the strange tale of the "italian bride"

The Haunting Story of Julia Buccola Petta

In Hillside, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, is Mount Carmel Cemetery. In addition to being the final resting place of Al Capone, Dion O'Banion and other notorious Chicago mobsters, the cemetery is also the burial place of a woman named Julia Buccola Petta. While her name may not spring to mind as a part of Chicago history, for those intrigued by the supernatural, she is better known as the "Italian Bride." Julia's grave is marked today by a life-sized statue of the unfortunate woman in her wedding dress, a stone reproduction of the wedding photo that is mounted on the front of her monument. While a beautiful monument, there is nothing about it to suggest that anything weird ever occurred in connection to it. However, once you know the history behind the site, it's soon realized that this is one of the weirdest tales in Chicago's annals of the unknown.

Julia was born on June 6, 1891, in Italy. Her father, George, passed away in 1913 and her mother, Filomena, emigrated to the United States with her daughter. They traveled to the west side of Chicago, where three other Buccola children – Henry, Joseph, and Rosalia – were already settled. In June 1920, Julia married Matthew Petta at Holy Rosary Church on North Damen Avenue. Julia became pregnant soon after the wedding, but complications occurred and on March 17, 1921, Julia died while giving birth to her son, Filippo. Because of the Italian tradition that dying in childbirth made the woman a type of martyr, Julia was buried in white, the martyrs' color. Her wedding dress also served as her burial gown and with her dead infant tucked into her arms, the two were laid to rest in a single coffin at Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Filomena Buccola was inconsolable over her daughter’s death. Shortly after Julia was buried, Filomena began to experience strange and terrifying dreams every night. In these nightmares, she envisioned Julia telling her that she was still alive and needed her help. For the next six years, the dreams plagued Filomena and she began trying, without success, to have her daughter's grave opened and her body exhumed. She was unable to explain why she needed to do this; she only knew that she should. Finally, through sheer persistence, her request was granted and a sympathetic judge passed down an order for Julia's exhumation.

  The postmortem photograph that was taken of Julia Buccola Petta after her grave was opened -- six years after her death. Her body had been completely preserved and those who touched her skin said that it was soft and pliable to the touch. 

The postmortem photograph that was taken of Julia Buccola Petta after her grave was opened -- six years after her death. Her body had been completely preserved and those who touched her skin said that it was soft and pliable to the touch. 

In 1927, six years after Julia's death, the casket was removed from the grave. When it was opened, Julia's body was found not to have decayed at all. In fact, it was said that her flesh was still as soft as it had been when she was alive. A photograph was taken at the time of the exhumation and shows Julia's "incorruptible" body in the casket. Filomena set out to raise money for a more elaborate tombstone. The finished work would be a grandiose tribute to her dead daughter—a life-size sculpture of Julia on her wedding day.

Her mother, and other admirers, affixed the postmortem photo of Julia on the front of her grave monument. Below the image is the Italian phrase “Presa Dopo 6 Anni Morta,” which roughly translates to “taken 6 years after death.” A photo of Julia in her bridal gown, presumably the inspiration for the statue, was also fastened to the stone.

The postmortem photograph shows a body that appears to be fresh, with no discoloration of the skin, even after six years. The rotted and decayed appearance of the coffin in the photo however, bears witness to the fact that it had been underground for some time. Julia appears to be merely sleeping. Her family took the fact that she was found to be so well preserved as a sign from God and so, after collecting money from other family members and neighbors, they created the impressive monument that stands over her grave today.

What mysterious secret rests at the grave of Julia Petta? How could her body have stayed in perfect condition after lying in the grave for six years?

Many devout Catholics in the neighborhood believed that Julia’s “incorruptibility” meant that she was a saint. Skeptics scoffed at the idea, claiming that the postmortem photo must have been taken before she was originally buried – although this doesn’t explain the condition of the casket or the decomposition of the infant that is nestled in her arms. Another explanation was attributed to adipocere, also known as “corpse wax” -- “a waxy substance consisting chiefly of fatty acids and calcium soaps that is formed during decomposition of dead body fat in moist or wet anaerobic conditions.” In other words, the shape and state of Julia’s body was preserved by a natural process.

Of course, these explanations did little to dispel the local belief that Julia’s preserved body was proof of a miracle. But was it really? There were stories that have since been told about her mother, Filomena, questioning the reality of her dreams. There were those who claimed that she fabricated the entire story as retaliation for a marriage of which she did not approve. She never liked Matthew Petta, the stories say, and this story is given some credence by the fact that Julia’s married name does not appear on the grave monument – only Buccola.

But even if Filomena lied about her nightmares to gain sympathy from the community and to help finance the building of the elaborate monument – how does this explain the postmortem photograph? The photo of Julia in her casket – six years after her death – appears to be real. It has defied explanation for nearly a century.

And that’s not the end of this odd story. Reports have been told over the years of a ghostly “woman in white” who has been seen wandering at the edge of the cemetery where she rests. Stories claim to have seen her in the daytime and at night and many who know the story of Julia Petta believe that this is her restless spirit. One eerie tale that was told involved a young boy who was accidentally left behind at the cemetery, not far from Julia’s grave. When they returned to Mount Carmel to look for him, they saw him holding the hand of a dark-haired young woman in a white dress. When the boy ran toward his parents, the woman in white disappeared.

The story of the “Italian Bride” lives on today. It’s the story of a woman who became more famous in death than she ever was in life – a prime ingredient for many eerie tales.

 

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