Denver, Colorado A spring afternoon in the park seems like it would be the perfect thing to help one relax and enjoy the day. The quiet air, rolling hills, and lush greenery all paint a picture of serenity and happiness. But shadows move beneath the trees and across the lawn. The warm air turns frigid as certain points are passed, and the calls of children playing seem to have no source. It becomes evident that this park, Cheesman Park, is somehow diseased.
Progress waits for no man, whether alive or dead. If that man is in the way, he stands the risk of being knocked down or buried altogether. Strangely reminiscent of the 1982 movie Poltergeist, the victims in this case didn’t have to worry about being buried. They were already dead.
In 1858 a man by the name of William Larimar set aside 320 acres of land for use as a cemetery in Denver. He named it Mount Prospect Cemetery and reserved several large plots on the hillcrest for the city’s wealthy and influential. Paupers and criminals were to be buried at the outermost edges of the land while those in the middle class would find space in-between.
The first bodies interred at Mount Prospect were victims of violent crimes. Burial practices were not regulated as they are today, and many graves held botched jobs. One of the first buried there was a Hungarian immigrant named John Stoefel, who came to Denver to settle a dispute with his brother. Stoefel ended up settling the argument by murdering his brother, after which he was dragged from prison by an angry mob and hung from a tree. When his body was cut down, he and his brother whom he murdered were dumped into the same shoddy grave and covered. As the lower and seedier part of the grounds began to fill with murderers and vagrants, the name "Mount Prospect" gave way to nicknames like "Old Boneyard" and "Boot Hill," not to be confused with the famous cemetery of the same name. It was renamed in 1873 to "Denver City Cemetery."
Ownership of the cemetery passed from Larimar to a cabinet-maker named John Walley, who was also an aspiring undertaker. He did not, however, seem to have a good head for business, and Denver City Cemetery fell into a state of disrepair. Most of those buried there were criminals, victims of smallpox, and transients; and general interest in upkeep on the place dwindled. Headstones were toppled, graves were often vandalized, and occasionally cows were allowed to graze among the graves. The City decided enough was enough.
Through some unknown means, someone in the U.S. Government dug up a document that reported the land was part of an Indian treaty and therefore was federal land. The Government then sold the cemetery to the City of Denver, all 320 acres of it, for two hundred dollars. The following summer the City Council announced that all concerned parties had ninety days to move their loved ones for burial elsewhere.
Because most of those buried in the cemetery were homeless or criminals, the majority of the bodies went unclaimed. In 1893 the City of Denver awarded a contract to an unscrupulous undertaker named E. F. McGovern to move the unclaimed bodies. McGovern was to place each exhumed body into a fresh box for delivery to a new burial ground, at which time he was to be paid $1.90 per box. The problem was, the new boxes were only three feet long and one foot wide, making many of the corpses far too large to fit. McGovern had a solution, however. Those that would not fit were hacked to pieces and shoveled into the boxes.
Almost immediately thereafter strange things began to happen. Those living in residences around the cemetery began reporting dead people knocking on their doors, looking very sad and confused. Workers began feeling presences behind them. One of the diggers named Jim Astor, who was guilty of looting the graves as he went along, swore he felt a ghost land on his shoulders. He dropped the bag of brass nameplates he’d stolen from the graves and quit his job.
The scandalous behavior of looting and grave desecration reached the ears of the Mayor by way of the Denver newspapers. With the help of the City Health Department, he had the project shut down immediately, leaving hundreds of open holes and empty graves sitting, waiting for the moving process to be finished. Still more graves had not yet been reached. Eventually the bodies were forgotten, leaving more than two thousand corpses buried.
In 1907 work was completed to turn the former cemetery into Cheesman Park, but without moving the rest of the bodies. The City simply built over the existing graves. Two years later the marble pavilion, which still stands today, was completed.
With more than 2,000 graves resting under it, it’s no wonder Cheesman Park is haunted. Among the phenomena reported are hundreds of whispering voices, children who play during the night before disappearing, and general feelings of unexplainable dread. There is even at least one report of a woman who sings to herself before vanishing. Homes built on the land around the park sit on top of the graves of murderers and their victims. Many have reported seeing faces in mirrors and hearing strange noises with a few reporting full hauntings.
One house of particular interest is troubled by the soul of a boy who was stricken with some type of disease. A resident, a musician by trade, rented the house and discovered the boy’s diary in the attic. It told of how his family, knowing he wouldn’t live long, locked him in the attic and adopted a "replacement boy." The resident was then treated to repeated occurrences of a red ball being tossed down the stairs. The resident’s story was later sold to Hollywood and became the motion picture The Changeling.
Locals also swear that if you stand on the steps of the pavilion during a full eclipse of a blue moon at midnight, you will not see Cheesman Park but will see a grave-filled cemetery.
Cheesman Park is open to the public, and the stone pavilion still stands. There is, however, a curfew. The park is beautiful with its lush green rolling hills and small groves of trees; however, even those who do not know of its macabre history report feeling uneasy in certain places in the park.
Most of the hauntings and phenomena happen, it seems, during the winter although some sightings have been reported throughout the year. Cheesman Park is also on several "Haunted Denver" tours. In compliance with the curfew, most of these run only during the daytime.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson