Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cheesman Park, A Gruesome History

   In February of 2012, Julee, my cousin Denise and myself were flown to L.A. for an interview in the BIO studios regarding our experiences at Cheesman Park near downtown Denver, Colorado. We had all been to the park previously; Julee and I used to spend a lot of time there during the summer in the early 90's, picnicking, sunbathing, and playing sports.  At that time we had no idea what was lying just three feet beneath us as we happily sat eating fried chicken and watching people blissfully flying kites.  There were many areas of the park featuring small, hardly noticeable sunken areas which were perfect for lying out and cloudbusting.  While Julee had reported some genuinely odd experiences there playing hide-and-go-seek as a child, and we were both mysteriously rendered unconscious on another occasion there, we were for the most part unaware of the horrors which had taken place at what for us had always been a bright, comfortable place to visit.  By 2007, a year after I founded The SpiritChasers, the park had turned into a paranormal playground after the Family Channel program "The Scariest Places On Earth" aired an episode revealing the park's dark history.  We returned on Halloween night of that year to see for ourselves exactly what was going on after the sun set and the "veil" was at its thinnest.  We weren't disappointed, and the research I did concerning Cheesman became very helpful by the time we assembled ourselves in the Biography studios for our "My Ghost Story" taping.  The following is a result of that research.

   Beginning in 1858, land legally belonging to the Apache Indians was claimed by General William Larimer, who established the town he designated as Denver.  He set aside 320 acres for a cemetery he would christen Mount Prospect, later nicknamed "The Old Boneyard" or "Boot Hill" by locals referring to the increasing number of outlaws, vagrants and paupers being buried at the outermost edge of the cemetery.  Because of this, many affluent families began to have their loved ones interred elsewhere, as the site quickly began to fill up with the poor, the criminal and the diseased.

   When Larimer left Denver, an aspiring undertaker named John Walley claimed the plot for himself, which he let fall into a state of disrepair.  Headstones were toppled, graves were vandalized and sometimes cattle were allowed to graze upon the land.  In 1872, the property became federal land and was renamed City Cemetery.

   In 1881, a hospital for small pox sufferers was built at the south of the cemetery, which also housed patients with other contagious diseases, as well as the mentally ill, the elderly and the handicapped.  Most patients were simply left to die in the hospital, which was nicknamed "The Pest House".  Many of those who died here were also buried in mass graves behind the hospital.

   By the late 1800's, the cemetery was in even worse disrepair, now an official eyesore to the prospering city of Denver, and by 1890 U.S. Congress authorized the conversion of Mount Prospect into a park, with the immediate vacation of the dead interred there.

   Families were given 90 days to remove the remains of their departed, though by then most of those buried at the site went unclaimed, so in 1893 the City Of Denver awarded a contract to undertaker E.P. McGovern to remove the remaining graves.  For each "fresh" box he transferred to the Riverside Cemetery, he would be paid $1.90, which was at the time a very generous fee.  But greed overtook McGovern, as he soon found a way to make an even larger profit by hacking the bodies up and placing them in child-size caskets, which were just one foot by 3 & 1/2 feet long. This way, up to three caskets could be used for just one body, therefore tripling his pay.  In his haste, body parts and bones were strewn everywhere, while "souvenir" hunters began looting the open graves.

   When the Denver Republican learned of his deeds, their headline for their March 18th, 1893 issue proclaimed, "The Work Of Ghouls!"  The following is an excerpt from that article:

   "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."

   McGovern's contract was terminated, and the cemetery sat in disarray as grading and leveling preparation began for the park.  By 1902, the city began simply planting shrubbery in the open graves, and when the park was finally completed in 1907, no remaining bodies had been moved.  In 1909, Gladys Cheesman-Evans and her mother donated a marble pavilion in honor of the pioneer Walter Cheesman, and the area was renamed Cheesman Park.

   By then, however, nearby residents were already reporting several accounts of sad and confused spirits looking for their graves; knocking on doors and windows, moaning and whispering from the old gravesite.  Outlines of old headstones were still reported to be seen on moonlit nights.  And, in areas where unclaimed wooden caskets had collapsed and created depressions in the ground above, people lying there claimed to have been physically restrained.  What's more, no matter how many times such depressions were filled back up with earth, they still collapsed.  Children in old-fashioned Victorian apparel have been seen playing in the park at night, funeral hymns are heard, and the scent of funerary flowers are still detected there.

   All of these claims are still reported today.  The 1980 movie "The Changeling" was based on events said to have taken place at one of the homes in the Cheesman Park neighborhood, the site of the original Mount Prospect encompassing areas of land stretching way beyond the current park, past even the area now known as the Denver Botanical Gardens.  Two skeletons were unearthed there during a routine excavation in late 2010, which is a very common occurence, as the soil in this particular area ( Bentonite ) becomes like a slurry when wet, causing old coffins and bones to rise vertically until they break ground.   The events in Steven Spielberg's 1982 film "Poltergeist" were based upon those which occured at Cheesman Park.  The famous scene in which the caskets break through the floor of the Freeling family home actually occured at the Denver Botanical Gardens during a renovation.

   The Denver Forensics department has also been called upon countless times as visitors to the park have routinely found and reported body parts which have risen to the surface, believing them to have come from recent murders.  Brass parts from the old coffins and caskets have also been discovered and any who take these "souvenirs" have reported severe flaps of paranormal activity in their home.

   5,000 bodies, once said to be an exaggeration, is now believed to be a conservative estimate of the bodies still buried underneath Cheesman Park and the surrounding lands.  Not only are these bodies from Mount Prospect, but several include those from the original Arapaho Indian burial grounds.  One of the reasons the bodies from Mount Prospect have risen to the surface with such ease is because most of them were only buried three feet below ground, as three feet beyond those lied the Arapaho Indian remains.  Not only was a sacred indian burial site desecrated, but countless bodies from Mount Prospect never received proper interment, and so reports of paranormal phenomena there have never ceased and still continue to this day.

   In the next post, we will share personal accounts of our own visits to Cheesman, including a series of inexplicable photographs we took there, as well as some behind-the-scenes from our experience filming this story for the Biography Channel's "My Ghost Story".

   - Christopher Allen Brewer, May 2012

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