Cincinnati is an odd gem of a city with buried history. Literally. Assuming an appropriate starring role in downtown’s macabre history is Music Hall, and it has taken its part very seriously over the years, even when the living preferred to forget.
It hosts America’s second longest continuously-run opera company, world-renowned performers, the CSO, and a bunch of ghosts and skeletons. Most guests have no idea they’re enjoying a night at the opera over a disorganized collection of asylum patients’ and orphans’ remains.
As with any city, Cincinnati has built over itself many, many times. And Music Hall’s story begins before it was even an architect’s dream.
It all began with the land.
The fact is, the South portion of the building stands over a graveyard, and not just any graveyard – a potter’s field. And not just any potter’s field. Once upon a time, the Commercial Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. The place ran out of room quickly during outbreaks of tuberculosis in the city, and the hospital used the land to quickly dispose of bodies. In addition to the poor souls who did not survive treatment at the hospital, the potter’s field fed on the bodies of immigrants, travelers, and anyone too poor to afford a good lot at Spring Grove Cemetery. Unidentified bodies also found their way in.
Then, in 1830, the Cincinnati Orphan Asylum bought the land (and presumably continued to fill it with bodies). By the time plans for a new music hall came to fruition, the potter’s field was well planted.
Although many remains from the rediscovered potter’s field found their way to Spring Grove Cemetery when excavators first broke ground for Music Hall, it seemed like anytime someone stuck a trowel in the dirt around that building, they find someone new. Workers quickly gave up trying to move the bodies during initial construction. They did not make proper notes to warn future generations of the audience below ground.
Over sixty bodies remained buried under the south wing, where builders stumbled across them in 1927. Earlier that same year, three bodies – including a young girl’s – were consigned to the bottom of the new elevator shaft, because construction teams decided removing them before pouring concrete was too much trouble. Again, no one thought to document these choices in any meaningful way.
By 1988, the casual reburials had been secreted away in the swath of folklore already saturating the building. Needless to say, excavators sinking a new elevator shaft were fairly alarmed to find a trove of bones. They were so surprised they called the cops, likely assuming that they had stumbled upon the lair of a serial killer. Although the old souls of the potter’s field finally saw the light of day again, it didn’t take the city long to forget.
During the recent renovations, even more bodies turned up, and this time the discoveries made international news. Bodies rose from the orchestra pit, and construction teams found additional burial shafts beneath the building.
It’s little wonder Music Hall has a staggering number of reported ghost sightings and supernatural encounters. Staff often hear music in the elevator shaft after hours, children point out other kids their parents can’t see, and photographers capture strange images on film.
But, spooks or no spooks, the history of Music Hall – and the fact that it still stands guard over potentially hundreds of unknown graves – makes it one of the most unusual theaters in the world.
Author bio: M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness most often found in dark corners of obscure places accompanied by her black dog, Shuck.