Denver’s Hometown Haunt
You’ve probably strolled through this park. You may have walked your dog there. You may have even brought your kids there to play. And scattered beneath the verdant lawns law thousands of corpses, some of them over two centuries old. In the 1870s, Denver residents called it City Cemetery. Before that, people called it the Old Boneyard. Even further back, it was simply known as the Burial Grounds Atop Mount Prospect. Today, it’s known as Cheesman Park.
People who’ve lived near Cheesman Park, by and large, never experience anything out of the ordinary. Yet, since the 1800s, Denverites have reported seeing apparitions wearing outdated clothing, spotting orbs in photographs, and feeling cold spots in the area on otherwise warm, sunny days.
Perhaps the most well-known of these reports comes from author Russell Hunter. Hunter claimed that, in 1968, he lived at the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion, which used to sit on the corner of 13th Street across from the park. His rent was incredibly low, because, as he told Rocky Mountain News in 1986, “no one else wanted to live there.”
According to legend, Hunter heard odd noises and recalled furniture moving by invisible hands. Lights randomly appeared where there should be none. One day, while investigating the home, he discovered a secret entrance to the mansion’s attic. There, he found journals, photos, and other belongings of the family who used to live there, a family with a crippled child they shunned out of embarrassment. This boy, apparently, was rather fond of a red rubber toy ball. Hunter said that he, and nearly three dozen other people, witnessed the mysterious red ball bouncing down the house’s staircase on numerous occasions.
The bouncing red ball would eventually become a mythic image, first seen in the 1980 horror film The Changeling, which Hunter wrote. The bouncing red ball has since been copied, parodied, and reimagined several times by other filmmakers around the world.
Hunter’s haunt experience, however, didn’t end with the ball.
A History of the Haunt
Cheesman Park’s history is equal parts myth and historical fact. Supposedly, the first man buried here was lynched from the park’s “Hangman’s Tree” after he was found guilty of murdering his brother. Both brothers were dumped into the same grave. These two became the first of many ruffians, thieves, and vagabonds laid to rest at Mount Prospect. Decades later, the cemetery grew overcrowded with the corpses of disgraced men. The community eventually lost interest in caring for paupers’ final resting places.
By 1890, the cemetery had all but fallen apart. No one maintained the grounds. Old holes remained uncovered from grave robberies. Tombstones crumbled, leaving unmarked rocks over anonymous plots. Denver’s residents called for a cleanup.
Per the city’s request, the federal government gave Denver permission to transform the cemetery into a park. That meant the bodies needed to be moved. In 1893, the city contracted local undertaker E.P. McGovern to transfer the bodies to a new cemetery.
The city offered him $1.90 per casket he transferred, which was a rather generous payout at that time. He devised a scheme to move the bodies in coffins made for children, which cost much less than adult coffins. In addition to smaller caskets, he also took “liberties” with the limbs. By chopping up the bodies, he could divide a single skeleton among three—sometimes four—tiny coffins. In the end, McGovern’s greed got the best of him.
Of course, when the task involves thousands upon thousands of bodies, that work becomes impossible for one man. McGovern fell behind schedule. Grave robbers and vandals left the remnants of his efforts strewn about Mount Prospect. A newspaper of the time, the Denver Republican, pegged the cemetery’s desecration as “The Work of Ghouls!,” and McGovern’s contract was terminated before he could finish the job.
With little time left to complete the park’s construction, the city went ahead as planned. The tombstones were cleared, even though bodies remained at what would soon become Cheesman Park. The city planted shrubs and trees to cover the old grave sites, and Denver soon forgot about the ruined cemetery.
The dead, on the other hand, did not forget. Conservative estimates say there are still at least two thousand bodies strewn underneath Cheesman Park.
Sifting through Facts and Fiction
For most of us, ghost stories like Cheesman’s are simple entertainments. We tell them to trigger chills in our audience, to instill a feeling of ominous creep because, let’s face it, it’s fun.
Tom Noel, a Colorado historian, gives guided tours of the former City Cemetery from the Denver Botanic Gardens. For him, these ghost stories entice Coloradans to learn more about their home. “It gets students interested in history,” he says. “It teaches people to look into the past, to figure out what was there earlier.”
That Noel starts these tours from the gardens is fitting, too. Legend has it that construction workers uncovered coffins while renovating the gardens a few decades ago. Hollywood dramatized this macabre discovery as the “coffin bursting” scene in 1982’s Poltergeist, where corpses from an old Indian burial ground reemerged to terrorize the living.
Of course, in the real world, no such coffin launches actually took place. There’s also no evidence that City Cemetery used to be a ritual site for Native Americans before the settlers took over, despite what some crafty storytellers may tell you. In fact, Noel believes no one reports ghostly activity anymore because most residents aren’t aware that Cheesman used to be a cemetery.
And there we see the real power of a frightening tale: the dividing line between otherworldly and profane dissolves, like a disembodied whisper shadowing a mother’s voice. What’s true and what isn’t doesn’t matter in the end, only our primal desire for something—anything—to persist after the night takes our eyes. Distinguishing fact from fiction, ultimately, is a vain enterprise with any ghost story. Even one as massive as Cheesman’s.