Friday, February 29, 2008

Beatniks!

One of my particular interests - and the subject of one of the books I'm working on - is Chicago's bohemia from about 1920-1960. While a lot of great art and poetry came out of Chicago, it was not really thought of as a beatnik city.


Chicago beatniks in the late 50s

In 1960, showing a bit of a lack of foresight, the Tribune wrote "In Los Angeles, a beat mocha parlor may go. But not in Chicago, where men are men!"

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to one of my neighborhood's MANY coffee shops.


Actually, I bring this up mainly to plug my new book, Pirates of the Retail Wasteland, which will be out on April 9th and is all about coffee shops. Booklist submitted the first review yesterday - and it's good! You can pre-order on Amazon now, and get some reading to tide you over until the Weird Chicago book comes out!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Hand of Drywall Dave

One thing that we can't show people during our tours (because it's in a locked-away section of the Congress Hotel) is the mysterious Hand of Drywall Dave. There have been plenty of murders in the hotel, and there are plenty of ghosts that have been reported - some quite frequently - in the place, but one legend that we've never been able to find anything to back up is the story that one of the workers building the place during the 1905 expansion was accidentally (or perhaps not so accidentally) killed by being walled up inside the place.

We consider this story to be a myth. BUT, on a 2006 investigation, we came across what looked like a fossilized hand reaching out of a wall in a closet! We joked that it looked like a hand, but didn't think much of it until we blew up the picture - and found that it had four fingers and a thumb!



Is it a glove that got plastered over by a construction worker with a weird sense of humor?
Is it the hand of the mythical Drywall Dave, reaching out for freedom?
Or could it be the long-rumored ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, carrying his trademark big sick?

WIlly, our driver, insists that there's a fourth possibility: Jimmy Hoffa.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Forgotten Chicago Hauntings #1

From time to time, newspapers have been publishing accounts of local haunted houses for well over a century. Many of the best Chicago ghost stories relate to buildings that are now lost and gone forever - for instance, the Robey Tavern on Robey (which is now Damen) and Washington was said to be haunted by Mrs. Robey, who walked the grounds in a black dress with a white lace collar, ringing her hands and sighing. The story went that the city's first "hanging bee" was held at a tree on the property, which is now little more than parking for the United Center.

Here's the Robey Tavern as it appeared in 1900:


This is one of only dozens of ghost stories that fell by the wayside over the years. Here's an excerpt from the "Forgotten Haunted Houses" section I did for the Weird Chicago book (I worked with them from 2006-9)

The Helm House
In the 1880s, a rickety frame house stood on the Northwest corner of Halsted and Lill, near Lincoln Avenue (very close to both the Biograph Theatre (which, believe us, is NOT haunted) and The Tonic Room). The story went that sometime in the 1870s a man and his two children were found murdered in the house. The bodies were found on the first floor, but, based on blood stains found on the stairs, had apparently been dragged down from the garrett. Chris Helm, who owned the ramshackle frame house in the 1880s, offered $5 to anyone who would spend the night in the garrett, where the ghost seemed most active. He claimed that anyone who tried would be awakened by horrible screams and open their eyes to find a woman in white with eyes like saucers holding out a plate of burning sulfur. Two people attempted to sleep there, and neither lasted more than an hour. Policemen on the beat claimed that they wouldn't go near the place. Helm was still telling the same story 10 years later! It's worth noting, of course, that Helm tended to get people REALLY drunk before sending them up to the garrett, suggesting that the guy was faking the ghost to scare people away - a regular Scooby Doo villain!

On the site now: a large brick building now occupies the spot where the old house stood.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Belle Gunness Update!

Rich Vitton of the Forest Park Historical Society has sent us an update on Belle Gunness, the murderess about whom we blogged earlier in the week. Belle, if you'll recall, was exhumed from her resting place at a cemetery in Forest Park to see if the headless corpse was actually hers.

According to Andrea Simmons, who is handling the DNA testin in Indiana, there's about a 50-50 chance that the tests will work out. DNA samples have been sent to five different labs, but they feel that there may not be enough DNA left for conclusive results.

But fear not - there's a backup plan! Permission has been obtained from Gunness' descendants to exhume Belle's sister, who is buried in California, so that more DNA can be extracted.

Also buried in California is another target for exhumation - the body of Elizabeth Carlson, who was awaiting trial for poisoning at the time of her death. Many believed at the time that she wasn't Elizabeth Carlson at all, but Belle Gunness herself!

Here is a rare picture of Belle's sister sent to us by Rich. It may give us some idea as to what Belle would have looked like as an old woman:



The results of the test should be known in May or June!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Don't poke the bear.

I would like to share with you all a very funny and personal moment from one of our tours last night.

Now let me preface this by saying that Adam is one of the funniest guys I have ever met and has an intrinsic need to be a smartass. In fact "professional smartass" is on his business card. Adam also has a profound respect for all religions.

We were giving our "Bloody Chicago" true crime tour which both Adam and myself were hosting and we were just coming from the Richard Speck mass murder site when we came across the Mosque that is best known for being the home spiritual center of the Nation of Islam and the honorable Louis Farakhan. There was also a large convention in town which happened to include a fair number of that denomination. Outside the mosque there were a number of dour looking fellows in suits with bow ties and hats that had a 1950s look about them talking to other African American people, handing out literature and selling bean pies. Now this will sound like stereotyping but most members of the Nation of Islam are not known for their profound sense of humor. A stoplight at that intersection haulted our progress down the road and Adam noticed these guys. You could tell he had thoughts of something funny to say, got a twinkle in his eye, opened the door to the bus and leaned out while pointing a finger in the air as he was ready to say something smartassical to the Fruits of Islam. As he did this I simply said, "Close the door white devil." He got a grin and closed the door.

When you see a bear in a cage, no matter how fun it would be, don't poke the bear.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

That "Haunted" Feeling

Some places just SEEM haunted. When we go to haunted places on the tour, we can usually tell right away whether any given spot is "active" that night or not - it's a sort of feeling. Ken describes it as a form of psychic ability; I'd describe it more a something similar to telling whether it's hot or cold outside. As a skeptic, I always ask myself if I'm feeling this way because the place is haunted, or if it's just environmental effects that have the pychological effect of making me FEEL like it's active. Who knows? Maybe those environmental effects are the very things that allow ghosts to manifest. We never can tell with these things.

In any case, no haunted place is ALWAYS active. Some might be active regularly for a few months, and then just seem dead (if you'll pardon the pun) for the next couple of years. We try to avoid places that haven't been active lately on the tours in favor of places that have as much as possible. And, while weird pictures and experiences are always great to get on the tours, the best way for us to tell if a place i active is just whether we get that "haunted" feeling there.

Take, for example, the former funeral home that we often visit on tours. If I've ever believed a place was haunted, it's this place. I've heard strange voices and sounds in there. I've felt things tapping at my shoulder or flicking my ear, and I've seen shadows on the wall of people who weren't there. I've felt temperature drops and smelled formaldahyde. But sometimes when we go there, nothing happens at all. Sometimes it's just not that scary in there. I can usually tell whether it's going to be an active night (the kind where people get especially spooked, and when we're likely to get good pictures) or not the second we step into the building.

Last night, for instance, I felt it rather strongly at this place. And, lo and behold, it was a weird night. Just about everyone down there was hearing strange noises - myself included. Noises distinct from the noises that come from the pipes and furnace, which I know pretty well by now.

I certainly cant say for sure that these noises, or that feeling, were cause by dead people floating around - but that's part of the fun! All we can do is wonder - we never REALLY know what we're dealing with, no matter what kind of pictures we take or anything like that. As I always say, there's no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence - only COOL ghost evidence.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rising from the Suburbs....Belle Gunness!

Belle Gunness, the female blue beard, has finally been dug up.

We usually think of Gunnesss as an Indiana serial killer; we have plenty of our own around here, so we don't mind letting them have this one. Sort of throwing them a bone, if you will. It was in Indiana that Belle set up a farm where she would lure wealthy bachelors with lovelorn classified ads, then murder them and feed them to her hogs. How many men she killed isn't known; some suspect that it was upwards of 100.

But there's a Chicago connection - Belle was, in addition to being a killer, an insurance fraudster. One of her first major schemes involved burning down a candy store that she and her husband ran at Grand and Elizabeth in Chicago in the 1880s (right around the same time that her male counterpart, HH Holmes, was getting his start). From there she moved to the suburbs. After she died in a fire at her Indiana farm, which also killed her daughters, she was brought back to Chicago, where she lay buried in Forest Park. Until now.

The body found at the Indiana farm was headless. The head was never found - the only things to identify Belle were a couple of dentures. Most people don't lose their heads in fires, and no one chops their own head off and hides it before dying. There has, therefore, long been speculation that Gunness' death was faked, and now we're going to find out for sure:

Chicago Tribune: Belle Gunness exhumed

This isn't the first time that stories of a faked death have led to exhumation; Jesse James was dug up a year or so ago to see if it was really him (which it certainly was). I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I do enjoy a good faked death story; they tend to seem much more plausible than conspiracies that require thousands of people to keep a secret. Some skeptics claim that no one has ever successfully faked their death, but there's sort of a catch: if we knew about it, it wouldn't have been successful! Of course, they won't be able to say that at all if the headless corpse is someone other than Gunness!

My thoughts be bloody or nothing-worth!

Across the street from Couch Place (alias Death Alley), a regular tour stop, is The Goodman Theatre. It's an unlikely place to find a body, but tucked away in some guy's desk is the skull of comedian Del Close, who left his skull to the theatre in his will so that next time they do Hamlet he can play Yorick.

Some employees have told us that they don't think it's his skull (in fact, it's pretty well established that it was just a skull Close's girlfriend got from a medical supply shop when the coroner wouldn't give her the real one), but, regardless, next time they do Hamlet, it'll surely be one of the more noteworthy productions of that show in the city. But most historic version of Hamlet in Chicago may have been the one presented in 1862. Here's an ad for it - check out the star:



John Wilkes Booth was Chicago's theatrical sensation of 1862, playing a three week stint at the (now demolished) McVicker's in January followed by a two week stand in June. During these stands, he played at least half a dozen of the greatest Shakespeare characters, including Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Othello. Most people think that the real talent in the family was Booth's brother, Edwin (who had a career that lasted for decades), but the Tribune called John Wilkes a genius. History books today rarely mention just how popular an actor he was. I can only imagine how weird it must have been for people who saw him plotting to kill the king as Hamlet, or plotting to kill half of England as Richard III, to remember those scenes in 1865!

While in Chicago, Booth stayed at the Tremont House, a (now demolished) hotel on Dearborn and Lake that had been owned by Ira Couch, whose tomb still stands in Lincoln Park, the last remaining crypt of the old City Cemetery (and, yes, he's thought to be in there - the mystery is who's in there WITH him). Abraham Lincoln also stayed at the Tremont House whenever he was in Chicago; he gave a version of his "House Divided" speech from the balcony in 1858, and held a reception in the lobby after his election in 1860.

After the Lincoln assassination, there were reports of Booth being sighted, alive, in McVicker's theatre - one of many reports that the person killed in the barn was not really him. Twenty years later, his daughter, under the name Rita Booth, was said to be working as a dancer in a burlesque comedy in Chicago.

Will Roosevelt's Ghost Endorse a Candidate for 2008?

A few days before Super Tuesday, we ran a miniature investigation in the Florentine Room of the Congress Hotel, a hotel reputed to be haunted by Theodore Roosevelt himself, to see if we could get his ghost to endorse a presidential candidate.

While Roosevelt may or may not haunt the hotel, he does have a lot of history there. It was in the Florentine Room in 1912 that he jumped onto a table and announced that he was leaving the Republican party, since they weren't going to nominate him for a third term. Six weeks later, he was back in the same room, forming the Bull Moose Party, which was officially called The American Progressive Party. It was probably the most liberal major party that had been formed at that point, and served to draw a good deal of the liberals who had been Republicans at that point out of the GOP. He didn't win the election, but the Bull Moose Party DID come in second, beating President Taft pretty handily. As a side note, his nomination was seconded by Jane Addams of Hull House.

We here at Chicago Unbelievable feel that Col. Roosevelt has been TOTALLY, UNFAIRLY ignored by the "mainstream" media this election cycle. And, though we don't find it likely that he actually haunts the place, we thought we should give him a chance to say his thing. We really have no idea who he'd endorse today - we can find things he'd like about all three of the major candidates. Alas, if his ghost was there, it kept its mouth shut.

However, during the investigation (which was conducted during one of our tours), a guest named Kayla Hendricks took this picture:



Some say that they see the face of an angry Roosevelt in the flash - he's back, and he's PISSED! In reality, this is probably just a psychological trick - our brains are trained to look for shapes like faces in random noise like this (and the fact that we're happy to tell you this is one way you can tell that we're REAL ghost hunters here at Chicago Unbelievable, not quacks!) But you never know...

We'll be back in the Florentine Room several times between now and election day - plenty of time for TR to make an appearance!

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