Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Andreas Von Zirngibl Gravesite is Chicago’s Smallest Cemetery.

The smallest cemetery in the City of Chicago measures little more than 100 square feet and is located in the middle of the scrapyard for Sims Metal Management Recycling Center at 9331 S. Ewing Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.
Von Zirngibl was born in Bavaria on March 30, 1797. At 18, he went to war with the Prussian forces of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, a fearsome and much-respected field marshal who earned the nickname Marschall Vorwärts (Marshal Forward) due to his aggressive style of warfare.

Under Von Blücher, Von Zirngibl fought in the Battle of Waterloo, Belgium. During the famous defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, which the victorious Duke of Wellington called “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life,” the young Andreas lost the limb.

He returned to Bavaria, where he made a living as a fisherman on the Danube River. He married and he and his wife had five children. With a large family to care for and in search of new opportunities, Von Zirngibl moved to America. He and his family arrived in Chicago in 1854, which back then was a town of some 50,000 inhabitants. According to his descendants, he purchased 44 acres of land near the mouth of the Calumet River, at a total cost of $160 in gold.

Von Zirngibl built a shack on his marshy land and continued his trade as a fisherman, catching sturgeon, herring, perch, and pike in Lake Michigan. It could have been the start of an idyllic new life for Andreas and his family, but he caught a fever and died on August 21, 1855, just a year after his arrival in America.

In accordance with his final requests, Von Zirngibl was buried on his land. His widow and children placed a wooden marker on his grave and surrounded it with a white picket fence. His family moved to Chicago’s North Side but continued to tend to the site for many years. Then, in 1895, a land dispute threw everything into doubt.
Most of this story is told through the claims made by Von Zirngibl's descendants — 40 years after his death — in the case of Zirngibl vs. Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock Co. In this 1895 Illinois Supreme Court case, the Zirngibls, who had apparently dropped the "Von," argued that the company had usurped their land and their ancestor's gravesite. The family said its deed for the property had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

A story of big business cheating an immigrant family out of its land teemed with populist appeal, and the late Mike Royko even included the story in a 1967 column about industrialization in the Chicago Daily News. The problem is that parts of the tale — and no one can tell which parts — may be fabricated, according to Rod Sellers, a Washington High School social studies teacher and South Side history buff.
Von Zirngibl's gravesite in the middle os a scrapyard.
"It may have been a scam," he says. "My reading of it is that he [Von Zirngibl] was probably a squatter."

Justice David J. Baker, who wrote the court's opinion, cast a jaundiced eye at the Zirngibls' claims. For instance, he accused George Zirngibl, a son of Andreas Von Zirngibl, of lying on the stand. "We fear that his cupidity has unduly jogged his memory," he wrote. The judge also noted the tardiness of the Zirngibls' claim.

"It is remarkable," Baker wrote, "that during the years that they saw the forty acres change from an almost valueless swamp to a tract of land worth a million dollars, they made no attempt to profit from it."

Perhaps most damaging to the Zirngibls' claim of ownership was evidence that scores of other bodies were buried on the land. One witness, albeit 40 years after the fact, testified that Von Zirngibl had actually died in Whiting, Indiana and that his sons took him to the mouth of the Calumet to be buried.

Nonetheless, Baker did recognize the Zirngibls' dedication to the one-armed soldier's gravesite. In the end, the court ruled that the land belonged to Calumet and Chicago Canal and Dock, but awarded "to the widow and heirs the grave and the ground within the fence that encloses it, with the right of access to and egress from it."

The ruling ensured that any future owner of the land would have a property that included a cemetery on the land.
Andreas von Zirngibl’s gravesite and headstone.
Scrap Processing, owned by Cozzi Iron & Metal Inc., is only the latest in a long line of industrial operations that have owned the site. For most of this century, concrete mixers, dump trucks, and all sorts of industrial machinery have rumbled past Von Zirngibl's grave.
Andreas von Zirngibl's gravesite.
In 1987 the Southeast Historical Society, with the help of Henry Zirngibl, a descendant of Andreas Von Zirngibl, raised money to repair the rundown grave. The group placed a large concrete slab over the site and added a new granite headstone with an inscription that read, in part, "A Veteran of 1816 Battle of Waterloo," even though the battle took place on Sunday, 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in Belgium, part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the time. Around the gravesite, the Southeast Historical Society placed four massive concrete blocks to protect and mark the gravesite.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

1 comment:

  1. With all due respect, upsetting as it cane be, at least they let him rest in peace on what was once his property. Although I wouldn't doubt that the family knew little about legal rights and were taking advantage of by those that know how to profit from such real estate. If that's the case, everyone, even they, need to answer for it someday.


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