The dead keep telling tales and the new book ‘Graceland Cemetery’ is alive with hundreds of them – Chicago Tribune

The dead do tell tales.

The trick is to listen and when you do, you will learn that the great architect Louis Sullivan’s “grave was initially unmarked (when he died in 1924, he was out of fashion and in dire financial circumstances).”

You will meet Thomas Barbour Bryan, the founder of Graceland Cemetery, a man who, among many accomplishments, spoke six languages, built railroads, founded Elgin, wrote comic poetry and was “probably the only person who knew both Abraham Lincoln and HH Holmes. ”

You will also come to know that “coyotes are common in urban cemeteries. Shy around people, Graceland’s resident coyotes are a vital part of the cemetery’s ecosystem.”

These tantalizing bits of information are delivered by Adam Selzer, a prolific and stylish writer, tireless tour guide, podcaster and passionate researcher. They arrived in his latest book, “Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets” (3 Fields Books, an imprint of the University of Illinois Press).

In it he writes, “Taken as a whole, these stories at Graceland present a unique lens through which to view American history. And there’s always more to find.”

Selzer was born and raised for a time in Des Moines, did some more growing up near Atlanta, came to Chicago after college and began working for a ghost tour operation while writing young adult fiction.

“I loved giving the ghost tours,” he told me. “But some of the stories I was telling people sounded fishy to me so I started doing further research to make things not only more accurate but entertaining. I never tried to trick people.”

He likens his affection for research to “those people who hunt or fish” and credits the internet with making his task easier, saying “the Daily News is now digitized.” Though he has never stopped giving tours of all sorts, he began to move away from the young adult shelves after a dozen or so books with his “The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History.” He also wrote a well received 2017 book about that most famous local killer, “HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,” which esteemed local author and historian Richard Lindberg called “an important contribution to our understanding of American criminal history. ”

He enthusiastically tackled Graceland on Clark Street, which is Chicago’s most famous cemetery.

“I had started giving tours there some years ago,” he said. “There are many, of course many, people there who have had books written about them but I was finding and seeking stories about some of the others. There are some 175,000 bodies there and that makes for a lot of stories.”

Or, as he writes in the book, “Most everyone here who lived long enough played games, told jokes, sang songs, pulled pranks, fell in love, fell out of love, got diarrhea, pursued hobbies, and landed in trouble. And though they can be hard to find, sometimes the stories survive.”

I have always been fond of cemeteries and burial places, even since trying as a kid to break into the mausoleum built for a man named Ira Couch in 1857 and still standing in a part of Lincoln Park that once was Chicago City Cemetery; visiting Ivanhoe Cemetery and the grave of a man named James Joice, a freed slave who came here after the Civil War; Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side, the final resting place of Enrico Fermi and Ida B. Wells, as well as a “Big Jim” and a “Big Bill” (mobster Giacomo Colosimo and Mayor William Hale Thompson, respectively) and Harold Washington , in a mausoleum with the inscription, “Remember me as one who tried to be fair”; and wandering Rosehill, spreading south and east from the intersection of Petersen and Western Avenues, the largest cemetery in the city, covering more than 350 acres, that contain such famous folks as Oscar Mayer and Aaron Montgomery Ward, as well as the striking Volunteer Firefighter’s Monument, erected in 1864, before the Chicago Fire.

Seltzer has given tours of other cemeteries and details in this book the early and ugly years for cemeteries here but how in time “some prominent people started building new monuments to themselves in Graceland, often long before they would be needed … (It) was once a park, an open air museum and an art gallery.”

Though the book can be used a guide for do-it-yourself walking tours, it is lively joy to read on your couch. It is a book about, as Selzer writes, “people who were famous in their day but haven’t had anything written about them since their epitaphs were carved. … It’s easy to forget, but good to remember, that the people here were once alive, and that there was more to their lives than business transactions and weddings.”

It has already received justifiable praise. Robert Loerzel, author of the fine “Walking Chicago,” calls it “a fresh way to look at the city’s history: a compelling group portrait of Chicagoans from all walks of life.”

One of the famous people in Selzer book is George Pullman, the rail car magnate. He died in 1897 and, because of the shabby ways he treated workers at his South Side company town and the violence he aimed at them during their 1894 strike, he died a hated man. Selzer explores some of the myths surrounding his family’s fears that his dead body might be stolen and held for ransom.

Seltzer lives in the city with his wife, the editor and author Ronni Davis, and Columbia College student son Aidan.

Book release events for “Graceland Cemetery” will be held Aug. 14, with more information at mysteriouschicago.com. In whatever passes for quiet time for this man, he thinks about tackling in book form some of the cemeteries in New York City.

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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