Friday, May 30, 2008

Book Update!

I'm now going through the complete manuscript, adding sidebars, making corrections, and adding sections here and there. It's going to be a long weekend of "WAIT! We forgot to mention Thomas Neill Cream!" and frenzied typing.

Then, after that, it'll be a brief period of cutting. The manuscript currently clocks in at more than 1100 pages in standard MS form!

Obviously, the final book won't be that long - anything that just won't fit will end up here on the blog!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cap Streeter's Funeral

George Wellinging "Cap" Streeter ran his boat ashore n 1888, started charging people money to dump their garbage near the boat, and eventually created a 186 acre landfill that we now know as Streeterville. He spent more than 30 years battling with the city over ownership of his new land, which he claimed as his own country.

We're finishing up the book now, and I've been trying to find a good source on the story that he put a curse on the land on his deathbed. Other than some stories that his last words may have been "damn ye," I haven't found much yet. I maintain, in any case, that if he DID put a curse on the land, he must have sucked at cursing things. Sure, there have been some odd deaths in the neighborhood, but no more than in any other neighborhood when you get right down to it. I'm starting to think that the curse is one of those stories that someone made up circa the 1970s - there're many such stories floating around in the realm of Chicago ghostlore. Most of them are going in the book anyway - people would throw a fit if we left a couple of them out - but we try to flag the stories that we have our doubts on.

However, in my digging, I DID run across this terrific picture of Cap Streeter's funeral, with his plug hat resting on the coffin:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Like going back in time

Last night, we had something on the tour that sure doesn't happen every day: A Johnny Depp sighting.

One of the blocks down which we often travel has been rebuilt to look about as it did in 1934 for the filming of Public Enemies, a movie about John Dillinger, who was shot and killed on the block in the alley near the Biograph Theatre. I wasn't on the tour last night, but apparently the bus went by and got a brief glimpse of filming in the infamous alley.

I've gotta say, the attention to detail on the set is FANTASTIC. They even went to the trouble of printing up old menus to put in the windows, and the barber shop has old detective story magazines sitting around! We rounded up a whole slew of set pictures this morning:

See our whole set of set pictures on flicker!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Who's Buried in Ira Couch's Tomb?

The old City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park) is a regular stop on our tours, and there will be a big section on it in the book.

Pamela Bannos at Northwestern has put together a terrific webpage that compiles historical documents, contemporary articles, and other neat stuff about - including some really groundbreaking research!

Check it out at

One thing we don't mind doing here at Chicago Unbelievable is admitting we were wrong. For some time, when we passed the Couch Tomb, we'd tell people that Couch himself apparently wasn't in it - a story that's gone around quite a bit. We're not sure where that story came from; our research for the book indicated (as does Bannos) that Couch is certainly in there - the mystery is who's in there WITH him! The last time they tried to bury someone in there was when James Couch, Ira's brother died. The door was rusted shut by then, and they decided to bury him in Rose Hill rather than trying to blast their way in with dynamite.

Thanks to Bea for the tip!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Things You Find Around the City #3 - old street signs

In addition to all the pre-1909 addresses that are still visible on many Ukranian Village houses, you occasionally see an old street sign. This one, carved into a building at Huron and Damen, still refers to Damen Ave by its original name: Robey St.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Great 19th Century Swindles - #1

Today I've been reading up on some of the swindles that were popular on the streets of Chicago back in the 1890s - the sorts that were precursors to todays "I need diapers for my baby" and "I need new uniforms for my soccer team."

Today's swindle:

A man comes hobbling along o a crutch, saying that he was once a lieutenant in the fire department, but was injured fighting a fire. "I was disqualified from service, and fired, when I lost my leg!" he would moan. Though the guy who pulled the scam most frequently around Chicago back in the 1890s pretty generally smelled of whiskey, he was able to take people for "much money and more sympathy." In reality, the fire department paid a pretty good pension to firefighters who were injured and unable to go back to work.

Variations of this are still going around, mostly in the form of injured "veterans" who hang around on Michigan Avenue.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Terrifying Tales of the Post Office

On Clark Street near grand, back in 1898, a rather grizzly murder took place at a site now occupied by the back wall of a post office. A woman named Tillie Wolf (great name) got into a fight with a rival and ended up getting stabbed in the head with a sharpened umbrella. The umbrella shaft went through her skull and into her brain, killing her at once. Sounds like something out of a Batman comic, doesn't it?

Perhaps it was lingering bad vibes that led people to put so cheerless an institution as the post office on that spot nearly a century later.

Friday, May 16, 2008

We'd like to thank you, Herbert Hoover...

We're still working on the podcast from out investigation of the old courthouse building , but, for now, here's an interesting factoid. After the courts were moved, the old court building became a transient shelter for depression-era hobos. You could sleep on the floor for nothing or on a cot for a dime. The hobos named the place the Hotel Hoover. Here's a shot of it:

Poor Herbert Hoover. He was among the most admired men in the world before he became President - the British even offered him a seat in parliament. His efforts to keep most of Europe from starving to death during WWI led people around the world to call him The Great Humanitarian. And he did act immediately when the depression hit; trouble was, his policies just didn't work very well, and FDR beat him in the biggest landslide ever - the second biggest being the margin by which Hoover had been elected in the first place.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Another Belle Gunness update: curiouser and curiouser!

A few months ago, we reported that Belle Gunness, the Chicago candy store owner-turned Indiana serial killer, was exhumed from her grave due to suspicions that it wasn't really her inside of it - many people doubted that she had cut off her own head and hidden it where it would never be found before jumping under a falling piano in the middle of a fire.

Well, inside the coffin, they found the remains of three children.

Resesarcher have now also exhumed Gunness' three kids, who also died in the fire, and tests are being done to see if they were her biologicial children, which has always been a bit of a question mark, and to shed some light on who might hae been in that coffin along with Gunness - or whoever it was in there. Some speculate that parts of the children were buried in one grave, and parts were buried in another. If the children found in the Gunness grave aren't hers, who are they?

More updates as they come. Here's the tribune article.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The "Holmes Light"

Some people might remember the post about the flood light near the site of an old H.H. Holmes building on the North Side that flickered to the rhythm of Ken's voice during a tour. He reports that it happens fairly often when he's there. I finally saw it in action for myself the other night, and can confirm that it's just about as described. I'm not sure if it's EXACTLY blinking to the rhythm of my voice, but it does seem to flicker when I'm talking and stop when I shut up.

If we can assume that this is supernatural (and we can't, of course - you can never assume that sort of thing) and one of Holmes' many victims is haunting the place in some way, this MAY be the first clue to emerge in decades as to where, exactly, he murdered Emily Van Tassel, who worked at the candy store that he ran under an alias a few short blocks away. It's not the kind of evidence that would ever, ever hold up in court, but there sure haven't been any OTHER clues in the last century as to her fate.

note: this location is NOT the infamous murder castle, it's clear on the other side of town. Holmes had buildings all over the city under various aliases over the years, and we've been investigating them quite a lot lately; there will be a whole section on his dealings on this side of town in our upcoming book! If you want to know more about the "castle," consider our ebook on the subject!

UPDATE from several months later: the light has been acting up so often that I believe it must just be a bad light at this point. However, some weird things have been seen in the area lately. One night last week we arrived to find three hawks sitting on the fence with dead birds in their mouths. Another night there was a brief sighting of a full-body apparation of a woman in black - the sort of sighting so rare that I could hardly believe it. Perhaps it was just my mind playing tricks on me, or swamp gas or something, but quite a few people saw it that night.

Back on the team...

Here's a bit of company history: before we launched Weird Chicago Tours in 2006, Ken, Troy and I were all a part of another local ghost tour. Even Willy, our driver, was with them at the time. The only person we hadn't been able to bring to the team from those days was Hector Reyes, the gifted improv comic who drove on most of my tours at the time. He and I had a regular two-step routine going, and the tours we were giving were GREAT. They helped build that company's reputation big-time - there's a big extent to which they're still running on that reputation, even though no one from back then is still working with them. Here's Ken and Hector, taking a break from hunting ghosts at the Congress Hotel to hunt for zombies:

Well, we're pleased to announce that Hector is now a part of the Weird Chicago team! I feel like we've got the old band back together again. Last night was the first tour I've run with Hector in over a year and a half.

Here we are, post tour:

Friday, May 9, 2008


Let's dig into the mail bag, shall we?

Brian from La Grange asks...
I heard on a boat tour a while ago that there are some kind of sharks in Lake Michigan. Is this true?

Interesting question, Brian!

Short answer, no. Long answer, it's not impossible.   (answer updated since the original post)

Sharks are salt-water creatures, and couldn't survive in the great lakes - the exception would be bull sharks, which can live in freshwater, and have occasionally been known to swim up the Mississippi River to the great lakes. In the 1955, there was even an attack - a boy named George Lawson swimming in the lake south of Chicago and ended up with a limb bitten off. We've no idea whatever became of George Lawson - he lost a limb, but gained a story no one will EVER believe.

Or, anyway, so goes a report in the Global Shark Attack File. Which gives the date as January 1st (presumably a place-holder for an attack in which the exact date isn't known, since no one is going swimming in the lake on January 1st). The file  lists their source as "F. Dennis, p 52," and poking through their bibliography, it turns out that the specific source is a 95 page book called Man Eating Sharks! by Felix Dennis from 1975. It looks like the kind of book you would see on the juvenile nonfiction shelves of libraries when I was a kid. As an writer and historian, I'd be very hesitant to cite that sort of book as a source. I'd want to find out where Felix got the story, and cite that.

I haven't tracked down the whole thing, but in a snippett view on Google books, it does appear that Dennis gives a fairly detailed account of Lawson's attack, saying that witnesses saw the dorsal fin of the bull shark swimming away, and doctors who examined the wound had no hesitation in saying it was a shark.

Still, lacking an exact date, it's difficult to look up a contemporary account of the story. It wasn't written up in the Chicago Tribune, but if we had an actual date I could check some of the defunct papers in the microfilm rooms.

So there's SUPPOSEDLY been a shark in Lake Michigan on at least one occasion, half a century ago. It's unlikely that there are any of them now, but not NECESSARILY impossible. Sophisticated damming techniques make it harder and harder for them to get into the river nowadays, though.

Hence, you're probably pretty safe down at the Oak Street Beach this summer. BUT......There were also once reports of a sea monster in there...which is a whole 'nother story.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eastland Faces

Here's a picture taken on one of my tours at the site of the Eastland Disaster a couple of years ago:

See a face in the waves?

As a skeptic, it's pretty easy for me to brush it off as an optical illusion when this sort of thing happens - but, then again, this sort of picture sort of comes in batches at this location; I'll go months without seeing one, then, all of a sudden, we'll get three every tour for a while.

If we want to get (psuedo)scientific, maybe some sort of leftover energy exerted at the moment of death reacts with the environment under certain very rare circumstances and forms the waves into a facial shape resembling that of the dead person. It doesn't seem LIKELY, but who knows? There's plenty of stuff we're still figuring out, and anyone who tells you we've got ghosts -or the natural world - all figured out is a quack.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New Look!

The blog has a new look to match the new look over at

Work towards getting the book out in mid-summer continues!

About 40-50 of the "comic book ads" were made up; they'll be in there alongside some originals.

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow

We "officially" stopped blaming Mrs. O'Leary for the Great Chicago Fire in 1997, but, in reality, it's been well known since day one that she didn't start the fire. Plenty of stories go around as to who really started it - most of them revolve around people breaking into the barn to get milk for a party or to play a prank; Mrs. O'Leary's son claimed that it was started by - and I'm not making this up - 'spontaneously combusting green hay. But the story that it was Mrs. O'Leary came from, in my friend and former driver Hector's words, "an anti-Irish newspaper called The Chicago Tribune."

And he's spot-on - Trib articles from 1871-72 about her and her neighbors are awash with lines about "typical Irish knownothingness" and stuff like that. No wonder Mrs. O'Leary ended up so bitter and unwilling to talk to the press.

But here's something I hadn't heard. From the Tribune, barely six weeks after the fire:

"A long and weary search by Messrs. Garrick and Cather, who enter for the public at the Royal Palm, No. 56 West Randolph Street, has resulted in the discovery of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. With true Irish inconsistency, they secured her tail, intending to serve it up on Thanksgiving Dar as ox-tail soup. With such an introduction to dinner, the other rare delicacies will, doubtless, not fail to be appreciated."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Book Cover!

We're not QUITE ready to start taking pre-orders on the Weird Chicago book yet, but we do have a cover:

In keeping with the "EC Comics" vibe of our print ads, we're even adding old comic book-style ads. Here're a couple of them:

There will be DOZENS of these ads in the book, along with some original vintage ads related to topics in the book.

Keep checking back for more info!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Routes, routes, routes

After last night's tour, it occurred to me that I haven't run the same tour twice in months.

Back in the old days, when we worked for a different company, the route was like clockwork - the same stops in the same order, with the same between-stop banter and jokes, and very little variation from night to night.

Nowadays, we don't have a route so much as a repertoire - there are a few places we hit just about every tour, but nowhere that we hit 100% of the time. Putting together is route is like deciding which songs to play at a rock concert that night. You want to throw in some hits, but you can also bring back an old favorite, introduce some new material, and try something that someone in the audience requests.

Of course, it's a bit different: with a setlist, you really just have to worry about the rhythm and flow. We have to take that into account in tours, too, but we also have to worry about the traffic, the distance between stops, etc. We even try to take into account which "haunted" spots have seemed active or inactive lately. It's almost like putting a puzzle together, really. But it sure helps keep things fresh!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Beer Baron Row

Prairie Avenue wasn't the only street full of mansions in the 19th century - there were plenty of them, and some of them have actually survived a bit better than the 16th and Prairie area, which was treated pretty badly for most of the 20th century.

In Wicker Park, several mansions still stand on Hoyne between Pierce and Schiller - the stretch of road that was once known as Beer Baron Row, since so many local brewers built their mansions there. Here's a gorgeous example of one that's still there:


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