A startling discovery in a place of peace

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Reporter - Briana Conner
Photographer - Mason Watkins

HERRIN, Ill. - A startling situation at a local cemetery leaves one man wondering if his parents are the only people buried in their final resting place. "I wanna know, are those lots clear," said Chris Nielsen. He is one of hundreds of people whose loved ones may have been buried in a historical potter's field in Herrin, Illinois. It's where researchers say poor people were buried in unmarked graves from about the 1920s up until 1949, and they also believe it's where victims of The Herrin Massacre were laid to rest.

To this day, it is still the largest massacre of workers initiated by a union in America's history. In 1922, 20 replacement workers and guards died at the hands of a mob organized by the United Mine Workers of America. No one has ever found the true location of the victims' graves, but now, a team of researchers say they have a good idea.

It all started with the man who wrote a book, called 'Herrin Massacre.'  Scott Doody set out to find the grave of a decorated World War I veteran who was killed in the massacre and honor him with a proper head stone. His search led him to the Herrin City Cemetery where he believes the veteran and several hundred other people are buried underneath new graves.

"I wanna know what's under my parents," Nielsen said. He believes his parents were buried on top of paupers in block 15 of the Herrin City Cemetery.  It's something he says his family wasn't told when they purchased the plots. "They were assured these eight grave spots were clear, and a test with a rod in the ground was their assurance," he said.

Geology Professor Steven Di Naso and Historian Scott Doody have assured him otherwise. Di Naso said, "We used remote sensing techniques in a flight over the cemetery in 2012. We did HD 3D laser scanning of all the blocks. We recorded the locations of all the headstones." All of that is part of thousands of hours of research he said proves their claim. "They're simply crushing old graves that are abandoned," said Doody.

Now they want city council to ask the Williamson County Court to give them permission to test their hypothesis. Di Naso said, "If you don't do it for at least historical reasons, by God do it for the citizens of Herrin. You owe that to them." He urges the council on behalf of citizens, like Chris Nielsen, who are only asking for answers. "If you can say no to that, you don't care. I got four extra lots I'll sell anybody in this room," he said. They're lots he believes have been disturbed, keeping his parents from resting in peace.

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