Irish Ghosts of America: The Irish Body in Cheesman Park

The Henry Treat Rogers Mansion, formerly in Cheesman Park and the inspiration for the movie “The Changeling.”

“Denver’s Chessman Park was once the city cemetery,” wrote Stephanie Waters in “Colorado Legends and Lore: The Phantom Fiddler, Snow Snakes and Other Tales,” and already in her first sentence there is a substantial error. The park is called Cheesman, not Chessman, and I would credit her error to being a typo but for the fact that she repeats it. Knowing this, let us proceed with her tale:

She tells of the cemetery being renovated in the 1890s, and bodies moved by an unscrupulous undertaker, who “pocketed removal fees and plundered many of the burial sites.” He would have gotten away with his diabolic plans as well, were it not for a grave that contained the still-intact remains of an unnamed Irish woman. The smell of rose blossoms came from the grave, and her hair was festooned with flowers. The workers panicked, the church investigated, and the undertaker was found out, whereupon he “was promptly arrested.”

Now, in fairness, the book is called “Colorado Legends,” not “True Stories from Colorado History,” so one cannot go into this expecting it to be true. And much of it isn’t. There is no record of a Irish girl’s corpse whose unpolluted state brought the authorities. There was no reported smell of rose, nor flowers in a body’s hair. No undertaker was arrested.

This could be another of those stories about Cheesman Park. It’s full of them: A worker named Jim Astor who claimed to have been tapped by a ghost and fled; there is no record of this ever having happened. Stories of disturbed dead, their graves despoiled, still haunting the location of their burial. There used to be a mansion in the Park, the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion, and a playwright and composer named  Russell Hunter was so affected by his stay there that he wrote a horror movie inspired by it called “The Changeling,” about a buried child whose grief turns to madness.

This could be one of those stories, but it isn’t. Not entirely. Because the scandal Stephanie Waters described was unproved but real. The undertaker in question was a man named Edward P. McGovern, and he was given a contract in 1893 to move the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 bodies buried in the old city cemetery.

On March 20, 1893, the Denver Rocky Mountain News ran a story titled “GHOULISH WORK,” responding to charges printed in an unnamed competitor’s paper (the Denver Republican) that McGovern had been bilking the city in an especially ugly fashion:

Bodies are taken, it is claimed, from their resting places in the city cemetery, distributed each among three boxes, carted off to Riverside and charged as three bodies. It was maintained that a contract to move full-sized bodies in boxes forty-two inches in length was a job on the face of it, and then, with most disgusting detail, descriptions were circumstantially added of particular instances where bodies were cut down and broken up to make them fit.

The Rocky Mountain news queried McGovern, who shrugged it off. “I didn’t think anybody needed to say anything,” he said. “The whole story is a maliciously garbled and utterly false fabrication.” He explained that there were on occasion small boxes, but they were built to replace the coffins of children whose original coffins had rotted away.

He also pointed out that there were always dozens of spectators watching the disinterment of the coffins, and so it would be impossible for him to remove a grave, hack up the body, and move it to another cemetery without being noticed. Newspapers declared the charges to be slander intended to discredit the current political administration, which was responsible for hiring McGovern, and he went on to have a long career as an undertaker.

The Denver Republican, which had originated the story, had been lurid in its coverage — here is an oft-cited paragraph:

The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody by the appearance they presented.  Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies… All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk.

But it was lurid to a fault — no other newspaper could confirm these stories, and they seem like the sort of thing that should be easy to confirm.

So if we have no ghost in this story and an undertaker was likely guilty of nothing but political slander, what is left? Well, a few things. First, it is worth noting that the old city cemetery did have a lot of Irish in it, including its former gravedigger, John McGlinn. The cemetery had a Catholic section, called Calvary, and if you go through the list of the dead who were buried there, you quickly become overwhelmed with Irish names: Doyles, Finnegans, Sweenys.

Secondly, there is one Irishman in this story who has gone unacknowledged, and that was was undertaker Edward McGovern himself, who had come to Denver as a carpenter for the railroads and was a charter member of Denver’s Ancient Order of Hibernians. But more than that, even if McGovern was not crooked, he wasn’t entirely competent either.

In 2010, CNN did a report about the park, as workers digging a new irrigation system had unearthed four bodies. Apparently, this was a recurring issue: “Every few years workers stumble across skeletal remains,” the story reported.

So maybe there are uneasy dead in Cheesman Park, left behind by an incompetent Irish undertaker when they were supposed to be moved, tied to their forgotten bodies, waiting for the moment when they are accidentally discovered.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.