Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meanwhile, Back at the Body Dump

December 27th and there still hasn't been any snow in Chicago, other than something like 1/10th of an inch at O'Hare a week or so ago. Here and there you see little patches on cars, but that's about it so far.

This made it especially odd to pull into the "H.H. Holmes Body Dump" site on the tour the other night find it covered in a thin, but measurable, layer of snow and ice. Every other tour stop was completely devoid of the stuff!

One runs into odd things here - early on in my trips here was the night when the street was occupied by large birds with dead smaller birds in their mouths. Another night there were chickens crossing the road (and here I thought they only did that in jokes!). To find snow there, when there was no trace of it anywhere else on the tour, was a bit of a shocker. Obviously I'm not going to claim this as evidence of anything supernatural, but sometimes this place seems just plain weird!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Who's Buried in Ira Couch's Tomb? Some new info.

One of my favorite topics - one that pops up in my dreams all the freaking time - is the Couch Tomb, the mysterious vault that stands at the south end of Lincoln Park, the most visible reminder that the place was once City Cemetery (we spoke of the tomb in a podcast some time ago).  It was built in 1858 after Couch died in Cuba  (the Tribune once joked that he was among the first Chicagoans to go south for the winter) and was set up to hold about a dozen bodies; estimates often say that it's about half full (or, uh, half empty). It cost $7000 and was made of several tons of Lockport stone (reports vary between 50-100)

 Odds that there's anything in there now always seemed slim to me - it's not exactly air tight, so most anything that was ever there has probably rotted away by now.  I was never persuaded, though, that the bodies would have been moved.  This was a really, really expensive crypt, after all -  $7000, the cost of it, was about the same amount spent on the Republican Wigman a year or two later.

But I just ran across a thing in the Chicago Examiner archives from May, 1911, when the tomb was set to be opened for reasons unclear. This is a few decades beyond the last time the thing was known to have been opened - one later article said that the family had been unable to get it open without dynamite in the early 1890s (this would probably be the case now - it's awfully well sealed on all four sides of the door).

But in May, 1911, locksmith William McDougald was notified that he was to bring the proper tools to the vault and opened it - an order that made the Examiner. The park commissioners would not say WHY it was being opened - the paper dramatically stated that they maintained "a deep silence."

The order appears to have been a prank. The next day, the park commissioners said they knew of no such orders, and placed a policeman on guard. A.S. Lewis, the superintendent of the park, stated at the time that the tomb had not been opened since 1880 - and when it was opened then, all the bodies were removed. John Lindroth, a civil engineer who worked for the park board for years, concurred, stating that "I was in it ten years ago. There were no bodies in it at that time."

Meanwhile, though, the paper sought out Ira J. Couch, grandson of the original Ira Couch, who stated that "My grandfather, his father and mother and two of my brothers are buried in the tomb. I have heard, also, that four other people are buried there. The bodies have never been removed. We hold the title to the vault and can open it if we want to, but we do not want to."

Well, folks, this is a veritable treasure trove of primary sources! For one thing, we have a first-hand account of being inside of the tomb around 1901 - certainly the only such account that I know of. However, Lindroth saying it was empty isn't necessarily proof positive that there were no bodies in it - it could simply be that they had all rotted away by then. For a coffin to rot away the twenty or thirty years it would have been since the last interment would not be impossible. Also, I'm not sure he was telling the truth; this might have just been Lindroth's way of getting people to leave the thing alone. I really wish he'd said more about how he got in, as it was generally said at the time that one couldn't get in without blasting it open (it's not just locked, it's sealed), or why he would have been inside, or how he got the legal clearance to open the tomb without Ira J. Couch knowing about it.

After all, of course, we can't discount the testimony of Ira J, who presumably would have been in a position to know whether or not the bodies were moved. He may have been mistaken, but I can imagine that this was the sort of topic that came up around the Couch family dinner table occasionally. Particularly given the fact that his brothers were there - if they had been moved in 1880, he should have known, and he should certainly have been informed if the tomb had been opened in 1901 (the Couch family was still prominent in Chicago then). He had been in charge of the family's estate since 1899, when his grandmother died;  some have pointed to the fact that Mrs. Couch is at Rose Hill, not interred in the tomb, as an indicator that the bodies had been moved, but the cemetery was long out of use by 1899 (I had no idea she died so late until today - the park hadn't been a cemtery in decades by then, and that would have been years after the supposed incident when they couldn't open it without dynamite to put Ira's brother in).  Incidentally, Mrs. Couch's obituary states that her husband and father-in-law are in the tomb; a 1936 article on the family in the Trib said that Ira J. and his son, Ira L, made an annual custom of visiting the tomb. Ira L eventually moved to Omaha, and said as late as 1960 that there were seven bodies in there. In a 1993 article the family no longer knew for sure.

So, we have some fine new information here from 1911, but still no proper closure! I wish Lindroth had explained why he would have been in there ten years earlier.   For much more about City Cemetery, see Pamela Bannos's "Hidden Truths"  As a minor update, Pamela tells me that, even having traced all of the Couch family genealogy, this would be the first she's heard or Ira J having any brothers. Perhaps they were stillborn? Furthermore, Ira Couch's parents died well after the era when it would have been legal to inter them in Lincoln Park. However, if they died within Ira J.'s lifetime, one would assume that he knew where they were interred. Curiouser and curiouser!

The Woman in Red at the Drake Hotel

Let me just share a bit from the Trib's report on a burglary and murder from the Drake Hotel in 1925, when a group of drunken men in Lone Ranger-style masks burst into the place with guns blazing: "(the bandit) flourished his guns and expressed himself in some choice profanity calculated to impress his victims with the desirability of obedience." I love that.

The Drake in 1920. Cap Streeter had JUST been kicked out of
"Streeterville," so much of the area was still oddly empty.
The Drake, like any old hotel, has some gruesome stories behind it. There was the story of "The Woman in Black" who murdered Adele Born Williams there in 1944 - a bizarre case that was never solved. Leopold and Loeb were interrogated there. Their victim's father later died there. A baroness was found dead in a bathtub there in 1962.

But the main ghost story about it, the one that everyone in the building seems to know, concerns a "woman in red" who mainly haunts the tenth floor. According to legend, it's the ghost of a woman who caught her husband cheating at a New Year's party in 1920, just after the hotel first opened, and threw herself from a tenth floor window.

If this suicide truly happened, it doesn't seem to have made the papers - I've never seen anything to back it up. There was a former model who jumped from a tenth floor window, but she was an older woman (the kind papers back then described as "once beautiful"), and it was decades after the hotel opened.

But there's a chance that such a suicide WOULDN'T have been reported in 1920; the hotel was presenting itself as the finest in the world, and probably would have gone to great lengths to keep such a suicide out of the press. Had the woman landed on the sidewalk, there probably would have been no way to stop the story from leaking. However, if she landed on the roof of the setback, they COULD have possibly had the body removed without any reporters finding out. But some mayhem from the New Year's party did make the papers - one woman lost (or was robbed of) a $5000 necklace during the party. A week before another woman had lost a $1000 pearl and emerald ring in the washroom.

My team's recent investigations at the hotel have not yet turned up anyone who knew anyone who had actually seen the woman in red, so where the story came from seems to be, like so many ghost stories, anyone's guess at this point. There are many other places around the hotel where the staff is known to get spooked, but there aren't as many specific ghost stories there as I would frankly expect from such a historic hotel.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Woman in Black at the Drake Hotel

This story was published on the blog in several parts four years ago; this is a "collected version" to replace the multi-part story:

In January, 1944, Mrs. Adele Born Williams, a 58 year old society "matron," walked up to her eighth floor apartment at the Drake Hotel with her daughter and found the door unlocked. Inside, they found a gray-haired woman in a black persian lamb coat who had been hiding in the bathroom. Without a word, the woman pulled from her purse an antique pistol and fired two shots at Williams' daughter. She missed, then left the bathroom and fired several shots at Mrs. Williams, eventually hitting her in the head, causing a wound that would prove fatal within hours. The fur-coated woman then walked out of the room and was seen by a couple of men before Williams' daughter cried for help. "I could have tripped her," one of them men later said, "but I'm not in the habit of tripping strange women."   Later reports said her daughter chased the woman down the stairwell, yelling "stop that crazy woman, she shot my mother." 

And so began a case that got stranger and stranger. Among the twists in the tale:

- Police launched a massive search of the hotel and found nothing. However, four hours later, the murder weapon was found, shattered, in a stairwell, apparently having been dropped from a high floor. Police had search that place - then gun had apparently been returned to the scene of the crime!

- Similarly, a spare key to Williams' room was reported missing from the front desk at the time of the murder. Mysteriously, it appeared back on the desk at 10 o'clock that evening.

- Mrs. Williams had $100,000 in cash in a safety deposit box for reasons unclear.

- Mrs. Williams herself seems to have been a bit odd; a commenter on the original version of this story remembered being a small child and living nearby her, and seeing her running out of the house the family rented in peach-colored pajamas; the word at the time was that she had mental problems, but this may just be a rumor.

- No jewelry or valuables were taken, leaving the motive somewhat unclear.

- Just before the murder, a phone call had been placed from Mrs. Williams' room to a fish and ale house two blocks away.

- One woman who worked the desk at the hotel at the time was a convicted hold-up girl with a bizarre past - much more on her below. 


The mystery remains unsolved. There was never a suspect, and though various motives were suspected, none of them really held up. It was a huge story in 1944, and mentioned at least once a year on the anniversary in newspapers for at least a decade later (interestingly, as of the late 1950s, the Trib was still spelling "clue" c-l-e-w.). Today, it's been almost totally forgotten.

One of the theories to emerge was that there had never been a woman in a fur coat, but that Mrs. Wiliams' daughter, then known as Mrs. Goodbody, had shot her mother herself in the midst of a fight over the gun. One police lieutenant, Lt. Quinn, was sure that this was the case, and alleged that no call for help had been made until 10 or 15 minutes after the shooting (this was refuted by witnesses).

The theory Quinn had arrived on was that the killing had either been an accident in the midst of a struggle after her daughter announced her intention to kill herself, or that it had all been pre-planned by Mrs. Goodbody and her father and that the reason the gun wasn't found (right away) was that the father/ex-husband (who certainly did hear about the shooting before the police did - he was the daughter's first call) had smuggled it out. According to this theory, Mrs. Williams was annoyed at her daughter for some reason and was planning on writing her out of her will.

At one point in the investigation, when Quinn demanded, rather harshly, that she "tell the truth," Mrs. Goodbody allegedly said "Well, I'll tell you..." then stopped. Some said she was withholding evidence, others say she had been ordered to say nothing about anything by her father's attorney, who was already present.

Quinn (who comes off as a real jerk in the story) was convinced within minutes of investigating the scene that there was never a woman hiding in the bathroom, and that there couldn't have been room for her, since an ironing board attached to the door would have taken up too much space. More investigations, however, showed that there was plenty of space for the "woman in black" to hide.

One major piece of evidence in Mrs. Goodbody's favor was the testimony of the victim herself. The shot in the head didn't kill Mrs. Williams right away, and she was still able to talk to two people who came into the room to help. Though she repeated the name "Goodbody" a few times, she said that shooter was a woman in black with a rose in her hair, and that it was no one she knew. She was later quoted as saying that the shooter had said "I will get you yet!" and that she thought the woman was firing blanks. Other witnesses also described a mysterious woman in black with something red in her hair fleeing the scene. 

Naturally, Mrs. Goodbody herself was royally ticked off about being accused of being her mother's REAL killer. Eventually, Capt. Harrison, one of the main detectives, determined that there was, in fact, a third party in the room: the mysterious woman in black. Mrs. Goodbody was never charged.


The best evidence in the case was the murder weapon - an antique pistol. The serial number was traced to a fellow named Walter Brown, who said that he stole the gun in Bloomington during a hold-up in 1939 - but turned it into the police. Brown was certainly not a suspect - he was in prison at the time, serving a life sentence for the murder of a McClean County deputy sheriff. According to his story, the gun had been in police custody for five years. How the serial number connected it to him is a mystery to me, since the police never believed he ever really owned it.

The police denied his story, although the officer he had given it to admitted that he'd received other guns from Brown, who was a lifelong friend. The police felt that there was no evidence that Brown had ever legally owned the gun - in fact, Brown's insistence that he had owned it was the only real thing tracing it to him.

By way of proof, Brown could only say that he had used it to fire several shots into the ground outside of a Hwy 51 roadhouse five miles north of Bloomington one time. The police dug up the whole area and found several bullets, but they were the wrong caliber for the gun in question.

But there was something else to connect Brown to the case - the police officer wasn't the only person who had ever received a gun from Brown. His sister had, some time before, borrowed one and used it in an attempted hold-up, for which she was on probation.

And at the time of the Woman in Black murder, she was working the front desk at the Drake Hotel.


Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch
So the claims of an Indiana convict that he had owned the murder weapon couldn't be verified (how the serial number connected it to him is something I'm a bit confused about), but it did lead the police to his sister, who was on probation after using one of his guns in an attempted hold-up, and was, at the time of the murder, working the key desk at the Drake Hotel.

Actually, he had TWO sisters at the Drake, Ellen, a desk clerk, and Anna, whom the Tribune described as a "hotel prowler."

To say that Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch, alias Ellen Murphy but generally still called Ellen Bennett in the press at the time, had an interesting past barely hints at the matter. A sixth grade drop-out, she married Acott Bennett, a 57 year old, when she was 15, and bore him a son, who sort of disappeared (he was once reported to be a marine). They were divorced after six months of marriage, and Ellen enrolled at Norhtwestern University using a high school diploma that actually belonged to a friend, Eva Soloway, whose name was was using - you might say she was a sort of low-rent identity thief. In 1939, Ellen, who was still formally known as Mrs. Bennett, had borrowed one of her brother's guns, plus some tape and cords to tie people up, and attempted to hold up a woman in Park Ridge. At the time, she was wearing a blond wig over her red hair, and was driving a car owned by a state senator (who was dead by 1944). When caught, she pretended to be a "night club entertainer" named Peggy Ryan. She was put on probation.

Anna, Ellen's sister, the "hotel prowler"
In 1941, she was living on the near-west side under the name Ellen Larkworthy, wife of a guy named Vere H. Larkworthy, whom she had married in Milwaukee, where she was living as a barfly while her sister worked as a call girl. She bought several jewels with his money, insured them, and then reported them stolen in a case so fishy she was put on a lie detector test. Larkworthy, apparently another old guy, was murdered shortly therafter, and Ellen was questioned, but not charged. Before his death, he described their courtship as "I came back from the races and met Ellen at a hotel.....we drank, and the next thing I remember I was in Dubuque and married." They were married only a few weeks before Ellen left him - by then, she had taken him for all he had. His murder was never solved.

Ellen then married for a third time, to a guy with whom she lived for only a few days. At the time of the Drake murder, she 41 years old and was was working as a desk clerk, living in the hotel under the name Ellen Murphy. Both friends and the police described her as cold blooded and with a real penchant for diamond and jewels - which Mrs. Williams had in abundance. She would have been the one to give the woman in black the spare key used to break into the room - and which mysteriously turned up on Ellen's desk that night.  She was, at the time, occupying a suite in the hotel with her latest lover, Patrick Murphy, whose brother, Francis, was at one time the state labor director.

Two weeks before the murder, a call was made from Ellen's room at the Drake to The Pub, a fish and ale house a couple of blocks from the hotel. A mysterious call from Mrs. Williams' room was made to the same location a couple of hours before the murder.

Under questioning, Ellen DID admit to owning a black fur coat, but said she did not own a wig and had never been in Mrs. Williams' room. She went back and forth on whether she was in the hotel at the time or the murder or in a nearby restaurant, and voluntarily submitted to (and passed) several ie detector tests. Both Ellen and her sister were arrested twice in connection to the murder, but were freed on a writ of habeus corpus. Despite extensive investigations, charges against her never quite stuck. I've never found out what became of her; she would be well over 100 today, but I like to imagine her still hanging around in hotel bars in the 1980s, flirting with much younger men; a wealthy widow with a terrible secret.

The murder of Adele Born Williams was never solved; the woman in black was never identified. I've not been able to determine why, exactly, Ellen Bennett was let off the hook; they probably never had anything but circumstantial evidence on her. To me, it seems pretty likely that she was in the room, trying to steal the jewelry, and freaked out and started shooting. But the police had other theories besides this one, even years after the case dropped from the public eye. It was the story of the year in 1944 (besides, you know, world war 2), but has barely been mentioned in the last half century.

BUT - there is a ghost!


The Drake is not one of the more notably haunted hotels in the city, but there are a couple of ghost stories floating around - one about a woman in red on the tenth floor, and one about a woman in black on the eighth. This story would be an odd way to back that one up - the woman in black was the murderER, not the murderEE.

My guess is that this is a case of a mistaken history. Most likely, when some employee was asked if there was a ghost story, he or she remembered that there was some story about a "woman in black" attached to the hotel, and thought it was a ghost story, not a murder.   We'll cover "The Woman in Red"  ghost in the same hotel later on this week!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Miracle" on Ashland Blvd, 1931:

In 2005, traffic was ground to a standstill when a salt stain said to resemble the Virgin Mary appeared at the Fullerton Underpass.

This wasn't the first time such a thing had happened - and another time it not only attracted what may have been an even bigger crowd, but turned out to be the result bouncing off the window in the home of a former gangster!

In mid July, 1931, a man walking down Ashland noticed a glowing image that resembled Mary and the Baby Jesus on a brick wall at 1105 S. Ashland, just near Roosevelt Road. He fell to the ground in devotion. Another guy nearby though he had fainted and ran to help, then saw the image and knelt down himself.

Within hours, the crowd had gotten so big that 400 police officers had to be brought in; some papers say that 50,000 people filed past to see the mysterious image, including several hot dog and ice cream vendors. There's some newsreel footage out there someplace, and a lot of shots of the crowd, but I don't think the image photographed well; all I could find in the newspaper archives down at the library was some pictures of the wall space where it was supposed to appear.

above: images from the American and the Herald
The newspaper men seemed, to a man, not to think there was anything holy about it, and most just saw dim light, not something that looked like Mary unless you were really looking for it (not unlike the salt stain - I couldn't never tell what they were looking at there myself), but were still unable to figure out what the source of the light could be. On the second day, they were scraping it with knives trying to see if it was just phosphorescent paint - but to no avail. The image remained, glowing brighter as the night got darker, and the "miracle" was reported in newspapers around the country.

On the second day, though, the mystery was solved - the image a street light that was bouncing off a window across the street, being distorted into its odd shape by a lace curtain on the window. To what must have been everyone's great surprise, the police knocked on the door of the flat where the window was located and found it was the home of Sam Genna of the Genna Brothers, the gang that had controlled Little Italy until three of Sam's brothers were killed in rapid succession a few years before.

"I don't know nothing about any miracle," Sam said. "Get out."  One can only imagine what he'd been thinking of the crowd on his lawn up until then; another named, a grey haired man known as Dr. Stoll, was particularly annnoyed at the whole thing. "Terrible, terrible it was," he said. "I told 'em it was all a crazy humbug or something, but I couldn't stop 'em. Neither could the police. They just trampled into my yard, broke into my house, sat on my back steps and watched that silly light on the wall."

The police, no longer afraid of the once-notorious Genna Brothers by 1931, pushed right past him, despite Sam's protestations that he had company, and despite the fact that such an unwarranted search was not remotely constitutional, and firmly established that moving the curtain up and down could make the "apparition" appear and disappear. The police announced to the crowd that it was all a "big fake," and the crowd dispersed. Sam Genna lived relatively quitely for the next twenty years until his death of natural causes.

At the left here is the Tribune's shot of the crowd, which they estimated to be around 7000 at the time the photo was taken.

I'm not sure that providing a rational explanation like that would make so many people disperse so quickly these days - the shrine around the spot where Our Lady of the Underpass appeared is still there today, going on eight years later. At least a large handful of such a crowd now would probably stick around saying unkind things about scientists and skeptics. Lt. Joseph Pierott's announcement that everyone should go home and go to bed or he'd "run them in" would surely be seen by some as anti-Catholic suppression. The talking heads and pundits would have a field day.

BTW - here's the inside of the Genna Brothers' tomb at Mount Carmel; Tony Genna's crypt is on the lower left; he was shot at Grand and Aberdeen in 1925, at a grocery store that stood where the pest control place is now.


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