Friday, April 22, 2011

Selig Polyscope Week: What Ever Happened to Colonel Selig?


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Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


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Selig Polyscope Week continues both here and at White City Cinema.

Of all the early Chicago filmmakers, Selig is the one I end up respecting the most. Spoor, of Essanay, got so complacent as a part of Edison's trust that he pretty much gave up on quality and innovation (though he redeems himself at the end, spending his later years in his north side apartment, spending his money on new inventions). Selig was a born innovator, even when he was in "the trust." He made some of the first color films, some of the first full length films, and, towards the end, he took the first shot at making a combination movie studio/theme park with the Selig Zoo in California.

More than anything else, though, you really get the impression that Selig loved his work. He loved setting up his studio for a recreation of the Ft. Dearborn Massacre one day, and as a jungle the next, with a street scene on the other side of the lot. "It's a fascinating business," he said. "Once it, you can't leave it alone."

In a 1916 interview, he looked back in awe at the wonders he had created. "I guess I was one of the three real beginners," he said. "And of all the other, smaller concers that started in about that time (circa 1895) there are none left now except we three: Biograph, Edison, and myself."

He also realized the importance of star power better than Spoor (who let Chaplin slip away) and Edison (whose refusal to sign up major stars is a large part of why his phonographs ended up being trounced in the market by Victrolas." Selig's biggest star at the time was Kathlyn Williams, who starred in the "Adventures of Kathlyn" serial (another "first" for Selig - the first successful adventure serial) and was one of the first actresses, if not the first, to say "I really want to direct" (and, when she did, she became one of the first female directors).

"I've seen some of them (movie stars) looking pretty unhappy," said Selig. "They ought to remember that their company spent a lot of money in making them...Miss Williams, for instance, owes a great deal to us, but she is loyal to us, and so are we to her. We will always keep her, even when she doesn't play much anymore." He gave both Williams and another employee, Tom Sanchini, a Selig symbol set in diamonds to celebrate five years of service.

Selig also spoke enthusiastically of where he was going - he was planning to film "The Crisis," a Civil War drama that was intended as a response to "Birth of a Nation" (it should also be noted that he leased space in his studio complex to black director Oscar Mischeuax, who filmed his own response to "Birth of a Nation," "Within Our Gates," there). He spoke of his plans for his new studio in Los Angeles. "Yes," he said, "I do get a lot of pleasure out of my business - and that's the main thing that counts."

And yet, within a few years, Selig would be out of business.

What happened?

Part of the problem was that World War 1 cut into everyone's profits. Part of it was that he threw entirely too much money into the Selig Zoo, which never really got off the ground. But his fatal flaw was that, despite his innovative nature, he simply lost sight of where the industry was going. The same interview in 1916 reveals his mistake.

"You don't think," the interviewer asked, "the day of the little picture is done?"

"Oh, no," said Selig. "We'll always have little pictures, just as we'll always have vaudeville. Some people only want to look at the short pictures and see several in a row, and then other people enjoy the big things, and they have a future, too."

Selig could have continued to carve out a niche for himself, but, alas, he failed to realize that the future of short subjects would be on the radio, and, eventually, television. It's easy to speculate that he could have had fun making short subjects for radio, but there was no call for lavish sets and animals in that world. In 1920, he sold the block at Irving and Western to a crooked car company for $400,000.

This concludes Selig week, but we'll back back with more articles on the subject in the future!
as

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Selig Polyscope Week: Selig's Brave New World (Los Angeles)



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Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


Chicago Unbelievable

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We occasionally catch some flack around here for saying that Chicago invented Hollywood. It's true that it'll take us a whole book to back up that contention, but it's true. In fact, the first guy to film commercially in Los Angeles was none other than Colonel Selig, who filmed most of his one-reel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago, but filmed a beach scene in L.A, where he would soon open the first permanent studio in Edendale (which is near where Echo Park is now).

The film survives, but has only been screened once in the last century or so, at Cinecon a few years back. Most describe it as totally ridiculous - the actor jumping into the water is clearly not the same guy who was in the prison.  I did manage to find this still, with what may have been the most obviously phony beard ever photograph. A kid with a bottle of Mr. Bubble can make a beard just about as convincing as this one.



 Still, it's charming as all get out. Selig's movies tended to be swashbuckling adventures, animal pictures, and travel films. Far more so than any other producer of the day, he believed that movies were the wave of the future.

In 1911, he took out space in magazines to publish an article entitled "WHAT MOVING PICTURES ARE GIVING THE WORLD:  A Moral and Educational Tonic for Young and Old Alike." In the article, he sounds like Professor Harold Hill talking up the value of a boys' band:

"(we) believe that five cent moving picture shows are possibilities for a great deal of good in the community. They do more than fill an idle hour. But did they even do only this they would have to be given the credentials as purveyors of legitimate amusement. Hours unemployed are the devil's opportunity... they who have had dealings with the young need not be reminded of the far-reaching applications of this observation.  Even now the discovery has been made and amply verified that the five and ten cent theatre with its cinematographic plays is a most powerful rival of the saloon...saloonkeepers have reported that their transient trade has fallen off in districts well supplied with these shows. ... Efforts should be made to lift their exhibits to highest planes of instruction...in measure as they will reach out for better effects than mere spectacular and sensational reproductions of casual occurrences they will develop into agencies of great value in the domain of education and culture."

It goes on like this for quite a while. You can read the whole thing here, on Google Books.

Selig was a man with a vision - far more so than other producers of the era, who got so tied up in being part of Edison's "trust" that they seemed to stop carrying about quality altogether. Unfortunately, he failed to follow it through, and was soon left behind. Tomorrow, we'll look at what went wrong.

In the mean time, here's a wonderful shot of Selig's train at Northwestern station in Chicago, ready head for California. Present at the station was Major. Funkhouser, the official city film censor (we had of those those in those days, and, in the grand tradition of Chicago officials, he was spectacularly corrupt - but that's another story!).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Selig Polyscope Week: Col. Selig's Movie Acting Tips from 1910



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Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


Chicago Unbelievable

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In the process of researching Selig, we found a wonderful article Col. Selig wrote of "tips for motion picture acting." It was so entertaining that both Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema are posting it today.  


Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:


ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.


LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.


EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.


MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.


LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.


READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.


KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.


GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.


STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.


SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.


IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.


SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.


GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.


PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you owe it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.


MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49″ miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.



BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.


SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.


PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.


USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.


PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employe
r the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.


From Chicago Unbelievable - are there many known examples of actors swearing in silent films that were obvious to lip readers? That'd be a fun database to compile!


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Selig Polyscope Week: Hunting Lions at Irving and Western



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Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


Chicago Unbelievable

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Selig Polyscope Week continues both at Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema!

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term as President. Instead, after his second term, he left to go on safari in Africa.  Colonel Selig asked for permission to send a camera crew with him to document the journey, and Roosevelt agreed -Selig planned to train Teddy's son, Kermit, to operate a polyscope camera. But the ex-president changed his mind when he realized what a hassle it would be. Not much research has been done to document the relationship between Colonel Selig and Colonel Roosevelt, though it's easy to imagine that Teddy would be annoyed to find out he was the only one of the two who was actually a Colonel.

And yet, in 1909, Selig's film of Roosevelt hunting a lion became a hit motion picture.

Roosevelt in Africa (also known as Hunting Big Game in Africa and several other titles) was shot entirely in the complex at Irving Park and Western Ave on the north side of Chicago, using a Roosevelt lookalike, "native drummers" found on South State Street, bamboo fishpoles and artificial leaves.  Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that many viewers THOUGHT it was genuine footage of the adventurous former president, and many theatres probably exhibited it under exactly those pretenses.

But Selig made no secret of it being fake;  the filming of the movie was extensively documented, and a handful of feature articles about it were published, including one in the Tribune that went into great detail for the benefit of a public that was still sort of in the dark as to how movies were made.  Selig often had lions in his stable (according to legend, one of them went on to be the MGM lion), but a special one was brought just to be killed in the movie.

The jungle was constructed in a 60x20 cage on the outdoor lot, to the exacting specifications of the producer. "You've got to have the real color in a moving picture," he said. "We come as near to doing the real thing here as it can be done. Get ready for the hunt!"

The lion, according to most accounts, was terrified of the set (never having actually been in a jungle - he was bred in captivity). He spent much of his time hiding in the artificial bushes, but his tracks gave him away.  As the paper put it, the man playing Roosevelt "got down to examine the tracks, made sure it was a lion, then...waved his arms in frantic delight. His (false) teeth gleamed some more, and the native-tracker and ex-president shook hands and Teddy said right out loud "Dee-lighted!"

By all accounts, "Roosevelt" spends much of the film shaking hands, smiling, and saying "dee-lighted." And everyone did a lot of frantic waving around.

Between shots, the actor would take out the false teeth and remark that they were a pain to wear. "It must be fierce to have 'em growing on you," he said.

And the poor lion, for his part, spent most of his time hiding while the crew did their best to scare him into looking fierce for the three polyscope cameras.  The fist shot fired hit him in the jaw, and the lion let loose a might roar and proceeded to scare the living hell out of the crew by jumping for the platform where the cameramen were stationed. The platform was twelve feet above the ground, and it looked enough like he would make the jump that the camera men jumped down and ran like hell. But King Leo (the lion) hit the bars at about the eight foot mark and fell to the ground. The cameramen re-took their positions and filmed "Roosevelt" firing the shot that brought the lion down.

Obviously, no title card would be claiming that no animals were hurt in the making of this motion picture.

The film ended with everyone doing a war dance around the poor lion's remains, while Roosevelt grinned, shook hands, and said "dee-lighted."

The lion had cost $300. The film made the company around $15,000.  It's tempting to call it the first mockumentary, but it wasn't by a long shot - both Selig and Spoor had filmed Spanish American war footage in the outer suburbs a decade before.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Cherry Kearton did film actual footage of the Roosevelt safari, but it wasn't nearly as popular as Selig's film. His footage of the party crossing a river just wasn't as exciting as a lion hunt, real or otherwise.

Here's a newspaper shot of a scene being filmed inside of the studio "greenhouse" (see the podcast page for pictures of how the building looked then - and how it looks now!) In the background you can see the top of another buidling, indicating this is about on the third story of 3900 N. Claremont.

The actors with the unfortunate lion. The guy playing Roosevelt doesn't look too accurate to me, but people in those days wouldn't have been accustomed to seeing actual film footage of him:




And here's some actual Selig footage of Roosevelt from the World's Fair in 1903. Selig had made his name making such "actualities."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Selig Polyscope week: The First Oz Movie



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Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


Chicago Unbelievable

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Selig Polyscope Week is a collaborative effort between Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema - their first post of the week, is right here: The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope. It provides a great overview of the history of Selig and his Chicago studio.

While Col. Selig made hundreds of movies at his Chicago studio, the best-remembered today is probably The Fairylogue and Radio Plays - even though it no longer exists. This was the first Wizard of Oz movie.

It was not a movie (or radio play) in the traditional sense of the word - the "radio plays" were a series of short Oz-based movies that were hand colored and projected during L. Frank Baum's touring show, during which he interacted with the movies. This show rolled into Chicago to play at Orchestra Hall in October, 1908. The mulitmedia show was years - decades, really - ahead of its time. However, while critics generally loved it, they didn't seem to take much notice of it as being anything more than a childrens' show.

As the Tribune put in its review:

The Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and a number of other pleasant characters returned to Chicago Thursday evening under interesting circumstances.
In the first place, they brought with them their creator, L. Frank Baum, who wore a lovely white frock coat and won the affections of a good sized audience of children and grownups. In the second place, they added two perfectly good new words - "fairylogue" and "radio-play" to the vocabulary of our already overworked press agents....
A fairylogue is a travelogue that takes you to Oz instead of China. A radio-play is a fairylogue with an orchestra...in a radio play there is the added advantage of having a cast of characters before you and knowing just who impersonate the people on the stereopticon screen. The idea is a new one, and with Mr. Baum's charming whimsicalities as its basis proved to be well worth while.


Exactly what Baum meant with "radio play" himself is not known. At one point it was claimed that the clips had been colorized by a man named Michael Radio in France, other sources say that "radio" was a buzz word for "high tech" at the time. In any case, it would be over a decade before anyone thought of "radio" as an audio communication device.

Baum himself had supervised the casting of the show and selected Romola Remus as Dorothy. In 1977, when she was living in Uptown "with a menagerie that includes several cats, a parrot, and 35-year-old Pete the Turtle," she remembered the experience in an interview with the Tribune. "I was very young," she said, "but remember my mother taking me to the studio that day and saying 'It's just another movie.' I never would have dreamed that it would have amounted to anything more." When asked if she regretted not moving to Hollywood with the rest of the movie industry a few years later, she said she didn't. "What if I had made it as a star? It probably would have meant endless cocktail parties, which I think are boring because of all the phonies."

A couple of years earlier, she spoke about Baum and Selig: "The privilege of knowing Mr. Baum was a happy and rewarding experience for me. I, also, portrayed the role of Dorothy in the first 'Wizard of Oz' movie. I believe it was the very first colored moving picture. It was produced by Selig's company. I remember Mr. Baum was always on hand offering encouragement or constructive criticism to all his workers. When the film was shown at various theatres, he would lecture about his various books. I recall some proud and joyous moments standing beside this tall, gentle, dignified gentleman on-stage after each matinee. The little children would clamor for his autograph, with cheers of joy!"

Just about every researcher who looks up The Fairylogue winds up falling down a rabbit hole researching Romola Remus (later Romola Dunlap). Her father, George, became a bootlegger, ended up murdering a lover, and is sometimes said to be the inspiration for The Great Gatsby. In her later years, she often reminisced in newspapers about turn-of-the-century Chicago, once writing about meeting Robert Todd Lincoln with her father on Michigan Avenue.

The Fairylogue clips to not survive. Some say that they were incorporated into a later Oz movie that Selig made the next year, after Baum went bankrupt touring with the show (it was successful, but too expensive to produce to make money), but this doesn't appear to be the case. Like 99% of Selig movies, they are lost artifacts. Here is a still that circulates:





Wikipedia entry on the Fairylogue
The 535 Cleveland Blog is another that became fascinated with Romola.
Mike sent over a link to Selig's 1910 Oz movie.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Podcast: Selig Polyscope Studios



New Episode!
Colonel Selig's
Moving Picture Plant


Chicago Unbelievable

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Selig Polyscope info and pictures





While Essanay ruled Uptown, Selig Polyscope was operating the largest film studio ever built not far away, on a complex covering an entire block at Irving and Western from 1907 until about 1920. Colonel Selig was a fascinating guy. He saw Edison's kinetoscope and was unimpressed, but inspired. He began to experiment with cameras and projectors of his own. In 1907, he made the first "Wizard of Oz" films (in color, no less), and was soon making some of the first, if not the very first, full-length feature films, the first adventure serials, and a whole lot more. In the middle of the block the company made outdoor films, so people going by on Western were liable to wander past recreations of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, a Civil War encampment, and a street from the old west.  We and our sister blog, White City Cinema, will be hosting a whole week of articles on cool things about Selig Polyscope next week, starting with this podcast of our adventure in the building.  Here's their extensive overview of Selig Polyscope.


Here's an artist's conception of the studio lot as it appeared at the time:


And another, which, oddly features a blank space where the surviving buidling ought to be:


Here's a photo the main building at 3900 N. Claremont - notice the "greenhouse" on top. This was used to get the maximum amount of natural light in the days when interior lighting hadn't quite come into its own.


Selig sold the block in 1920 for $400,000, but 3900 N Claremont survives. It's easy to see by the lighter color of the bricks and the ledge halfway up which parts are original.


The door still features Selig's trademark "diamond S"


Up on the top portion, you can still see a triangle of darker bricks that were added after the glass portion was removed some time after 1929. See up there on the top right?
As far as we can tell, this is the only building in the area that remains. Various online sources suggest that the auto shop, or the garage behind it, were part of the studio, but, while the garage DOES look like a brick version of Selig's stable (in which he kept lions, tigers, and elephants), those buildings seem to be from around 1930 - well after Selig's time.  However - in addition to what you see on the outside, there are still places where you can see the stiches. Here's the bricked-off entrance to the tunnel that once connected this building to the one next door:  

And the water works in the building are certainly impressive - clearly a relic of the days when this studio was developing film in-house (there was a hydrant in the middle of the block that was probably used to fill the artificial lake):


This is the second of these. 

And here's the block as it appears today from the roof. Quite a change from that scene above, with the artificial hills and lake! Most of the houses on the right were built circa 1923-24.




And here, for good measure, is Colonel Hector Reyes with our film correspondent, Mike Smith, at the Lincoln Lodge. The size of Hector's lemonade made Mike feel...inadequate.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Grave Robbing Week: A Barrel Labeled "Poultry"


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Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

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Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!


Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:

As late as 1884, Chicago was said to be the home of a "band of grave robbers." The county board at the time had ceased the practice of giving bodies over to colleges, and, though colleges were insisting that they didn't employ the services of resurrectionists, body snatching became common once again.

In December of 1883, an 85 year old woman named Mary Hoyt died of dropsy in the nearby town of Sycamore and was buried Sycamore Cemetery (which seems to be in about the same place as, and possibly a part of, Mr. Carmel Cemetery). The day after her burial, the cemetery manager saw that the grave had been disturbed and found the body was gone. Police found that a suspicious kerosene barrel labeled "poultry" had been shipped to "Wm. C Black, No 207 Paulina St, Chicago." There was no 207 Paulina at the time. Speaking to the Northwestern railroad people, police determined that the guy who picked it up was the same guy who had shipped it. He was really a man named Tom Coffee, who lived on Hermitage Avenue near Van Buren. Police began to shadow him and found that he was a pretty serious grave robber.

One night he and two men dug up a corpse in LaGrange and sold it to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago (who were back on the market by then). Another night the three went to get five bodies in Palatine (though the snow kept them from getting any). The "shadows" determined that the other two men were named Armstrong and Hall, and that they were sent by the college to go to Sycamore to get Mrs. Hoyt. The three were eventually caught and arrested, after a minor scuffle with the sheriff, in a saloon on LaSalle just south of Randolph. A fourth man was also arrested and brought to Sycamore. Two of the four were students at Rush.

The body was found at the college and returned the next day. To avoid trouble, the college immediately returned it and offered to buy a casket and shroud. They presumably did not get the $25 they had paid Coffee back.

When this case broke, the county commissioners began debating resuming the practice of giving bodies to the college (the college insisted that the reason they weren't dealing with body snatchers - at least not in cases that could cause trouble - was that they expected the board to approve the measure anyway).

Commissioner Lynn laughingly told the papers that he believed some people did more good by being cut up as corpses than they had ever done during their lifetime.


Well, folks, that's it for grave robbing week. Let's, uh, not do this again too soon, okay?  Coming the week of April 18, we'll be pairing up with White City Cinema to present Selig Polyscope week, a look at the colorful Col. William Selig, one of the great Chicago pioneers of silent film!

In the mean time, for more on bodies in barrels (if you really just can't get enough of this stuff), see here.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grave Robbing Week: The Barrel of Syrup


New Episode!
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

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from archive.org

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Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!


Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:

In ROTTERS, the book pictured on the left, and in our recent podcast, author Daniel Kraus says that above-ground vaults are generally thought of us hard places to rob. Certainly it's tougher work to break into one without making a mess than digging up a coffin and re-burying it. But vault robbery was known to happen.

December of 1875, a barrel marked "sirup" (sic) showed up at the American Express office at Washington and Dearborn. Inside, however, was no syrup - only the corpses of a young woman and a baby.

Initially it was suspected that it was a body snatching case, and then it was thought, briefly, that it may have been a murder case instead, or possibly the victim of a botched abortion. The next day, it was revealed that the body was that of Emma Addams, the wife of a hardware dealer. Seven or eight months pregnant, she had died a few weeks before.  Her body, along with that of her stillborn child, was placed in a vault at Graceland Cemetery on a cold November Friday, and was stolen by body snatchers the next night.

The papers were surprised mainly that the body had come from Graceland. While Cavalry, Rose Hill and the potter's field at Jefferson had been popular resorts for body snatchers, there hadn't been much trouble at Graceland, which wasn't always guarded at all. After this, they had to get more vigilant about guarding the cemetery from resurrectionists. Later articles said that there was some sort of grave robbing scandal or another at Graceland nearly every year.

Speaking with the delivery men, the police pinpointed two men, John Larkin and James Darrow, as the body snatchers. Darrow was 18 or 19, and described as generally unpopular in high neighborhood (around 22nd and Wabash). He initially pleased guilty, but when Larkin pleaded not guilty, Darrow changed his mind. "If you're not guilty," he said, "then I'm not, either."

Larkin said he had been approached by a Dr. E.P.B. Wilder, who worked at 22nd and Indiana, to make a box. Darrow went on to describe how they had gone to a barn and "put in the stiffs" under Wilder's direction, with the intention of mailing it to a professor of anatomy in Iowa City.

Larkin said that he had no idea what the box he was making and moving was for, and said "when I saw the corpses, I was nearly frightened to death and told Darrow to tell the Doctor that I was heartily sick of the business, and would have no more to do with it."

When the story broke, Dr. Wilder was on vacation, but his brother, Flauvius, who was also a doctor, told the papers that he couldn't imagine his brother being involved in such a crime.  He seems to have been cleared and his career apparently survived - he is mentioned as taking control of the body twenty years later when Flauvius was murdered by John Redmond, a patient who had recently been released from an insane asylum, while making a house call.





For more on bodies in barrels, see here.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Haunted Hooters? (Grave Robbing Week)


New Episode!
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

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Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!


Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:

The downtown Hooters on Wells has long been rumored to be haunted. Well, really, almost every restaurant has, but the "haunted Hooters" has gotten a lot of media attention over the years (for obvious reasons), despite the fact that no good story has come up to explain who or what could be haunting it. The stories are just the usual "strange footsteps" type of stories. You usually see it listed on the same sites that say Al Capone once owned the Congress Hotel (which is nonsense).  I never took them seriously.

But we may have found a story for it - and solved another Chicago ghost mystery in the process!

In the 1950s, a Tribune article about long-forgotten haunted houses in Chicago spoke of a house on Erie Street that was said to be haunted. Having once been used by a medical college that often purchased bodies from resurrectionists, it was said that human remains had been found in the yard, and that on quiet evenings, neighbors could hear the clip-clop of hooves and the sound of body snatchers unloading coffins from their wagons. Exactly which house on Erie this was was wasn't recorded, though, and our previous efforts to pinpoint a location have been fruitless. Whether the ghost story was real or not, I've always wanted to know where the house was. It would be a great addition to ghost tours (especially considering that it was probably right near my tour routes).

In the course of researching for Grave Robbing Week, we may have not only figured out where the house was, but found a backstory for Hooters, too. An 1875 body snatching case centered around an alley, house, and barn in the vicinity of Erie and Wells - right about where Hooters is now. Could this be the house the Tribune meant? And could the same ghosts be the ones haunting the Hooters?

Well, naturally, that all depends on whether you believe in ghosts in the first place, but we've finally got a back story that just might fit.

It goes like this....

In January of 1875, The Tribune announced that body snatchers, resurrection men, and other such ghouls were out of business in Chicago. New laws gave medical schools fist dibs on the bodies bound for the new Potter's Field in Jefferson Park, so the market for bodies no longer existed in the city.

But no such law existed in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Iowa City, Iowa, which became the major markets for bodies stolen from Chicago.

Only a month after saying body snatchers were out of business, the Trib was providing grim accounts of a new body snatching case on the North Side.  Body snatchers, it was said, were digging into the graves, opening the caskets, and drawing the body out with a hook.

The bodies were then being routed through the alley behind a charnel house at 167 N. Wells (pre 1909 numbering; it would be the 660 block today) and loaded in barrels for shipment to Ann Arbor. They were first caught in the act by a man who lived around the corner at 155 East Erie (214 West in modern numbering), who saw them messing with barrels in the barn behind his house and the alley behind a house that fronted 167 Wells (the 660 block in modern numbering). These two buildings formed a sort of border right around the current location of Hooters.

So, well, there's your back story, Hooters. You're welcome.

Could 214 W Erie be the house the Tribune wrote about? Maybe, maybe not. The 1950s article seemed to imply that the house was long gone, and the building that was at 214 Erie in 1884 is still there now - it's an 1883 brownstone now called Flair House,  the home of Flair Communications. A plaque outside states that the original owner was an Irish milk merchant. However, the address was, in 1884, said to be the home of W.H. Watson, who testified that he had heard the ruckus in the barn behind his house, and in the rear of the house fronting Wells Street. The records I'm finding on the vicitnity are a bit contradictory (as it often the case), but here's a little map of the block as of 1906, just over 20 years later:



Hooters would be on the bottom right corner, and the scene of the crime would have been out behind it. The Flair House would be the spot  at 155 Erie listed as "horse shoeing." It COULD be the same house the Trib was talking about - goodness knows that we've found houses that are usually said to be long gone are actually still standing before, and the story about it being used by the medical college could easily have been hearsay attached to the ghost stories that circulated decades later.  It's also worth mentioning that the Trib didn't say the house itself was haunted - the story was about the area around it. The person to whom I spoke at Flair House told me that the garage , at least, is pretty spooky.

The grave robber in question was one L.R. Williams (though he variously gave his name as George Smith or George Wallace), a medical student from Rush who had been in business for a few months. In February of 1875, the police caught him and another man loading a barrel onto a wagon. The police chased them through the nearby alleys, firing several shots in the process. The two men (later reported to be brothers), had been fired at by sextons before without getting hit, but this time one of them was shot as he fled. Reports of how badly he'd been hurt varied.

The one who was shot escaped and, as far as I can tell, was never heard from again. L.R. Williams was released on a $1500 bail, then promply "jumped bail" and disappeared. As far as I know, they never caught him. How many bodies they may have routed through the barn and charnel house is unknown, but at least five barrels full of bodies were found. In inquest was held at which the story of the area around Erie and Wells came out.

 Given the possible connection to Hooters, it's rather odd to read the Tribune's lurid account of the two female bodies in the morgue during the coroner's inquest, which, disturbingly enough, was probably intended to be titillating:

Hard and stiff, the death rigor intensified by the bitter cold, there lay upon the next slab the naked form of A BEAUTIFUL WOMEN exposed to all the indignities...and of unsypmathetic and indifferent looks and touches. Stockings covered the feet and a portion of the shapely limbs, but the rest of her person was entirely nude. The head was turned to one side in a posture that would have been natural to animate modesty, and which, in the poor maltreated corpse, carried with it a pitying suggestion of womanly purity. Although the changes of death had somewhat altered the contour  of her body, the beholder could not but be struck with the shapeliness of her limbs and the general beauty of her person; but her parted lips and staring eye-balls made a gorgon horror of the face that in life had been comely and attractive.... in the corner of the room were four other barrels, and by looking in their open tops could be seen the other objects of THE BODY SNATCHERS' rapacity.....among the number was another woman whose luxuriant brown hair displayed its disheveled tresses above the top of the barrel and caught the glance of the spectator... her features were concealed by her position, but it could easily be seen that her frame was thin and wasted, and that she had been a woman above the average height.


In the other barrels were two victims of consumption (a boy and a man with a long black beard) and an old man. They were given far less description than the women.

So, this grave-robbing story is a possible lead on that pesky Trib story from the 1950s, and a possible story for the Hooters. I'm sure there are other possible stories, though. I've never really looking into the Hooters location. Odds that there was a murder there are one point or another are probably high. Erie and Wells wasn't always the nice area that it is now, after all.

For more on bodies in barrels, see here.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Grave Robbing Week: A Wagon Full of Corpses (1867 and 1872)


New Podcast
Episode:
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

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Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!


Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:


Say what you will about how disgusting and depraved people are nowadays - I don't recall ever seeing an item in a modern paper about huge crowds to the Union Street police station to peek at five naked people who happened to be dead -  which DID happen in 1872.

At the ungodly hour of 3:30 in the morning of March 2, 1872, detective Michael Mahoney of the Pinkerton force, spied a horse-drawn wagon moving east on Van Buren near the Chicago river. Due to recent robberies, Pinkerton had ordered his men to examine every suspicious vehicle seen in the city overnight. Mahoney found the wagon was being driven by two men who were whispering back and forth (which I supposed looked rather suspicious). Unobserved, Mahoney followed behind the wagon and put his hand inside - where he felt the leg of a corpse.

Mahoney continued to follow them undetected until he came upon another Pinkerton man, to whom he signalled. The other detective stopped the wagon and knocked on a street lamp, the signal for other police to come. The police took the men to Union Street station, where they were identified as William Pemberton and Jerry F. Schaler. The wagon contained four dead men and one dead woman, all of which were taken from the Potter's Field (this was presumably the new one at Jefferson, not the old one at City Cemetery, by this time).

The two men were held on a $2000 bail, and the bodies were covered in hay and a blanket, then out on the sidewalk, where they quickly attracted an eager crowd of sick people.

I have not yet figured out what happened to these guys - mostly likely they were held until a grand jury found them guilty, then made to pay a fine. In the one article the Trib published on the affair, the bodies were not identified. It's to be assumed that they were intended to be sold to a medical college.

Of the curiosity seekers who came to get a look at the naked bodies, the Trib wrote "a great many of the eager crowd succeeded, but regretted their success, probably, when dinner time arrived."

This wasn't the first time a wagonload of corpses had been found. In 1867, a couple of men were caught with such a wagon at Ohio and Dearborn. The two men were Henry Jones and Henry Johnson - they were janitors at the post office building and said that they'd been employed by a medical man to deliver bodies to Rush Medical College. Jones had bought his own wagon for the job; they would be paid $10 per "subject" (less than many were paid at the time - the school might have been short-changing the men because they were black). The bodies on the wagon were from Calvary Cemetery, but Jones said they were the first he'd ever taken and that he'd never do it again.

In the back of the wagon, the police found all the tools you need to go into business as a resurrection man: two shovels, a crowbar, a screwdriver, a chisel, a hatchet, a rope ladder and some straw. The five bodies were all still dressed, and still wearing wreaths of artificial flowers. The Tribune, as was their custom, gave a lurid description of each corpse. The bodies were removed to the "dead house" at City Cemetery for an inquest. Rush College was not considered to be involved. The faculty said they knew nothing of the men, and, anyway, the college was not in session, so they didn't have any reason to hire a body snatcher in the first place!

As the story unfolded, it turned out that the bodies had been taken not from Calvary, but from German Lutheran Cemetery, and were actually destined for some college East of Chicago (The University of Michigan is the usual suspect here). The bodies were soon identified - one had actually died at a hospital at Ontario and Dearborn, near where the wagon was apprehended - and reburied. Jones and Johnson were sent to jail to await trial, where they were presumably ordered to pay a fine.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Grave Robbing Week: The Scandal of 1857


New Podcast
Episode:
Grave Robbing
in Lincoln Park


Chicago Unbelievable

Download mp3
from archive.org

More Podcasts



Rotters by 
Daniel Kraus. 
Father-son
grave robbing!


Adam and
Daniel are
a part of the
same violence
gang:

Q: How do you enjoy the work?
A: Well, it wasn't very pleasant at first, of course, but anyone gets used to it. It is for the good of science, and I think it is just as right and honorable as for the man what does the dissection.
Q: How many do you suppose you have furnished in your experience as a body snatcher?
A: Maybe 500. I got about forty last winter. But it wasn't a very good winter for it.

                - Cincinnati Equirer, 1878, "A Talk with a Professional Subject Gatherer."

In 1835, Chicago decided it was time to designate some far-out-of-the-way space as cemeteries. Two spaces were decided on: one on the south side (about where 26th street is now) and one on the far north - just above Chicago Avenue, stretching from Clark Street to the Lake. At the time, this was so far out of the way that no one thought the city would ever expand so far North. It was only a few years before they realized that they were wrong, and the two cemeteries were abandoned. Little is really known about those two graveyards, but it's generally agreed that plenty of bodies are still there.

In 1840, the city opened The Chicago Cemetery, which would eventually be known as City Cemetery, and then, eventually, as Lincoln Park (after the gravestones and most (well, some) of the bodies were removed). 

Grave robbing was a problem in the city right from the start - in 1844, a new mayor mentioned the problem in his inaugural address.  But the problem really made the news in 1857, when it turned out that the sexton - the city cemetery manager - was digging bodies back up to sell to medical colleges, who always needed bodies for dissections and tended to have "no questions asked" policies.

 In October of 1857, four bodies were buried in the Potter's Field - the section where the poor and unclaimed bodies were buried, usually in unmarked graves (located right about where the Lincoln Park baseball fields are now). When Joe, the gravedigger, noticed that that grounds where he'd buried them was disturbed, he investigated and found the coffins had been broken into and the bodies were gone. He contacted the local alderman, who bypassed the police and put Alan Pinkerton and his squad of detectives on the case.

Pinkerton's men determined that the robbers had entered the graveyard with a wagon at the North end and proceeded down to North Avenue (which then divided the Protestant side from the Catholic side). Seven or eight men were placed on guard of the "infected district"for several nights.  Finally, one night a wagon appeared. The detectives followed along, crawling on all fours among the graves, then finally running them down before catching up with cart at Chicago Avenue. The men in the wagon were Martin Quinlan, the city sexton, a student from Rush, and an unidentified third man. As they fled from the wagon, they left behind a canvas bag containing the bodies of a man and a woman.The man, who was missing his legs, was identified as Louis Steff, a man who'd recently died in a lumber accident (actually, the amputation probably killed him) and the woman was Mary Ann Best, said to be a friend of Steff's.

A later search turned up two more bodies hidden in the cemetery bushes. Another grave was found in which a hole had been dug and a rope placed around the body to be pulled up, but the smell had given it away as a smallpox victim and the robbers had decided not to steal it. Quinlan and York, the student, were quickly captured.

Grave robbing, it seemed, was a common problem. A couple of years before, it had been necessary to dig a guy up and rebury him, and it turned out the coffin was empty - and so were 9 out of ten of the coffins buried nearby!

Eli York, the medical student, had an alibi and was dismissed from the courts three days later. The head of Rush stated that all students had been directed to have nothing to do with body snatching. However, medical colleges quickly pointed out that they NEEDED bodies, and argued that they should be given first dibs on any body that was going to be buried in the Potter's Field. One letter to the editor pointed out that if you should ever need your leg amputated, you'd better hope to get a surgeon who had experience tracing the arteries and knowing how to keep you from dying of the operation (one wonders if this was he problem the legless man had had).  Meanwhile, makers of harder-to-rob metal caskets immediately began advertising their wares.

The papers began to argue about whether Quinlan was a democrat or republican. He was a democrat (and an Irish one, as the Republican Tribune was only too eager to point out). 

Eventually, Quinlan was indicted for robbing nine graves, and pleaded guilty to stealing the bodies of Steff and Best, the two with which he was caught. The defense argued that since the people buried in the Potters Field had no friends to be upset by their disinterment, it was a victimless crime, but the court was unmoved. Quinlan was fined $500 (250 per body) and freed.  A few years later, having been removed from office, he spent a year in prison for stealing cows.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for more stories about Chicago body snatching! We've got bodies in barrels, bodies in bags, grave robbing gangs...and lurid, semi-erotic descriptions of corpses in a story that may provide a back story for the supposedly-haunted Hooters on Wells! It's going to be a gruesome week, folks.

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