Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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've doubled my efforts to find out the rest of her story and think I've finally solved the mystery of what happened to her.

There was one reference to someone named Lillian Collier in Los Angeles being cast in a Charlie Chaplin film, so I suspected that she ended up there. 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. living with Lillian's mother, Natalie Bensonson (very close to "Nellie," the name her mother usually went by, and with her mother's maiden name). On the 1940 census, she's listed as a writer named Lilli Gerard, with a baby son named Frank Gerard Jr.

Looking up Lillian Gerard, an author, broke the case wide open, and I was able to put the pieces together.

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 and a handful of plays, including one entitled Weep for the Virgins that was put on Broadway by the famous Group Theatre collective (and listed as a play young Marilyn Monroe is known to have studied).   She's even listed as one of the authors of a 1947 book on Chicago murders - she wrote a section called The Almost Indestructible Husband about a woman who killed her husband (a now-forgotten murder that I'll have to dig up data on!)

When her first 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. This arrangement didn't work out so well for her, and eventually she divorced Frank and moved across the country to have her play produced on Broadway. 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 autobiography on the back of her first novel mentions two Chicago papers, as well as "Sells-Floto's Circus," which may back up the occasional early 1920s mentions of her as a circus performer.

Eventually marrying real estate developer Abner Rosenfeld, she found her way back to Chicago later in life, and 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, 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).

So, I'm secure in saying that we've found out what happened to Lillian Collier, but this is just the beginning. Now I can have fun tracking down the works of Nellise Child, and perhaps finding some relatives who might know if she ever spoke about her days in Chicago bohemia....

Friday, April 18, 2014

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'll be a fun one for Chicago history and ghost-lore fans, as it will have references throughout to 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, 2014

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, 2014

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, 2014

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.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Shadows at the Body Dump?

Some interesting shots from the tours lately.  First of all, for you Hull House fans, the last tree in the adjacent courtyard (subject of much ghostlore and superstition) fell down some time in the last week:

The garden / courtyard area is the subject of a lot of real nonsense stories that go around - people like to say that it was an Indian burial ground, an abortion graveyard, or any number of thoroughly debunked stories.  But not every story about it is untrue, and we do have some weird nights there on the tour. 

On the Saturday tour, Amanda K. picked up a shot at the HH Holmes "Body Dump" site, where he had a building he claimed was a glass bending factory (we've talked about this place a lot here; it was well north of the famous "castle," but very near the homes of about half his known Chicago victims, and, well, there's a short list of things a known multi-murderer who didn't really know how to bend glass would have been doing with a 150 foot long furnace). We get pictures of shadowy figures here quite a bit - look in the background of this one, back behind me and to the right:

This is a detail of a larger shot, with the exposure turned up a bit. My guess would be that the figure in the background was just a person on the tour that the photographer didn't notice (though she was certain that there was no one there). The fact that it casts a shadow is certainly a mark against it being ghostly, but when I tried to reproduce the effect on the 10pm tour I couldn't quite find a way to stand in that area that would make my shadow go in quite the same direction (it's all artificial light).  You know what I always say: there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. 

And hey, while I've got your attention, we've been re-releasing all the Smart Aleck's Guide ebooks this week, including our guide to Grave Robbing, which features several Chicago grave robbing stories:


Everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century Resurrection Man, the Smart Aleck way! A complete history of one of the oldest professions, with tips and tricks of the trade. Fully illustrated, with an active table of contents. 2.99 on kindle

There's more on Holmes, the "body dump" and Hull House in our Ghosts of Chicago book (Llewellyn 2013),  and our newly revised and greatly expanded Murder Castle of HH Holmes ebook

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Flapper's Mother: Feminism in 1912?

Yesterday we reported on new information on Lillian Collier , the flapper we've been talking about for years. Lillian ran an outfit called The Wind Blew Inn and was the darling of Chicago bohemia in 1920-22, and in 1925 gave an interview saying that flappers were not "savages," but evidence of a new era of freedom for women. This was a few years after the Inn was raided for holding "petting parties," leading her to assure a judge that "there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn" (he sentenced her to read a book of fairy tales to cure her bohemianism) (it doesn't seem to have worked). I've written about her in several Chicago history books, including the upcoming Chronicles of Old Chicago.

We still don't know what she was up to after 1925 (update: we do now!) but having found out that her maiden name was Lieberman has helped find a few more pieces of the puzzle to add to the mix. We know she was born in New York in 1901 (probably Sept 16). We know she and her family were in Baltimore in 1910, then apparently back in New York just before their time in Chicago, which began in 1919 or 1920. Some of the family appear to have remained there all their lives, some may have moved on.

In any case, one fascinating new thing I found is an essay that Lillian's mother, Nellie, wrote for a contest the Baltimore Sun had in 1912. The subject was "Do Women Want Good Husbands," and Mrs. Lieberman's entry is a fascinating document. The "husbands should be assertive and noisy" sentiment is balanced by a demand for equal rights and equal treatment; is this what feminism looked like a century ago?

The address below (cut off here) corresponds with their address in the 1910 census, so I'm sure this is the same Nellie Lieberman who accompanied her daughter Lillian to court in 1922. Nellie and her husband, Meyer, were apparently divorced in 1921. 

Lillian herself seems to have won a children's poetry contest in the same paper in 1916, but I haven't found her poem yet (the scan of the paper from the day it was probably published is messed up in the only source I know of for Baltimore Sun papers from that year). It was in the "Yarns for Youngsters" section, and she would have been 14 at the time. Like Homer Simpson in the "design a Nuclear Power plant" contest,  she may have been in a contest with children, but she kicked their butts!

update: we now know that she went on from her juvenile poetry contest success to a career writing mystery novels, a couple of serious "literary" pieces, a play produced on Broadway, and even a bit of Chicago true crime in the 1930s and 40s. See our update! 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lillian Collier: The Mysterious Flapper - new data!

I've written quite a lot about Lillian Collier of the Wind Blew Inn,  a flapper who was sentenced to read a book of fairy tales to cure her bohemianism in 1922. A few years later she appeared in a widely-circulated article saying that flappers were not "savages," but represented a new era of freedom for women. After that, she vanished from the record. Several Lillian Colliers were found - a suffragist in Texas, a poet in Canada, a New York socialist - but none I could trace positively to her.
Lillian Collier, pictured here when her
flagpole-sitting antics made the news
in 1921.

Today I was digging through the Herald Examiner archives, having heard that she worked as a reporter from them in 1920 under the name "Our Little Girl Reporter," a title that several reporters held at that paper (most notably Carol Frink, whose husband wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht).  I could only find one article I could trace to her - a story about painting the words "Safety First" on the 10th story of a building on Van Buren (wonder if it's still there?).

However, Herald Examiner notes from when her Bohemian tea room, The Wind Blew Inn, was raided by the cops turned up two very interesting new pieces of info that may just help solve this mystery.

One is that Virginia Harrison, described as Collier's "aid" in some papers, appears to have given her name as Virginia Collier. This may be a clue that the two were "more than friends," as some have surmised.

More notably is that one paper gave the name of her mother, Nellie Lieberman.  From this I was finally able to dig up Lillian's 1920 census records, where ancestry.com had her listed as "Lillian Coltie." After that, I was able to find some more new clues:

 - Lillian was born Lillian Lieberman around 1902 in New York.

- She apparently married Herbert Collie in New York in 1919; the name was usually spelled "Collier" in the press. It may have been an affectation on her part. I found a record of the wedding, but can't definitively match it to THIS Lillian Lieberman.

- By spring of 1920, she was living with her parens, Meyer Lieberman and Nellie Lieberman, in Chicago near North and Leavitt, as well as her sisters, Martha Lieberman and Bertha Lieberman.  Herbert was out of the picture by this time, but she kept his name.

- I can't find much about Herbert Collie.  I did find a thing saying Martha, her sister, died in 1991 and had been a vaudeville dancer at one point.

- Meyer and Nellie were apparently divorced in 1921.

So, that maiden name is a STRONG new clue, and one that might very well help us find out what happened to her after 1925.  On Wednesday, we'll feature a newly-discovered essay written by her mother in 1912!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some shots from our Tumblr

Now and then I'll have some fun with instagram filters and post stuff up on our tumblr. Here are three recent ones:

Floor 12N on the Congress Hotel. This is the floor the staff always tells me is the spookiest one.

This blank space on that floor may have inspired the legend of "the room so haunted they sealed it off." I just can't seem to convince people that that story isn't true, or that the hotel wasn't the inspiration for 1408, even by pointing out the sheer unlikelihood that Stephen King would have ever stayed at the place. 

One of the urban myths that bothers me most is the story that Jane Addams buried a devil baby alive in the courtyard next to Hull House. The devil baby was just a myth (one that came up in many cities, and apparently just came up AGAIN in Indiana), but even if it was real, this wasn't a courtyard at the time, and Addams never, ever, EVER would have buried it alive anyway. If you wanna say HH Holmes killed hundreds more people than he actually did, it doesn't really hurt much. Slander that guy all you want. I don't think he killed or tortured nearly as many people as they say, but he did kill quite a few and was a big enough jerk that I don't really feel like I ought to defend his honor or anything.  But slandering Jane Addams is not okay. 

 But I'm not above cheap pranks that'll melt away. 


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