Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Walking Dead

By Brett McNeil

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  Once a year, in the chilly fall days before Halloween, the dead walk in Forest Home Cemetery. Or at least their historically dressed, amazingly chatty alter egos do.

With its annual live-action cemetery tour, the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest's "Tale of the Tombstones" walk is a must for necrophiles, history buffs or anyone who just likes to tramp around with the dead. And Forest Home, with it's rich history -- it's a former picnic grounds and Potawatomi Indian burial site that became a main burial destination after the 1871 Chicago Fire -- plays home to some of the most amazing monuments and famous locals.

Located in Forest Park, Illinois, a town famously more dead than alive, Forest Home is to the West Side and western suburbs what Graceland and Oak Woods are to the North and South Sides. The story of Forest Home, like the story of the western suburbs, began shortly after the great Fire. As the city smoldered, residents headed west and settled in places like River Forest and Maywood. As these people settled, and died, cemeteries sprang up near the Des Plaines River. And of those graveyards, Forest Home was the most prestigious of all.

Civil War Generals, victims of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, the 1915 Eastland Disaster, the Haymarket rioters and even Ernest Hemingway's parents have been interred somewhere in the cemetery's 220 acres. And each autumn a group of volunteer guides and actors head into the cemetery in an effort to re-create the lives and stories of the cemetery's notable personalities, resuscitating the likes of Chicago builder E.A. Cummings, American landscape painter Junius Sloan and Jewel grocery heiress Stella Skiff Jannotta. And giving voice to the brimstone oratory of evangelist and baseball player Billy Sunday and St. Valentine's Day Massacre victim Adam Heyer. Standing -- usually in the cold, sometimes in the rain and cold -- the actors and actresses portraying Forest Home's glitterati, dress in period costume and speak in the first person, welcoming visitors to their gravesites. And while it's not always scary, it can be.

"I am a black man, does that scare you?" asks the actor playing that part of William L. Patterson, one of the foremost legends of the American left and labor movement. A woman replies: "No."

As a young man, Patterson unsuccessfully defended Sacco and Venzetti, and as an older man called Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois friends. But Patterson, who made his name as an advocate for universal suffrage and equal pay for men and women, was more than a civil rights fighter.

"I am a communist and an atheist, does that scare you?" he asks.

The same woman replies: "Yes."


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