The history of state institutions in Illinois and across the nation is often grisly. Did you
know that today there are cemeteries on the grounds of some of the older state
institutions in Illinois? Even in death, the residents of these state institutions were
segregated. In Minnesota, the People First Organization mounted a campaign to identify
the resident’s who had been buried in state institution cemeteries because those
residents tombstones were only identified by a number, not their name!
This story is not about the actions of 100 to 150 years ago; this has been a practice in
state institutions well into the twentieth century for individuals with intellectual and
other developmental disabilities.
Today’s story from the Chicago Tribune. The institution in this story was Chicago
THOUSANDS NO LONGER FORGOTTEN
History buff’s research provides IDs from mass grave for
By Dana Ferguson | Tribune reporter
Beneath the ground in a Northwest Side neighborhood lie the remains of a wide
assortment of souls, many of whom went to the grave without a ceremony or a
certificate to document their passing.
But history buff Barry Fleig said he has created a portal back from anonymity for 8,000
of those who were interred at the grounds of a former county hospital and insane
asylum, poorhouse and potter’s field.
Fleig, who said he has spent 25 years compiling cemetery records, made a searchable
database available to the public this month. “These are the people who fell through the
cracks,” said Fleig, 70, of Phoenix. “These poor people were forgotten, but they don’t
have to be forgotten anymore.”
In all, the property is believed to contain the remains of as many as 38,000 people.
The area once housed the Cook County Almshouse, the county insane asylum,
tuberculosis hospital and a potter’s field that eventually became Cook County Cemetery.
Located in the Dunning neighborhood, the property and hospitals housed therein
became known simply as “Dunning,” Fleig said.
While a portion of the property houses Read Dunning Memorial Park, which
commemorates those buried there from the 1850s to the 1920s, housing and shopping
centers have since been developed on the site.
Fleig worked as a machine tool engineer and ambulance driver while living in Chicago.
He also served as cemetery chairman of the Chicago Genealogical Society before
retiring to Phoenix.
It was in that capacity that Fleig, in 1989, became interested in the project.
On separate occasions, construction workers found the mass grave in the Dunning
neighborhood while working on sewer installation and single-family homes, the Tribune
reported at the time. Fleig started fielding questions, so he went through county records
and found a map of the old Cook County Cemetery.
Fleig set to work identifying those interred in the unmarked mass burial plot. He
transcribed thousands of pages of old Cook County death certificates, coroner’s reports,
County Board of Commissioners reports, charity reports and what remained of two
So far, he has gathered information for about 8,000 of those buried at Dunning,
though about 1,600 remain nameless, Fleig said. While hoping to add 2,000 to 3,000
more profiles, he decided to share his project with others. “I thought, ‘I can’t leave all
this good research in a banker’s box forever,’ ” Fleig said. “I had to get it out there.”
For researchers like Jeanne Bloom, a Chicago-based certified genealogist, the
access is exciting news. “We are so thrilled he made it publicly available,” she said.
We were afraid it might disappear.”
Bloom said many people have come to her seeking information about family
members whose death certificates say they were buried at Cook County Cemetery.
“People will often ask me, ‘Where’s the grave?’ And I have to explain to them the
history of the institution and why the people were buried there,” Bloom said. “It’s
tremendously disheartening for them that there isn’t a place to be able to go visit.”
Bloom said some find fault with burying thousands in a place where they were not
memorialized. “It’s difficult for someone with a 2014 mindset and values to
understand that thought process of the people 100 to 150 years ago.”
Richard Lindberg, Chicago author and historian, said that from the time of the
Great Chicago Fire in 1871 to the county hospital’s sale to the state in 1912,
thousands were buried on the grounds. Among them were more than 100 people
who died in the fire, crime victims who could not be identified, people too poor to be
interred in a formal cemetery and those who died at the hospitals.
“These were considered by that generation to be disposable people, so they
would not be buried in a nice cemetery,” Lindberg said. “For the down-and-outers
of society, they would drag ’em out to Dunning.”
Among those who have already followed their family tree to Dunning is Terry
Murray, of Toronto. In researching her ancestry, Murray discovered that her great-
great-grandfather Adolph Redick was a Union infantryman in the Civil War who
suffered a head injury when a Confederate soldier hit him with his rifle.
When he returned home to Chicago after the war, his wife found him to be
“irascible” and had him committed to the county insane asylum, Murray said. She
said documents indicate Redick died at the asylum of a hemorrhage and was
buried in the cemetery.
Though she researched her great-great-grandfather without access to Fleig’s
database, Murray said she is sure others will find it useful. “Finding out just the
dates was eye-opening, butbeing able to put the whole story together really
humanizes the past.”
Lindberg said there also are some unsavory characters lying in Dunning.
Criminals sentenced to death in the late 1880s and early 1890s would not be
accepted by other cemeteries, so they went to the potter’s field.
The database can be accessed at cookcountycemetery.com .
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Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
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