My dearest spirit box operators,
Welcome to Ghost Season! It’s September, Instagram is advertising expensive Halloween-themed cookware to me, which means it’s time to get into it. Here at Team Spooky we are working on a massive calendar of content for October. For the past couple of years I have wanted to do a big Halloween spread but I haven’t had the time or space (school, plague, etc, etc) so I’m really looking forward to this Fall.
For this newsletter I want to take you back – way back – to the beginning of why I am *waves arms around* this way. The short answer is that I was raised by weird people! My parents AND my aunts are on this newsletter and to them I say “I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU, OK????”
I’m originally from the Midwest. I lived most of my younger years in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad and his sisters grew up there and they know the area inside and out. And do you know what they did for fun? Took us to cemeteries, drove us past John Wayne Gacy’s murder house, told us stories of abusive Catholic nuns and mobsters murdered in their neighbors houses, taught us where to watch for miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary AND ALSO how to spot *Resurrection Mary.* Ask my aunts about what happened in the Our Lady of Angels fire and you’ll hear about how they know the man who had to identify the bodies and ALL OF HIS HAIR FELL OUT FROM THE TRAUMA. Anyway, I’ve been doing death tourism since before it was a thing. I grew up absolutely marinated in this shit.
One of the sites on heavy rotation for us was the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois. Our favorite stop here (besides Al Capone’s grave) was THE ITALIAN BRIDE. We LOVED this monument. The Italian Bride is the funerary statue of a young woman in her bridal dress. Her name was Julia Buccola, and she died in childbirth in 1921. The family buried mother and baby together at Mount Carmel.
Image Credit: Atlas Obscura
As the story goes, Julia’s mother Filomena had nightmares about her daughter for years after her death. In the dreams, Julia told her she wasn’t really dead, and she needed to be dug up. Six years after burial, the family exhumed Julia and to everyone’s shock, her body had not decayed. To her mother, this was evidence that she was blessed by God, and incorruptible (like a saint). Filomena raised funds to re-inter her daughter and build this statue in her honor. The monument includes a photograph of Julia’s corpse in the rotted coffin, proving the veracity of the claim.
This is – truly – quite a fucking story. I love it for many reasons, not the least of which was growing up around superstitious Catholic hoodoo that assigns magical virtue to the most horrific stories. Lives of the saints, anybody? OF COURSE this Old World Italian Mother thought her daughter was a saint! In the version I heard growing up, a priest ordered the exhumation based on the evidence of this devout woman’s dreams, giving it extra spiritual gravitas.
The statue of a bride is also tragically glamorous in a way that is irresistible to little girls. In my memory, the husband murdered her and the ghost was seeking justice. I also recall that the flowers she was buried with were fresh – as if she was a bride buried with her bouquet. My cousins and my sisters (ALL GIRLS EXCEPT POOR JOHN) spent a lot of time scrutinizing the photo and asking questions. This was the 80s, we all had Wedding Fantasy Barbies that we married to Kens who drove away to their Dreamhouse in her neon pink Corvette. We knew brides! We wanted her murder to be avenged, dammit!
So, what the hell is actually going on with Julia’s grave? Local writer Adam Selzer published an excellent investigative piece about The Bride for the Order of the Good Death. According to Adam’s research, Julia did die in childbirth, and her infant son was buried with her. Her husband went on to remarry, her brothers became successful clothing makers, and her mother lived to an old age. Family lore says that Filomena was domineering, and may have concocted the dreams to extort an expensive tomb upgrade for her daughter. She may not have liked Jula’s husband, Matthew Petta, because she didn’t really like anyone. There are no records of her exhumation, but the picture seems very real and in line with the times.
This story is weird because a lot of it is urban legend, but the core fact that her body did not decay seems to be true. Seltzer examined the photo and notes that decay is present everywhere except the body. Fresh dirt is visible, and one arm looks swollen and distorted. He thinks it’s a real picture, and I agree, but no one knows exactly why and when she was dug up. There are some scientific explanations for the lack of visible decay, such as adipocere. It wasn’t that uncommon in the area, based on what workers saw when they moved bodies from old cemeteries in Lincoln Park.
I love that there’s still some mystery to the story – we don’t know why she was exhumed, we don’t know why exactly she didn’t decompose normally. Of course some folks report ghosts around the tomb but that’s the least interesting part of it. Anyway – next time you are in Chicago, check out the Italian Bride! Or call my aunts and ask them to drive you along Archer Avenue at night, they’re game.
Until next time.