Monday, February 23, 2009

Forest Home Cemetery-Milwaukee, WI

Under the unblinking gaze of Victorian Romanesque goddesses, angels and shrouded mourners pondering the death of those whose graves they watch over, visitors to the now 200 acre Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee Wisconsin, wind their way through the undulating landscape past reflecting gardens, ornate family crypts, imposing rain-streaked bronze statues and enormous monuments testifying to the rise of a large industrial city. The social elite are buried alongside laborers, radical politicians, beer barons, female anarchists, gangsters, and victims of epidemic and fire, equalized by their common fates in their final resting place.

Established in 1850, a church committee situated the cemetery of the original 72 acres on a known former Indian village and sacred effigy and burial mound site. The first burial, a gentleman of the name Orville Cadwell, occurred on August 5 in the same year of the cemetery’s founding. Cadwell found company shortly thereafter, as a cholera outbreak traced to a riverman from New Orleans via Chicago claimed lives in the newly-chartered city.

Post Civil War saw a boom in industry and with it, a boom in population. The dangers of industrial city life lurked here as in any other city of the time. In 1883 Newhall House Hotel went up in flames as Milwaukee firefighters battled a smaller fire elsewhere in the city. Calls went out for reinforcements from Chicago and Racine with little to no response. Documents of the time report a range of 73-90 deaths from the tragedy. All accounts agree that more than half of those who perished and brought to several area morgues were beyond identification. A mass grave for 64 victims commemorates the unknown with a memorial erected at the one-year anniversary of the fire.

In 1886 another notable tragedy occurred, as 14,000 laborers organized in Bay View to demonstrate discontent with labor conditions. The governor of the time issued a shoot-to-kill order, resulting in a 7 person massacre, including a young 13-year-old boy. The mayor of this time, Emil Wallber, is one of the cemetery’s distinguished guests.

Beer and wheat barons built themselves ornate Flemish-style mansions, theaters, office buildings, hotels, and high-society ballrooms in the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s throughout the downtown Milwaukee area. Political figures emerged from the populace and made themselves known nationally as leaders of the socialist movement. The evocative monuments and family crypts these individuals and families chose for themselves in death reflect their indelible mark on the city’s cultural and political landscape in life. Oppressive, deliberate, imposing, they are testimony of self-importance and a symbol of the competition among the elite.

Construction of the Gothic style Landmark Chapel, using Lake Superior Sandstone, a dark red sandstone found near the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, started in 1890 and took two years to complete. The cemetery’s area grew to 200 acres by the turn of the century to accommodate the growing demand for bigger and better plots.

Modern improvements within Forest Home Cemetery include two large mausoleums. The Halls of History is an indoor temperature controlled mausoleum and community center. Along with the columbarium and crypts it houses, the center contains a number of permanent and changing exhibits that educate visitors about the history of Milwaukee and over 100 of its people. Adjacent to this is a large terraced outdoor mausoleum called Chapel Gardens. It contains above ground burials in porticos set by ornate colonnades, statues, and rose gardens. The Chapel and cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Forest Home Cemetery is home to over 110,000 burials, including 28 Milwaukee mayors, seven Wisconsin governors, and many noted industrialists.

Byron Kilbourn, Surveyor, railroad executive and co-founder of the City of Milwaukee
George Walker, early settler and co-founder of the City of Milwaukee
Frank Zeidler, three term socialist mayor of Milwaukee
Emil Wallber, Mayor during the Bay View Tragedy
Victor Berger, newspaper editor and founding member of the Socialist Party of America
George Peck, newspaper publisher, mayor of Milwaukee and governor of Wisconsin
Hans Crocker, editor of Milwaukee's first newspaper and politician
Sherman Booth, newspaper editor and abolitionist

Jacob Best, founder of what became the Pabst Brewing Company
Frederick Pabst, brewing magnate of Pabst Brewing Company fame
Joseph Schlitz, brewing magnate of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company
August Krug, founder of what became the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company
Valentin Blatz, founder of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company

William Davidson, co-founder of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company
Lynde Bradley, co-founder of the Allen-Bradley corporation
Christopher Sholes, inventor of the first typewriter with QWERTY key layout

Increase Lapham, author, scientist, and early American naturalist, documented the cemetery site as a burial ground before all traces of the past were destroyed.

Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne, famous award winning husband and wife Broadway acting team

Alexander Mitchell, wealthy banking magnate and Mitchell family patriarch
Billy Mitchell, U.S. Army General who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force
Lysander Cutler, politician and Union Army general during the American Civil War
Ole Petersen, founder of Methodism in Norway

Although identified by many resources as one of the most haunted cemeteries in Wisconsin, accounts of paranormal events are elusive.

The hill adjacent to the tranquil, shadowy reflecting pond on the north side of the cemetery downhill from the main offices and mausoleums, has been said to cause strange reactions in some people who walk on it, making them feel sick and fearful.

One visitor reported visions of splintered coffins and shredded corpses, followed by the onset of headaches and bloodshot eyes.

One could suppose that undocumented bitter rivalries many yet extend into the afterlife, especially among the beer barons. One such rivalry might have existed between Valentin Blatz and Johann Braun, both interred in the cemetery. Blatz opened a brewery next to Braun’s in 1850, incorporated Braun’s facilities into his own after Braun’s death in 1852, and finished the deal by marrying Braun’s widowed bride.
A modern brewing club, the Beer Barons, provides an opportunity in October to come out to the grounds to seek the paranormal. The club provides Ghost Tours for interested parties.


  1. What a GREAT blog. I found it through one of my followers- sounds like a cult doesn't it. :-}

    I happen to live in the gate house of a cemetery that was developed in the late 1800's. My town is also where Charles Addams grew up. I have to tell you, when I paused for a minute, the cursor moved across the screen by itself! VERY cool! The hairs on my arm are standing up.

  2. For a time, I lived on 27th, across the street from the Forest Home Cemetery. I was new to city living, and having a hard time adjusting to the fast pace and stress. To unwind, I would take long walks through the cemetery, reading the names on the gravestones, and I could feel the stress drain out of me. To me, the cemetery was an oasis of tranquility, except for that one area on the north side of the cemetery. To this day, I can't explain it; there was nothing unusual about it, but I did not like that spot! It inexplicably made me feel nervous, depressed and SO ANGRY all at the same time. Years later, I read of others who had the same odd reaction, and I assume this is the same spot to which the article above refers, in the 4th from the last paragraph.

    I never heard any stories about why that spot might be haunted. Maybe that odd reaction has more to do with a combination of geological factors (limestone?), electrical currents, or... who knows?

  3. I,too, am a new follower of your blog - and after reading this am wondering if you may have some of the facts in your post confused with Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Many of your details match up with the history of this cemetery which is down the street from where I live.

  4. The research for this particular cemetery comes from the website for the cemetery itself. Curious that they match so well.