Raising money to remember the dead: Cholera victims from 156 years ago still in unmarked mass grave

DIXON – What started as a graveside presentation has led to an effort to raise money for a memorial to victims of a 1854 cholera epidemic.

During the first Oakwood Cemetery walk last fall, Gregory Langan portrayed Dixon Postmaster Joseph Cleaver, one of 34 people buried in an unmarked mass grave site. Langan wore torn, dirty clothing, with his face covered in white.

Langan said he researched the outbreak, which claimed 19 people in just 24 hours. The victims, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, were buried together in what now is a grassy area where Memorial Day celebrations are held. It's just beyond two large oak trees at the cemetery's main entrance.

Langan's presentation inspired Rick Munson and Pat Gorman to push for a monument that wouldn't disrupt the staging area but simply mark the trenches.

"It's a shame it's been sitting empty and unmarked," Munson said.

Langan and Munson said that in terms of population, the 34 deaths would be the equivalent to 200 to 250 Dixon residents dying today.

A three-layer American polished granite monument would cost up to $10,000. It would be 3 feet by 4 feet with a beveled top, and sit on a 5-foot-long base layer, mounted on an unpolished base that's more than 6 feet long and 2 feet wide. Victims' names would be engraved on one side, with the story of the epidemic on the other side.

Organizers hope to have a monument dedication during this fall's cemetery walk. Donations are tax-deductible through the Lee County Genealogical Society 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the men said.

"If we end up with $7,800, we'll just buy a lesser stone," Munson said. "We were shown the options with a sculpted base granite and polished top" from Granite Works Inc. in Dixon.

Superintendent of Public Property Curt Phillips said burial records show that some other cemetery plots also contain victims of the epidemic. He said more research is necessary to determine exact names to include on the monument.

To donate

To make a tax-deductible donation toward the purchase of the Oakwood Cemetery Memorial Monument in honor of the 1854 cholera epidemic victims, make checks payable to the Lee County Genealogical Society, 111 S. Hennepin Ave., Dixon, IL 61021

For more information, call Rick Munson, 815-652-4623, or Pat Gorman, 815-652-4269.