Milwaukee Cemeteries

Wilkie James and the measure of greatness

Wilkie James headstone

Garth “Wilkie” James, a brother of the famed novelist Henry James, is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. Carl A. Swanson photo

The five children of Henry James Sr. include some of America’s greatest thinkers.

Henry’s oldest son, the philosopher and educator William James, is considered the father of American psychology and his second son (and namesake) Henry James Jr. wrote 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and many volumes of biographies, travel writing, art criticism, and memoirs. A third son, Robert, a promising artist and writer, was plagued by alcoholism throughout his adult life. Sister Alice taught history but suffered from psychological and physical illness much of her life. Alice’s sharply observed and insightful diaries, published after her death, are still widely read and admired.

Then there is the fourth son, Garth Wilkinson “Wilkie” James. Born in New York City in 1845, Wilkie was an undistinguished student, experienced many failures and died young and penniless.

Of all the James family siblings, guess who ended up in Milwaukee.


Five favorites for Doors Open Milwaukee

Doors Open Milwaukee was held Saturday and Sunday, September 19th and 20th. About 200 locations, many normally closed to the public, were open for visitors. Here are five of my favorite places to visit during this annual event.

1. Former Pabst Brewery

Although the area is undergoing rapid development, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Although the area is undergoing rapid redevelopment, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo by Carl Swanson

Tour a speakeasy (actually, the former plant infirmary and ancient storage tunnels) at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The speakeasy is open if the red jelly jar light is illuminated at the doorway marked “J.C. Haertel Real Estate & Financial Consulting.” The Pabst Brewing Co. was the subject of this Milwaukee Notebook post. (more…)

Death visits the orphanage

St. Amilianus Orphan Asylum in St. Francis

This 1907 postcard image shows St. Amilianus Orphan Asylum in St. Francis, Wis. In 1929, two young orphans died here in a mysterious poisoning. Carl Swanson collection

One morning in February 1929, four boys, residents of St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum in St. Francis, were sorting cabbages in the cellar of the massive building. When this chore was completed they joined 170 other residents for a lunch of beans and sauerkraut. That morning, though, they found something more appetizing – a small paper bag containing what seemed to be sweet-tasting cookie crumbs.

By the afternoon of the following day, two of the boys, Philip Giganti, 13, and Joseph Djeska, 12, were dead. The other two, Frank Novakovich, 13, and his brother Paul, 12, were desperately ill. The orphanage’s staff physician, along with another doctor called in to assist, had no difficulty establishing the cause – arsenic poisoning. (more…)

Dead moved to make way for church

St. James Episcopal Church

St. James Episcopal Church occupies an enviable site in downtown Milwaukee. Located on Wisconsin Avenue opposite the public library and the Wisconsin Club, construction of the church involved removing a pioneer cemetery. Carl Swanson photo

The spirits of Milwaukee’s early pioneers may have said, “You can build your church over my dead body.” And that’s just what the founders of St. James Episcopal Church did. The historic church at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave., is built on the former Spring Street Burial Ground, once the resting place of many of the city’s first European settlers. (more…)

A Confederate grave in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Calvary Cemetery Civil War grave of Joseph Shefhey.

The peaked headstone of Joseph Sheehy denotes a Confederate Civil War veteran, the only one amid a sea of rounded headstones belonging to Union veterans in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery. Photo by Carl Swanson

Update: In summer, 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration in Washington, D.C. determined the grave marker incorrectly identified the soldier as Confederate. The marker was subsequently reground with a Union-style rounded top. Additionally, it was learned the stone misspells the soldier’s name. This post has been edited to reflect the correct spelling throughout.

A distinctive headstone in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery marks the last resting place of a Confederate Civil War soldier — the only one in row upon row of Union veterans of that conflict. But was Joseph Sheehy mistakenly buried as a rebel?


Decoration Day

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain's Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

May 30 was once set aside as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War, such as U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who was born in Ireland in 1833 and died on May 19, 1865 at the age of 32. He is buried in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. Photo by Carl Swanson

In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for May 30th to be observed annually as a day to remember the 620,000 Americans killed in the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, the May 30th holiday gradually became known as Memorial Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving four holidays, including Memorial Day to specified Mondays to create three-day weekends.

On this Decoration Day, take a moment to remember U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick, who served aboard the U.S.S. Signal, a 190-ton stern-wheel paddle steamer of the type derisively called a “tinclad” for the half-inch steel armor protecting its main deck, sufficient to stop a rifle bullet but offering no protection against cannon shells. Under the plating, the ships were entirely made of wood, Tinclads were cheap, expendable, and, in the words of one naval historian, “complete fire traps.”

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862. Disabled by Confederate artillery fire on the Red River in Louisiana on May 4, 1864, the ship was burned by its crew to prevent its capture. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

The U.S.S. Signal was a “tinclad” paddlewheel steamer built in 1862 and destroyed in battle on May 4, 1864. Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

On May 4, 1864, the Signal, was proceeding downstream on the Red River in Louisiana when it was fired upon by Confederate cavalry. A running battle ensued for the next four miles until the Signal encountered sister ship U.S.S. Covington and the John Warner, an Army transport ship. Trapped near Dunn’s Bayou near Alexandria, Louisiana, the gunboats exchanged point-blank cannon fire with Confederate field artillery on both banks. At one point in the uneven fight, the Signal was hit 38 times in four minutes.


Cemetery chapel harbors a mystery

Milwaukee Calvary Cemetery Chapel exterior view, east side of building

The mausoleum beneath the 1899 Cream City brick chapel in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery seems an ideal last resting place. The elegant little chapel features soaring arches rising to a domed ceiling, a rose window, and a high altar. It was designed by Erhard Brielmaier, the same man responsible for Milwaukee’s Basilica of St. Josaphat.

It’s location is significant too. Overlooking today’s Miller Park, the chapel stands at the eastern edge of Calvary Cemetery atop one of highest elevations in Milwaukee. Called Jesuit Hill, it is largely given over to burial places of clergy and members of Catholic religious orders. It was the location of a large wooden cross until the chapel’s construction.

The cemetery itself contains a great deal of local history. Consecrated in 1857, it is the oldest major Catholic cemetery in the city. The grave of Solomon Juneau, co-founder of Milwaukee, is here, along with brewer Frederick Miller, meat packer Patrick Cudahy … and architect Erhard Brielmaier.