The Ghost Dog of Graceland Cemetery
Picture this: It’s late on a cool, Friday night. You went for after work drinks with friends, maybe you stopped at the grocery store for a late night snack. However you did it, you whiled away the hours, and now it’s just after midnight. Remains of orange leaves crunch beneath your feet as you walk briskly up Clark Street on Chicago’s north side, using your coat as a shield against the wind tunnel Clark has become. You’ve kept your head turned down for the last eight blocks or so, but early in your walk, when you were feeling light from a night of easy conversation and cheap drinks, you stared up at the moon. There is nothing special about it. It’s not a blue moon or a blood moon, but it is a crisp, full moon gleaming out on a dark, clear night. Its brilliant white light reflects off the fallen and falling leaves on the dark tree-lined streets, complementing the warm light of the intermittent street lights as it tints your world a soft sepia tone.
You turn left onto Montrose Avenue and quickly reach your building, a large, old, brown brick apartment block which faces the vast Graceland Cemetery. As though on autopilot, you unlock the front door and climb the creaking carpeted stairs up to your apartment, trying desperately not to tread on that one step that wakes the downstairs neighbor’s beagle. Carelessly, you unlock the door before throwing your bag on the floor, shaking off your coat, and kicking off your shoes. In the kitchen you search for a cup, and opt for a slightly dirty one in the sink, fill it from the tap and walk to the window to stare out into the still night. As your eyes scan the eternal peace of the cemetery, something catches your eye. Two somethings, actually. A set of red eyes stares up at you, and your heart skips a beat.
You blink hard. When you open your eyes again they still find the pair of red ones, and now you notice they are attached to a large, ghostly dog. He looks almost like the figure of the grim in Harry Potter, and you think you must be mistaken. But each time you glance, a large, wild-looking dog with glowing red eyes standing beside the early 20th Century mausoleum belonging to Ludwig Wolff stares back.
Graceland Cemetery, founded in 1860, has its fair share of supposed hauntings, which comes with the territory of being a burial ground. If you are a believer, it is home to ghost girls, haunted statues, regular ghosts, and Ludwig Wolff’s ghost dog.
Ludwig Wolff had an eventful and heartbreaking life. He moved from Germany to the United States in the late 19th Century, worked as a coppersmith and eventually founded a successful plumbing company that made him a very wealthy man. Unfortunately, 8 years before his death, two of his daughters and two of his grandchildren died in the tragic 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in downtown Chicago which claimed hundreds of lives and forever changed theatre safety regulations.
When Wolff died in 1911, he was buried in a somewhat eccentric grave. From the outside it’s a beautiful, if understated, mausoleum, set partially below ground. The inside, however, reflects Wolff’s fear of being buried alive: there are bells and mechanisms to alert cemetery workers of an accidental live burial, and the above ground part of the grave allows for airflow to provide oxygen, again, in case Wolff was buried alive. Luckily, it seems that none of these safety features were needed and that Wolff was truly dead when he was laid to rest. Although Wolff is at peace, legend has it that his grave is home to the restless spirit of a ghost dog who returns to Wolff’s grave with each full moon.
The legend varies, some say it’s his ghost dog, some say it’s a ghost dog, and perhaps because of his name, some say it is actually a ghost wolf. Skeptics say it’s a coyote. Of these options, the ghost dog belonging to Wolff is the most popular and the most appealing, because it implies an otherworldly dedication between master and canine. Whether the ghost dog appeared shortly after Wolff’s burial or half a century later, we can’t be sure. Wolff’s grave is on the perimeter of the cemetery and can easily be seen by the apartment buildings across the street whose residents have raised the profile of the spectral canine.
In researching this piece, I had a brief interaction with a Chicago-based ghost historian/creepy history expert. I had been pointed in their direction and sent them a few clarifying questions over email, only to be met with swift rebuttal. This person replied only to say that this Wolff’s ghost dog is Chicago’s least believable ghost story and is not worth spending time on or researching.
I disagree. Testing believability is not my purpose. If we take a folklorist’s perspective on ghost stories, rather than a haunted tour guide’s, believability becomes irrelevant. Whether or not you believe that a ghost dog waits at Wolff’s grave at each full moon, there is value in the fact that we tell this story. On the one hand, people may enjoy the story simply because it’s a lighthearted spooky tale with low stakes set in a beautiful, historic cemetery, and that’s perfectly alright. But as demonstrated here, we have long been fascinated by the connection between pet and person after death, both on a personal and broader social level.
Folklorist Dr. Jeannie Banks Thomas, who studies ghost stories, shares this view that it is not the believability that matters as much as what the story itself can tell us about a culture, it’s values, and its beliefs in regard to a particular space; in this case a cemetery. Cemeteries are liminal spaces, meaning that they exist in between. They are the holding place between life and death, where the body remains, separated from the soul as it travels on to its ultimate destination. Liminal spaces, even those without a supply of dead bodies, attract ghost stories, for what is a ghost if not caught in between life and death?
So, with this in mind, there are two central lessons we can learn from the ghost dog of Graceland Cemetery; the first relates to death and the cemetery itself and centers on questions about the connection between human and animal souls. What happens to our animals when we both die, will we eventually be reunited at the so-called Rainbow Bridge in the afterlife? The second lesson is about ghost dogs generally, and what they can tell us about the traits we assign to dogs in our society.
Of course, as pet owners we hope that if we die before our pets, that they will find love again and live out the rest of their days happily. However, we also widely share tales of a dog’s unceasing commitment. From Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh to Hachikō in Japan, we LOVE tales of an animal’s dedication to its owner, even after the owner’s death. It reinforces the idea of a spiritual bond between pet and person. It tells us that the connection is not one-sided, and that our fluffy companions feel as strongly about us as we do about them. That they can, it seems, sense the owners presence at a grave, implies that our pets know us at our very essence and love us so deeply that they would spend the rest of their days mourning us should we die first.
Then, of course, there is the more frequent variation of theme in which the owner outlives a beloved pet. A quick YouTube search “is my ghost pet visiting me?” yields dozens if not hundreds of videos filled with personal narratives and tips and tricks for how to tell if your deceased pet is visiting you from the beyond. A quick Google search yields websites for pet mediums across the world, here to help you connect with your deceased pet; to make meaning of tennis ball rolling across your house, or the glimpse of a shadow that looked like your cat. Clearly for many pet lovers, we lean into the hope of our pets undying love that lingers even after their bodies are gone.
Sometimes these stories of ghost pets are about horses, gerbils, or cats, but most frequently stories center on ghost dogs. This makes sense, as over the centuries we have ascribed loyalty to dogs as an essential attribute. In life, they will wait dutifully at a dead master’s grave for years, so it makes sense that in death, they would remain eternally loyal. In fact, some of the oldest ghost stories in the US center on this theme of loyalty.
One of the earliest ghost dog legends in the US is that of Charles Howard Sims’s blue tick hound dog in Port Tobacco, Maryland from the 1700s. The story goes that after a night of partying at a tavern, Sims was attacked -dog by his side- by a group of thieves wanting to steal the bag of gold Sims had loudly bragged about in the tavern. Both dog and owner fought valiantly, but both ultimately were killed in the attack. The thieves buried the gold, hoping to conceal it until the heat died down for the crime, but they were never able to retrieve it. Sims’ dog was loyal, even in death, and his ghost has stood for 200 years guarding the gold so that none but his master can take it.
The blue tick ghost dog is not a particularly scary story; unless you’re intent to scour the Maryland woods for a centuries-old treasure, but it is didactic in teaching us values. Sims drank excessively and in some tellings, was boastful about the treasure, which attracted the thieves, which serves as a lesson in moderation. Stealing and greed are, of course, inadvisable as well, as the thieves kill in vain for they are never able to retrieve the treasure. The last lesson is that a dog’s loyalty to his master is unflinching and unceasing; dogs are the ultimate companion and will die by your side and defend your belongings even after death.
Tales of ghost pets, rather than offering creepy scares, tend to offer comfort and speak to the pet and owner’s best attributes. The same can be found in some human-ghost experiences, where someone sees a loved one, or uses a medium or spiritualist to reach out to someone beyond the grave. When we lose someone we love- whether human or animal-we hope that isn’t really the end; that there is a lingering connection, and that we will see each other again one day.
As of publication, we have been unable to find any direct, firsthand accounts of the ghost dog at Wolff’s grave, so if you or anyone you know has seen the spectral dog, please email us at email@example.com.
If you or anyone you know has seen a ghost dog/hamster/cat/creature of whatever kind, please also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want them all!