Saturday, March 29, 2008


Ran a tour last weekend for Michelle Kwasniewski and her friends on the occasion of her birthday - it was a really, really fun tour, if I do say so myself! Michelle just sent in a whole set of spooky pictures that were taken on the tour (which was also the night we saw the changed sign at the congress hotel). Here's one of the spookier ones:

That's me, looking all ghostly. My guess is that this is just one of those camera whatzits that happen from time to time (though they do seem to be more common in Death Alley, the alley behind the site of the Iroquois Theatre, where this picture was taken - battery drainage is very common back there), but it sure is spooky-looking! Anyone else thinks the misty blur sort of looks like a face?

Here's a bit from Michelle's email that I just have to share:

"I also wanted to thank you again for giving us a fantastic tour experience, we could have not wished for a better guide and driver (Willie is awesome, though a man of few words still very funny.) We're already discussing when we'd like to take the next tour with you. Most likely will book this summer sometime and do the pub crawl hehe(big suprise right) you were extremely accomidating and very patient with everyone's questions and pulling your time in different directions. I honestly couldn't have dreamed a better birthday( the party continued into the wee hours after we left you but I'm sure you guessed as much.) Feel free to post this as a customer review as I will also be going to the weird chicago site and do the same. You guys were the best!"

* - identification removed to keep us looking professional :)

Chicago's Most Famous Ghost: Resurrection Mary

I remember seeing this episode of Unsolved Mysteries when I was a teenager and being really, really freaked out by it. Some little thing about it just got into my head and scared the crap out of me. Thanks to the magic of youtube, I can see it again now. I really don't see what I found so scary about it now, though sometimes I wonder how I managed to go from having a terrible fear of cemeteries barely a decade ago to being a professional ghost buster today.

This is a pretty good summary of the story of Resurrection Mary, Chicago's famous vanishing hitch-hiker, though it puts too much emphasis on Mary Bregovy, who didn't resemble the vanishing ghost people describe even remotely.

Nowadays, we think (making the fairly bold assumption that it's not all just folklore) that there are actually THREE ghosts at the cemetery that we know collectively as Resurrection Mary. These are:

1. A girl who hitches rides from dance halls and disappears at the cemetery.
2. A girl who runs in front of cars, then vanishes, on Archer Avenue.
3. A girl who is seen roaming the grounds of the graveyard. This is the one that was seen grabbing the bars in 1972; the scorch marks stayed on the bars for thirty years before being torn down.

Bregovy has been named specifically by a 1930s caretaker as the one who roams the graveyard. For a time, a popular candidate for the hitchhiker was Anna Marija Norkus, who was killed in a traffic accident. However, as she was a day shy of her 13th birthday at the time of her death, she's probaby too young to be the hitchhiker, though she may be the ghost people are hitting with their cars. Based on new information Weird Chicago's own Troy Taylor has uncovered, we're reasonably confident saying that if the hitchhiking girl is real, it's probably the ghost of a girl named Mary Miskowski. Check out Troy's page on her, and find more information than you could ever possibly need on Mary in his Resurrection Mary book. We occasionally run Mary-themed tours that go by the cemetery itself, which is actually in the town of Justice, a south side suburb.

And for a whole lot more information, check out our Resurrection Mary Roundtable podcast episode!

I've always been on the fence about Mary; there are more documented sightings of her than many local ghosts (some of which have only ever been seen by one particular tour guide), but it seems more like an urban legend to me. Variations of the vanishing hitchhiker story are seen all over the world, going back in recorded history over 2000 years. Oddly, while I've had eyewitnesses to many Chicago ghosts on my tours, I've never met anyone who had a good Mary encounter to share. The story has gone around so much by now that it's difficult to know who to believe. But, one way or the other, it's a great story that has captured the imaginations of generations of Chicagoans.

NOTE: Jane Addams of Hull House once made a speech about Archer Avenue in the Florentine Room of the Congress Hotel - a regular tic-tac-toe of Chicago ghost stories!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Cubs and the Curse of the Billy Goat

"You know the law of averages? they say anything will happen that can / but the last time the cubs won the national league pennant / was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan!" - Steve Goodman, 1982. Still correct.*

Every Chicagoan knows the story - in 1945, the last time the Cubs were in the World Series, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern tried to bring a live goat to Wrigley Field. In some versions of the story, the goat was a regular spectator. When the owner was told that he had to get the goat out of the stadium, he put a curse on the Cubs, saying that they would not only lose the world series that year (which they did), but they would never win the pennant again. Over 60 years later, the curse seems to be in full effect.

Columnist Mike Royko publicized this story back in the 70s, when the Cubs string of years without a pennant was starting to seem noticeably long. In our dig through the Tribune archives, we actually found a story that backs the story of the goat up - at least a little. More than I expected, anyway:

from the Trib,Oct 7, 1945:
"Andy Frain employed 525 ushers and other attendants to handle the capacity throng...he had trouble with only one fan, Billy Sianis, owner of a tavern near Chicago Stadium, who insisted on bringing a goat into the box section.... Sianis had a ticket for the goat, which was paraded through the American league area of front box customers...The critter wore a blanket on which was pinned a sign reading "We Got Detroit's Goat."....Frain finally convinced Sianis goats should be with the Navy football team.

* - contrary to rumor, Goodman's ashes are not underneath home plate. Most likely, his ashes were scattered at the field surreptitiously by his friends.

At the Congress Hotel...

At the Congress, where we recorded our recent podcast, security guards recently found noticed something odd on a message board outside of the Florentine Room, which most of the staff regards as the spookiest ballroom of the lot:

This has "prank" written all over it, but the board IS sealed, and none of the guards have the keys...

There will be a BIG section on the Congress and its ghost stories in our upcoming book!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Chicken Man #2

We've already talked a bit about the Chicken Man of Chicago, but he's worth another post just so I can post this wonderful photo that I got from Joe at Imperial Hardware:

"That chicken did everything but talk!" says Joe.

The Chicken Man's real name was Anderson Punch, but he went by Casey Jones, after the song he sang most often, for much of his life. Born in 1870, he came to Chicago around 1914 and went to work as a street musician. After his accordion broke, he took up training chickens. At any given time, he had three or four trained chickens, traveling around the city having them do tricks and dancing to his accordion and harmonica. He was a well known figure around the city for more than half a century; when one of his chickens died, there was a public funeral at a vacant lot on State Street. On more than one occasion he was hauled into court for one reason or another (usually obstructing traffic) and got out by having his chickens do their act. In 1971, he was still performing on the south side when he celebrated his 101st birthday. He died in 1974.

One interesting thing to note is that he hit every corner on the south side, but, as of the 1940s, said that his favorite place, financially, was at 63rd and Halsted - only a couple of blocks from the site of the H.H. Holmes murder castle. Imagine standing outside of the castle (which was still standing until 1938) and watching a dancing chicken in front of it - how surreal can you get?

Look for more on the chicken man and other such Chicago icons in our upcoming book - up for pre-order soon!

The "Curse" of Captain Streeter

Another guy about whom we have an insane amount of contemporary documents is the one and only Captain George Wellington Streeter - creator of Streeterville. As of the 1880s, Lake Michigan went all the way to Michigan Avenue. In much of the downtown area, everything east of Dearborn St. was still sand.

But then along came Cap Streeter. He had been sailing his houseboat around Lake Michigan, intending to sail to South America to become a gun runner, but, after crashing on the shore near the city, he hit on a different business plan: charging people money to dump their garbage around his boat. The massive landfill he created is still called Streeterville today.

But, being a bit of an eccentric, Streeter decided that the land was not only his property, but his own country, The District of Michigan, of which he was "lord emperor." Soon, it seemed that every bum in the city was emigrating to the "deestrickt," and a regular shanty town was set up, blocking the rich people's formerly unobstructed lake view.

This set of a thirty year battle between Streeter and the city that included both courtroom drama and actual gunfights. Streeter was one of the best known characters in the city.

In interviews with the guy that we've dug up, he sounds quite a bit like Popeye, only considerably more verbose - the city might be a very different place today if he'd ever gotten ahold of a can of spinach!

Having lost The Battle of Garbage Hill, Streeter died in the 1920s a disappointed man, still insisting that the district was his. Rumor has it that he cursed the whole district on his deathbed, but, given that Streeterville is now just about the fanciest part of the city, I have to imagine that if the curse story is true, he must have been TERRIBLE at cursing things. We do know that he passed ownership and the title of emperor on to the owner of the infamous Dil Pickle club, whose attempts to run people off the land and take possession of it lasted about five minutes.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bughouse Square #1 - The Bird Woman

Bughouse Square, the park formally known as Washington Square on Clark Street just above Chicago avenue, was known for decades as Chicago's Free Speech Park. People used to gather nightly to make speeches and heckle other speakers - up to 3000 people per night would show up when the weather was good. It was THE place to be for Chicago area weirdos for nearly a century up until about 1960. Today, we launch a new series that will feature some of these historical Chicagoans individually, beginning with...


While not known to make speeches, the Bird Woman was a familiar site in the park around the 1930s and 40s. She was sort of like the "Feed the Birds" woman from "Mary Poppins," with one major difference: she was psychotic!

During this time, Bughouse Square was pretty generally thought of as a real dump, littered with drunks, bums and garbage. But the little old bird woman would stake out a spot early each day, asking "have you fed the birds today, dearie?" to anyone passing by.

If you were so foolish as to say you had not, she would work herself into a fever pitch with a tirade that the Tribune quoted at length in 1942:

"And the life of man who walketh upon the Earth is not worth one cent!" she would rail, "while the life of birds who fly in the air transcends all! And you, you transgressor who feedeth not the birds, your life is not worth half of one cent! I am the one appointed by God to feed his birds! God in heaven smiles at me, but you, but you...."

At this point, according to reporters who dared not quote her further, the speech would descend into a mix of religion and profanity as she chased the poor people through the park.

For more on Bughouse Square, see here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Al Capone, a punk hoodlum..."

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of running a mini walking tour of a Capone site for a group of 11 year olds from Evanston who were part of a book group that just read an excellent book called "Al Capone Does My Shirts." We got snowed on pretty badly, but I, for one, had a great time.

Capone walking tours are tricky, because the few actual Capone-related sites left in the city aren't really walking distance from one another. There's hardly a building in the city that Capone isn't said to have owned or used as a hang out, but practically none of those stories are true. Capone was only in charge of the city for about five or six years, spent most of that time at his Miami retreat, and had to keep a low profile when he was in the city to keep from getting killed. Buying up buildings wouldn't have been safe for him, as it would have made it that much harder for him to cover his tracks and his finances. Strip away the myth from the man and what you have is a thug with a great sense of PR. It's true that Capone and his fellow gangsters had tunnels all over the place, but they didn't BUILD them; they just used them. Most of them were built for drainage, coal delivery, etc. They certainly were convenient for the gangsters, though!

By way of getting some of the real facts about him, the IRS has just released several historical records related to Uncle Al, one of which describes him as "a punk hoodlum." Fascinating stuff!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Roadside Weirdness #1

Here's one of my favorite buildings in town; near Addison and Damen, this place looks like a Smurf house with a mansard roof. Don't ask me why, but I get a real kick out of mansard roofs.

According to my understanding, the mansard roof as popularized in France, where the amount of taxes one paid was based on the height of the house from the ground to the roof. By having the whole second floor covered by the roof, people could pay single story taxes on a two story building.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wanna see a dead body?

Wanna see a dead body? Well, now you can!

In 1999, when Del Close, founder of the Second City died, he left his skull to the Goodman Theatre so that next time they do Hamlet, he can play Yorick. It'll surely be the most memorable Hamlet in the city since the 1862 production around the corner at Mcvickers (see previous post).

Anyway, I just got a call from the Goodman Theatre, who are in the midst of a last-minute fundraising drive. And I got them to promise me that, if I joined at the "Star" level, they'd show me the skull. I don't have enough money to join up myself, but they will probably make the same deal for you. So go on over to, give them a call, and offer them money to see Del's skull. They keep it in a glass case in the art director's office, and they assure me that it's actually his skull, not someone else's (despite all evidence to the contrary).

The Foolkiller Submarine

For all our talk of ghosts and murderers, my favorite thing to talk about may be The Foolkiller Submarine that was found in the Chicago River in 1915. We even have old advertisements for it on our bus!

It was found a few months after the Eastland Disaster by "Frenchy" Deneau, a diver who had dragged up about 250 bodies after the infamous disaster, and raised very late in 1915. In 1916, they found the remains of a dead guy and a dead dog inside of it. For a while, they put the thing on display on South State Street - for a dime you could see the sub, the bones, and a speech by Deneau himself. If you brought 10 or more kids on Saturday morning, they got in for half the price. Imagine: "Hey kid...wanna see a dead body? Got a nickel?"

So, how long had the sub been in the river? Who was the dead guy on board? What happened to it?

The short answer is, we don't know. The Tribune initially said it was a craft built, and sunk, around 1870, then was raised, and promptly sunk, by Peter Nissen. They may have said this just because it seemed like the kind of thing he would have done, though. Then they started saying it was owned by a guy named WILLIAM Nissen, but that may have simply been a mistake. Most of the recent speculation is that it was built by an Indiana shoemaker named Lodner Darvantis Phillips in the 1840s. None of these stories is necessarily the correct answer, though.

We'll got into this in MUCH more detail in our upcoming book! We've dug up about as much information as exists on the thing, and have a few theories. Anyone who might have information that we don't have, please let us know!

Friday, March 14, 2008

An H.H. Holmes-related ghost on the North Side?

Ken just called me from the tour he's running tonight and told me that, during the tour, a mysterious, flickering light was seen in the vicinity of the Sobieski Street building that Holmes is thought to have owned. Ken doesn't call me with reports from the tour DURING the tour very often - only when something really interesting is going on - so I hope to have more on this soon; we'll probably run a better investigation of the spot tomorrow night, since we'll both be on the bus for our Dion O'Bannion Memorial Pub Crawl. Our last trip out to that spot, which we recorded for our podcast, was on one of those COLD Chicago nights where I was just sure we were going to freeze to death. Our grasp on names and dates was a bit shaky on that particular podcast, since we were concerned with fighting off frost bite than remembering Myrtle Belknap's and Georgianna Yoke's names!

Anyway, the building there was a rickety glass-bending factory lined with kilns that police suspected Holmes was using for cremations. It was connected to two story house; the light was right about where the house would have been. But the exact location is impossible to figure out; just finding where Sobieski Street was was quite a trick, since the name was changed around 1896 and it was only a few blocks long to begin with. The only article on the building that ever came close to giving an address said it was "where 65 Sobieski ought to be," northwest of the railroad crossing and attached to a two story house. All of this was walking-distance from the candy store (see previous post); it's entirely possible that he committed some murders on the site.

If you'd like to hear our podcast about the place, click the button:
Adam Selzer and Ken Melvoin-Berg - Weird Chicago

It's the "murder castle" episode.

Here's hoping some people from the tour will leave comments describing what they saw there tonight!

H.H. Holmes in Wicker Park #1

We've dug up more information that makes us feel that we can now confidently say that the Frank Wilde who owned Frank Wilde's Fruit and Candy Store was actually just an alias for H.H. Holmes, the murder castle builder of newfound "Devil in the White City" fame. The location of the place was variously given as 1151 or 1152 Milwaukee in the Tribune, but other papers went with 1151 and it seems as though 1152 was never an actual address. After the 1909 renumbering, that would put the location of H.H. Holmes' candy store at what is now 1513 N. Milwaukee.

See where the AT&T building is? It would have been right there. The building itself is, like just about every Holmes' building, long gone - we're working on a database of all the buildings he rented, owned, or even worked in, and haven't found one (with the possible exception of one wall) in Chicago that's still standing. In descriptions of his buildings, you run across the words "ramshackle" and "rickety" a lot. Not the sort of stuff that lasts a century.

It was at this spot, though, that Holmes seduced -and probably killed - Emily Van Tassel. Not one book on Holmes has quite gotten this story right; most say she worked for Holmes at his murder castle. In fact, she worked at the candy store, having previously been employed by a photographer a few doors down. She lived with her mother at a Damen street home right about where the Pritzker School is now, across from Wicker Park.

Her mother said that she met Holmes four times, and that she accompanied them on a date once or twice, for long walks and ice cream, but that Emily, who was 16 or 17 and taught Sunday School, was a "good girl" and wouldn't have gone off with him without telling her. She went missing one day, and Mrs. Van Tassel knew what had happened the moment she saw a drawing of Holmes in the papers.

The police questioned her and her neighbors at great length before deciding to believe her, but as of 1895 they were confident that Wilde was a Holmes alias (the 1890 census only exists in fragments, but there's certainly no one by that name in the 1880 or 1900 ones in Chicago). For a time, it was believed that he had stashed her body in the basement of the candy store, but most decided that it was more likely she was taken to the castle, murdered, and disposed of in such a way that would leave no trace. Even more likely, though, she would have been taken to the house and "glass bending" factory" Holmes was in possession of a few blocks North of the candy shop.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes #2

From our historical files, here's a political cartoon from the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean the week that they were first excavating the basement of Holmes' "Murder Castle:"

Other than the Hawaiian annexation part (which I suppose we can now safely say wasn't the end of the world), a good chunk of this shows that people in the 1890s argued about a lot of the same stuff we do today! You come across the now-archaic spellings "grewsome" and "clew" a lot in this research.

Check out our Murder Castle ebook - featuring maps, diagrams and first-hand accounts that haven't been printed since the 1890s, including a long-lost interview with Holmes himself. Now expanded to full length!

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
Don't have a kindle? No problem! Get aFREE Kindle App for Your Smartphone, Tablet, or PC!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


In the process of digging up information for our upcoming book, we've ended up with more on certain subjects than we can possibly fit. For instance, we have upwards of a thousand pages worth of contemporary documents about the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle alone in our files!

Therefore, we'll soon be introducing the Weird Chicago Presents series - a series of smaller books that will be available both in print and as ebooks. Stay tuned!

The Massacre Tree

In July of 1824, a small band of settlers from Ft. Dearborn, the first major settlement in the area, fled the fort, fearful of a British invasion. They were accompanied by about 500 Potawatomi warriors, whom they had enlisted to help them make it to Ft. Wayne, which, apparently, the British didn't care much about. Capt. Nathan Heald had offered them guns, ammo, and whiskey for help, but his other officers, fearing that giving potentially hostile people guns and booze might not be so bright, threw the guns down a well and poured the booze into the Chicago river.

They made it about a mile - to where about where Prairie Ave and 16th are now - before the infamous Ft. Dearborn Massacre started. The settlers, outnumbered roughly 2:1, were routed. Those who weren't killed were sold as slaves to the British (who, to their credit, promptly let them go). The fort was burned to the ground.

Decades later, some of the descendants of these Potowatomi warriors were on "display" as part of the midway at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

By that time, Prairie Avenue, between 16th and 18th, was known as the home of the richest people in town - those few mansions that still stand there were really a site to see.

And outside of the Pullman mansion, by many accounts the fanciest of the lot, stood The Massacre Tree: a tree that still contained bullet holes from the Ft. Dearborn Massacre.

The tree stood until August of 1894, when it fell in a storm. Crowds gathered to dig up chunks of the roots as keepsakes. Newspapers illustrated it as follows:

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Chicken Man of Chicago

Driving around the city on tours, there are a handful of Jawas (which is what Ken and I call the wandering junk mechants) that we see regularly - the most recognizable of the bunch is probably the one I call Fagin, a sleazy-looking gent who's always trying to sell me a watch, necklace, or other such shiny thing. I just know the guy has a whole army of street urchins picking pockets for him.

But wandering performers and junk merchants are a dying breed in Chicago. The flute-playing guy who plays Star Wars music (and not just the main title, either; I've heard the guy bust into "Yoda's Theme" and "Luke and Leia") is far and away my favorite today, but none of them hold a candle to the late, great Chicken Man, alias Chicken Charlie, who was seen so often all over the city than people wondered if there were more than one of him. He'd show up at Bughouse Square, on Maxwell Street, on the El...everywhere.

His act was simple - he had a trained chicken that would ride around on his head. Sometimes the chicken would dance, and sometimes he'd have it walk across a tightrope. Decades after his prime he became a character in several Daniel Pinkwater books, including The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, my favorite book of all time, which also introduced me to two other nearly-forgotten Chicago landmarks: Bughouse Square and The Clark Theatre. I'll cover those in other posts, of course.

Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can now see The Chicken Man for yourself - it's even stranger, and more wonderful, than I imagined it would be!

There's also this one, which starts out with a minute or so of footage from another aspect of Chicago life that is lost and gone forever - Maxwell Street:

The Legend of Dillinger's Ding-a-Ling

Continuing our Dillinger series in honor of Johnny Depp coming to Chicago to start as Dillinger in "Public Enemies," here a bit on our very favorite piece of Dillinger lore.

In the last post, I noted that to break out of prison with an obviously-fake gun, Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells. Well, that's actually not far off from the legend. Rumors have gone around for years that Dillinger had a 23" member that is now on display at the Smithsonian. Here's the picture of his corpse that started the legend:

Rigor mortis had set in, causing his arm to be bent at the elbow, creating this tent-like protrusion above his crotch. See how the onlookers (except for that one woman) look awfully impressed? It does indeed LOOK like he's awfully happy to be on the slab.

Once again, if the cast of "Public Enemies" wants to take the best tour in town, we'll be happy to oblige!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

John Dillinger's Great Escape

In honor of Johnny Depp coming to town to film a Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, here's a post about John Dillinger's great escape. In 1934, Dillinger, America's favorite bank robber, was imprisoned in Indiana, awaiting trial and a sure death sentence. But he carved a fake gun out of wood and used it to break out of prison, leading to a five month man-hunt ending in the infamous Chicago "shoot out" - which was actually probably either an assassination or a hoax, depending on who you believe - outside of the Biograph Theatre, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Here's a picture of the phony gun:

Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells to pull a scheme like this - that gun wouldn't fool anyone who looked at it for even a second. I'm no gun nut, but I don't think the words "colt 38" are normally actually written on the side like that. According to most versions of the story, no one really SAW it - Dillinger stuck it in a guard's back, said "stick em up!" and soon had acquired several REAL pistols from the guards.

The alley where Dillinger was shot is now between two Mexican restaurants and features of a mural of a guy playing a guitar. Until its recent touch-up job, the painting always made me want to say "hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Here it is, pre-touch-up:

Incidentally, if the cast of "Public Enemies" would like a tour, we'd be happy to oblige :)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Ghost Pictures!

Kim Hartley has sent in a few possible ghost pictures from the Friday night tour that are cool enough to warrant a post here. Here is our standard ghost picture disclaimer:

DISCLAIMER: Chicago Unbelievable never claims any ghost picture to be "authentic." There are always other explanations for weird photos, ranging from weird camera issues to simple optical illusions. There is no such things as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence - we post these as examples of the latter.

Anyway, with that in mind, here's a shot from the basement of the former funeral parlor where some see a vague, humanesque form at the right. I can see what they're looking at, but, as sometimes happens, it looked more distinct on the LCD screen. I've messed with the brightness and contrast a bit in attempt to make it more distinct:

And two from inside the windows at Hull House that appear to show faces behind the curtains. There are MANY ways to get a "ghost picture" that's really just an optical illusion at this place, but, on the other hand, I've had more kids than I can count say that they've seen a woman in these two windows, and the curtains were moving around a lot on this particular night - more than they normally do from the air vents. No adjustments have been made to these ones. What do you think? See anything?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Al Capone's World War I Draft Card

From our extensive historical file:

Capone never served, but everyone had to register for the draft. This would have been a couple of years before Torrio brought Capone to Chicago to work at the Four Deuces club on South Wabash.

While digging through the draft card registry, I also found one for my great grandfather which indicated that he had served in the Russian infantry for three years. Boy, must THAT have sucked!


Had a tour with a couple of especially spooky stops last night; we swung by Hull House and found that, possibly due to some renovations, it was seeming more actively creepy than it has been in months (although, I'll repeat: there was never any devil baby! See earlier post!) Even better, we got a possible apparition photo in the basement of an old funeral parlor - I hope that we can post that picture here soon!

In the mean time, though, here are some photos from our first Zombie Pub Crawl on New Year's Eve:

That's Ken in the front seat.
I was the Zombie Ned Flanders myself:

It wasn't really a pub crawl, in that we didn't need to hit that many pubs. Rather, we spent our time:

- Getting out of the bus at crowded spots (Michigan Avenue, theaters that were just letting out, etc) and roaming around shouting "BRAAAAAINS!"

- Going "zombie caroling" (which is like regular caroling, only the word "brains" is thrown into the song at every possible opportunity) before crashing a party at DJ CarrieMonster's house.

- Doing the Thriller dance at the metro

- having a BIG snowball fight on Lake Shore Drive. Traffic was at a total standstill when it got close to time for the fireworks at navy pier, so we all got off the bus and had a fine snowball war with the other people who were stuck in traffic and with the people stuck on the street down below (we had the high ground, giving us a distinct advantage).

- toasting the new year and singing "Auld Lang Brains."

We are DEFINITELY doing this again!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Strangers With Candy

Lately, every bit of research I do leads me to some candy store or another. Here are some spooky candy shops (mostly long gone, of course) of Chicago:

1. Frank Wilde's Fruit and Candy Store - Milwaukee Ave. Though different addresses were given for this place, I'm reasonably confident I've figured out where it was - it was certainly on Milwaukee, between Ashland and Damen. In the 1890s, a teenaged girl named Emily Van Tassel worked here. Exactly who Franke Wilde was is not known for sure, but it's believed that he did not exist, as such, and was just an alias for the true owner of the store: the murderous H.H. Holmes. She is listed as one of Holmes' victims, and was thought to be buried in the basement of the store. I'm pretty confident that the building no longer stands.

2. Sorenson's Candy Store - Elizabeth and Grand. Only a handful of blocks from Frank Wilde's, this is the candy store we've mentioned many times lately that was owned - and burned for insurance money - by Belle Sorenson, wife of the owner, Max Sorenson. Under the name Belle Gunness, Gunness became one of the most prolific murderers in history. The exact name of the candy and stationery store has not been determined.

3. Terry's Toffee - 1117 W. Grand. This current AWESOME shop happens to be in the site once occupied by Rose's Sandwich Shop, where Richard Cain, an FBI/mafia double agent who is sometimes said to have been involved in the Kennedy assassination, was murdered in one of the mob's most public hits in 1973. Joey "The Clown" Lombardo is thought to have been behind the hit. Right down the road from the Sorenson's site - be careful buying candy in River West!

4. 63rd and Wallace - In the days when H.H. Holmes ran his "murder castle" in Englewood, one of the other businesses in the building was a candy store. The other day I saw an article that named the owner, but now I can't find it again! I want to say the name was something like Mrs. Gloomis. I'll post an update if I can find it. EDITED TO ADD: Found it! It was buried in the midst of our hundreds of files on holmes. The candy store owner was named Mrs. Barton.

5. 321 E. 43rd - here stood a candy store run by Nathan Higgins, who was accused of murder in 1965.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Peter Nissen: Chicago's Forgotten Hero

You might reasonably ask: who are these people, and why are they standing around a giant raisin?

Actually, it's the Foolkiller 3. Not to be confused with the Foolkiller Submarine - that's a topic for another day!

Peter Nissen of Francisco Street was an accountant by day, but, like many accountants (I assume), he dreamed of a more exciting life. He built a boat known as the Foolkiller in which he shot the Niagara rapids, making him among the first couple of people to try this. The boat actually featured an open design so that he could wave to the crowds - if he hadn't thought to install shoulder straps at the last second, he surely would have died.

In 1904, after shooting the rapids in The Foolkiller and its successor, The Foolkiller 2, Nissen decided that he just hadn't cheated death enough and decided to invent a new ship, The Foolkiller 3 (pictured above), in which he would discover the North Pole. The craft was really little more than a big canvass balloon - the main inner workings were simply a hammock-type seat hung from the axel; Nissen would steer by moving the basket back and forth across the axel. The idea was that the thing would roll over both land and sea.

After testing it on land and running into a pole, people started to think Nissen was a little bit nuts. One cold winter night, he shocked the city by setting out in the strange vessel to cross Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana. A tug boat followed, begging him to turn back, but Nissen carried on, undaunted.

Exactly what happened to poor Peter Nissen is a bit of a question mark - there are conflicting reports that I hope to wade through before we finalize the Weird Chicago book. All we know for sure is that the wrecked Foolkiller 3 was found on the shore, not far from Nissen's body. He didn't survive the trip, but he DID make it across. And we here at Chicago Unbelievable admire his spirit!

Above: Peter Nissen, hero.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Devil Baby of Hull House

Many people come to this site (or, even worse, go to Hull House) looking for photographs of the "Devil Baby." There aren't any. If you see any on other sites, they're fake. The Devil Baby story was just a rumor that went around in 1913 (after having gone around in other cities many times before). Though Jane Addams saw a lot of value in the story (and in folklore in general), and even speculated that perhaps a deformed baby had been born somewhere on the West side, no such baby was ever brought to Hull House.

The story goes as follows:

In the early 20th century, rumors went around that the devil had been born (in baby form) somewhere around the Levy district and dropped off at Hull House, the settlement house on South Halsted. Exactly how this came to happen varied (largely depending on the ethnicity of who was telling the story), but most variations stated that the baby had red skin, horns, and spoke English, Latin and Italian fluently. Hundreds of people came to Hull House demanding to see it. When I tell the story on tours, people tend to snicker.

But in those days, people really believed.....oh, who am I kidding? Some people STILL believe that the story was true. They give me dirty looks for saying that it wasn't, and for saying that the devil baby's ghost doesn't haunt Hull House to this day. Some of them even go to Hull House and bug the staff about it, just the way people did back in the old days. It's in the realm of possibility that some poor, deformed baby was brought there (it's a safe bet that fetal alcohol syndrome was rampant in the neighborhood, and pre-natal care barely existed), and someone saw it and let their imagination get carried away with them, but Jane Addams denied that the story had even that much truth to it, and I'm willing to take her word.

So I'll just say this once: there was never a devil baby, and there's no devil baby ghost, at Hull House. There may be some ghosts in there (I had enough weird nights on tours I brought there in 2006 to at LEAST give it a "maybe"), but the devil baby isn't one of them. Some legends that aren't true are harmless, or even beneficial to a city and its view of itself. Some of the rumors about Hull House, though, aren't harmless. There are enough TRUE stories about the place that the legends and rumors should be presented as legends, and nothing more. However, a couple of tours, in particular, have been spreading some real crap about the place. It's irresponsible on their part, since there are plenty of TRUE stories about the place that they usually ignore (if they know them at all).  Devil Baby stories (a common urban legend at the time) could get ugly - in one town, a family had a mob at the door wanting to sacrifice their (perfectly normal) infant.

Most of the more famous stories about Hull House - and most of the pictures - are bogus.  Smudges and glare on the window leads to a lot of 'ghost on the stairs' shots, and every "monk ghost" picture I've seen has turned out to be (I swear I'm not making this up) the reflection of someone's ear. There is no headless ghost that will follow you home if you don't cross yourself before entering the garden. The garden is not a burial ground. I'm not out to spoil anyone's fun here, but I don't think it's worthwhile to waste time hunting for ghosts that I know aren't real.

In 2006, during renovations to the building, I did run a lot of tours in which weird stuff happened there. We heard babies crying from inside the garden one night (there's no graveyard in there and no portal to the netherworld; but when Jane Addams first moved into the house, that spot was occupied by either a brothel or an undertaking parlor). For a couple of weeks the shutters were opening and closing, apparently of their own accord. And we did get a few pictures that I've yet to explain and don't really expect to.

While doing research today, I came upon a BIG article Jane Addams, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Hull house herself, wrote about the Devil Baby for Atlantic Monthly in 1916. You can read it yourself here, and I highly recommend that you do. It's a fascinating read - does anyone know which ballad she's referring to when she talks about a ballad in which a mistress demands that her lover bring her his mother's heart on a plate? I pride myself on knowing my gory folk ballads, but this one has me stumped.

Anyway, while it may be haunted, DON'T believe everything you hear, and, for goodness sake, don't go bugging the people who work in the building about ghosts, and certainly don't show up with equipment expecting to be allowed to run some hunt for the ghost of the devil baby.

Devil baby stories have been told for years—stories of infants born with horns, hooves, and claws . . . and a habit of using profane language with ministers. Join paranormal authority Adam Selzer as he investigates the legendary Devil Baby of Chicago’s Hull House, the famous Jersey Devil, and the satanic baby reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1888. You’ll never look at babies the same way again!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Murder Castle of the Consummate Villain: Holmes!

This week's research topic for me has been H.H. Holmes, one of Chicago's most prolific serial killers. Getting to the bottom of this story is just about impossible; when you get right down to the old files, you find entire storylines and characters that never turn up in any of the books nowadays, and some stories that changed a lot after 1895. The fact that Holmes had countless aliases makes it even trickier to find his trail.

Take, for instance, the case of Emily Van Tassel, one of his supposed victims. Most things written since 1896 say that she was an employee (usually a secretary) of Holmes who worked for him at the murder castle. However, prior to 1896, every mention of her said that she worked at Frank Wilde's fruit and candy store on the North side and disappeared after meeting Holmes three or four times. At the time, it was suspected that Frank Wilde may not have existed, but, in fact, that candy store was actually run by Holmes, but this is tough to confirm, especially in that the tribune gave two slightly different addresses for the place. I hope to have an update about this north side candy store - and the Van Tassel residence - very soon!

While digging through the archives, I finally found a good, legible copy of the Murder Castle map.

Sorry about the watermark, but a certain person has been ripping us off a lot lately.

update: for several more diagrams, drawings, and everything else you need to know about the castle, right down to the combination to the soundproof vault, check out our Murder Castle ebook, newly expanded for 2014:

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
Don't have a kindle? No problem! Get aFREE Kindle App for Your Smartphone, Tablet, or PC!


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