I know a place in Chicago where some of the most famous people in the world congregate.
No, I’m not talking about some celebrity restaurant where a bunch of over-hyped professional athletes and entertainers gather to eat and drink. I'm talking about a place where you can find some of the most accomplished human beings who've ever walked the streets of Chicago (or the world, for that matter).
A Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Olympic athletes, civil rights activists, judges, doctors, soldiers, and politicians. People of different sexes, races, and ages.
James Cleveland Owens, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, William “Big Bill” Thompson, and Enrico Fermi, just to name a few.
Do you recognize any of those names? How’s your knowledge of recent history? As you were reading their names, did you say to yourself, "I thought he [or she] was dead"?
Well, I didn’t say I know a place where you could actually see some of the most famous people in the world. I only said I know a place where they congregate - or maybe I should have said, where they have congregated. Anyway, the place I'm talking about is the oldest private cemetery in Illinois; the venerable Oak Woods Cemetery.
The Oak Woods Cemetery Association was incorporated 1853 by an act of the Illinois Legislature. This cemetery is not just a place for visiting departed loved ones and conducting genealogical research. It’s a place where a person can reminisce about world-changing events and still be inspired by its occupants. One need only read the epitaphs on some of the gravestones to appreciate the past existence of the individuals buried there.
Oops, I almost forgot. We’re talking about Chicago here. I suppose some of these individuals should be described as “notorious” rather than “famous,” and their “accomplishments” should only be an inspiration to criminals or the morally corrupt. Even so, let’s review a few condensed biographies of those who have congregated at Oak Woods and you can decide “Who’s Who.”
William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Mayor of Chicago (1868-1944)
“Big Bill” Thompson was the mayor of Chicago for three terms - from 1915 to 1923, and again from 1927 to 1931.
As mayor, Thompson built a powerful political machine based on patronage and favors - and he personally enriched himself in the process.
Under Thompson during the “Roaring Twenties,” Chicago was a “wide open” city dominated by Prohibition-era gangsters - first Johnny Torrio, and then Al Capone.
At the time of his death, Thompson was worth millions. His obelisk is one of the tallest monuments at Oak Woods.
Enrico Fermi, Physicist and “Father of the Atom Bomb” (1901-1954)
Born in Italy, Enrico Fermi demonstrated an early aptitude for physics and mathematics. By 1922 (at the ripe old age of 21), he had earned his doctorate in physics. By 1938, Fermi was considered the world’s greatest expert on neutrons and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
His experiments in the United States led to the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in December 1942. With a team of physicists on the Manhattan Project, Fermi was instrumental in solving the problems associated with developing the first atomic bomb.
In 1944, Fermi became an American citizen. After the war, he became a professor at the University of Chicago, a position he held until his untimely death from stomach cancer.
The modest headstone of this world-changing physicist is an interesting contrast to the extravagant obelisk of the aforementioned corrupt Chicago mayor.
Jesse Owens, Olympic Athlete (1913-1980)
James Cleveland Owens - Known as “J.C.” to his parents, but mistakenly called “Jesse” in school, the name stuck. Owens demonstrated his running and broad jumping talents in both high school and college.
At a college meet in 1935, Owens set three world records and tied another.
At the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, Owens humiliated Adolph Hitler’s “superior Aryan” athletes by winning four gold medals.
His gravestone reads: Jesse Owens - Olympic Champion 1936 - Athlete and humanitarian, a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sports. A winner who knew that winning was not everything. He showed extraordinary love for his family and friends. His achievements have shown us all the promise of America. His faith in America inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and their country. September 12, 1913 - March 31, 1980
These are only a few of the famous [or infamous] people who have congregated at Oak Hills Cemetery. I would be remiss if I failed to mention some others you could also visit there:
William Rainey Harper (1856-1906) - A child prodigy, noted academic and author, Harper was chosen by John D. Rockefeller to help organize the University of Chicago and was later named as its first president;
James R. Mann (1856–1922) - Unites States Congressman, best known for authorship of the “Mann Act,” which outlawed the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes;
Ludwig Hektoen (1863-1951) - A physician who was the first to grow blood cultures from living patients and suggest that transfusion reactions could be avoided when the donor and recipient blood groups matched;
Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) - A former Federal judge, Landis was elected as baseball's first commissioner. He helped restore public confidence in baseball following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919;
Julius Hess (1876–1955) - A pediatrician who authored the first American textbook on premature infant care, Hess was considered the father of the modern baby incubator with his invention of an electrically-heated, water-jacketed infant bed;
Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo (1877-1920) - An early 20th century mobster, brothel owner, and white slavery ring operator, Colosimo was shot dead, coincidentally right after leaving his much older wife and marrying a much younger woman;
Harold Washington (1922-1987) - After winning election to the positions of Illinois state representative and senator and then United States Congressman, Washington was elected as the first black Mayor of Chicago; and
Over 6,000 Confederate Soldiers who died while imprisoned at Camp Douglas (1862-1865), a prisoner of war camp in Chicago known as “80 Acres of Hell.”
Most died of disease and starvation and were eventually buried in a two acre plot at Oak Woods which came to be known as the “Confederate Mound.”
A “Confederate Monument” was later erected in 1893 and dedicated in 1895.
In 1911, plaques were added to the monument bearing the names, companies and regiments of 4,275 Confederate soldiers and sailors who were known to have died at Camp Douglas [based on its official records] and whose bodies were buried at the site. Twelve Union Soldiers (camp guards) are also interred here.
Such is the place in Chicago where some of the most famous, notorious, accomplished, and noteworthy (but often forgotten), have congregated. You are welcome to visit them there.
(Oak Woods Cemetery Association, 1035 East 67th Street, Chicago, IL 60637; Phone: 312- 288-3800)
Copyright 2007 R. M. Burton