Near the end of my hour-long walk around Graceland Cemetery the other day, I passed a stone obelisk, maybe 30 feet tall, and noticed this on the side:
SANDRA E. RITTER
NOV. 22, 1952
NOV. 27, 1952
SUSAN E. RITTER
NOV. 22, 1952
The November date is what caught my eye first because I was born on November 22, three years earlier. Then, upon closer inspection, I realized that these dates told a sad story.
I can’t be sure, but my best guess is that Sandra and Susan were twins, born November 22. Susan died that day and Sandra lived only five days. Later, the grieving parents had these two babies commemorated on the side of the obelisk of the family tomb.
It’s possible that, if I searched enough and in enough places, I could find out if my guess is correct, but, really, it would be a stretch to expect to find much, if any, information.
This is an example of the unanswerable ambiguity of much of what I find when, as I often do, I walk through Graceland Cemetery or Rosehill Cemetery or some other cemetery wherever I am. What was Sandra and Susan Ritter’s full story? I would never know. All I know are a few words and numbers carved in stone.
I was at Graceland that day with a copy of a new book by Adam Selzer, Graceland Cemetery: Stories, Symbols and Secrets of Chicago from the University of Illinois Press. This is a book that has been well reviewed by my Third Coast Review colleague, Dan Kelly.
Richly documented, it offers the reader 10 walking tour routes through the cemetery, providing the stories behind some of the burial sites that are found along the way. Selzer goes out of its way to find interesting, if sometimes obscure, people to showcase on these roads. He winks at the most famous of monuments but is much more interested in those of lesser-known men and women. After all, the vast majority of the approximately 175,000 people buried at Graceland were not high-profile figures.
A guide and serendipity
I commend Selzer for putting the book together and bringing it with me to Graceland. But, immediately, I recognized that his approach to the cemetery is very different from mine.
The visitor to Graceland who takes Selzer’s book away is treated to factual accounts of who so and so was, such as the three paragraphs about “Captain George Wellington Streeter: The Pirate King of Chicago,” a colorful squatter who gave his name in Streeterville, east of Michigan Avenue.
It’s a guidebook, packed with stories so carefully documented. And an interesting way to learn more than a little about Chicago history. Selzer spends much more time discussing the lives of these people than the appearance of their graves.
Standing in Graceland with Selzer’s book, I decided I wasn’t some type of guide.
For example, I have been to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris three times, and unlike the vast majority of American visitors, I have never attempted to find Jim Morrison’s grave. Instead, I just start in one direction, looking for weird and interesting graves – the place is full of them – and let serendipity bring me whatever it will. That’s what I do in every graveyard, and that’s what I did the other day at Graceland.
Selzer’s 10 hiking routes are basically along the roads of Graceland. My approach, however, is to park my car near something that catches my eye, then cross the grass and leave the roads behind.
The other day I parked near a large marker because the oxidized bronze green globe on it reminded me of a clap ball. Punch balls were a key feature of the IBM Selectric typewriter in its heyday, from 1961 to 1984. (For those of you under 40, let me tell you, it was, for the era, the coolest thing.)
The marker is for the grave of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, and it is listed by Selzer in his book. It was clear that the letters on the globe weren’t the scrambled alphabet of the Selectric ball but were forming words of some sort.
Selzer doesn’t mention the words in his book, but with a lot of wiggling I figured out it was Psalm 23 in six verses, beginning “The Lord is my shepherd…”. Why this psalm? Who can say?
From there I started across the lawns and for some reason noticed a lot of infant graves: “Our darling Lily” and “Our darling Carol Moizo/July 13, 1948” and “George C. Gilbert / Died November 15, 1876 / At the age of 21 months.
There was a heartbreaking, almost life-size sculpture of a weeping woman, made all the more touching by the way time had worn the stone to a rounded softness.
It’s richly evocative of the pain that’s soaked into the ground of Graceland or any cemetery, and it was particularly striking to me after noticing so many baby graves.
In his book, Selzer calls it the Frailey-Watson Monument, and he explains that on July 13, 1879, Mary Frailey Watson lost her sister Nellie, around 20, to tuberculosis and her son, Willie, apparently a baby. , due to cholera infantum. . Several years later, Mary hired sculptor Nellie Verne Walker to create this monument.
A stupid looking sphinx
My wanderings at Graceland that day, however, weren’t just sad.
At one point, I found myself in front of the visually striking black stone pyramid of brewer Peter Schoenhofen. I checked Selzer’s book, and it has four paragraphs about the strange mix of religious symbols that were worked into the mausoleum.
I was struck, as I always am, by the bland, puny, stupid sphinx to the right of the entrance to the monument. Unlike the impressive life-size angel on the left, this sphinx resembles a fairly harmless dog with a tasteless human head. What was Schoenhofen thinking?
I also wondered what the Stone family thought of the tombstone of Henry Baldwin Stone (died 1897) and Elizabeth Mandell Stone (1907). It’s a big stone.
Indeed, during my walk, I spotted several large stones (or small rocks) serving as tombstones, the most famous of which is that of Daniel Burnham on a small island with other family tombstones.
I have seen Burnham Rock many times, and it has always struck me as ironic that such a rough, natural block of stone commemorates the man who preached ‘Make no small plans’ and who oversaw the ‘World’s Fair of 1893. the pinnacle of modernity at the time – and who, with Edward Bennett, enacted Chicago Map in 1909, a plan to give human order to the chaotic natural landscape.
Walking through the lawns of Graceland, at one point I spotted something I had never seen before in my many trips to the cemetery – a tombstone with the name “MANUEL” and, sitting atop the marker , a little to the left, the statue of a boy playing the flute.
Selzer writes that it is a monument to Christopher D. Manuel, an anesthesiologist at Rush Medical Center who died in 2005 in his early 40s. His mother Linda, who died in 2007, is also buried there.
This was one of the many times during my walk where Selzer’s book was able to answer questions my wanderings had raised, so maybe I has been, at least a bit, a guide guy.
It was on my mind when I returned to my car by Shaw’s grave and noticed the large and imposing Hoyt family monument.
Talk about a sad story. It’s one I’ve known for a long time.
I came across the monument during one of my first visits to Graceland. It is topped with a woman pointing skyward, but what caught my eye were five small tombstones, all lined up at the back.
Four of them had the same date of death: Emilie Lydia Hoyt Fox, 36; George Sidney Fox, 15; William Hoyt Fox, 12; and Emilie Lydia Fox, 9 years old. That day was December 30, 1903, the day of the Fire at the Iroquois Theaterwhich killed some 600 people including the four members of the Fox family.
And one more: Frederick Morton Fox, Emilie’s husband and father of three children, who died 63 days later. A Chicago Grandstand report of his death, quoted by Selzer, notes that the loss of his entire family left Frederick Fox “broken in his health”.
Cemeteries remind us of the life people once led, and it is this aspect that Selzer emphasizes in his richly detailed book.
But more than that, cemeteries are synonymous with grief and loss and remind us of what we, each of us, have before us. Yeah, sad stuff.
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