A long-lost cemetery, forgotten burial ground disturbed by a construction project, and mass graves are often the setting for horror stories. After all, most of us expect our mortal remains to lie peacefully in the ground, visited by relatives and loved ones. When those remains are disturbed, we imagine spirits of the departed to rise up and voice their displeasure. The macabre history of McBurney Park in Kingston, Ontario, is like a perfect storm of cemetery-themed horror. Locally known as “Skeleton Park,” this 4-acre plot of land was once a burial ground for mostly Scottish and Irish immigrants. Approximately 10,000 were buried here between 1813 and 1865.
The park is located between Balaclava, Alma, and Ordnance streets, just a few blocks northeast of downtown Kingston. Burials began informally in 1816, but it officially became known as the Common or Upper Burial Grounds in 1825. The cemetery quickly filled due to several epidemics, including a devastating a typhus outbreak in the 1840s. Corpses were buried quickly, sometimes just a few feet below the surface. Many of these hasty burials fell victim to a criminal ring called the Restrictionists, who sold bodies to medical students at Queens University. They sometimes filled the empty coffins with rocks to prevent sagging in the soil and the discovery of their crimes.
If this indignity was not enough, by 1893 the burial ground was in a serious state of decay. It was overgrown with weeds, and most of the headstones had been knocked down by roaming cattle. The City of Kingston decided to turn it into a park, and asked relatives of the deceased to pay for their disinterment and reburial. Only around a hundred bodies were ever moved. When the American consul heard that victims of typhoid were being dug up, he threatened the close the port if it did not cease. He was afraid the disinterment would lead to a new outbreak.
Despite this setback, the City of Kingston went through with their plans anyway, and simply flattened the remaining headstones and planted grass over them. Only one monument, an obelisk dedicated to the city’s first Presbyterian minister, remains standing. In the 1950s, neighbourhood boys began to dig up skulls from the park and mount them on their bicycles. They also used headstones for bases. When the city installed playground equipment and a wading pool, construction crews accidentally dug up more human remains. Today, there are two markers commemorating the dead buried just beneath the surface of the park.
All this activity naturally led to ghost stories. According to Glen Shackleton, author of Ghosts of Kingston, many neighbourhood residents have reported strange encounters. Two students, unaware of the area’s history, rented an apartment on Ordnance Street. They quickly realised there was something unusual about the nearby park, especially after one of the young woman had a vision of a fog-shrouded cemetery one evening. Disturbing events began to occur in their apartment as well. “Both women began to feel a cold chill whenever they were there alone, and at other times experienced the feeling of being trapped or boxed in,” Shackleton wrote. “They sensed a strange presence… and on several occasions they and some visitors reported hearing the sound of a man and a woman whispering to each other very close by.” They described the presence as dark and sinister.
To all outward appearances, McBurney Park is a pleasant place to bring the family on a warm summer afternoon. After nightfall, however, “Skeleton Park” comes alive with legends. Protruding corners of broken headstones reach out from the grass as reminders of a grim and painful history. Visitors must remain respectful and remember that thousands of people remain buried just below the surface. You never know what angry spirits you may unintentionally disturb.