Image shows the Louis Sullivan-designed Getty Tomb at Graceland. It is made of buff-colored stone with an arching doorway. The gates are greenish bronze. There are leaves on the ground and a branch with autumn leaves in the foreground of the photo.
Louis Sullivan's Getty Tomb at Graceland Cemetery Credit: Adam Selzer

When Anne Ford interviewed Adam Selzer for the Reader in 2014, it was all about his job as a ghost tour leader. You didn’t have to read between the lines to sense that it wasn’t the perfect gig for a truth-seeking research glutton. 

“No matter how skeptical I tried to be, I felt like I was just encouraging people to jump for bad explanations of things,” Selzer says now. “They took it as permission to believe weird conspiracy theories.”

At the same time, “I was doing so much research for the historical parts of those tours, and I was finding all these incredible stories that I couldn’t really work on unless they were said to be haunting someplace.”

And, oh yeah, he was also writing. More than 20 books in a decade, evenly divided between young adult novels and nonfiction, including one about H.H. Holmes subtitled “The True History of the White City Devil.”  

Selzer, an English major and self-described “historical data miner” who came to Chicago right out of college in 2004, has moved on since then, but hasn’t escaped the dead people. Since most of the stories ended up in cemeteries, he says, he started doing Graceland tours. Now he has a new book, to be published this month by University of Illinois Press’s 3 Fields imprint, Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets. Lucky for us, it’s an adept melding of the tours, the research, and the writing.  

Graceland Cemetery: Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets by Adam Selzer
3 Fields Books (imprint of University of Illinois Press), paperback and ebook, (out 8/9/22), 320 pp., $19.95 paperback, $14.95 ebook, press.illinois.edu

I’ve blundered around Graceland’s 119 acres and 175,000 graves often enough to know that it’s an incredible but overwhelming repository of Chicago history and memorial art. Selzer has tamed it into ten self-guided walking tours organized according to location (five central stations, each the starting point for two walks), with breezy, intriguing biographies of some of the folks in each, plus historical and current photos and maps. Although the tours are numbered, it’s a “choose your own adventure” setup, not a sequential arrangement; he says they can be done in any order. Pressed to pick a starter, he mentions Route 2-A, which “has all kinds of great stuff in it.” Truth is, they all do.

Graceland, which opened in 1860, was designed as a garden cemetery—a place of recreation as well as eternal rest, and a departure from the grim, chockablock church graveyards of earlier years. Like Rosehill, which is the same vintage, it received bodies that were removed from the older City Cemetery that became the southern portion of Lincoln Park. Selzer writes that “Soon, as all garden cemeteries strove to be, Graceland was at once a park, an open air museum, and an art gallery.”

Who’s in 2-A? Abolitionists, Civil War soldiers, and hosts on the Underground Railroad, along with a notorious burglar, a wealthy suffragist (Katharine Dexter McCormick), and the first Black lawyer in Illinois (Lloyd Garrison Wheeler). Also, detective Allan Pinkerton, and one of Selzer’s favorites, “the completely illegible, nondescript monument” of Jeremiah Price, “a guy who was so fantastically boring that people were still telling jokes about how boring he was years after he died.”

Adam Selzer Courtesy the artist

Another Selzer favorite is the three-person Getty Tomb designed by Louis Sullivan, in part because of the story of daughter Alice Getty, who, he says, “could have had her own Indiana Jones movie.” The Getty Tomb is also the starting point for Route 4-A, which includes one of my own favorite monuments, the marker for anesthesiologist Christopher D. Manuel—a bronze statue of a boy with a flute (one of a limited edition by Italian artist Rinaldo Bigi), seated atop a granite base engraved with lyrics from the 1930s jazz standard, “For All We Know.” This, I would argue, is truly haunting. A short distance in front of it is the monument for architect Stanley Tigerman, which Tigerman himself described to me as “a granite slab cracked down the middle” that’ll allow him and his partner and spouse, architect Margaret McCurry—fortunately not there yet—to lie head to head. (That Reader profile gets a mention in Selzer’s footnotes.)

Graceland is famous for its architects; everyone from Daniel Burnham to Helmut Jahn is there (or soon to be) and in the book. But Selzer notes that along with the famous architects, politicians, artists, athletes, and business leaders are “countless others whose names were never widely known at all, but whose stories should have been a part of local history . . .”

“I’ve attempted to tell as many of these forgotten stories as I could,” he writes in an author’s note, concluding that “there’s always more to find.” He told me last week that since the book was finalized, several people came up that he “would have loved to work in.”

With that in mind I have a suggestion for the next edition: the extraordinary Reader writer Lee Sandlin, who died in 2014. His marker, near a sycamore tree a stone’s throw from the Red Line tracks on Graceland’s eastern boundary, is inscribed—as Selzer’s someday could be—“Midwestern Storyteller.”

Selzer will conduct two in-person limited attendance book release walking tours of Graceland, 9:30 AM and 12:30 PM August 14. Tickets are $20 (plus $2.85 booking fee) or, including the book, $40 (plus $4.06 fee); information and tickets at mysteriouschicago.com.