Cheesman Park, located in central Denver, is a beautiful urban park with an elegant marble memorial, ornate gardens, and large grassy fields. Despite the beauty that is now Cheesman Park, this land has a rather sinister history. While sitting in the fields, you could unknowingly be above the grave of one of 2,000 bodies that remain buried underneath the park.
Legend has it that there is an overwhelming and unexplained sadness surrounding the area because restless spirits roam the grounds. A new town was envisioned for Denver by General William Larimer who wanted to create a respectful and luxurious resting place for some of the city’s most influential and wealthy residents. In 1858, Larimer set aside 320 acres to construct the Mount Prospect Cemetery. The hill was reserved for these respected people while the outskirts were meant for criminals and the poor who quickly became the majority of the cemetery’s population.
The second man to be buried in the cemetery is often said to be the first, as his scandalous death makes for a much more interesting story. The Hungarian immigrant, John Stoefel, reportedly came to Denver to resolve a dispute with his brother-in-law, which resulted in him killing the man and being convicted of murder. On April 9, 1859, he was publicly executed. Both he and his brother-in-law’s bodies were carelessly thrown into the same grave at the edge of the cemetery.
Mt. Prospect gained many nicknames over the next few years as the graveyard’s edges began to fill with bandits and the impoverished. The cemetery started to decline and never quite became the respectful place Larimer intended it to be. As Larimer left Denver, the cemetery was claimed by John Walley, who neglected the cemetery for years. With toppling headstones and vandalized graves, the cemetery continued into a state of deterioration before the land was declared federal property and was purchased by the City of Denver. Over the next two decades, the cemetery was sectioned into various religious and ethnic groups, some of which maintained the cemetery very nicely. Meanwhile, the graves of criminals and unclaimed bodies rotted under the overgrown, deserted grounds. A pest house was established just south of the cemetery where terminally ill patients were left to die. The majority of these diseased people were buried in mass graves in the bordering section of the graveyard.
On Jan. 25, 1890, in light of the ugliness that Mt. Prospect had become, the area was officially renamed, Congress Park. Soon thereafter, plans for the transformation of the cemetery into a park were developed. Families had 90 days to reclaim their loved ones, yet a large number of the bodies at the cemetery were unidentified criminals and vagrants with no one to claim them. In 1893, E.P. McGovern was contracted to dig up the remains of the unclaimed bodies and respectfully transfer them into new coffins, which were then shipped to another cemetery. Children’s coffins were, however, much cheaper, so McGovern, eager to turn a profit, began hacking up the remains of these bodies and packing them into small boxes. Sometimes multiple boxes would be used for one body. Body parts were scattered everywhere and the curious bystanders began to loot the open graves at night.
Once the health commissioner realized the atrocities being committed, the transfer of these bodies was stopped. Consequently, many graves were left open before the construction of the park began about a year later. The rest of the bodies were never removed despite the construction of the park; they were filled in and overgrown instead. Many believe the brutal dismemberment, as well as the forgotten graves underneath the park, have caused the spirits of the deceased to wander in what is now called Cheesman Park, as well as in the surrounding neighborhoods.
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