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Ghosts & Hauntings

Digging up weird history in Milwaukee’s oldest cemeteries

The “man they couldn’t hang,” a priest’s lonely crypt, the Midwest’s first crematorium, and other strange bits of history can be found in Milwaukee’s historic cemeteries.

Obligatory mausoleum vault window selfie. That’s a thing, right?

To celebrate the first day of fall, I embarked on an expedition to a couple of my favorite cemeteries for the annual Doors Open Milwaukee event. Thankfully, the equinox also brought with it the first hint of crisp autumn air, so I threw on my new Dead Sled hoodie and set off on a journey into Milwaukee’s Great Beyond.

The destination?

The two oldest cemeteries, where the city’s founders, early mayors, industrialists, and other prominent historical figures are interred. During Doors Open Milwaukee, both cemeteries allow visitors a glimpse into areas that are otherwise closed to the public. Among other things, that means an opportunity to peek into the Midwest’s first crematorium, as well as a large underground crypt where only one priest was entombed before it was closed.

My first stop was:

Forest Home Cemetery


The mausoleum of Milwaukee beer baron Valentin Blatz

Milwaukee’s early burials, one guide explained, took place either on private land in family graveyards or in fields among herds of cattle. When the first forested acres of land were bought for the city’s first actual cemetery in 1850, many of those remains were moved to what would become Forest Home Cemetery.

Before the cemetery, the land was dotted with more than 60 Paleo-Indian burial and effigy mounds which were all catalogued by pioneer scientist Increase A. Lapham. None of those mounds remain today, but Lapham is now one of the cemetery’s notable residents.

Others worth mentioning are the founders of Harley Davidson, Milwaukee Beer Barons Jacob Best, Frederick Pabst, and Valentin Blatz, as well as a cenotaph for Joseph Schlitz, who was lost at sea when the ship he was headed to Germany on sank in 1875 near Cornwall, England.

The Man They Couldn’t Hang

The grave of John
The grave of John “Babbacombe” Lee

The one grave in particular I was hoping to find this visit was that of a man named John Henry George Lee who was born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, England in 1864. He is also known as John “Babbacombe” Lee, or “The Man They Couldn’t Hang.”

Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of the brutal 1884 murder of an elderly woman named Emma Keyse at her home in England’s Babbacombe Bay. On February 23, 1885, Lee was brought to the gallows to be hanged at Exeter Prison. He stood on the scaffold with the noose securely around his neck, but the trapdoor through which he was supposed to drop failed to open. Lee was brought down and the executioner examined it. He couldn’t find anything wrong. The trapdoor was tested and seemed to work fine. So Lee was brought back up and the rope placed around his neck again. But again, the trapdoor failed. And again. After the third time the medical officer attending the execution refused to take part in the proceedings. The execution was halted, and Lee’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Lee was released in 1907, but what happened to him after that was something of a mystery. It seemed as though he died in a workhouse in Tavistock and was buried there. He has a death certificate and a grave there in Plymouth Road cemetery. However, in 2009 two researchers discovered a trail of documents revealing Lee boarded a ship in Southhampton in 1911 bound for New York. He abandoned his pregnant wife with their other child, arriving in the US with a woman named Adeline Gibbs. Adeline, it seems, was fleeing her recent marriage to a man named William Jones, and was listed as Lee’s wife Jessie Lee on the ship’s manifest.


Burial card and plot map showing the graves of John Lee and his family

The convicted killer and his mistress came to Milwaukee, where they lived out their secret, anonymous lives. They had a daughter together named Evelyn Lee, who died at the age of 18 or 19. Evelyn was working as a maid for Dr. Arthur Kovak. On October 12, 1933 Kovak came home to find Evelyn dead, asphyxiated by the fumes from the naphtha she was using to clean the drapes in the bathroom.

John Lee died in 1945, followed by Adeline, listed as his window, in 1947. The three are buried together, Evelyn between her mother and father. Lee, the man who couldn’t be hanged, who has two graves on two continents, rests in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.

The Midwest’s First Crematorium

The Forest Home chapel is made of red Lake Superior sandstone from the Apostle Islands. It opened in 1892. Several years later the first crematorium in the Midwest was built below the chapel, and the first cremation took place in on July 7, 1896.

The crematorium is notable for using oil instead of coal, gas or whatever other crematorys used at the time, meaning the bodies were incinerated faster.

Also, the retorts were larger than normal. The reason for this, one of the cemetery volunteers told me, was to accommodate Milwaukee’s barons.

After a funeral was held in the chapel, the casket would be lowered on coffin-sized elevator lift from the sanctuary down into the crematorium. Families would then push the deceased into the retort, and then spend the next several hours in a marble-covered room waiting for the process to be complete.

The remnants of their loved ones would be swept out of the retort and dumped into a grinder, or cremulator, that breaks up the large chunks of bone into tidy “ashes” so the cremains will fit in an urn.


The cremulator

The crematorium was in use until 1998 when a more modern facility was built elsewhere on the grounds.

Another interesting feature of the chapel’s basement level is the receiving vault, where bodies were stored during the winter months until the ground thawed and graves could be dug. The guide mentioned that when Frederick Pabst died in January 1, 1904, armed guards stood at the entrance to the vault for months protecting his body until he could be buried.

The guide also noted that before the chapel was built, there was a different receiving vault where a fountain now stands that could store up to 400 coffins.


The receiving vault where bodies were stored during winter months


The Forest Home Cemetery chapel was built in 1892


The coffin elevator was used to bring coffins down to the crematory from the chapel sanctuary above

The cenotaph of Milwaukee beer baron Joseph Schlitz
The cenotaph of Milwaukee beer baron Joseph Schlitz

A sign points the way to the crematory during Doors Open Milwaukee
A sign points the way to the crematory during Doors Open Milwaukee

Stolen bronze angel statue
The 6-foot bronze angel that usually stand here was stolen a few weeks ago

It is difficult to leave Forest Home Cemetery, but after wandering aimlessly for a considerable amount of time before I found Lee’s grave (even with the plot map in hand) there was only an hour left before Doors Open Milwaukee concluded for the day.

So I hurried to my second stop:

Calvary Cemetery

Calvary Cemetery chapel in Milwaukee
Calvary Cemetery chapel on Jesuit Hill

The oldest Catholic burial ground in Milwaukee, Calvary Cemetery is filled with the Catholic victims of the Newhall House fire that took 76 lives in 1883 (the non-Catholic victims were buried in Forest Home) and numerous victims of the Lady Elgin disaster that claimed some 300 lives when the steamer collided with a schooner and sank into Lake Michigan on September 8th, 1860.

Other notable interments include Patrick Cudahy of the Patrick Cudahy meat packing company and Frederick Miller, founder of the Miller Brewing Company.

Somewhere in Calvary is a memorial to the Lady Elgin victims, as well as at least one stone (that may or may not be the same as the memorial) which says “lost on the Lady Elgin.” I’ve spent numerous hours on multiple occasions searching the cemetery to no avail, so I didn’t even bother this time. I really just wanted to see the crypt beneath the chapel again.

Abandoned Crypt

Abandoned crypt beneath the Calvary Cemetery chapel
Abandoned crypt beneath the Calvary Cemetery chapel

The Calvary chapel was built in 1899 from Cream City brick atop one of Milwaukee’s highest points. Today it overlooks Miller Park. The hill is sits upon is called as Jesuit Hill, and is primarily the burial place of clergy and members of various religious orders. At the base of the hill is the grave of Father Walter Halloran, the Jesuit priest who assisted in the exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949.

That is one of two cases (the other also involved a Wisconsin priest who was known as the foremost exorcist in America during his life) that inspired William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

The grave of Exorcist priest Father Walter Halloran
The grave of Father Walter Halloran

The chapel was in use for a long time, but with no climate control, the harsh Wisconsin weather eventually took a toll. It was closed in the 1950s.

The mystery lies in the crypt beneath the chapel.

Calvary Cemetery crypt
Rev. Idziego Tarasiewicza is the crypt’s only interment

The underground mausoleum contains 45 niches on two levels. Two sets of spiral stairs on either side of chapel altar wind down into the crypt. To bring in the dead, each level had it’s own entrance. A tunnel through the hill lead into the lower level.

In 1903, Rev. Idziego Tarasiewicza died. He was the founder of St. Casimir’s Parish. A procession of more than 2,000 mourners walked from the church in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood to the Calvary crypt 6 miles away. Tarasiewicza was entombed in the vault directly beneath the altar. He was the first, as well as the last, interment in the crypt.

And no one knows why.

The marble marker of Rev. Idziego Tarasiewicza
Rev. Tarasiewicza lies behind this marble marker

Calvary Cemetery crypt door sealed off
The entrance to the upper level of the crypt

Calvary Cemetery crypt tunnel entrance
Tunnel entrance into the lower level of the crypt

The guide in the crypt said the reason is probably due to poor ventilation, which could become hazardous. He cited another nearby crypt that was closed for that reason. But whether or not that is the case will remain a mystery. At some point, both outside entrances into the crypt were closed. The tunnel may have been covered up, or it may have collapsed. No one knows.

The crypt is open to the public on Memorial Day and during the Doors Open Milwaukee event every September.

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Ghosts & Hauntings

Hope Diamond Curse

The ice blue fire of the stone once shone like a star on the forehead of an Indian temple statue until the day when it was ruthlessly torn out by a French adventurer. He would pay a high price for his actions and would later die painful death.  The stone would become known as the Hope Diamond but what it brought most of its owners was despair.

While the Hope Diamond is regarded as the most beautiful and precious diamond in the world – at the same time it is to be the most dangerous. Since its theft from India a deadly curse is to live on within it. European kings, the richest woman in America as well as other owners all suffered terrible bad luck: They went bankrupt, were murdered, committed suicide or died in an accident.

This is the beginning of the dark story of a famous as well as notorious gemstone, which we know as Hope Diamond.

The Hope Diamond is believed to have come from the Kallur mine in the Golconda Region, on the river Kistna, in southwest India. In 1642 it appeared for the first time in Europe in the possession of a French merchant named Jean-Baptist Tavernier, who is said to have stolen it from the headband of the statue of the goddess Sita consort of the god Rama.

In 1668 he sold the stone – now known as the Tavinier Blue – for a significant amount to King Louis XIV of France.  The diamond was originally 115 carats but was recut in the western style resulting in a 69 karat masterpiece called the “French Blue” which became part of the French crown jewels.

Jean-Baptist Tavernier was not able to enjoy his profit and, in the process of try to save his son from debtor’s jail, he himself lost much of his fortune.  In the hope of making up for his loss, Tavernier traveled to India. It was here that the curse struck again and after he died of a raging fever his body was torn to bits by a pack of wild dogs.

The Sun King (Louis XIV) himself died horribly of gangrene caused by an infected wound and all of his legitimate children died in childhood, except for one. (Anne-Élisabeth, Marie-Anne and Louis-François all died before the age of two.)

Nicholas Fouquet, who worked for King Louis XIV, wore the gem to a special occasion and wound up spending 15 years in a prison at the fortress of Pignerol.

The diamond, on the other hand, was passed from one king to the next, and each of these kings suffered a tragic fate.

King Louis XV is said not to have much liked the gemstone and wore it rarely.  Nevertheless the curse caught up with him and he contracted a virulent form of smallpox that turned every inch of his skin into a blackened scab of blood.  His death was said to be excruciatingly painful.

King Louis XVI lost a large part of his empire and later fell out of favour with the people of France. Both he and Marie Antoinette wore the jewel and died on the Guillotine during the French revolution.

Princess de Lamballe was a courtier of Marie Antoinette and would often handle the Hope Diamond and the Order of the Golden Fleece.  She was killed by a mob during the revolution in a most horrific fashion including being stripped, raped, beaten, tortured and eventually disemboweled.

The cursed diamond disappeared after the royal storehouse (the Garde-Meuble) was robbed in 1792.

There is a strong suggestion that it may have found its way to Queen Maria Louisa of Spain around 1800.  The curse followed quickly and she lost popularity with the people of Spain becoming one of the most hated people in the land.  In 1808 she and her husband were forced into exile shortly before Napoleon invaded Spain.

One version of the legend claims that Napoleon Bonaparte himself took the jewel from the Spanish around 1809 and from the moment he owned it all his military campaigns turned sour leading to the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 and his ultimate defeat in 1813 when Paris fell to his enemies.  Napoleon would ultimately die as a prisoner on the island of St. Helena under mysterious circumstances after a horrible sickness – some say arsenic poisoning.  It’s been suggested that the stone was stolen from Napoleon’s treasury around 1810 and sold for a pittance to a string of middlemen.

The Hope Diamond seems to have resurfaced in the possession of a Dutch jeweler known as Wilhelm Fals sometime around 1810.   He drastically recut the diamond – possibly to disguise its origin.  The larger piece would later become known as the Hope Diamond.  This was soon stolen from him by his son Hendrik Fals who also murdered his fathered for good measure.  The legend states that Hendrik sold the stone to a French diamond merchant called Francis Beaulieu for a fraction of its value and used the money to live a life of sin and debauchery.  He was eventually driven mad by his own alcoholism, STD’s and guilt.  Hendrik Fals killed himself in 1830.

The size and style of the gem made it difficult to sell in France where it might still be linked to the robbery of the Garde-Meuble.  Together with an unknown French diamond cutter, Francis Beaulieu split off a small section of the stone and used this to fund a trip to London.  He struggled to find someone he trusted to buy the gem and became ever more impoverished, paranoid and physically wasted.  Eventually, he settled on Daniel Eliason a well-respected Hatton Garden jeweler.  He showed Eliason the stone and offered it for 5,000 pounds (around £200,000 today).  Eliason wanted time to think it over but when he went back the next day he found Francis Beaulieu dead on his bed.  The stone was clutched in Beaulieu’s hand but the young man was dead of starvation.  This was almost exactly 20 years after the robbery of the French Blue – just when the statute of limitations on the theft were expiring.

Some sources claim that Eliason sold the stone to King George III in 1814 where it became known as the ‘London Blue’.  If this is true it was bad luck for King George III.  His compulsive and unexplained madness returned and he was dead by 1820.  Some say the stone passed to King George IV who kept it for ten years until 1830.  During this time he became an alcoholic, possibly addicted to a heroin type drug called laudanum, so obese his cloths no longer fitted, partially blind from cataracts, mentally unstable and plagued by gout.

The stone eventually passed into the ownership of the rich banker Henry Philip Hope for £18,000.  Some believe it was sold off by George VI’s mistress, Lady Conyngham.  One version goes that George had left all his jewels to her in his will but for some reason she refused to take them.  Perhaps she had heard of the   curse and no longer wanted it anywhere near her. (She also needed money to pay off some of the King’s debts) Some versions of the story claim that Eliason himself went mad later but there is no hard evidence for this. The stone was later revalued at £30,000.  From this point on the stone would be known as the Hope Diamond.  Not surprisingly, while Henry Hope owned the diamond he suffered a long series of misfortunes, including the death of his only son.

In 1887 his grandson, Lord Francis Hope, inherited the cursed diamond. He spent almost all of his fortune on his extravagant and reckless lifestyle and had to sell the diamond in 1901 to Adolf Weil of Hatton Garden to pay off gambling debts. He also lost his foot in a hunting accident and his wife cheated on him.  He later died as a poor man.

While he owned the diamond he became infatuated with an American actress May Yohé who he later married.  May didn’t like the diamond and claimed it exuded an evil spell on people.  She blamed the diamond for corrupting her and driving her to have the affair that ended in her divorce from Lord Francis.   She is said to have died poverty stricken after the failure of an early film about the Hope Diamond Mystery (1921) and its now well-known curse.  There have been some suggestions that Yohé might have tried to kill her second husband – Captain John Smuts.

It passed on to Jaques Colot, a broker who struggled to sell it on.  The worry of his investment took the pleasure out of his life and even after he did sell it he declined into madness when he found out he would not receive full payment for the gem.  He finally committed suicide.

Replica of the original Tavinier Blue Diamond
The Hope Diamond set in the French Golden Fleece.
French Blue Diamond converted to Hope Diamond
The Cursed Hope Diamond in the Smithsonian Museum

In 1902 Jaques Colot sold the Hope Diamond to Ivan Kanitowsky, a Russian prince.  In 1908 Kanitowsky then gave it (loaned it) to the celebrated actress Mademoiselle Lorens Ladue of the Folies Bergère in Paris. The first time she wore the stone on stage she was shot by a man in the audience some people claim was an ex-lover.  Some versions of the story claim that it was Kanitowsky himself that pulled the trigger.  Some weeks later the prince himself was stabbed to death as he walked along a Parisian street.  The work some believe of Russian revolutionary agitators.

During late 1908, a well-known Greek jewel broker by the name of Simon Maoncharides acquired the stone.  History, as always, is uncertain but it appears that he sold it to Habib Bey – a Persian diamond merchant.  On the night that the deal was concluded, Maoncharides accidentally drove his carriage over a precipice, killing himself, his wife and child.

Habib Bey quickly sold the stone to Salomon Habib who was acting on behalf of Abdul Hamid II, the Sultan of Turkey. Within months Habib Bey drowned during the sinking of a French steamer in 1909.

Abdul (The Damned) paid $400,000 and gave it Salma Zubayaba (Zubaidah) his favourite concubine with orders that it be protected by Kulub Bey, his favourite eunuch and guardian of the Sultan’s treasures.   Mere months afterwards, while Kulub Bey was distracted Jehver Agha, a low official in the treasury, stabbed and killed Zubayda and tried to steal the jewel.  He was caught by Kulub Bey and hanged after being tortured.  Abu Sabir, the man who had polished the stone for Sultan was unfairly accused of working with Jehver Agha and was tortured and executed. Shortly after this incident Abdul Hamid II was overthrown during the Young Turks Rebellion of 27 April 1909.  He was later captured and imprisoned at Beylerbeyi Palace in the Bosphorus.  Legend has it that Kulub Bey was captured by a mob after the uprising and slowly strangled to death.

The Hope Diamond vanishes from history for a while until it appears in the hands of Pierre Cartier of the famous Cartier Jewelers family.  On 28 January 1911 he sold it to Edward B. McLean on behalf of his wife Evalyn who became owner of the diamond and mocked the curse joking that things that brought other people bad luck brought her good luck. Perhaps Edward wasn’t convinced though as the original contract with Cartier did include a clause stating: Should any fatality occur to the family of Edward B. McLean within six months, the said Hope Diamond is agreed to be exchanged for jewelry of equal value”.

Well, Evalyn may have joked about the Hope Diamond but it didn’t care.  Shortly after she acquired it her mother-in-law died.  Her eldest son, Vinson, often referred to as the Billion Dollar Baby, ran in front of a car and was killed. He was only nine.  Edward McLean went off with another woman and even claimed to have married her although he hadn’t.   Evalyn continued to spend money recklessly as did Edward who eventually wound up in a mental asylum where he died from brain atrophy brought on by alcoholism.  Aged only 25, Evalyn’s only daughter died from a drug overdose.  Debts eventually forced her to sell the Washington Post.  Aged just 60, she died of pneumonia soon after her daughter and was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C. Evalyn’s grandson Lt. Ronald Walsh McLean was killed during the Vietnam War while leading a five man recon in Quảng Trị Province.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II
Evalyn Walsh McLean

Harry Winston, a New York diamond merchant, bought the gem in 1949.  He exhibited it around the world but in 1958 he was persuaded to donate it to the Smithsonian Museum, where it has resided to this day.

The curse wasn’t quite finished yet.  James Todd, the mailman who took the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian later crushed his leg in a truck accident, injured his head in an automobile accident and then lost his home in a fire.

There is only one person who has been spared the “curse” of the diamond – the American jeweler Harry Winston. After buying the diamond, he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution who still possess the diamond to this day.

Is this all just coincidence or is the Hope Diamond actually cursed?   Some researchers dispute many of the facts in the story such as the fact that Marie Antoinette may never have actually worn the jewel and that Tavinier may have lived a long and prosperous life.  Still there is no denying that people associated with the stone – even if they weren’t the owners – have had uncommonly bad luck.

The Cursed Hope Diamond of India
Footnote: This is the legend of the Hope Diamond and its curse.  Please note that many researchers and authors disagree with this version of events and claim that the entire story of misfortune was probably made up by Pierre Cartier and later May Yohe.  Cartier wanted to sell the gem and need a fantastical back-story while Yohe was trying to promote the film about the diamond that she co-wrote. For a very detailed and less sensationalist version of what really happened please read the book – ‘Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem’ by Richard Kurin.

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Ghosts & Hauntings

Abraham Lincoln Ghost Photograph

Abraham Lincoln White House Ghost Photograph

During 1950, major renovation work was carried out at the White House in the Capital of the USA – Washington DC. Abbie Rowe, the official photographer of the presidential residence, wished to immortalize this period.

One of the photographs has attracted a very special interest and even been featured in a range of international newspapers. It was originally published in 1992 and is said to have received the Pulitzer Prize. However, it was only in 2008 that a strange translucent silhouette was noticed in the background.

It is possible that Abbie Rowe inserted the image while developing the negative.  However, there is no evidence whatsoever that this happened.  The general agreement is that the images shown are the originals and can be seen in their initial form on the Abie Rowe website.

Original Abe Rowe Image of the White House Renovations

PHOTO ENHANCEMENT

With the exception of the original image, all the others have been enhanced by processing the brightness, contrast and shadows of the images to create slightly clearer images of the figure referred to as Lincoln’s ghost. Specifically, the image was brightened and then adjusted by increasing the contrast. The ‘curves’ tool was used to focus the density of the image and create clarity of depth. Shadows were darkened and the entire image was sharpened using both the unsharp mask tool and the smart sharp tool. Essentially the images are the same just clearer to see.

Specialists of paranormal phenomena believe that this is the irrefutable proof of a ghost. It is difficult to investigate the actual negatives as they have mysteriously vanished.  According to some researchers, they have been classified and will not be released for a further 50 years.  If this is so then the reasons for this decisions remain very unclear.

However, it is important to note that the photographer did not use a long exposure time: the shot was taken in broad daylight on a site that was also illuminated by work lamps. The mysterious form appears fixed and immobile, so investigators believe it cannot be a residual image.

Ghost hunter Joshua P Warren is said to have stated that it was the “most amazing ghost picture” he’d ever seen.  He went on to explain that there is a legend that the White House is allegedly haunted by the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865 at Ford’s Theatre.

The image of the figure is looking towards Ford’s Theatre which is precisely 1000 metres to the East of where the photo was taken.  Is it then just a coincidence that the ghostly figure is located directly under the section of the White House where Lincoln had his bedroom?

In the images above you can clearly see that the image is a man with a beard and a distinctly erect posture.  He apppears shorter than he is because the image has been taken from a high angle.  In actual fact, the figure is tall and slender.

Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Roosevelt often used the Lincoln Bedroom as her study.  She claimed that she would feel his presence when she worked there late into night.

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, who visited the White House on several occasions during World War II, told a tale of emerging naked from his evening bath only to find a ghostly Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room.

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Ghosts & Hauntings

Ghostly Apparition Appears From Nowhere Only To Vanish Into Thin Air (Video)

In this footage we can see this figure just materialise on the left of the screen and just casually walking but we can see it slowly dissolving into the night.
This footage was caught by security officer Francisco Javier from the surveillance camera at his work in a warehouse in Metepec, Mexico.

Source: The Hidden Underbelly 2.0

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