Where’s the most haunted place to spend Halloween in Denver? Well, it just might be Cheesman Park. Yes, the lovely tree-lined Cheesman Park with the Pavilion, flower gardens and beautiful views of the mountains. That’s because Cheesman Park has something else besides lawns and trees and bike paths. It has several thousand bodies buried under it.
Cheesman Park was Denver’s first cemetery, laid out by town founder William Larimer in 1858. As befitting the gold rush boom town that Denver was back then, the first occupants were gambler Jack O’Neal…and the man who murdered him, Joh Stoefel.
Ah, but it gets much worse. When more than 100,000 people descended on Denver during the gold rush in the city’s first two years, the graveyard, now known as “Jack O’Neal’s Ranch,” began to fill up with deaths by typhoid, shootings, hangings and other associated gold rush diseases.
By 1890, the city had grown and it was decided to move the graveyard from downtown and make it park, named after early Denver pioneer Walter Cheesman. There was just one problem. What to do with the 5,000+ bodies buried there? Citizens were given several years to remove the remains of loved ones, but most of the people buried here were vagrants, criminals and paupers and no one claimed them. So in 1893, the City of Denver awarded a contract to undertaker E.P. McGovern to remove the other bodies, at a cost of $1.90 each. And then the real trouble started.
McGovern was not only a crook … he was a ghoul.
He figured out that if he hacked the bodies up into child-size pieces, and reburied them in child-size coffins, he could make three times the money for every legitimate body he found. In his haste, and not wanting to be discovered, he left body parts and bones strewn everywhere. They were still finding human bones in the 1960s when work was done on the park.
The Denver Republican newspaper ran a story on March 19, 1893 with a headline that read: "The Work of Ghouls!" The article described how McGovern hacked up what were sometimes intact remains of the dead and stuffed them into children's-size coffins, stating, "The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody by the appearance they presented. Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies...All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk."
So when you’re walking around the gorgeous grounds of Cheesman Park today and you think you might see something sticking up from the ground? Runaway! Happy Halloween!