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 was 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. Afterward, 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 ethnic 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 these 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 smallpox was established just south of the Jewish Cemetery. The hospital, more often referred to as a “pest house,” was where smallpox 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 1880s, 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 a 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 of 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.
When the Denver Republican got hold of the story, its 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.”