Dozens of headstones vandalized in Forest Hill Cemetery Tuesday night, police say

August 10, 2018

Three dozen headstones on graves in Forest Hill Cemetery were vandalized Tuesday night, with some markers dating as far back as the 1800s heavily damaged.

The vandalism was discovered by a maintenance worker at the cemetery Wednesday morning.

“Some of the headstones were 5 feet tall,” said Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

About a dozen of the 36 headstones that were tipped over sustained damage, ranging from cracks to being totally shattered. Others had just been toppled from their bases.

Many of the vandalized headstones dated back to the late 1800s or early 20th century. Most were so worn by years of exposure or so covered in moss, lichen or other plant matter that names and dates couldn’t be made out.

The cemetery’s burial areas for Confederate soldiers and the Jewish faith were not targeted in the vandalism, DeSpain said.

“We believe it was random damage,” he said.

The vandalism happened in the northeastern part of the city-owned cemetery on the Near West Side, near the main entrance off Speedway Road.

Damaged headstones appeared to be contained to five of the cemetery’s 50 sections, said Ann Shea, spokeswoman for the Madison Parks Division, which oversees the cemetery.

“Madison Parks is very disappointed in the recent damage to headstones at Forest Hill Cemetery,” she said. “Staff are assessing the damage and will be working as quickly as possible on the repairs.”

The city will pay for any repairs, Shea said, adding that they don’t have cost estimates and are still assessing the damage and consulting with others to determine how to repair the headstones.

No other type of vandalism, such as graffiti spray painting, was discovered.

Shea said the Parks Division is working with police as the investigation continues.

Given the age of the headstones and records the city has, she said it’s unlikely the city will be able to contact relatives of those with damaged headstones.

The Parks Division has asked the police department to patrol the cemetery at night, Shea said.

Terrie Goren, executive director of Temple Beth El in Madison and treasurer of the Jewish Burial Association of Madison, went to assess the damage with Temple Beth El Rabbi Jonathan Biatch on Wednesday after they heard about the vandalism.

Although no headstones in the cemetery’s Jewish area were damaged, they said it was troubling that people would disrespect the dead by desecrating graves.

“We should all understand that you don’t do this,” Goren said. “It’s horrible. It’s upsetting.”

The cemetery is over 160 years old and has been a center of controversy since last year because of monuments commemorating the Confederate dead buried there.

Last August, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin ordered the removal of a plaque installed in 1981 that called dead Confederate soldiers buried at the cemetery after dying at Camp Randall as prisoners of war “valiant Confederate soldiers” and “unsung heroes.”

The Madison City Council voted in April to remove a separate stone monument erected in 1906 with the names of the 140 soldiers and woman who maintained their graves, but needs permission from the city’s Landmarks Commission first.

The commission is supposed to vote on the proposal at its Aug. 27 meeting.

Update hourly