The Italian Bride of Chicago: The Exhumation of Julia Buccola-Petta

The Italian Bride of Chicago: The Exhumation of Julia Buccola-Petta

The topic of a well-preserved corpse known as the “Italian Bride” which became a tourist attraction is discussed by writer Randal A. Burd, Jr.

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The resurrection of Lazarus is a story universally known to those who believe in miracles; however, it seems a miracle involving the dead does not necessarily require triumph over death and return to an earthly life. The mere preservation of a corpse over an extended period is, to some, a sign of sainthood. Such was the case with 29-year-old Julia Beccola-Petta, an Italian immigrant living in the Chicago suburbs who died in childbirth in 1921.

Julia Buccola-PettaWhen Matthew Petta’s young wife died in childbirth with their stillborn son, Filippo, she was clothed in her wedding dress and buried with the baby in Mount Carmel Cemetery, located just outside of Chicago, Illinois, in the suburb of Hillside. According to the family legend, Julia’s mother, Filomena, was troubled for years by dreams where Julia seemed to be trying to communicate that she was still alive. Filomena Buccola was so disturbed by these dreams she had the grave opened and Julia’s body exhumed.

The mud-covered casket was opened to reveal the body of Julia in quiet repose, seemingly unchanged from the day she was buried. The corpse of her stillborn son, Filippo had decayed, but depending upon the source, Julia’s body was either completely untouched by decomposition, or was untouched saved for the arm which held the child. One source claims the skin was found to be soft to the touch, and the cheeks were still red. It was after this exhumation that a new monument was placed on the grave, featuring a statue carved in Italy of Julia in her wedding dress, the photo from which this statue was created, and a photograph of Julia in her coffin, showing a corpse immaculately preserved after six years interred.

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There is disagreement as to the validity of several aspects of Julia’s story. One version of the story falsely contends that Julia died on her wedding night as opposed to during childbirth. However, marriage and death records indicate Julia died nine months after she was married in Chicago to Matthew Petta. Despite an Italian inscription upon the post-mortem tombstone photo claiming the photo was taken six years after her death, some have claimed the photo was taken before she was buried. The photograph on the tomb shows a damaged coffin, freshly dug dirt in the background, and the absence of a baby’s corpse, all of which along with the inscription seem to indicate the photo actually does show Julia’s remains six years after her death.

The scientific community is predictably skeptical about claims of incorruptible corpses. While some followers of the Catholic faith tradition see the lack of decomposition as a sign of saintliness, scientists are quick to suggest such specimens are simply examples of adipocere, or “grave wax.” Corpses with this condition retain their shape but undergo a chemical transformation which gives them a consistency similar to cheese.

The legend surrounding Julia Buccola-Petta goes beyond the physical condition of her exhumed body. In addition to appearance in her mother’s dream, others have seen the ghostly presence of a woman in a wedding dress inhabiting the graveyard. Researchers have attempted to learn more about this Italian-born housewife who immigrated to the United States with the rest of her family in 1913, but as in many cases, the most thorough of genealogical research does not reveal all the answers.

Bottom Line

Julia Buccola-Petta was an Italian immigrant who died in childbirth in 1921 at the age of 29. Her grave has become somewhat of a tourist attraction after she was exhumed six years later and found to be in a remarkably well-preserved condition.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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