While taking a stroll upon the rolling hills or having a picnic under the shade of one of the many trees in the beautiful 80 acre Cheesman Park, many visitors don’t realize that they very well may be walking or sitting right upon the grave of one of the many who were buried here in the 19th century. Surrounded by Capitol Hill mansions in the heart of downtown Denver, Colorado Cheesman Park is not only frequented by visitors wanting to explore its botanical gardens or enjoy its 150-mile panoramic view from the pavilion, but is also said to be home to a number of restless spirits.
The park’s history began in 1858 when General William Larimer jumped the claim of the St. Charles Town Company and established his own town, which he called Denver.
In actuality, the property didn’t belong to the Town Company either; rather the land legally belonged to the Arapaho Indians.
In November, 1858, Larimer set aside 320 acres for a cemetery, which is now the site of present-day Cheesman and Congress Parks. Larimer called it Mount Prospect Cemetery and several large plots were designated on the crest of the hill for the exclusive use of the city’s wealthy and most influential citizens.
The outermost edge of the cemetery was reserved for criminals and paupers, while the middle class were to be interred somewhere in between.
The first man buried in the cemetery was named Abraham Kay, who died after being suddenly stricken with a lung infection. He was buried on March 20, 1859. However, the most often story told of the first person buried was a man hanged for murder. Making for a far more interesting tale, it has become the more preferred version.
The second man buried at the cemetery was a Hungarian immigrant named John Stoefel. Having arrived in Denver to allegedly settle a dispute with his brother-in-law, he ended up shooting the man on April 7, 1859. Both men were gold prospectors, and witnesses believed that Stoefel was really there because he wanted his brother-in-law’s gold dust. Because the nearest official court was in Leavenworth, Kansas, a “people’s court” was assembled, where Stoefel was convicted of murder.
On April 9, 1859 he was hanged from a cottonwood tree at the intersection of 10th and Cherry Creek Streets. Though Denver consisted of only 150 buildings at the time, about 1,000 spectators attended the Stoefel hanging. Afterwards his body, along with his brother’s were dumped into the same grave at the edge of the cemetery.
As the outermost edge of the cemetery began to fill with outlaws, vagrants, and paupers, Denver citizens began to call the cemetery the “Old Boneyard” and “Boot Hill.” Mt. Prospect gained yet another nickname when a popular professional gambler named Jack O’Neill was gunned down outside of a saloon in March, 1860.
The whole event began when O’Neil, a handsome Irish man, quarreled with a less than credible man who went by the name of “Rooker.” As the argument progressed, O’Neill suggested the two settle the argument with bowie knives in a back room. However, when Rooker refused, O’Neill questioned his heritage as well as that of several of his family members. A couple of days later, Rooker shot O’Neil down as he passed by the door of the Western Saloon. When the Rocky Mountain News printed the story, the cemetery also became known as “Jack O’Neil’s Ranch.”
After receiving these many nicknames, the cemetery never gained the respect that Larimer intended for it to have. The influential citizens of Denver’s society were most often buried elsewhere, leaving the graveyard to burials of the poor, criminal, and diseased.
When Larimer eventually left Denver, Mt. Prospect was claimed by a cabinet-maker named John Walley, who also just happened to be an aspiring undertaker. A report in 1866 stated that 626 persons were buried in the cemetery. Walley did an extremely bad job of keeping up the cemetery which soon fell into a terrible state of disrepair as headstones were toppled, graves were vandalized and sometimes, even cattle were allowed to graze upon the land. Some legends even tell of homesteaders who began to live upon the land.
In 1872, the U.S. Government determined that the property upon which the cemetery sat was federal land, having been deeded to the government in an 1860 by a treaty with the Arapaho Indians. The government then offered the land to the City of Denver who purchased it for $200. A year later, the cemetery’s name was changed to the Denver City Cemetery.
Over time, separate areas of the cemetery were designated for various religious, organizational, and ethic groups, such as the Odd Fellows, Society of Masons, Roman Catholics, Jewish, the Grand Army of the Republic, and a far away segregated section for the Chinese, near the pauper’s graves. While some of this sections were well kept up by family descendants or their organizations, others were terribly neglected.
In 1875, twenty acres at the north part of the cemetery were sold to the Hebrew Burial Society, who then maintained it, while much of the rest of the graveyard grew tall with weeds.
In 1881, a “hospital” for those suffering from small pox was established just south of the Jewish Cemetery. The hospital, more often referred to as a “pest house,” was where small pox victims were quarantined, along with others having contagious diseases, and some that were merely sick, elderly, or handicapped. Most “patients” were simply left at the pest house to die. Behind the building was the Potter’s field section of the graveyard, where the vast majority of the dead were buried in mass graves.
By the late 1880’s, the cemetery was seldom used and had fallen into even worse disrepair, becoming a terrible eyesore in what had become one of the most prestigious parts of the burgeoning city. Real estate developers soon began to lobby for a park rather than an unused cemetery. Before long, Colorado Senator Teller persuaded the U.S. Congress to allow the old graveyard to be converted to a park. On January 25, 1890, Congress authorized the city to vacate Mt. Prospect and in recognition, Teller immediately renamed the area Congress Park.
Families were then given 90 days to remove the remains of their departed to other locations. Those who could afford to began to transfer the bodies to other cemeteries throughout the city. Due to the large number of graves in the Roman Catholic section, Mayor Bates sold the 40 acre area to the archdiocese, which was named the Mount Cavalry Cemetery.
The Chinese section of the graveyard was placed in the hands of a large population of Chinese who lived in the “Hop Alley” section of Denver. The majority of these bodies were then removed and shipped to their homeland of China.
However, most those buried in the cemetery were vagrants, criminals, and paupers. When the majority of bodies remained unclaimed, the City of Denver awarded a contract to undertaker E.P. McGovern to remove the remains in 1893.
McGovern was to provide a “fresh” box for each body and transfer it to the Riverside Cemetery at a cost of $1.90 each. The gruesome work began on March 14, 1893, before an audience of curiosity-seekers and reporters. For the first few days, the transfer was orderly. However, the unscrupulous McGovern soon found a way to make an even larger profit on the contract. Rather than utilizing full-size coffins for adults, he used child-sized caskets that were just one foot by 3 ½ feet long. Hacking the bodies up, McGovern sometimes used as many as three caskets for just one body. In their haste, body parts and bones were literally strewn everywhere and in the disorganized mess, “souvenir” hunters began to loot the open graves and coffins.
As entertainment was scarce in these days, people flocked to the cemetery by the hundreds to witness the exhumation of the bodies on Capitol Hill. It would not be long before rumors began to spread about McGovern‟s unsavory business practices. When word reached area newspapers, outrage ensued. An issue of The Denver Republican reported in horrifying detail the scene of scattered bones and parts laying haphazardly on cemetery grounds. Reports of McGovern‟s workers stealing jewelry from many of the bodies sickened citizens and government officials alike. McGovern and his men were promptly dismissed from their jobs and the city issued a statement to family members that if they did not remove their loved ones who still remained in the cemetery within ninety days, the bodies would be doomed to remain there while the park was built over them.
When the Denver Republican headline proclaimed on March 19, 1893: “The Work of Ghouls!” The article described, in detail, McGovern’s practice of hacking up what were sometimes intact remains of the dead and stuffing them into undersized boxes. The article, in part, described the scene thusly:
“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.“
The Health Commissioner immediately began an investigation into the matter and as a result, Mayor Rogers terminated the contract. Afterwards, the city built a temporary wooden fence around the cemetery, leaving it in shambles with open holes still displayed. Though numerous graves had not yet been reached and others sat exposed, a new contract for moving the bodies was never awarded.
For several years after the McGovern scandal, the cemetery lay dormant. The city of Denver ran out of funds for the transformation of the cemetery into a park and fences were built around the area to keep people from falling through half dug holes. The erection of a fence did not, however, deter children from playing within cemetery grounds. As this picture shows, neighborhood children often climbed on toppling tombstones and played hide-and- seek within the confines of the now defunct cemetery.
In 1894, grading and leveling began in preparation for the park, though several of the open graves wouldn’t be filled in until 1902, when shrubs were planted in many of them. The park was finally completed in 1907, without ever having moved the rest of the bodies. Two years later, in 1909, Gladys Cheesman-Evans, and her mother, Mrs. Walter S. Cheesman, donated a marble pavilion in memory of Denver pioneer, Walter Cheesman. The donation was conditional that part of the park’s be designated as Cheesman Park and so it was. The pavilion continues to stand today.
The section once used as the Chinese cemetery was used as the city tree and shrub nursery until 1930 when a WPA project converted it to an addition for Congress Park.
In 1950, the Catholic Church moved the remains of those interred in the Mount Cavalry Cemetery and sold the land back to the city, which is now the location of Denver’s Botanical Gardens.
The vast majority of present day Cheesman Park was mostly the Protestant portion of the old cemetery. A residential community separates Cheesman from Congress Park.
Today, an estimated 2,000 bodies remain buried in Cheesman Park.
But is Cheesman Park Haunted? There is no way to say for certain whether or not Cheesman Park is haunted. There have been reports of people feeling “cold spots” or hearing noises such as crying or moans. There has even been a picture taken at Cheesman that shows a possible apparition. However, these things can all be explained.
It comes as no surprise that the spirits of these forgotten, looted, and sometimes desecrated bodies continue to make their presence known, not only at Cheesman Park, but in neighborhood that surrounds it.
Almost immediately, when the bodies began to be removed from the cemetery in 1893, strange things began to happen. One of the first reports was when a grave digger named Jim Astor felt a ghost land upon his shoulders. Astor, who had been looting the graves as he moved the bodies, immediately ran from the graveyard and failed to return to work the next day.
Those living in residences surrounding the graveyard began to report sad and confused looking spirits knocking at their doors and windows, as well as the sounds of moans coming from the still yet open graves.
Today, these restless spirits are still said to occupy the park as dozens of tales continue to be told of paranormal activities taking place. Most visitors tell of feelings of unexplained sadness or dread in a place, that is today, meant for pleasure and relaxation. But other reports are more specific, often including the sounds of hundreds of whispering voices and moans that continue to come from the fields where the open graves once laid.
Children have been seen playing in the park during the night before they mysteriously disappear and a woman is said to be seen singing to herself, before she too, suddenly vanishes.
On some moonlit nights, the outlines of the old graves can still allegedly be seen. Others have also claimed that after lying on the grass, they have found it difficult to get up, as if unseen forces are restraining them.
Yet more reports tell of strange shadows and misty figures that seem to wander through through the park in confusion.
Meet Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter! According to Bryan Bonner, founder of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society and his partner, Matthew Baxter, there are no tools that are capable of detecting ghosts – only tools to document the presence of paranormal activity versus normal conditions. Items such as digital cameras, digital recorders, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors and hand-held video devices are all typical tools of the trade for many ghost hunters. However, these tools are not without their faults.
One popular instrument used by ghost hunters is the EMF detector. Some theories suggest that a ghost will either disrupt a magnetic field or emit their own form of magnetic energy causing the detector to go off. However, Bryan Bonner explains that this type of device is only capable of detecting “man made energy.” If it is pointed towards a living being, it will not go off so it does not make sense that it would go off when pointed towards an entity. Bryan and Baxter further explain that in cases where there are high electromagnetic fields, there can be certain side effects on the human body that may produce hallucinations (both visual and auditory), feelings of paranoia and a general sense of uneasiness. These side effects are often misinterpreted as paranormal activity.
Digital cameras are also popular with most ghost hunters. Many people claim that they have pictures of paranormal activity taken by their digital cameras. Most of these pictures include orbs, streaks of light known as ectoplasm or even full body apparitions. But are these pictures proof of paranormal activity?
Bryan Bonner explains that much of the phenomena caught by digital cameras can be logically explained. For instance, orb activity in an indoor environment is most likely attributed to dust while orb activity in an outdoor environment can be caused by moisture droplets such as mist, rain or snow particles. Sometimes cigarette smoke or condensation from ones breath is caught by digital cameras giving the illusion of a ghostly presence.
Cheesman Park is unmistakable haunted according to the locals. Screeches and screams in the night can be contributed to the parks former tenets as these lost souls wonder ever more searching for their lost graves.It is the perfect prelude for paranormal activity.
Many believe the park is haunted but we leave it up to you with the Halloween dare or opportunity to see and experience the Haunted for yourself.
Cheesman Park is located at Franklin and 8th Streets and is open from dawn until 11:00 p.m.