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Monday, May 12, 2017

My HH Holmes Victims Master List

The things one hears about HH Holmes killing hundreds of people mostly came from 1940s pulps. Same with the stuff about him killing people who came to town for the World's Fair - a couple of out-of-town papers suggested that he could have done that, but no one close to the case had much reason to suspect it. About the only known probably who came to see the fair and was killed is Anna Williams.  The commonly quoted figure of 200 came around in the 1940s, and wasn't really based on any new evidence. It was just the story getting wilder - these days it seems to go up by another hundred every Halloween.

Holmes confessed to 27 killings in his 1896 confession; he wrote two versions of it, one for the Philadelphia Inquirer and an edited version for the New York Journal (contrary to popular belief, the Inquirer was not a Hearst paper, but a rather respectable one, neither version contained the line "I was born with the devil in me."). Both versions are notoriously unreliable - some people he confessed to killing weren't even dead. Others didn't exist in the first place. Others still weren't named or described at all, so it's hard to check out the details.

In reality, there are just nine commonly accepted victims, plus a handful of "possible" victims, some of which are much more likely to be real than others. Skeptic that I am, I'd even consider some of the accepted ones "maybes."

 Here's my list:


Ben Pietzel
Alice Pietzel
Nellie Pietzel
Howard Pietzel
Julia Conner

Ben was the only one he was convicted of killing, though he surely would have been convicted of killing the children had he been brought to trial for them.   Julia Conner is perhaps a bit more of "maybe,"  since her body was never found, but at the time of Holmes's execution, one of his attorneys, DT Duncombe, said that Holmes had told him he'd killed Julia. Duncombe comes off as a real sleazeball in the one interview with him I've ever found.

There were apparently photos of Emeline;
papers describe one like this as well as
another one, but I think they're lost now.

These are people who were found to be missing and never really turned up, but no bodies were found, and it's hard to say with certainty that Holmes did the killing personally:

Pearl Conner
Emeline Cigrand
Minnie Williams
Anna Williams

There were some suggestions that Minnie and Emeline were actually in hiding and some evidence that Holmes tried to pawn Pearl off to a new family after her mother's disappearance. Even if they were dead, there's no way to be certain that Holmes killed them himself, rather than farming the work out to Ben Pietzel or Patrick Quinlan. All signs point to Holmes killing them, though. The bones found in the castle basement were quite likely Pearl's.

Only the first couple (plus Julia) are likely to have been killed in the "castle." The Pietzels were all killed far off-site, and the Williams sisters are just as likely to have been killed at their apartment on the North side.


The above nine are about it for commonly-accepted victims, really. The other stories of people he killed come mainly from hearsay and speculation. However, here's my cheat sheet of "possible" victims. These are people newspapers floated as possible victims in the 1890s, people Holmes confessed to killing (his "confession" was mostly nonsense), and others whose names have come up in recent years. I've left out people he confessed to killing who were really still alive, who didn't really exist, etc. Some more details about some of them are in the new expanded Murder Castle ebook.
Emily Van Tassel; newspapers
drew her, but her photograph
doesn't seem to survive, either.

Emily Van Tassel - a girl who worked at Frank Wild's candy store on Milwaukee Avenue; police considered her a "maybe" as of 1895. Frank Wild was said to have been Holmes (or one of his confederates), and he spoke of her in the confession (though in one version he called her Anna Van Tassaud and in one he called her Rossine Van Jassand, for some reason).

John DuBrueil  - the rich guy who apparently loaned money to Holmes, then died in the castle drug store in 1891. See our recent post on him. 

Elizabeth DuBrueil - John's wife died about 18 months after he did. Both names were floated as possibly victims by a Chicago papers in 1895, though the family was not suspicious. They may have been too busy scheming to get the money on their own to want to bring anyone else into it; the lawsuit over the estate was a real mess, and was still going on when Holmes was arrested.
Katy Gorky - mentioned in papers as running the castle restaurant.  Probably actually Katie Durkie, a friend of Holmes's wife who Holmes later confessed to killing (though she was really still alive).

"Liz" - a domestic mentioned by the papers said to have disappeared along with her daughter, though few details were given, and the story was not really investigated. Holmes eventually claimed her as a victim in his confession, though he didn't give a last name. Sometimes said to be Katy Gorky's sister. This story went around for a while, then disappeared without much follow-up. Holmes mentioned her in the confession.

Liz's Daughter - as above

Charles Whitney - a Chicago-based traveling salesman who died in NY, and whose obit was said to have been played by Holmes and Pietzel, who took copies in order to show them to an insurance office. Newspapers called him a victim for a day, but the widow denied the whole thing and said the obit had been placed by someone who definitely wasn't Holmes or Pietzel. His story came out in 1894, when Holmes was just as likely to have been suspected of faking the death.

"Miss Wild" - mentioned by papers; probably a reference to Emily Van Tassell, who worked at Frank Wild's Candy Story (Frank Wild was thought to have been Holmes).

Mabel Barrett - a Boston woman who vanished after a couple persuaded her to go to New York and open a manicure shop on 6th Avenue. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser, her friends identified Holmes and Minnie Williams from pictures as the couple.  The case was not taken very seriously.

Horace Williams - a brother of Minnie and Annie who died in Denver, possibly under suspicious circumstances. There was some reason to suspect Holmes was involved, but that it was Ben Pietzel who did the actual deed.

Dr. Russler - Holmes mentioned killing this guy in the confession, and some papers said he'd disappeared from Englewood in 1892. A couple of papers reported on it for a day or two in 1895, but never in depth.
The Times Herald of 8/1/1895 on Walker. There
was never any follow-up that I know of.

Harry Walker - a guy from Indiana who was persuaded to go to work in Chicago by a guy who registered in hotels as "Waldo Bankhorn," then disappeared. Walker's friends suspected Holmes, though police don't seem to have taken the theory seriously. I hate to say that I hope it was true, because I'd hate for Harry to have been killed, but I would love to be able to add "Waldo Bankhorn" to the list of Holmes aliases.

Mrs. Kron - a woman who was brutally murdered in the early 1890s in her home, which was near Holmes's house in Wilmette. When stories of Holmes came to light, many suggested that he'd been involved in this one, as all. Police scoffed, as brutal murders weren't Holmes style; one even said "Holmes was a scientific killer....You might as well connect him with the Jack the Ripper horrors in London!" Ripper theorists can make of that what they will. :)

Harry Graham - the original fiance of Myrta Belknap, Holmes' second wife. Little is known about him or his death, really, but any death that Holmes benefits from make this list, since his death freed Mytra up to marry him.

George Thomas - an apparent insurance dupe in Mississippi; supposedly, Holmes and Pietzel took him out in a swamp in June, 1894 and disposed of the body there in order to defraud the insurance company. It was generally believed that Pietzel did the dirty work, but there was apparently some evidence (ie, Hotel registers) to back the story up, and Myrta Holmes got involved herself with paying for the sherrif of Columbus, MISS to go to Philadelphia to meet with Holmes about it. But the story never had legs; after being in several papers on Aug 17, 1895, it sort of disappeared. Papers said Mytra had found a "confession" about this in the castle, but the confession wasn't published. There are enough details for this one that I'd make it a stronger "maybe" than the others.

Robert Phelps - Emeline Cigrand's supposed fiance, whom Holmes said she had run off to marry when she disappeared, is sometimes listed as a victim; he probably never existed at all (the guy she was having an affair with was probably Holmes himself, though accounts of who she was dating and what she was like differed).
The death certificate for Virginia Anna Betts
doesn't prove Holmes guilt, but doesn't disprove it, either.
Anna Betts - Holmes confessed to killing her with poison medicine; her death certificate indicates that she lived and died right near the castle and died a few days after suddenly collapsing (which is usually what "apoplexy" meant then).

William Wooten - a rich guy who died in California; annotated newspaper clippings found in a warehouse indicated that Holmes had some sort of interest in the case.

William Green - Ray Johnson has worked more on this angle than I have; Green was an Englishman who was in the cement game. Holmes worked with (and was later sued by him). We're not totally sure that Green wasn't Holmes himself under an alias, though. He disappears from the record around the time of Holmes's death, though his name is common enough to make him hard to trace.

Gerald Riddle - a young Englishman Holmes and Green apparently swindled out of seven thousand bucks; he was supposed to go to the states with Green, but may have actually been killed instead, with Holmes traveling back to the states under Riddle's name. This is another one Ray has more data on than I do.

Robert Leacock - a medical school colleague Holmes claimed to have killed in his confession. We know that he was a real person and that he was dead by 1896, but the exact circumstances of his death are not currently known. Foul play doesn't seem to have been suspected.

Gertrude Conner - Julia's sister-in-law worked for Holmes, then went home to Iowa and died about six weeks later. One of Holmes' friends actually said "Holmes, you've killed her!" to which Holmes replied, "Oh, pooh - what makes you say that?" Holmes later confessed to having killed her. However, his "confession" was way off on the known facts - she died much later after going home than he implied, and her doctor personally refuted the stories that foul play had been involved; she had died of heart trouble. Some suggest a slow-acting poison, perhaps the same used on Anna Betts?
I can't claim that this list is complete - I'm sure plenty of other provincial papers listed names of people who had gone to Chicago and never returned, as well, with suggestions that perhaps they were killed by Holmes.

However, the other 180-odd people in the common "200 people" estimate pretty much come out of nowhere, as does the occasional claim that fifty-five missing people could be traced to the castle (I think Herbert Asbury made that figure up in the 1940s). A few newspapers speculated that he could have been preying on World's Fair victims (mostly out of town papers), but evidence that he actually did was slim. Holmes was not the "Driven to kill" serial killer he's normally portrayed as; he was more of a swindler who occasionally found it necessary (or profitable) to kill people. More Walter White than Hannibal Lector.

I may elaborate on this stuff in an ebook or something one of these days. There are a few cases above that I've never really dug into. I'll edit the post over time and make notes of changes.

A few people have been removed from the list in recent years. The Holtons, the couple who ran the pharmacy where Holmes worked in the 1880s, were on the list once, but that mystery has been solved and they're now known to have survived Holmes by several years. Their example shows that some of these mysteries can still be tied up, and hopefully we can learn more some day!

More of my Holmes research is in ebooks:



The Three Confessions
of H.H Holmes
(full analysis of the confessions).

Thursday, May 8, 2017

The Man Who Died in the Holmes Murder Castle: John DuBrueil, 1823-1891

Over the winter I went on a quest to catalog and document ALL of the HH Holmes sources I could find here in town that weren't available online - lawsuit records, defunct Chicago papers, etc. The best of the Chicago papers constitute the best primary sources we have on the Chicago angle of the case, and much of the info there is widely unknown in Holmes circles. The stories one usually hears about him come more from 1890s tabloids and (especially) 1940s pulps.

One story that came up in a few Chicago papers has puzzled me some: the story of John DeBruell, the man who died in the "Holmes castle" in full view of several witnesses.
Detail of the Times Herald of Oct 1, 1895
On August 1st, 1895, when Holmes stories were just starting to fall off the front page of most papers, the Chicago Times Herald, mentioned that the recent investigations at the castle had sparked renewed interest in the story of a John DeBrueil, who died in the "castle" drug store on April 17, 1891, after "having been stricken with apoplexy" near the place. In 1890s talk, this usually just meant that he had suddenly collapsed and died.  According to the Herald, DuBruell had furnished Holmes with the first chunk of money to build the place (which, at the time, was probably only two stories; he borrowed three grand from Dr. MB Lawrence to expand).  Though bumping people off because he owed them money wasn't out of line for Holmes, he was not considered a suspect here; the Herald said that "While Holmes borroed considerable money from DuBruell....none of the DuBruell relatives and heirs in Englewood believe that (Holmes) had anything to with the sudden death of either Mr. Mrs. DuBrueil, whose lives were insured.

The Times Herald may have told a slightly longer version of this a week or so before, when they spoke to a man named Ben Nixon who had worked in the castle's jewelry store. He recalled the one day "a man stepped from a suburban train..and fell in front of Holmes' store in some kind of a fit. Holmes poured a dark liquid down his throat and the man died. He lived in the neighborhood."  Nixon thought it was suspicious, and wondered at the time if the man had been insured. "Holmes was regarded even then as a fellow who would do anything for money."  This sounds like the same story as above.

 From genealogy sites I do see that a Canada-born man named "John L. Dubreuil" died April 18, 1891 in Chicago at the age of 68, but the death certificate doesn't seem to be scanned. He was buried in Thornton, a small town on the far south side of the Chicago metro area. Presumably, he's the same John Dubreuil from Canada was living as a farmer in Lyon (a west suburb) in the 1860 census with three people named Bouchard, and the one who was living in Indiana during the Civil War draft a few years later. He married his wife, Elizabeth, in 1876 in Englewood. She was ten years his junior.

Though his death doesn't seem to have made the Tribune, there is an article from 1894 in the Trib talking about the bitter fight over the DuBrueil estate. According to the artcile, Elizabeth had died in September, 1892, leaving an estate valued at half a million bucks - there was a movement in place to remove Eddie DuBrueil, a son who was living in Englewood, from his position as executor of the estate.

That Holmes would try to kill a person with that kind of money, with the intention of getting it for himself, seems reasonable enough. That Holmes was after people's life insurance money is pretty well known, though he wasn't as good at it is he's often made out to be. It's commonly said that he was good at talking people into buying insurance and making him the benefactor, but primary sources really only indicate that he tried to do this a lot. No one seems to have been dumb enough to fall for it. Ben Pietzel came the closest, in that he bought a huge policy, but Holmes wasn't the benefactor; he got the loot by swindling the widow.
This may well have been Holmes' plan here: he'd kill off the guy, make his widow rich off the insurance (though they must have been well off already; I don't think got half a million in insurance back then, when Ben Pietzel's 10k plan was pretty remarkable), then seduce or kill her and get the money for himself. But no one close to the case seems to have suspected it much at the time, so it may just be wild speculation. If they'd had any reason to go after Holmes for money still owed as of 1895, they probably would have done it.

The basic facts don't all add up to murder here - Holmes pouring a dark liquid down the guy's throat sounds awfully suspicious, but the idea that he could have arranged for him to collapse right in the store, right after stepping off the train, seems a bit less plausible. Maybe he just saw an opportunity and went for it?

I couldn't find any info on how Mrs. DuBruiel died, and I haven't checked the defunct papers from the dates around John's death to see if it was reported at the time, or if anyone seemed supsicious at the time.  This would have been months before Julia Conner became the first person to disappear from the castle, but Holmes DOES seem to have been thought of as a swindler, at the very least.

The lawsuit over the estate seems to have been based in Crown Point, Indiana, so it'd be tough for me to see how the whole thing turned out, but they still had all of the money as of Oct, 1894, by which point Holmes was out of town, so if he killed John DuBrueil to get his cash, he seems to have failed!

The story is mentioned in our new expanded Murder Castle ebook, along with much of the rest of the stuff I found over the winter.

Friday, May 2, 2017

Marble Mildred, a Forgotten Murderer

In 1945, a book entitled Chicago Murders was published, featuring several stories of Chicago killings submitted by various authors. One section, "The Case of HH Holmes" by John Bartlow Martin, was an early retelling that may have served as a model for Herbert Asbury and a Harper's writer's own retellings a couple of years later, which pretty well fixed the story of Holmes as we usually hear it now. It was the first account I'2013/11/hh-holmes-and-mysterious-dr-holton.html">(an oft-retold story that our research here proved was completely wrong). 

The next story in the book is "The Almost Indesctrucible Husband" by Nellise Child, the pen name of Lillian Gerard, who, two decades before, had become the most famous flapper in Chicago under the name Lillian Collier (one of our favorite topics).  Here, she told the story of Mildren Bolton, who came within half an hour of being the first woman ever to be executed in Chicago.
Joseph Bolton
"Usually, when a man shoots a woman," she wrote, "he attempts his own life. When a woman shoots a man, she seems to think that's enough for one day."

Mildred Bolton is almost completely forgotten today - I only saw one article about her online, and it was riddled with inaccuracies, right down to getting the name of her victim wrong. Hers is way too interesting a tale to have vanished so thoroughly from the record.

When police were called to apprehend Mildred during a fight with her estranged husband in 1936, there was nothing unusula about the call. THey'd been called about her several times. Even though she and Joseph Bolton were separated, and he was trying to obtain a divorce, she was known to become horribly jealous if she thought a woman had so much as looked at Joseph. Only days before, police had been called in when she shouted that a woman in a hotel was a whore, and her son a degenerate, because they had been up in the latest hotel where Joseph was hiding. He had been changing hotels regularly, trying to keep away from Mildred.

This time, though, Joseph was lying on the floor of his office, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. When an elevator operator stood between Mildred and Joseph, Mildred stepped to the side to get a better view of the writhing man, insisting that he was only faking it to get attention. Even when he died in the hospital, she remained calm and casual, stating "the just don't convict women for killing in Cook County."

She wasn't entirely right. Though it was widely known that women who killed men usually got off the hook entirely in Chicago, especially if they were pretty, at least a few had been sentenced to life in prison. It was true, though, that Chicago had never executed a woman.

Mildred remained flippant as the case went to trial. She joked with the press, told people that her attorney's name was "Horsefeathers," offered to babysit the prosecuting attorney's children, and, though she admitted she made a mistake by not destroying her receipt for the gun, she said "I'll get around that." She even expected to get around the fact that Joseph had clearly not shot himself, as she said he had, seeing as how two of the bullets had entered from the back, and none had been fired at a close enough range to leave powder burns.

Like many killers of both genders, Mildred received a lot of fan mail, much of it from women who said they'd have killed their own husbands years ago if they only had the nerve. Some fans came to visit her in prison, and Mildred cheerfully sent them on errands to buy her things.

These, though, were all people who didn't know her. Among those who did, not a witness could be found who could testify in her defense. Instead, a parade of nearly four dozen witnesses came through to describe clashes they'd seen between Mildred and Joseph over the years, many of which ended with Joseph bleeding and fearing for his life. Her antics had cost him several jobs.

"Marble Mildred" claimed that all of the witnesses, down to the coroner, were simply lying, but when she finally came to the stand herself, she admitted everything. She said she had gone to Joseph's office that day to embarrass him by killing herself, but had ended up shooting him instead.

She was found guilty and sentenced to be the first woman in Chicago to die in the electric chair, though the judge noted that he personally opposed the death penalty, stating that the idea that "a debt to society can be paid by a human body chilled by death is a philosophy encrusted with social futility."

Mildred was half an hour from death - they had already shaved part of her head and dressed in a special "bloomer suit" to preserve her modesty - when the governor commuted her sentence to 199 years in prison. She served six of them before committing suicide in jail.    You can read Lillian Collier / Nellise Child's full account of her story in the book Chicago Murders


Thursday, May 1, 2017

The Mysterious Virginia Harrison, Lillian Collier's "aid"

Now that we'2014/04/more-lillian-collier-data-and-clues.html"> mystery of Lillian Collier: The Vanishing Flapper, we're left with another mystery: what was the deal with Virginia Harrison, her "aid?"
Virginia Harrison, left, with Lillian
Collier, Feb, 1922, in the Tribune
When the Wind Blew Inn, a bohemian tea room, was raided on February 13, 1922, the police arrested 40 patrons, as well as Lillian Collier, the owner, and Virginia Harrison, who was variously described in the press as Lillian's aid, assistant, partner, employee, or sister (some modern commentators have assumed that "aid" was code for "girlfriend."). They were both listed as living in the same building as the tea room, though by April Lillian's address was given as 545 N. Michigan, around the corner from the place. Between Feb 13 and April 21, the place was raided several times, and Lillian (who claimed to be friends with Mayor Thompson) successfully received a writ banning the cops from interfering with her.

Lillian took to complaining that "cops are here oftener than customers." "They simply come in droves;" she told the Journal. "And it is hard to distinguish between them and guests, except that the cops....never take off their hats. My! I nearly insulted a customer a while ago. An absent-minded old gentleman sat down without removing his hat. I told him, 'if you cops're going to hang around here you'll have to eat and be merry and take off your hats!' My, but he was indignant! 'Madam,' he said - and I just hate to be called 'madam' - "madam, you confuse me.' Of course, I apologized and told him my latest joke." She told a judge that she ran a strictly decent place, and that she believed it was the finest restaurant ever built into an old gasoline station (Though later patrons admitted that the 75 cent cups of "tea" were not really tea).

Cops certainly did make trouble, and teased her in court, saying that they used only candle-light because it "saved on dishwashing costs." A few cops were said to be laughing when the place burned down in April, 1922 (Lillian opened a new, slicker version right next to the police station on LaSalle to save them the trip, but it wasn't a success - it was too "nice" for the bohemian crowd).

One paper said it was Virginia Harrison who told the judge "There is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn," the most famous line from the whole affair. She was often photographed alongside Lillian, and was her co-defendant at the bizarre trial in March, 1922, when the two of them were sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure their bohemianism.

A few weeks later, The Wind Blew Inn burned down. The Tribune said that Lillian blamed puritan arsonists.  In other papers, though, she seemed to be putting the blame on none other than Virginia Harrison!

It seems that in the weeks that followed their strange sentencing, the two of them had a falling out of some sort. By April 21, the night of the fire, Virginia was described as a disgruntled former employee who had been heard making threats, and who may have even been seen around the place with a can of gasoline. Lillian herself was brought in for questioning, but when it turned out she had no insurance on the place, she was absolved of all blame, and police began to focus on looking for Virginia Harrison.
Virginia in the
Chicago American
Here her story seems to end. I'm not sure whether they ever found her or what. One paper said that she was also known as Jean Lawrence (whether that or Virginia Harrison was her real name is hard to guess). Either name is common enough that she's pretty hard to trace.

So what became of her? Was she Lillian's girlfriend (or trying to be?) I can imagine a scenario in which she was in love with Lillian, but Lillian wasn't actually into girls, and Virginia torched the place after being rejected... but that's usually the sort of story that happens in bad TV dramas that risk get boycotted by GLBT groups!   Her antics and quotes certainly didn't attract as much media attention as Lillian's own did - papers rarely quoted her directly or spoke about her adventures in flagpole sitting, etc.  Other than possibly being the source of the "snugglepupping" line (which other papers credited to Lillian), it's Lillian who gets all the best quotes in the articles, and who was later remembered in many reminisces of Chicago bohemia.
Above: Virginia, right, with a rather unflattering shot of Lillian! This is from a
Chicago Journal article noting that Virginia was wanted for questioning.

Tomorrow, we'll examine the case of Mildred Bolton, a forgotten murderer that Lillian wrote about in the 1940s under her pen name, Nellise Child!

Tuesday, April 22, 2017

Lillian Collier: Mystery Solved!

Since the story of Lillian Collier, the flapper who seemed to disappear from the record in 1924, figures heavily into the rough draft of my new novel, I doubled my efforts to find out the rest of her story - and I'm pleased to say that I have finally solved the mystery of what happened to her!

above: Lillian in a
1921 flagpole sitting
Just to refresh your memory, Lillian was the 20 year old owner of The Wind Blew Inn, an early 20s bohemian dive at Michigan and Ohio, where the Eddie Bauer is now. She was arrested for hosting "petting parties" and playing loud "syncopated 'blues' piano" music, and either she or her "aid," Virginia Harrison, told the judge "there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn." She covered the nude statues in the place with overalls and told reporters that she was trying to convert Chicagoans to the gospel of high art.  She and Virginia were sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure them of their bohemian ideals (in a case that should have become a landmark event in the early history of post-suffrage feminism).

A couple of years later Lillian was interviewed for a widely-circulated article entitled Is Today's Girl Becoming a Savage? in which she defended flappers as vanguards of a new era of freedom and opportunity for women.  After that, though, she simply vanished from the record. It was only recently that I found an article on microfiche that gave her mother's name, which led to a census form and some other records, though still nothing from after 1924.

Recently, I ran across what may have been her father's World War 2 draft card - a guy with her father's name (Meyer Lieberman) and statistics (place and date of birth, anyway), matching up to his.  There were a lot of people named Meyer Lieberman, so you have to be careful.

His closest contact info was one Mrs. Lillian Gerard. In the 1930 census, Lillian and Franklin Gerard were in L.A. with Lillan's mother, who was listed as Natalie Bensonson. Bensonson, I knew from other records, was Lillian Collier's mother's maiden name. Her name was Nellie, not Natalie, but mistakes like that are common in the census, and since Meyer and Nellie were divorced by 1930, it's possible she had gone back to her maiden name.

 On the 1940 census, Lillian Gerard was going by "Lilli" and had a baby son named Frank Gerard Jr. The form said she was self-employed as a writer.

The mother's maiden name was a strong clue, and I'd suspected that she ended up in Los Angeles (there was a news item saying a woman named Lillian Collier was going to be in a Chaplin film). Looking for info on a writer named Lillian Gerard broke the case wide open, and I was able to put the pieces together.  Lillian Collier became Lillian Gerard at some point in the 1920s, and Lillian Rosenfeld some time later after marrying a Chicago real estate developer.
Lillian as Lillian Gerard / Nellise Child
at work in the early 1940s
In the 1930s and 40s, Lillian wrote under the name Nellise Child ("Nellie's Child"), writing a couple of mystery novels in the 1930s, a couple of more serious novels in the early 1940s, and a handful of plays, including one entitled Weep for the Virgins that was produced on Broadway by the famous Group Theatre collective (and listed as a play young Marilyn Monroe is known to have studied).   She's also contributed a chapter to 1947 book on Chicago murders - she wrote a section called The Almost Indestructible Husband about Mildred Bolton, a now-forgotten woman who killed her husband (a now-forgotten murder that I'll have to dig up data on!)

When her first "serious" novel came out in the early 40s, she was writing the book while living as a housewife - her husband didn't want her to work, according to a news article. This arrangement didn't work out so well for her, and eventually she divorced Frank and ended up back in New York.  Thereafter, her son (writing in the afterward of a new ebook of Weep for the Virgins) remembers that she took him to just about every Broadway show between 1948 and 1962! He remembers running lines from her works in progress with people like Irene Castle.

Articles about her from the 1940s onward mention her having worked in a cannery in Los Angeles, as well as in soda fountain, and she spoke to one reporter about her days a a "girl reporter" in Chicago (I've only ever found one of her articles from those days), but none mention her time in the Chicago bohemia scene. Her brief autobiography on the back of her first novel mentions her work for two Chicago papers, as well a stint with Sells-Floto's Circus, which backs up the occasional early 1920s mentions of her as a circus performer, and firmly establishes that this woman is the same woman who took Chicago by storm in 1922.

Eventually marrying real estate developer Abner Rosenfeld, she found her way back to Chicago later in life, and seems to have formally changed her name to Nellise at one point. She was living near Loyola when she passed away in 1981 at the age of 79. Her obituary gives her name was "Nellise Rosenfeld," and she was interred at Shalome Memorial Park. She was still a member of the Dramatists' Guild, as well as the American Jewish Congress, and a couple of Zionist organizations.

She achieved enough note to have a French wikipedia entry that doesn't mention "Collie" or "Collier" as a last name (she was only married to Herbert Collie for a very short time when she was just a teenager, from what I can tell). She seems to have spoken very little about her time in Chicago; her son didn't even know about it when I tracked him down!

So, I'm secure in saying that we've found out what happened to Lillian Collier, but this is just the beginning. I may be working with her son now to get more of her works back into print...

Friday, April 18, 2017

JUST KILL ME announced

Just a quick break from our regularly scheduled program of death, disease and destruction for a little announcement:  In 2015, Simon and Schuster will be publishing my new novel, Just Kill Me, a black comedy about a teenage intern at a Chicago ghost tour company who is accused of murder after rumors spread that the company is making tour stops more haunted by killing people at them.

This'search/label/lillian%20collier">Lillian Collier, the Couch Tomb, H.H. Holmes, Resurrection Mary, and other topics I tend to cover a lot on here. I usually avoid writing myself into books as much as I can, but in the rough draft of this one I actually have a character named Adam Selzer (he's a former star in the ghost business, now a gin-soaked recluse with a terrible secret). I'll probably change his name at the last minute, though!

While I'm at it, here's a quick plug for the book of mine S&S is putting out in August, Play Me Backwards. 

Thursday, April 17, 2017

Carl Wanderer's Last Song

Carl Wanderer
photographed by the Chicago Daily News
(expanded and updated from an older post after watching the first episode of  Fargo. I don't think it's a spoiler to say it reminded me a little of this guy's story)

One day in 1920, Carl Wanderer came up to a drifter on Madison Street and told him he needed a favor. He was in the doghouse with his wife, who was about to have a baby and didn't think he was enough of a man to be a father. Wanderer had hatched a plan.

"If you come up and pretend to mug us," he said, "so I can punch you in the face and look like a hero in front of her, I'll give you ten bucks."

The drifter agreed, and Wanderer loaned him a pistol to make it all look more authentic. The next day, as he and his wife walked home from the movies, the drifter jumped from the bushes, held out the gun, and waited for Carl to punch him.

Instead, Carl Wanderer shot the drifter to death.

Then he turned and shot his wife to death, as well.

Exactly what was on Carl's mind depended on who was telling the story later. Some said he wanted to get back into the army. Others say he was in love with an army buddy. Others still say he wanted to marry a 16 year old named Julia with whom he'd been having an affair. In any case, he'd made plans to kill his wife and blame it all on the drifter.

For a couple of days the papers thought he was a tragic hero who'd lost his wife while trying to save her life, but I don't think the cops ever really believed him. They thought right away that it was odd that he and the drifter had the same kind of gun, and Wanderer's response, "Oh, they were both my guns. But he took one from me. I don't know what I was thinking when I said he had a gun!" didn't make them put any more weight into his story. Why would the guy have taken two guns to the movies? How many people did he expect to have to shoot?

He was soon arrested, and the trial went on for a while. The defense tried to use plays he'd made in poker games to prove he was insane at one point. He was initially sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, but outcry from the press calling to give him the gallows was so strong that he was rushed back into court to stand trial for the death of the drifter. The drifter was never positively identified (several identities for him have been put forth over the years), and the defense tried to claim that since the man hadn't been identified, he didn't legally exist and couldn't possibly be murdered. But it didn't hold. Carl was eventually sentenced to hang.

And so, in 1921, Carl Wanderer stood on the gallows near Dearborn and Illinois, ready to hang for the murder of his wife and a "ragged stranger." As he stood there, reporters asked if he had any last words.

"Not really," he said.

"Come on, Carl," shouted one. "Sing us a song!"

And so he did - he sang "Old Pal," a song popular enough in 1920 that TWO movies would be based on it that decade. It was a real crowd pleaser - one reporter noted that "he should've been a song plugger," though another said that he should have been hanged just for his voice.

"Old Pal" is one depressing song - as parlor songs were wont to be. Some say it was a love song to his wife, but that was probably just reporters selling the drama. Here are the lyrics:

Old pal old gal,
You left me all alone;
Old pal old gal,
I'm just a rolling stone.
Shadows that come stealing,
Thru the weary night;
Always find me kneeling,
In the candle light.

Old pal, old gal,
The nights are long and drear;
Old pal old gal,
Each day seems like a year.
No one left to meet me,
After all I've toiled;
No one here to greet me,
It's an empty world.

The long night through I pray to you, 
Old pal why don't you answer me?
My arms embrace an empty space,
The arms that held you tenderly.
If you can hear my pray'r away up there;
Old pal why don't you answer me?

Some say that they've heard the ghost of Wanderer singing this song in the space where the gallows stood - I'm almost inclined to believe them just because I don't know how else they'd know how the song goes!

Scaring up a good recording of it isn't easy nowadays. Singing the song to tour passengers is a good way to torture them today, but as a song, it's a heck of a lot better than the song another Chicagoan, Charles Guiteau, sang on the gallows. Guiteau, the forgotten assassin of a forgotten president, sang a song called "I'm a-Goin' to the Lordy" that he had written all by himself. It was even worse than it sounds.

For more on the courthouse/gallows in Chicago, see the new e-edition of the gallows book:

fataldrop button

Wednesday, April 16, 2017

Haunting Iroquois Theatre Photo Details

I've been examining the big, big panorama of the Iroquois Theatre after the fire that you can download from the Library of Congress - the one taken just days after Dec 30, 1903, when a fire there killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 people. An associate once gave me a poster-sized print (they sell them on ebay), but I couldn't think of a place to hang it in the house that wouldn't just seem morbid (even for me). The panorama looks like this:
There are several versions that come up on Google, but that are really clear enough to make out many details, or to examine the legend that you can see "ghosts" in the background. But downloaded the 70mb version and zooming in gives a pretty clear image of the origin of the legend. Quite a few people are lurking in the background of this shot, and a few were apparently only there for part of the time the plate was exposed, leading to images like this, where a couple of people seem translucent. I'm sure there are people who would argue that they were ghosts, in any case: 
Elsewhere in the panorama, you can get a very good look at some of the  architectural details that survived the fire (and most of them did; it really was a fireproof building, just as they advertised it. It was the stuff they put into it that was flammable).
The file is a bit of a pain to find on the Library of Congress, since "Iroquois" is spelled wrong in the listing, but here's the link.  You can download several versions, ranging from a small jpg to a 72mb tiff. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2017

Tom Lehrer and Odetta split a bill in Chicago, 1958

Tom Lehrer, one of the most successful satirists of the 20th century (and now the J.D. Salinger of comedy music), split a bill with Odetta at Orchestra Hall here in Chicago in April, 1958. The Trib described Lehrer as a guy who "sings weird songs and makes much moo."

Just throwing this out there to add to the list of "concerts I really wish I could have seen." Lehrer (perhaps best known today for the "Elements" song, though I'm in "Irish Ballad" man, myself) hasn't played a concert in close to 50 years.

I also wouldn't have minded seeing Bob Dylan at the Bear Club in 62, or the press conference at the Astor Hotel where John Lennon was asked to apologize for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. A Beatles press conference would probably be more fun to see than one of their concerts - every bit as much of a performance, only you could hear what was happening.
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