Note: This story has been updated from the version that appeared in the Sept. 14 print edition.
HERRIN — An excavation at Herrin City Cemetery last week uncovered what appeared to be an empty burial vault in a spot where researchers believe the victims of the 1922 Herrin Massacre were interred, but the work provided no conclusive evidence to support the divisive notion that the city for years has been burying some bodies on top of others.
On the heels of a court authorization the previous Monday, researchers from SIU and Eastern Illinois University took to the cemetery Sept. 13 not only seeking to confirm their theory regarding stacked burials, but also to possibly locate the remains of any of the victims of the Herrin Massacre, some of whom they believe were interred in a potters field under what is now the cemetery’s block 15. The same researchers will return to the cemetery this Friday to continue their search.
Work last week began early, and researchers spent the morning digging near gravesites owned by the family of Chris Nielsen — first in a shallow hole, then in a pair of 5- or 6-foot-deep trenches that allowed them to inspect near and under the vault in which Nielsen’s father was interred. They also excavated at nearby empty lots Nielsen already has purchased. Aside from an inconclusive piece of plywood, they found nothing. Nielsen, who watched as the researchers worked, said he was relieved with the conclusion.
However, work in the afternoon at another nearby site found an empty wooden vault interred in an unmarked grave. The vault was not found underneath any other existing burial spot. Herrin Alderman Bill Sizemore, chairman of the city’s public works committee, said that based on the finding, exploration at the cemetery will continue.
“They’re trying to be as gentle as possible,” Sizemore said.
Friday’s work was conducted by Steven Di Naso and Vincent Gutowski of Eastern Illinois University and Robert Corruccini, a professor emeritus in anthropology at SIU.
Controversy surrounding the cemetery ramped up last spring, when Anna resident Scott Doody published a book in which he recounted years of research by him and Di Naso that led them to the conclusion that the gravesites of victims of the Herrin Massacre — a notorious incident of violence in 1922 in which striking coal miners attacked the “scabs” brought in from Chicago to work in their stead — had since been resold for modern burials. Doody’s research sprang from his interest in finding the remains of a World War I veteran who was among the almost two-dozen killed.
In one instance, Doody’s book includes a 1949 burial record of a “tramp” buried in a lot in block 15. Doody also includes a modern photograph of the same lot with a more modern marker. He says when he confronted the cemetery’s former sexton about the inconsistency, the sexton admitted to crushing old graves to make room for new burials. In late July, the cemetery’s new sexton came upon human remains while digging a new grave in block 15, and SIU’s Corruccini identified them as the remains of an unknown female.
The researchers behind Friday’s dig also were responsible for a past excavation at the cemetery that failed to locate the massacre victims’ bodies. Partly as a result of an adversarial relationship between Doody and Herrin Mayor Vic Ritter, whom Doody says kept the growing claims about the cemetery secret for years, a judge in 2010 halted any further digs at the cemetery. Earlier this summer, faced with the questions raised by Doody’s book, the Herrin City Council authorized a legal motion to allow for further excavations. A Williamson County judge gave the go-ahead Sept. 9.
The exact locations of the massacre victims’ remains have never been conclusively verified and, in fact, have been the subject of some debate. Last fall, a a group of Herrin citizens used details in old burial photographs, including the placement of shadows, and other pieces of evidence to conclude that the miners were buried in a completely different spot far to the west of Friday’s excavations. There has been no excavation at the spot they identified.