Who is Dr. James Parmele whose tombstone wound up in a church basement?

Greater Milwaukee Today, July 2001

One of the things you won't find in downtown Milwaukee is a cemetery

By Laurie Arendt

Milwaukee, WIS. -- A drive through downtown Milwaukee will take you past towering office buildings, historic homes, an occasional coffeehouse or even a brewery. But one of the few things you won’t find downtown is a cemetery.

Says Sandy Ackerman, left, executive director of Historic Milwaukee. “Most of the city’s former cemeteries have been relocated simply because the space was needed for something else.” (Photo by Myke Ramsdale)

In other words, the living had a little more pull than the dead when it came to taking claim to primo downtown real estate. And obviously, there was no opposition from the cemetery inhabitants, who were predictably mum on the subject. Except perhaps two individuals, who may or may not still stake a small claim on their (somewhat) final resting place downtown.

“A few years ago, we had a troop of Boy Scouts doing an overnight in the church basement,” says the Rev. Debra Trakel of St. James Episcopal Church on Wisconsin Avenue. “And boys being boys, they were poking around and came across two tombstones.”

Trakel says that the discovery isn’t all so unusual. “We’ve always assumed that all of the interred were moved to Forest Home Cemetery—and they probably were—but these two tombstones were left behind,” she says. “The basement floor of the church is unfinished, and during the past 18 months, some tiny bits of bone have turned up in the dirt. That’s not unexpected when you think of how people were buried 150 years ago.”

So where exactly do the remains of Dr. John Parmele and Lydia Vinton reside? Rev. Trakel admits that it would be hard to know for sure, and though she personally avoids going in the basement, she doesn’t think that either Dr. Parmele or Ms. Vinton will be discovered anytime soon. “At this point, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that ashes to ashes, dust to dust has truly happened,” she concludes. “If they are down there, neither is probably in any form that we would recognize today.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 6, 2000


The basement of St. James Episcopal Church, 833 W. Wisconsin Ave.

By Jan Uebelherr

Milwaukee, WIS. -- Have you met Lydia?

No one at St. James Episcopal Church has, but they believe they hear from her once in a while. Lydia is Lydia Vinton, whose headstone was found in the church basement, once the site of a cemetery.

The city gave the land to the church, which moved the graves to Calvary Cemetery. Well, mostly.

They did a less-than-perfect job, as Rector Debra Trakel points out. Bits and pieces of cemetery -- bones, grave markers -- keep showing up. All of Lydia's tombstone is there (she died in 1839 at age 28), along with the marker of Dr. John Parmele, who died in 1844 at age 43.(Photo by Michael Sears)

They're in the dirt basement of the church, which is scattered with traps for rats or very big mice. City steam pipes overhead provide a moist environment. A doorway leads to a secret staircase to the altar. This was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

These days, when things go missing or a strange sound is heard, people blame Lydia. "We tease about Lydia," says Trakel. "I don't believe she's around, but there are those who do."

Perhaps she had a hand in the dramatic end of a recent tour there. While Trakel showed a photographer and reporter around the dirt cellar, the lights went off and the door closed. "Oh God," said Trakel. She and her party scurried to the door, which Trakel feared might have been locked by a church worker who didn't know someone was in there. The door was unlocked. When Trakel questioned workers in the nearby kitchen, they said they hadn't turned off the lights. Maybe it was a delivery man, they suggested.

The Milwaukee Sentinel of July 9, 1929, notes the discovery of four tombstones at the church by workmen erecting a new organ: "The three stones bear the date of 1839, and were all of persons who died before reaching the age of 40. Two other stones were found. One has the date of 1844, and the second only the initials J.A.W."

-- Lydia Vinton, wife of Edward Vinton, died July 19, 1839 at the age of 28.
-- Chester Danforth III died Sept. 3, 1839 at the age of 26.
-- James Scott died Sept. 15, 1839 at the age of 39.
-- and Dr. John Parmeli died Jan. 25, 1844 at the age of 43.

It is believed that the stones were discarded 68 years ago when the cemetery on the present site of the church was removed to Forest Home cemetery, according to the Rev. Charles T. Hawtrey, assistant rector of the church. The stones which have been used as a weight for the bellows of the present organ in the church probably were placed there about 30 years ago, he said.

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