#876: Memorial

January 15th, 2018

To get through this stretch of Belle Plaine, drivers must brave twin brick ornaments, one on each side of the street like the entrance to what would be a subdivision a few miles to the west, as safe as a toddler’s rubber spoon and usually named for whatever natural feature they tore down to make the subdivision.

Here, within city limits, it’s a little curl of road off Narragansett that’s going to jut for a bit, then circle around and take the drivers right back out. A loop in a city where the streets make grids.

The houses too start to look suburban down the curl of road. There are a few ’80s-evoking apartment developments, and a bit to the north the deliberately modern campus of the Wilbur Wright city college, but down Belle Plaine, past those twin brick pillars, the linchpin of suburbia — houses modified juuuuuust enough to claim they’re not cookie-cut.

Same layout, same footprint, same garage to the right and entrance sidewalk trailing through what in summer would be a grassy yard, but this one is a slightly darker brick. This one has diamond windows on the garage door instead of the twin sunbursts all the others have. It’s not homogeneity — look at where this one put the tree!

The street turns and there it is, a little park. A metal gate marks entry. A concrete circle marks space. Tracks of boot, paw and yellow splotches in the snow mark the park’s major wintertime purpose.

I have no qualms with that. Parks should be part of life, and few things feel less true than a memorial no one visits. This is Read-Dunning Memorial Park, a testament soaked in the neighbors’ love and their dogs’ urine, marking a site where, for decades, the corrupt destroyed the insane.

The park sits atop a mass grave that was at one point attached to the Cook County Insane Asylum, known for decades as simply Dunning. It opened as a poor house in 1854, offering meager services to the indigent. Then as now, the homeless population included a certain percentage with mental illness, so the poor house added an “Insane Department” and, in 1870, the asylum later called Dunning.

Dunning was, to put it simply, a horror show. To put it complicated, it was horror show and hospital, its population a dumping ground for the masses society didn’t want and its staff a dumping ground for patronage hires who wanted a do-nothing county job in return for some favor they had pulled for the local political boss.

The site’s humanity waxed and waned over the decades along with society’s treatment of the insane. The 1870s and 1880s seemed to be the worst years, with nightly drunken parties by the political hires, 1,000 patients crammed in rooms for 500, filth, vermin, disease and abuse. In 1889, two attendants were cleared of the murder of an inmate they had kicked in the stomach and given a gash to the head. Their lawyer claimed the beating was to help the man, acting as “a sort of stimulus or tonic,” according to newspaper reports of the time. Inmates who stirred up trouble were dosed with what the bars at the time called a Mickey Finn.

The mass grave where the park now sits was discovered in 1989, when a construction company’s backhoe slashed a Civil War veteran in half.

“His skin was in relatively good condition … I mean, you could see his face. But there was considerable deterioration on the face. You could see the mustache. You could see his hair. He had red hair, but it was patchy. The other distinguishing features of the face were no longer there. And he had a jacket on … it was obviously a military jacket. We only saw it briefly. We didn’t spend a lot of time with it — mostly because the odor was unbelievable, to say the least,” an archaeologist brought in to study the find later told WBEZ.

That quote is from a marvelous piece on Dunning WBEZ’s Curious City did a few years back. And there’s a fascinating site a local volunteer developed to give names to the nameless, including a searchable database of as many of the cemetery’s residents as he could find records for.

The site has 7,800 names. Historians think there are 38,000 bodies buried in the snow-covered memorial park and surrounding areas.

From the park, you can see the back areas of some of the apartment complexes to the north. You can see the parking area of some sort of industrial area and the shipping and receiving dock of another. A train rumbles in the not-so-distant distance.

By one of the winter-scragged saplings, a neighbor had tied a small wicker deer, a nod to the life this park will grant the neighborhood that looks like a subdivision in a few months, when a fresh green cover will make this unholy place again divine.

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You are currently reading #876: Memorial by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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