Thursday, May 28, 2009

Weird Laws of Chicago

I was recently asked to do an article for the upcoming ARMCHAIR GUIDE TO CHICAGO about weird old laws in the city - and found some neat stuff. Among laws that were once on the books:

- The 1893 municipal code restricted the height of buildings to 130 feet (by then, there were several taller than that).

- It is STILL illegal to fly a kite downtown (when most of the weird laws were overturned in the 70s, an alderman who tried to get this one overturned was told to "go fly a kite."

- If you are caught with less than a dollar, you can (or could be) arrested as a vagrant.

- Until the 70s, it was illegal to "indecently display a stud horse or bull."

- At one point, you could be arrested just for walking the streets if you were "diseased, maimed or ugly."

- It is illegal to flush kitchen waste or garbage down a toilet

- According to a state law from 1923, it's actually illegal to speak english! THe state mandate decreed that the language of the state would be referred to not as "English" but as "American."

- In the 1878s, a city cour declared that the ordinance prohibiting selling booze to minors was illegal!

- one oft-sited law decrees that it's illegal to take a french poodle to the opera.

Most of the weird laws on the books were overturned in the 1970s, when the aldermen decided to try to clean up the law books, but some are probably still on the books!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ghost Sightings on the Tour

TWO possible ghost encounters on the tour last night!

At the location of H.H. Holmes' Sobieski St. factory (which was a smaller-scale sort of murder castle; probably the location of the murder of Emily Van Tassel and presumably others), where a great many things have been reported this spring, most of the people on the tour heard wailing, moaning sounds coming from someplace around the footprint of the old factory. I first thought it was a coyote or something, but what one of those would be doing in Bucktown is beyond me. We also considered that maybe it was the wind or the sound of a vehicle on the nearby interstate, but if it was something like that, I should have heard it before. Why, this may be my first encounter with a ghost that goes "whooooooo" - just like on Scooby Doo!

Earlier, Tanya Savard snapped this shot of the infamous Florenting Ballroom at the congress hotel - note the thing on the left:

Here's a closeup on the anomaly:

No one was walking past at the time, and it showed up on the LCD screen, so I know it wasn't photoshopped in. It COULD be something like a camera strap, or some other camera whatzit, I suppose. It's worth noting that the Congress was being renovated - one of the few things ghost hunters DO agree on (every ghost hunter thinks most of the others are quacks) is that renovations tend to lead to more sightings.

Our usual disclaimer applies: we haven't analzyed this much yet, and are NOT saying that it's definitely a dead person in the picture. But we're at least sure that this one isn't dust. The thing on the right is, though!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Black George," Harper the Drunk, and the first slave auction in Chicago

In the very early days of the city, there was a city rule stating that any prisoner without means of paying his room and board in prison could be "sold" to cover costs after his sentence, and such an auction was held twice. The history books usually call these "slave auctions," but they really shouldn't be confused the sort of slave auctions that were going on in the South at the time. It wasn't quite the same system, in that the prisoners in question would not be slaves for life - just until they had worked off whatever the highest bidder paid. Slavery had been abolished in Illinois in the 1780s.

Several books mention the first auction in the city, in which George White, the town crier better known as "Black George" (or "Darkey George' or any number of names that seem rather rude to modern ears) auctioned off a white vagrant from Maryland named Harper. He was a British man by birth, with wealthy parents, who (from what we know of him) bummed around the city calling everyone "squire." He had been arrested for vagrancy, and, as he had no money and there was no poor house, he was put on sale at public auction.

This makes for an interesting slave auction, since the auctioneer was black and the "slave" was white. White went to his job as auctioneer with gusto, proclaiming that if you had Harper in your house, he could hide whiskey in a place where no one else could be tempted by it. Indeed, it was actually George White who BOUGHT Harper for a quarter. Having won the auction, George marched Harper back to his place, where he was put to work for 30 days or until he had worked off the sale price, at which point he was free to go.

Black George, the town crier and handyman from the 1830s, is an interesting character in Chicago history - he appears briefly in FATAL DROP: TRUE TALES OF THE CHICAGO GALLOWS (see link at right) as the hangman at the city's first hanging. He seems to have been known around town as a serious, peaceful and respectable fellow, though history records him of having played one practical joke: when he saw a barber shop advertising a haircut for 15cents and a shave for 5cents, he went in and asked that his head shaved. He TRIED to pay only a nickel, but, as his hair was not easy to shave, the barber demanded (and eventually got) a quarter.

Not much else seems to be known about George White, but I'm looking into finding out more. He and the other town crier (Black Pete) were well known in the city, not only crying out the news and officiating at executions but putting on nightly shows that were said to beat any minstrel show on the circuit. One myth that has gone around is that historical references usually said he was white, and only dilligent in the late 20th century uncovered the truth. In fact, just about every historical source I've seen, going back to the mid 19th century, mentions that he was black. None say he was white.

As for Harper, most witnesses say he ran like hell and never worked a second for White, who, like the rest of the town, didn't seem to take the "auction" very seriously - it was really just something to humiliate Harper into giving up liquor. It didn't work, though, and Harper was soon a familiar figure wandering drunkenly through the streets and cursing people in Latin (the sherrif later remembered that, when half-drunk, Harper would be "in the viin of the classics." He once sold the rights to dissect his body to a doctor for a dollar in drinking money, but whether the doctor ever collected is unknown.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Our Lady of the Underpass

A staple of our tours from Day 1 has been the infamous Virgin Mary Salt Stain - the salt stain on the underpass near Fullerton and Damen that some claimed was a visitation of the Virgin Mary, which they claimed it resembled. The traffic jams to see it died down a few weeks after it's "discovery" in April 2005, but the shrine around it - featuring candles, wreathes, and (I'm not making this up) a headless Jesus statue remained.

(update: I'm no longer with the company I worked for when this post went up in 2009, but as of 2012, I still pass by it occasionally on certain routes for Chicago Hauntings, my current company, and even if the stain is gone, the shrine remains - it was rebuilt shortly after this post went up). 

Ken just called from the tour and told me that it's gone. There's nothing left, from what he's told me, except for some burn marks. Basic detective work leads us to believe that it was set fire to by some weirdo, and the rubble was hauled away by the city. The fire could also have been started by one of the candles, I suppose. There are a LOt of candles set up most of the time - candles plus plants are probably an accident like this waiting to happen.

The stain has fallen on hard times lately - some months back it was covered by a spray-painted devil face, and has since been covered with a portrait of Mary. It was only a matter of time until it joined the House of Crosses in the ranks of "Great Tour Stops Gone By."

It was a tricky stop for me, since I always felt that I OUGHT to be fairly respectful of it. As a paid, professional smart aleck (see my upcoming "Smart Aleck's Guide to American History," due early next year), there were some jokes I just couldn't leave out...

- I was never sure what people were seeing in the stain, exactly. Apparently Jews can't see it.

- I'd like to be a fly on the wall at Mary's meeting in which God says "Mary, I need you to go be a salt stain in Chicago. That'll send a powerful message. I know you're already appearing on a sandwhich in Dubuque, but hey, I'm EVERYWHERE. You can't be two places at once?"

- The "shrine" around it changed all the time. One time we went out there and found a pyramid of Dr. Pepper cans - perhaps a reference to the scriptural "Thou art the pepper of the earth*...would not thou like to be a pepper, too?" I believe it's in Paul's Letter to Mr. Pibb (which opens "yo, Pibb...why you always gotta be a pepper hater?"

So long, salt stain.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Leon Despres dies at 101

Former alderman Leon Despres as often the only alderman in town with enough guts to vote AGAINST Mayor Daley the First. For those who aren't from Chicago, aldermen are like the mayors of neighborhoods. They're about as well known for corruption as any other local politician, but Despres was the exception. When columnist Mike Royko found out that Depres rode a bicycle instead of a cadillac, he didn't believe he was an alderman at all. But Despres's staff assured Royko that Leon was going to hire someone else to work the pedals.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Despres at Bughouse Square a couple of years ago - the interview as recorded on the Bughouse Square episode of our podcast

Link: Alderman Despres dies at 101.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Will there be brochures on YOUR coffin?

This past weekend was our first Civil War tour. Many people wondered how the heck we'd fill up a tour with Civil War stuff in a city miles from the nearest major battle, but there's an awful lot of stuff related to the war in Chicago (and, being Weird Chicago, we had plenty of cool stuff to talk about in the space between stops).

I always learn a lot of neat stuff when doing research for new tours, but the biggest shocker this time was that the grave of Stephen Douglas comes complete with brochures:

Douglas was an Illinois senator who introduced the Kansas Nebraska Act, which opened the door for slavery to expand into the North (he was pelted with produce in Chicago for it). In 1858, he debated Abe Lincoln in a series of famous debates on the expansion of slavery as part of their campaign for senate. Davis won, but lost the presidential election to Lincoln two years later.

His memorial is near the lake on 35th street - a massive pillar with a statue of him on top of it. At the bottom of the pillar sits the burial chamber, where one can walk right up to his sarcophagus and grab a brochure. It would be a pretty tacky place to put them, but, well, Douglas was sort of a jerk*, so I guess it's a wash

* - Douglas' exact views on race and slavery seem to have varied depending on what was convenient for him at the time. I'm not comfortable judging people from 150 years ago by the standards we have today - even Lincoln's views on race were rather backwards by today's standards. But the racial stuff Douglas put forth at the Lincoln Douglas debates was pretty harsh business. At the very least, the man was on the wrong side of history.


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