.

Ira Couch died in 1857, and his family built a mausoleum made of heavy limestone shipped from New York.

The mausoleum stood in what was then City Cemetery, which stretched roughly from North Avenue to Armitage, just east of Clark Street. City Cemetery was established in 1837 to meet the demands of Chicago's growing population and corresponding funerary needs. The cemetery became home to some 20,000 departed residents, but in the 1850s city residents began to complain about the site. They claimed inadequate burial conditions at the cemetery were leading to water contamination and aiding in the spread of diseases such as cholera. The city relented and began to move bodies to other cemeteries -- primarily Rosehill Cemetery in the Ravenswood neighborhood and Calvary Cemetery, which now lies on the border between Chicago and Evanston.

By the early 1870s City Cemetery was closed, but the Couch family fought to keep the mausoleum where it was, claiming it would be too expensive to move the tomb to a new site. They won the battle, and so the Couch mausoleum remains in its original location to this day.

The city began converting the cemetery to parkland not long after residents began complaining about the site. In 1861, the City Council reserved an 80-acre section of the land to be used as public space, and after the assassination of President Lincoln the area, which had simply been called Lake Park, was renamed Lincoln Park in 1865. Although bodies began to be relocated as early as 1863, the State did not require the exhumation and relocation of the burials at City Cemetery until 1869.

Yet, though the bodies were moved and the cemetery was closed, the Couch tomb does not constitute the only remains left from the old cemetery. As late as 2000, archaeologists were called to the Chicago Historical Society to aid in the research and removal of human remains left behind from City Cemetery and found during a construction project. Nearby Gold Coast residents have also been known to discover some interesting surprises buried beneath their basements.

The final oddity in this story is the fact that no one seems to know for sure who, if anyone, is actually buried in the Couch mausoleum. Popular belief assumes that the tomb contains the remains of Ira Couch and several family members, but Ursula Bielski writes in Chicago Haunts that "cemetery records maintain that Ira Couch rests in his family's plot at Rosehill Cemetery," and she adds that it would take an act of the City Council to open the sealed mausoleum to investigate. (p.50) So, who is buried in Couch's tomb? We may never really know.

Sources

Bielski, Ursula. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.

Hucke, Matt and Ursula Bielski. Graveyards of Chicago: The People, History and Lore of Cook County Cemeteries. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1999.

Mayer, Harold M. and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

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Comments

Pete / January 15, 2004 3:52 PM

Per family legend, I have ancestors buried under the Lincoln statue. Supposedly my family couldn't afford to relocate any of the remains, and the city wasn't too diligent about forcing removal. I always thought this was just a pleasant myth, until skeletal remains were unearthed during excavation for the Historical Society's parking garage. Those remains wouldn't have been my ancestors, as the statue is some distance from where the garage was built.

So while the family legend might still might be just a myth, at least now I know it's plausible.

Alice / January 15, 2004 4:26 PM

That's awesome. As someone who also has long roots in this city (I'm at least a fourth-generation Chicagoan), I love hearing other people's local family histories - whether entirely true or not. :)

Gail / May 23, 2004 5:04 PM

At least ten of my ancestors (Bonfields) were exhumed and moved to Calvary in Evanston. Their burials are recorded in the office there with the notation "Removed from Old Cemetery." Does anyone know where the original records of burials in Old Cemetery are now? Some of those removed are listed as "infant" and "unknown children of . . . "
Thanks.

 

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