Behind the Book

Behind the Book | Just Kill Me & Tomb Snooping

August 8, 2016
Adam Selzer
Author of Just Kill Me

Get a behind the scenes look at Adam Selzer’s, Just Kill Me as he gives you a look at a real life ghost tour stop featured in his new book!

Take a look:


From the very first notes I took for the book, I wanted to have a scene where a group of ragtag ghost tour guides go on a mission to see what’s really inside the tomb of Ira Couch, one of Chicago’s most enduring mysteries.

Ira ran the Tremont House, a fancy Chicago hotel, in the 1850s. Lincoln gave a version of his “house divided” speech from the balcony in 1858, and held a public reception there after the election of 1860. Douglas, his debate rival, died in one of the rooms in 1861. And John Wilkes Booth stayed there for a few weeks in 1862, while performing a series of Shakespeare roles at a theater a block away (a good many of which featured him plotting to assassinate a king.

Ira died in Cuba in 1857, and the tomb was built for him in City Cemetery the next year.  When City Cemetery was converted into Lincoln Park, several tombstones and a couple of vaults lingered for decades, but by the early days of the 20th century, only the Couch Tomb remained.

Exactly WHY it never moved is an open question – some say that the Couch family threatened to sue, others say it was too expensive to move, and others say that someone suggested that they leave one vault as a reminder that the grounds were once a cemetery. My guess is that it was a combination of all three:

Councilman 1: So, some guy says we should leave a vault in the new park as a memorial. Think we should just ignore him?
Councilman 2: I would, but did you hear the Couch tomb is gonna cost $3000 to move?
Councilman 1: Ouch.
Councilman 2: And James Couch is threatening to sue, too.
Councilman 1: Oh, that’s all I need. $3000 AND I get Jim Couch breathing down my neck? Let’s just leave it there. If anyone asks it’s left there as a memorial. Next order of business.

Then again, they hardly needed a memorial in the old days.  Louise de koven Bowen, a social reformer who is the main source of Hull House ghost stories (see a future video in the series!) remembered going to the new park as a little girl when the old bodies were still being moved and being horrified. “We saw countless open graves,” she wrote, “with a piece here and there of a decayed coffin, and every now and then on a pile of dirt a bone, evidently dropped by those removing the bodies. The whole place looked exactly as if the Judgement Day had come,…and everyone had arisen from their graves, dropping now and then a little piece of their anatomy as they fled…”

City Cemetery during the Great Chicago Fire

Anecdotal evidence and drawings show that there were still a LOT of gravestones in 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire spread all the way to the new park. One newspaper described the scene in lurid terms: “The marbles over the graves cracked and baked, and fell in glowing embers on the hot turf. Flames shot up from the resting places of the dead…above the graves charred stones stand grim sentinels of the dead, no more memorials of anything but disaster. Every inscription has disappeared, and even the dead are robbed by the flames.”

By the turn of the 20th century, everyone in town had heard that Lincoln Park was haunted – not just by the ghosts of people whose bodies hadn’t been moved, but from the many people who picked the park as a place to kill themselves. Police who patrolled the park had all sorts of stories about it. And ghost hunting was a bit different in those days: today, ghost hunters use microphones, cameras and gadgets. In the old days, they mostly used guns and swords. When the police saw a ghost, their instinct was always to shoot at it. A particularly known ghost that made national news in the old days was that of a man in a sombrero who, the cops said, shot back.

As early as the 1890s, people were writing articles wondering who, exactly, was in the Couch Tomb. It was built to hold a dozen or so people, and most family members seemed to think it was about half full (or, you know, half empty). But accounts in old papers differ wildly, different family members had different stories, and no one seemed entirely sure.

A Fisk Metallic burial case (from Ohio County Public Library)

Should we ever open the thing to find out, most likely everything will have rotted away to nothing by now. But Ira Couch might very well have been buried in a thing called a Fisk Metallic Burial Case – a really ornate metal coffin with a viewing window over the face. They have a bit of a cult following even now – when I mention them on tours, people occasionally get really excited. Given that Ira’s body had to be transported from Cuba and temporarily interred for a year before the tomb was built, it’s likely that the Fisk case was the only casket on the market that would do. They were supposed to be so airtight as to have preserved your body forever – and seem to have worked about half the time. One was found when a tomb in the town where I went to college was opened up a few years ago, and the body inside was in an advanced state of decay. But one found buried in Lincoln Park in 1998 contained a body that was in pretty good shape. So there’s just a chance – a slim one – that Ira’s not only still there, but still recognizably Ira Couch!

Tomb Snooping demos are still part of my “Grave Robbing 101” tours in Lincoln Park – you can see the October schedule at


Adam Selzer lived in Des Moines back before it was cool, then tried out a series of small Georgia towns that will probably never be cool before settling in Chicago. In addition to several books on Chicago history and ghostlore, he’s the author of several young adult and middle grade novels, including How To Get Suspended and Influence People (which is part of the ALA’s Banned Books Week packet), I Kissed a Zombie and I liked It, and Sparks (under the name SJ Adams, a Stonewall Honor book for 2013). He has seen Bob Dylan in concert more than forty times, holds a world record for “Most Richard Nixon jokes in a Children’s Book,” and often performs music, both solo and with various bands, at science fiction conventions. Visit him online at

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