One of the hardest parts of running ghost tours is being polite to people that I think are nuts. I regularly receive e-mails from people who expect me to confirm that photographs showing a blob of light light – usually their flash bouncing off a window or something – is proof of the afterlife (and, by extension, various obscure bits of Catholic dogma). Now and then I do come across something I can’t quite explain, but I’m not about to tell people anything they see, photograph, or record is truly a “spirit.” When I can’t explain something, that’s where it stops – anything else would just be me talking out of my ass.
Likewise, when people tell me how much they love the story of Julia Buccola-Petta, the “Italian Bride” of Mt. Carmel cemetery, whose body was found to be perfectly preserved after six years in the grave, I can’t exactly tell them, “Oh, I don’t think she was preserved by the grace of God. She probably just turned into cheese.”
Julia, it is said, died either in childbirth or on her wedding night (depending on who is telling the story). After her burial, the legend goes, her mother was plagued with nightmares in which Julia demanded that her grave be opened, and after a six year struggle for permission to disinter the body, Julia was exhumed and found to be in perfect condition, and the mother was able to raise money to build her the elaborate new monument that stands on her grave today. Primary sources on the circumstances of Julia’s disinterment are lacking, but the evidence that her body was, in fact, in good shape after six years is quite literally set in stone.
The monument to Julia that was financed by her brother in 1927, six years after her death.
Beneath the life-sized statue of Julia that stands on the her grave at Mount Carmel Cemetery, the tombstone contains a porcelain photograph of her in her coffin with an Italian inscription stating that the photo was taken six years after her death. I’m familiar with post-mortem photography, and Mt. Carmel cemetery is full of eerie tombstone portraits, some of which sure like like photos of corpses to me, but I never heard of one that actually advertised the fact that the photograph showed a subject that had been dead for years. But Julia is shown in a worn coffin, with fresh dirt behind it, her face looking much as it does in the wedding portrait that appears elsewhere on the monument.
PRESA DOPO 6 ANNI MORTA
If Julia had, in fact, been dead for six years when the photo was taken, her body was, in fact, in very good condition.
For a body to be preserved reasonably well after several years is not as uncommon as some would think. In the 1990s, a well-preserved body was found in Lincoln Park, the site of the old city cemetery, in a Fisk Metallic Burial Case, those wonderful iron caskets with viewing windows over the face that were all the rage in the 1850s.
In the late 1980s, developers began digging up the land where Dunning Cemetery, the old Potter’s Field where the city buried unclaimed bodies, to make room for new luxury housing (everyone seems to have forgotten that Dunning was ever there). Hundreds of bodies were found, and at least one was in such good shape that they could still see his mutton chops. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln was heavily embalmed and still appeared intact after a few decades, though his face was a deep copper color (is it too soon for a joke about him looking just like he does on the penny?)
Some people – Catholics in particular – refer to these corpses as “incorruptible” and view their condition as a sign of holiness; there’s a vocal subset of people in Chicago who believe that Julia should be canonized as a saint. But there are scientific explanations for well-preserved corpses, as well; the most common is adipocere, a condition more commonly known as “grave wax,” in which the body retains its shape in the form of what author Bess Lovejoy recently described as “corpse cheese.”
But, though there are plenty of accounts of preserved bodies, it’s very rare to see a photograph of one of them, and rarer still to see that photograph fired onto the tombstone for all to see. That urban legends and ghost stories about Julia would begin to spread seems almost inevitable. Students at the nearby high school have been telling stories of Julia’s ghost wandering through the graveyard on rainy days for decades.
Though I work in the ghost busting industry, figuring out what happened with the body is really none of my business – I consider myself far more of a historian than a “ghost hunter,” so my job is really just making sure that the backstory checks out. The story of Julia’s life and death has become a tantalizing mystery – one of those “rabbit holes” that I fall down as a researcher now and then where just enough new clues can be uncovered to keep things exciting, and when it always seems like the next email, the next record request, or the next “cemetery safari” might finally solve the mystery of why Julia was really exhumed, what her life was like, who attended the exhumation, and other such details that are buried under years of hearsay.
THE NEW WORLD
The facts, which we can piece together from census forms, passenger lists, family stories, and other records, are these: Julia Buccola and her mother, Filomena, came to Chicago from Palermo, Italy in 1913, joining Julia’s siblings Joseph, Henry and Rosalia Buccola in a neighborhood now referred to as the West Ukranian Village. Filomena’s surviving descendants say that the death of her own husband in Italy had left her a bitter woman who was overly dependent on her children, and this seems to be backed up by the records: in his World War I draft card, Henry claimed Filomena was solely dependent upon him financially.
Filomena Buccola around the time of the disinterment, pictures here with her baby granddaughter, Flora. Photo courtesy of Anthony Edwards, Flora’s grandson.
On or around her 29th birthday in 1920, Julia married Matthew Petta at Holy Rosary, a church that still stands on Western Avenue, just around the corner from the apartment where they made their home. The commonly-told story that she died a virgin on her wedding night is clearly wrong; her death certificate establishes that she died in childbirth almost exactly nine months after what we can safely assume was an eventful wedding night. Two days later she and the baby were buried in the same plot at Mount Carmel Cemetery, near the south gate.
It’s here that legend seems to take over. Though the descendants of Julia’s brothers grew up hearing that Filomena did, in fact, have nightmares that led her to demand that her daughter’s grave be opened, no contemporary record can establish much about the circumstances of the exhumation. The funeral home that hosted Julia’s funeral is still in operation, and owned by the grandson of the man who prepared her body, but no new records could be found there. The cemetery office claims not to have any records besides the date of the initial burial, and the story of Julia’s preservation doesn’t seem to have made the papers until half a century later.
But the photograph is right there on the monument, indicating strongly that the exhumation really happened, even though it doesn’t give any real clues as to why.
For a time, I theorized that Filomena had Julia’s remains moved to a new plot due to animosity with Matthew Petta, Julia’s bereaved husband, perhaps stemming from his remarriage to a woman of Irish descent a few years later. After all, some versions of the story mention a feud between Filomena and Matthew, and the idea that there was some sort of bad blood can easily be gleaned from simply reading the text on Julia’s monument. The front, below Julia’s statue and above the photograph of her remains, reads:
FILOMENA BUCCOLA REMEMBRANCE OF MY BELOVED DAUGHTER JULIA AGE 29 YRS
The back states, in Italian, “Filomena Buccola I offer this gift to my dear daughter Julia age 29 yrs.”
It seems telling that Filomena’s own full name appears on the monument twice, but Julia’s married name, Julia Petta, appears nowhere at all.
According to Buccola family stories, Filomena never approved of any of her children’s marriages, so it’s quite possible that she blamed Matthew for her daughter’s death. There’s no indication that Matthew was a cruel or abusive husband, but, in Filomena’s mind, it may be that all that mattered was that Julia never would have died if she hadn’t married Matthew. Moving the body to a new Buccola family plot would be a logical reason to have it exhumed, and by 1927, Henry was making good money as a designer of women’s clothes (her great grandchildren believe that Filomena only started talking about nightmares after they moved to Los Angeles, not long before the exhumation). It could have been that after Henry could afford a new monument, Filomena began to claim to be having nightmares as a means of guilting Henry into paying for a new plot.
George and Joseph Buccola, Julia’s brothers, who worked as tailors upon arriving in Chicago, and eventually found great success designing women’s clothing in Los Angeles.
But another family member told me he was under the impression that Filomena was wracked by guilt herself, having refused to let Julia see a doctor. Filomena was, by all accounts and second-hand memories, a domineering woman that some might even describe as a “terror.” Henry’s wife once stormed out of the house, threatening never to come back, and had to be chased down the road, returning only after Henry promised that it would be made clear that she was in charge of the household, not Filomena. Living only a block or two from Julia and Matthew, she was close enough to continue to assert her influence over them, though what she had against doctors is not really known.
But records at the cemetery don’t indicate that Julia was ever moved – she and the baby are listed as being interred on March 19, 1921 in the same plot where they lie today. And, in any case, when a body is moved, I don’t believe it’s customary to open the coffin if it’s intact.
With no records to determine things, we have to piece together what we can to imagine a scenario.
THE OLD WORLD
In 1913, the year that Filomena arrived, the west side Italian community was hit by a rumor that a “devil baby” with horns, hooves and red scaly skin had been born somewhere on the west side (generally as God’s punishment to the mother for marrying a man whose religion was not the same as her own, though the story varied a lot) and brought to Hull House, where social reformer Jane Addams operated her famous settlement house. People from as far away as Milwaukee came to Hull House in droves, offering whatever money they could scrape up to see the thing. Addams was initially furious. “Do you think,” she asked one group, “that even we had some poor deformed baby here, we would charge admission to see it?” But she came to realize that the story was very important to the women of the neighborhood.
These women were strangers in their new country, shocked that their children and grandchildren weren’t keeping the old ways, or even, in many cases, their old language. To make things even stranger for them, many were finding out for the first time that some of the things they’d grown up believing were just local superstitions to everyone else. When the devil baby story came around, Addams wrote, “it was the old women who truly came into their own.” Now, the old world superstitions seemed to be coming to life, and the old women, for once, held sway over their families. They were in their territory now.
I imagine Filomena Buccola being very much like these women – given the date of her arrival, it’s possible that joining the throngs at Hull House may have been her first act as an American. Beyond simply living among people with backgrounds wildly different from hers, her own children now signed their names as Joseph, Henry, and Julia, not Giuseppe, Enrique, and Giulia. There’s some evidence that they may have even dabbled in other religions outside of her own Catholicism (Henry’s name appears as a witness at his niece’s Masonic wedding in the 1940s).
Her grand-daughter, Flora, was taught English, not Italian. When Filomena shared a bedroom with Flora, she would loudly recite the rosary at all hours of the night, and young Flora would respond by shouting “Shut up, Nonna!” This was not the life that Filomena had been prepared for.
But, though she seems to have been thought of us a disturbed old woman, it’s easy to sympathize with the difficulties Filomena must have had. She was certainly not as neglected as many of the women who came to Hull House searching for the devil baby; few of them had children who would have indulged them if they wanted a child disinterred.
However, Filomena appears to have been the only family member enthusiastic about exhuming Julia. Henry’s wife was furious at the amount of money that was spent, and it’s said to have driven a wedge between her and the Buccolas (as a result, the family seldom discussed it). There are vague family stories that Henry, too, would often lament that if they just had the money Filomena had talked him into spending on the project (which was thought to be around ten thousand dollars), they would be set for life.
Still, at the time, for whatever reason, Henry went along with it, paying out of pocket to have Julia disinterred, and to have a new monument built for her, featuring a life-sized statue sculpted by artists in Italy.
But we still don’t know for sure what sort of nightmares Filomena was having, if any; for all we know, they were just a ruse in order to guilt Henry into coughing up the money to have Julia exhumed. We don’t know exactly how she obtained permission to disinter the body, or how (or whether) she got Matthew Petta to consent, or really anything to do with the circumstances of the exhumation at all. And it’s likely that we never will, as nearly everyone involved in the story died in the mid 1940s. Henry Buccola died in 1944, and Filomena died the next year.
By then, Filomena had outlived three of her four children, and was living with Joseph in Los Angeles after twenty years of moving back and forth between children’s houses in Chicago and Los Angeles. Her remains were sent to Chicago and buried at Mt. Carmel in an unmarked space a few feet from Julia’s monument, which twice bears her name.
Matthew Petta, Julia’s husband, died in 1945, as well, a few months before Filomena’s death. He had remarried at some point in the 1920s and had a son whom he gave the same name as his first stillborn child (naming babies after their dead siblings wasn’t seen as icky and morbid then; well into the 20th century people seem to have found it charming). He eventually opened a tavern on Clark Street (which, conveniently for me, stood right on my regular ghost tour route); his wife and children moved to Iowa after his death.
But despite the lack of evidence or primary sources on the exhumation, it certainly seems to have taken place more or less as the legend describes it. Besides the fact that the tombstone itself insists that the photo of Julia in the casket was taken six years after death, there’s the evidence visible in the photo itself. Fresh dirt is visible behind the worn coffin, and the baby that records indicate was buried with Julia does not appear to be visible at all. Though Julia’s face is still recognizable, it’s really the lack of preservation that convinces me that the photo was really taken years after her death; her arm and hand seem to have swollen far more than they probably would have in the two days that separated her death and initial burial. The details may be lost, but it looks as though Filomena Buccola really did talk her son into having his sister’s remains exhumed, and found that her face was still recognizable after six years in the grave.
I can just imagine the look on Filomena’s face as the casket was opened.
They were in her territory now.
Adam Selzer’s new book, Ghosts of Chicago, will be published by Llewellyn in September. His blog currently features a podcast and more information about the story of Julia Buccola. He previously reported for the Order on the skull of Del Close in a theater basement. His next book, a novel for young adults who worship the devil, will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2014.