H.H. Holmes on Michigan Avenue

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Been a while since there was a new H.H. Holmes post on here, huh? Well, lets dig into the legal archives and pull ourselves up a case. This one puts Holmes into business swindling a wholesale grocery on Michigan Avenue: Sprague, Warner and Co, which stood right on the Northwest corner of Randolph and Michigan – the site of Crain Communications today, just across the corner from “the Bean.”  Not in the same building, obviously. The original is long gone, like most of the other buildings Holmes ever set foot in.

The basics of the lawsuit are this: In January, 1890, one I.C.  Conner took out a handful of promissory notes, borrowing several hundred dollars from Sprague, Warner and Co, with a promise to pay back the Englewood Bank. On the back of each note was a blurb guaranteeing payment signed by Holmes and his mother-in-law.

This would be Icilius C. “Ned” Conner, who had started working for Holmes at the “Castle” building in Fall, 1889 (according to what he later told Chief Badenoch). With him were his wife, Julia, and their daughter, Pearl. Trouble began brewing between the couple, largely because of Holmes himself, who would eventually have a fairly open affair with Julia. The two eventually separated. Ned bought the jewelry store in the castle from Holmes and ran it for a time, but eventually left and went to work elsewhere.  Julia and Pearl remained in a second-floor apartment in the castle, but both vanished without a trace in December, 1891.

It’s generally assumed that Holmes killed them; one of Holmes’s lawyers even told reporters that Holmes admitted to him that he’d killed Julia. Holmes would also confess to having killed Ned’s sister, Gertrude, though doctors at the time were quite certain she’d died of heart failure (she’d been out of Chicago and back at home in Iowa for several weeks at the time of her death, though some still theorize that he used a slow-acting poison – see my master list of known and suspected Holmes victims)

Ned mostly pooh-poohed the stories about Castle, saying that everyone knew about the “secret chamber” (jewelry store clerks used to sleep in it), and that he never heard any particularly mysterious noises, or any particularly suspicious odors besides the “offensive” smell of oil about the place.

Connor continued to run into Holmes from time to time even after his wife had vanished from the face of the earth; he told an Inter-Ocean reporter that he’d spoken about Holmes with Minnie Williams, telling her “(Holmes) is a man I don’t think anything of” (though, when shown photos of Holmes’s suspected victims, he decided that it was Emeline Cigrand he’d spoken to, not Minnie).  Holmes subtly bragged of his affair with Connor’s ex-wife: “He told me something no man on earth could have known had he not been intimate with her; he never could have got the information any other way,” he told Chief Badenoch.

He also had plenty of stories of Holmes trying to get him to buy life insurance, and has the best line of any Holmes victims in this regard: When Holmes’ agent told Ned that he could get a policy for as low as one dollar, Ned said, “If you want a dollar, I’ll give you a dollar, but I don’t want a policy.”

In this particular swindle, Ned seems to have come off all right. When the money wasn’t paid back, Sprague and Warner went after Holmes, not Ned.

Here are some interesting things in the paperwork:

First of all, we have the cover, on which is scrawled “Holmes 701 63rd Street – No such number in Hyde Park. Highest number 569 63rd.”  I’m not sure if this means that the “castle” wasn’t in Hyde Park (it wasn’t) of if the guy serving the papers genuinely couldn’t find the place. It was still just a two story building at the time, but he’d have to be pretty dim to miss it.


And here we have a letter signed by Holmes – possibly in his own handwriting, though it’s hard to tell. It’d be easier if there were clearly two different pens used, or another signature below his in a wildy different writing. The Hs in the signature are different than the ones in the main writing, so it’s possible either that Holmes wrote the whole thing as some clerk told him what to do, or that a clerk wrote it out and passed the paper and pen over to add his signature. It does pretty well match other Holmes signatures that I’ve seen, but handwriting was taught so rigidly in those days that it can be difficult to tell.

The content of the letter – Holmes entering himself as a party and waiving the right of a writ of summons – indicates to me that the clerk who scrawled the bit above really couldn’t find the place!

It’s worth noting that, while I list this as an address to which Holmes can be traced, Ned seems to have been the one sent out to do the legwork here. Holmes’ actual presence in the building is just sort of assumed here; I imagine he must have cased the joint a bit. He was certainly in the loop a lot.

As a side note, I’ve been running H.H. Holmes tours since 2007. I’ve now teamed up with Atlas Obscura to offer more, and we’ll be announcing a few public dates soon over at Mysterious Chicago Tours!

Bertha Warshovsky: Queen of the Arsonists

On November 7th, I’ll be conducting a Mysterious Chicago walking tour of the “Darker side” of Taylor Street for Atlas Obscura. Here’s one of the stories I’ll be covering! 

Bertha in the Herald Examiner

As a grandmother in her sixties, Bertha Warshovsky assumed that no one would ever suspect her if a building burned down. We can imagine that she didn’t always look as threatening as she does here, in the best photo I’ve found of her so far. We’ll go ahead and say it was probably a badly scanned version of a badly-taken photo, shall we?

Having invented a sort of fuse that would enable her to light a match and get safely away before a fire really caught, she made a whole career out of helping people who wanted to burn buildings down for the insurance money. By the 1930s, police were calling her “The Arson Queen.”

One of her fires in 1928 had a particular hiccup – a handicapped 17 year old was still in the building when she set the fire, and lost his life. Bertha took the stand in the resulting case, and it was covered in a November, 1934 issue of the Tribune. In a pattern you see in a lot of cases like this, the papers often complained that attractive woman were treated so well by the courts that they were almost always acquitted (or at least given much lighter sentences than a man would get for the same crime; we never hanged a woman here), but were only too happy to pile unpleasant language on the female defendants they found less attractive. Consider that a trigger warning for what follows.

“Mrs. Warchovsky,” the paper wrote, “a short, dumpy woman told how she ‘touched off’ the fire on Aug 11, 1928. She seemed surprised when Prosecutors Kearney and Nash did not seem to understand some of her firebug phrases. She used gestures most of the time to demonstrate her testimony.”

Warchovsky said she’d charged the owner of the house her usual fee – $170 – to set the fire at Taylor and Racine (earlier articles indicate taht the owner collected about $11,200 in insurance money).   “Yes,” she said. “Harry Brown called me on the telephone and told me that I should come over, that there was going to be a fire there. I took a cab and went right over. We started right in to make balls.”

“What do you mean?” asked the lawyer.

“Balls, paper balls like this (she demonstrated with gesturing). We were supposed to make the fire that day, but when we got the layout fixed up we couldn’t make the fire because some people were sitting outside.”

A rather unflattering shot in the Tribune

The next day, Bertha took another cab over and found that the place was ready to burn except for a lack of gasoline. While one man got the gas ready, Bertha touched up the wick, a process she described in court: “First, I lighted a cigar, and blew like this (blowing) to make the flame red. Then I tied it inside of a bunch of safety matches. The cigar sets off the matches and the matches start the wick to burning and then pretty soon the gasoline paper balls go up and then comes the real fire.”

Several days before, the Tribune had stated that the “dumpy little grandmother” had confessed to at least a dozen such fires. In describing her, the paper said “The ‘queen’ is of Henry VIII proportions on an abridged scaled. The chair into which she was wedged elevated her rotund shins so that her feet swung clear, while her 225 pounds of royalty clamped the throne immovably to its proper place on the floor. …Most of the ‘touch-offs’ were her own work, she admitted, because a woman would be less likely to arouse suspicion.

Prosecutors were asking the death penalty for the owner of the building, though not for Bertha, who presumably didn’t know that the house was occupied. She still would have probably been on trial for murder, but got a severance in exchange for turning state’s evidence.  She seems to have had a regular career as a witness in arson trials after this, stating at one point that she’d started more fires than she could remember.

My research on her is still at an early state; I’ve browsed the Tribune archives but haven’t really checked the defunct papers or the legal archives for the kind of info that hides in there (including perhaps a better photo). I’m not even really sure how the trial described above came out yet. But I wanted to put up the article to plug my upcoming Taylor Street Tour, which will talk about her and several other stories that have been on this blog. See ya there, and GO CUBS!

Did Dr. Thomas Neill Cream Kill Alice Montgomery?

Could a Chicago mystery from 1881 have been the work of one of our early serial killers?
(See an update from 2017 at the bottom of the post!) 
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream.

On April 9, 1881, 22 year old Alice Montgomery checked into a room at the Sheldon House, a west loop-area hotel on West Madison near Racine. After dinner, she casually asked for a glass of water and a teaspoon, then for directions to the ladies’ private closet. Some time later, another roomer saw her emerge from the private closet writing in agony. Soon, she was on the floor, screaming in pain and convulsing. Doctor Seymour Knox was summoned and gave her ether, but after rallying for a moment she died. The doctor believed it was strychnine poisoning. Another doctor, one Byron Griffin, was soon found who told investigators that Alice had recently come to him saying she was in a “delicate condition” and asking for drugs to induce an abortion. He’d refused – it was illegal at the time, after all.  But a superficial examination of the body confirmed that an abortion had been attempted. She found some doctor who would help her. But someone had apparently tampered with the medicine.

The medicine she had taken was traced to a drug store further west on Madison, and was filled from a prescription from Dr. Fraser. Fraser was located and promptly said the drugs she’d been given were probably used to induce an abortion, but that he knew nothing of the prescription. It wasn’t in his handwriting, and contained some obvious misspellings.
An 1881 notice in the Tribune, after Cream was
acquitted of a similar case due to lack of evidence.
The address here was barely half a block from
the site of Alice’s death, which was at 503-505 Madison
in pre-1909 numbers. 434 is 1255 West on the
modern grids; a vacant lot marks the site of
Cream’s old rooms today.

The next day, Dr. Frazer assisted on the most-mortem at an undertaking parlor further west on Madison. It was found that Alice had been pregnant, and traces of strychnine were found (to prove it was strychnine, they fed the traces to a cat, who quickly died). The clerk at the drugstore said he had no idea how strychnine could have gotten into her medicine; it was sealed in a bottle with a skull and crossbones. A coroner’s jury eventually concluded that the strychnine had been added to the medicine later, under circumstances unknown

At the inquest, a letter written by Alice was produced, indicating that she’d paid Doctor Fraser $75 for an operation, and needed another $25 for another, after which she would “be all right.”
It had been sent in the coroner by someone who claimed to know Alice, but how that person came into possession of it was sort of a mystery, as was an accompanying letter saying that it was being sent to clear up the troubles for “Van Minchen,” a name no one had connected tot he case The identity of the person who’d found and submitted the letter was never found.
Dr. Fraser vehemently denied that he’d performed the abortion. The prescription was clearly not his own work, and “anyway, if I desired to produce an abortion, I had the necessary drugs at my own office, and need not have sent a patient to the drug store.”
The coroner’s jury established that Alice had died of accidental use of strychnine, but  exonerated both Fraser and the druggist. How the strychnine had gotten there, and who had done the operation, remained a mystery.

The tone of local newspaper articles from the case – particularly those of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean – make it seem quite clear that they assumed Dr. Fraser was at fault. It DOES sort of seem like damning evidence against him.  But Fraser was exonerated, and, since the case was officially still a mystery, it’s fairly remarkable that no one ever noted that one a known serial killer – one whose crimes frequently combined strychnine and abortion – had an office within a stone’s throw of the Sheldon House.

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream is probably a better candidate for the title of “America’s First Serial Killer” than H.H. Holmes, who is usually advertised as such.  Strychnine poisonings, abortions, and blackmailing doctors were his stock in trade. Giving both the operation and the poison to Alice, as well as perhaps trying to frame Dr. Fraser, seem like just the sort of thing he would have done. And Dr. Cream was operating from an office on Madison at the time of Alice’s death, right near the Sheldon House.
A letter in Dr. Cream’s handwriting published
in the Harmsworth Pictorial Magazine in

Only months before the Montgomery case, in fact, Dr. Cream had been arrested, and eventually released due to lack of evidence, when a woman named Mary Faulkner died after an abortion. Both Dr. Knox and Dr. Fraser were involved in cases with Cream in 1880-81.

I almost feel as though I must be missing something here. Given the publicity of the case connecting Dr. Cream to the abortion/death of Mary Faulkner in 1880, and his proximity to the scene of the action, it seems as though someone would have mentioned him during the Alice Montgomery affair, though neither the Tribune or Inter-Ocean ever mentioned him in connection with (all above info on her is from their April, 1881 accounts)

And given how much publicity Crem got a few months later when he was arrested for the poisoning of Daniel Stott, why did no one think they’d found a logical suspect for Alice’s murder?  Later accounts of Cream, including a full-length book about him from 1995, make no mention of the fact that there’d been a high-profile mysterious abortion/strychnine-related death in his neighborhood only months before his arrest. Indeed, I don’t think anyone ever mentioned Alice in print again after the April, 1881 inquest.

After his November, 1881 conviction for the murder of Daneil Stott (whose wife had obtained poisons to use on him from Dr. Cream’s office), Cream went on to spend several years in prison Joliet before being released and going to London, where he resumed his career of poisoning, blackmail, abortion and murder. He was eventually convicted of killing a woman with strychnine there and hanged; an apocryphal story states that he admitted to being Jack the Ripper before he was hanged, and I’ve long suspected that a 2008 podcast in which a former parter of mine mistakenly attributed that story to H.H. Holmes was the beginning of the current vogue to connect Holmes to the Ripper murders.

I sent an early version of this article to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, who recently wrote a novel, Prisoner 4374, about Cream. After consulting his large prison file, she confirmed that Cream was in town and receiving patients on April 9, 1881, but couldn’t find a definitive link that proved he killed Alice. The drug store Alice was sent to would not have been the one to which Cream usually sent patients, which was on South Clark.

“However,” she noted, “the crime and subsequent letter to the coroner certainly have the traits of his preferred ‘modus operandi.'” She also notes that April 9 was a Saturday, and it’s probably notable that Cream was known to take patients on Saturdays.

So there may not be a smoking gun – there rarely is in case this old, really – but the pieces certainly seem to fit. Either Dr. Cream gave her strychnine or there was some other strychnine-happy abortionist operating in Cream’s same neighborhood. The Sheldon Hotel would have sat on Madison right near Loomis; Cream’s place was across the road and only about a block east; you certainly could have seen it out a second floor window. The drug store Alice called on was a block from the hotel in the other direction. Though it’s not a store Cream is known to have recommended to patients, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios under which Alice would have gone there. If she was in pain or in a hurry, Kraft’s store was much closer than the one Cream normally used, which was in the loop, a little over a mile away.

This is probably a case that can never go beyond circumstantial evidence, since it’s likely that none of the original evidence is still extant, but it’s more compelling to me than just about anything on the list of H.H. Holmes’s possible victims.  The fact that no one seems to have thought to connect Cream to Montgomery before remains the biggest mystery to me here.

  AJ Griffith-Jones’ book is written as a faux autobiography. From prison records, she can firmly establish the truth about rumors that Cream escaped prison and became Jack the Ripper.
The Chicago Daily News wanted to make sure
readers knew that Alice read the Daily News.

Digging through the defunct Chicago newspapers in the microfilm room gives some clue: the most likely time for someone to have made a connection between Cream and Montgomery would have been in late July, 1881, when Cream was first made a suspect in the murder of Daniel Stott, or in September of that year when he went to trial. In July, any mention of Cream at all was buried among the coverage of President Garfield having been shot. In September, Cream’s trial coverage was overshadowed by Garfield’s funeral (he lingered on his deathbed for several weeks after being shot). According to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, there’s even a note in Cream’s prison records saying that authorities were distracted by Garfield news and not taking much note of Cream’s actions at the time of the Stott murder. So it may simply be that the obvious solution to Alice Montgomery’s murder slipped through the cracks.

And, since we can never resist an H.H. Holmes connection: according to an 1895 issue of the Chicago Daily News, when H.H. Holmes was en route to Toronto with the Pitezel girls, he stayed a night in room 18 and 19 of the West End Hotel, which had the same address, and was likely the same building, as the Sheldon Hotel, where Alice died! According to the CDN, he registered as “A. Armstrong.” Other papers were not convinced that this part of the story was true, though, and at this point whether “A. Armstrong” was truly Holmes is probably anyone’s guess.

UPDATE, 2017:
As more newspapers get digitized, more sources come to light! I knew I couldn’t have been the first to connect Alice to Dr. Cream, and it turns out the sheriff in charge of the jail where he stayed before his 1881 trial blamed him for the murder. Here’s The Belvidere Standard, a paper from near Grand Prairie, quoting the Rockford Register on Sept 13, 1881:

The Ghostly Woman of the LADY ELGIN Graves

In 1860, the sidepaddle steamer Lady Elgin was wrecked about nine miles off Winnetka – another ship had collided with it, and the ship was busted up by breakers. Just under 400 people were on board, bound to Milwaukee from Chicago, allegedly after having seen Senator Douglas speaking in his campaign for the presidency (though the real reason was apparently raising funds to preserve an anti-slavery miltia; Douglas was not in town).

Another ship collided with Lady Elgin, and it was overturned and destroyed by breakers, resulting in the loss of around 75% of those on board.  At the time, it was the greatest tragedy that had ever befallen either Chicago or Milwaukee, and is said to have cost each city more lives than any single battle would in the coming Civil War.

The event is now recorded, but not really underlined, in Chicago history. Over time, it’s been overshadowed by disasters like the Great Fire and the wreck of the Eastland, or thought of as more of a Milwaukee disaster, since most of the passengers were from there.

But Chicago was the scene of many of the more gruesome aspects. Bodies were initially taken to City Hall for inquests, then moved to City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park). Contemporary newspaper articles make it look as though the bodies were set up in the “Dead House,” as they called the morgue in those days, but a 1908 reminiscence published in the Tribune described seeing close to ninety bodies lying on the ground in City Cemetery, waiting to be identified. It was certainly more than the dead house could have held.  Most of the bodies who were never identified in Chicago were eventually taken to the receiving vault at Rosehill, and about 27 were buried in a mass, apparently unmarked, grave.

Many of the bodies who came ashore closer to the site of the wreck wound up in a mass grave in Highwood, a small town in the north suburbs. And it was there that a ghost was seen throughout the late 1800s.

Wreckage on the shore at Winnetka. It was still there as of 1892,
when Joseph Kirkland’s Story of Chicago was published.

According to an 1899 Tribune article, the mass gravesite became neglected over time, and was marked only by two small wooden stakes at the turn of the 20th century (Indeed, the site was eventually lost to history altogether, until researchers at the Highwood Historical Society triangulated the location in just the last few years – see their newsletter (pdf link)).  That same 1899 article states that in the 1870s, when houses were being built in a mini “boom” in Highwood, there were stories of a ghost on the grounds – that of a beautiful woman in a black gown that was dripping with water. The ghost had a gold chain on her neck and diamond earrings in her ears, and was often seen waving her hands, as it to drive the builders away. She was particularly said to haunt the site of one particular construction site where the house was never completed. Some probably said that they stopped building the house because of the ghost.

The Tribune tracked down a man named Henry Mowers who said that he knew exactly who the ghost was – or, anyway, he knew which unidentified body it was.  “Yes, I was on the beach immediately after the wreck of the Lady Elgin,” he said. “For days afterward bodies continued to be washed up by the sea on the beach just below the lighthouse. I’ll tell you of one specific case which to me was at once the most pathetic and the most horrible of all. A woman clad in black silk and showing, despite the fact that she had been wave-tossed and beach-beaten for several days, that she had been a woman of beauty, was finally thrown up by a wave of sufficient strength to give her body lodgement on the sands below the bluff on which stands the old lighthouse. We found her there and carried her to a building some distance from the water.

“An examination showed that on the body was a handsome gold watch, a thing somewhat rarer than it is now, while about the neck was a fine gold chain. On the fingers were several rings, two of them containing large solitaire diamonds. The effects were left upon the body and the proper officials were notified…. the next morning, when the officials arrived, the door was opened, but there was neither ring, watch, nor necklace upon the body of the woman…. I saw the chain with its gold piece pendant hanging from the neck of the wife of a prominent Lake County official not six weeks afterwards. The man had entered the building in the the night and stolen the jewelry from that poor drowned woman. A nice sort of official was he not?  The stealing of the jewelry was undoubtedly the reason why the body was never identified. I made a coffin for her with my own hands, and made it rather better than I did the others…Yes, she lies up yonder unknown and forgotten by all save two or three of us. I suppose there is rubbish on her grave, and I know that cows are pastured there, but time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Over the 100th anniversary of the Eastland wreck, there were many astonished stories of how few people in Chicago today know about the disaster. But it’s certainly better known than the Lady Elgin, which seems to have been almost totally forgotten by 1899, even in the small town near which the wreck was eventually found in the 1980s. I haven’t looked into this extensively, but from a quick search I could find nothing about there being a grave site in Rosehill. As Mr. Mowers said, “Time makes living people careless of the dead.”

“H.H. Holmes is an Honorable Gentleman”

In June, 1887, among the Inter Ocean‘s legal notices was small note: “Deputy Sherriff Hubbard levied on the drug store of Harry H. Holmes at Englewood yesterday under an attachment in favor for Peter Van Schaack & Sons for $900.” H.H. Holmes would have been running the pharmacy he’d bought from Dr. Elizabeth Holton at the time; construction on his famous “castle” across the street would begin the next month.  Van Schaack was a wholesale druggist, one of a few who supplied him. Apparently, Holmes had not paid his bill. As usual.

But two days later, the Inter Ocean published a retraction:

“To whom it may concern:  By reason  of a misunderstanding on the part of the agent of the firm of Peter Van Schaack and Sons, on June 13, 1887, an attachment suit was begun by said firm against Harry H. Holmes, druggist, at Englewood. No levy was made upon Mr. Holmes, as was stated in THE INTER OCEAN yesterday, and no custodian was put upon the premium, and the suit is ordered dismissed by plaintiff. Mr. Holmes is an honorable gentleman, and it is much regretted by said firm that this suit was instituted and advertised – H.C. Van Schaack, attorney for Peter Van Schaack & Sons.”

Some paperwork from the suit, with “void” written
across it. 

There was, in fact, a lawsuit between Holmes and Van Schaack and Sons. A court summons had been sworn out and notarized on June 13th for Holmes to appear in court to answer charges on July 18th. But Holmes apparently talked his way out of it; the word “void” is written all over the paperwork.

It’s fairly easy to imagine what happened. Holmes was served with the lawsuit for non-payment, and marched into Van Schaack’s office, saying something like “I totally sent the check – it must have just fallen through the cracks or got lost in the mail. How dare you drag my name through the mud over a simple clerical error! This could damage my reputation!”  He not only persuaded them to drop the suit, but got them to write a letter apologizing and calling him an honorable gentleman!

This is one of very few pieces of data about Holmes’s conduct when he was working in the drug store he ran before building the castle. There are several references to Dr. Holton having trouble getting Holmes to make the payments he promised for buying the pharmacy, but if that were the case, they seem to have settled up in the end without going to court (and without Holmes killing the Holtons, as he is often said to have done).  Perhaps the same thing happened with Van Schaack and Sons.  From what we can see on record, Holmes was pretty bad about paying his debts, but in those days he usually either eventually got around to it or managed to drag things out indefinitely. Lawsuits against him don’t really begin in earnest until about 1890.

Fake Nuns and Drunken Revels at the Phony Orphanage, 1908

St. Jospeh’s and three of the
“sisters” in the Chicago American. Papers
differ as to the exact address, but it appears to be
long gone now.

Neighbors who lived near St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans on East 35th in 1908 thought there was something awfully strange about the place. It was a religious home, run by a priest and few nuns, but they sure seemed to party hard there. And late into the night, too.

Fathern Anton de Lubicz, the priest in charge, was a fraud. Like Sam Cardinella, he seems like a guy who read a Dickens book and thought it was an instruction manual. In Cardinella’s case it was Oliver Twist, and for de Lubicz, it was Nicholas Nickleby, in which Nicholas works at Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school where headmaster Wackford Squeers pockets most of the money he should be spending on the care and feeding of the inmates and spends most of his time beating the kids and forcing them to do hard labor. That’s about what St. Joseph’s seems to have been like, with the added twist that Anton de Lubicz claimed to be a priest. Three “nuns” were sent out daily to collect alms, bringing in about $12 a day each.

By most accounts (certainly by their own), the “nuns” had been duped and thought they were real nuns; even the “Mother Superior” who was recruited from a Milwaukee Avenue restaurant where she’d been a waitress. But a servant employed in the home eventually went to the police and the anti-cruelty society with tales of midnight “orgies” and severe beatings of the dozen or so orphans who lived there in September, 1908.  “I never heard such a profane and vile-speaking man as De Lubicz,” she told the Tribune. “He never thought of the little girls he was wronging…nor of the orphans who often heard him, but he swore just like a trooper…. I have seen drunken carousals at the place at all hours.”

A photo from “Father” Lubicz from the Chicago American

“We thought we had been taken into the church,” said one of the “sisters.” “I remember now that there were no vows of any kind and no training. We did not serve as novitiates…. we used to have mass read every morning. Lately the father has only said mass once a week. He declared it was too much trouble to have a daily service.”

The sisters were required to bring in $12 a day fro mbegging, or Father de Lubicz would be “very severe.” The Sisters of Charity outfits were never questioned anywhere. The Armour company donated fifty bucks; ledgers had Schlitz and Atlas brewing companies down for ten bucks each.  Ledgers listed smaller confirmations from several other companies – mostly brewers.

“When our day’s work was over,” said “Sister Fideljon” in the Chicago American, “we had a good time. We took off our charity gowns and put on our other dresses. The father used to bring his men friends to the house and would entertain them until late at night.  The children were beaten frequently; if they did not obey any of the nuns or the father they were soundly thrashed.” One nun told the Examiner that the beatings were administered with a horse whip.

The orphans were literally eating gruel; the servant who informed the cops said she’d been given only $3 per day to feed as many as 18 inmates. According to the Examiner, breakfast was usually small amounts of oatmeal and rye bread, lunch was bread and butter, and dinner was a small bowl of soup.

A member of the anti-cruelty society inspected the place and was appalled. It smelled like sewer gas, the children were barely fed, and there was garbage everywhere. The cops launched a raid on the place a couple of days later.

Anton (or Antonio) de Lubicz in street clothes

“Father” de Lubicz escaped the raid, but soon surrendered. “He told police that he was ordained by The Independent Polish Catholic Church, and had paperwork to back it up, and claimed he was just a scapegoat being dragged through the mud by the former servant, who had been fired.  Other priests insisted that his paperwork was bogus.  “All priests have women in their employ,” he told the Examiner. “And I consider it no sin to drink beer.” This may have been so, but “Father” de Lubicz also had a wife and children living on Leavitt Street, near North Avenue, which would have been distinctly unusual for a real priest.. When found by reporters, his wife wept and said he was “a bad man.”

The next month, he was found guilty of cruelty to children and fined $5.
He was still on trial for other charges related to the orphanage when he skipped his bail and went to Canada, where he was caught again in January, 1909. He was extradited back to Chicago, but I’ve yet to find any data on what happened to him.

The Death of Hoops-a-Daisy Connors

Hoops a Daisy

Henry “Hoops-a-Daisy” Connors is not one of Chicago’s better-known gangsters. In fact, if he didn’t have such a swell nickname, I doubt any attention would have been paid to him at all. It hasn’t, really. Looking him up now, all I’m seeing about him are vintage newspapers and one mention in one of my own books.

Hoops-a-Daisy was born around Erie and Wells back when the neighborhood was known as “Smoky Hollow” and grew up to be a gangster. In 1914, according to police records reported in the Tribune, he shot and killed a man he said he hurt his sister. He did some time for counterfeiting in Toledo, and in 1928 he took a gun away from a bartender and shot him with it.

By 1929, he was known as a political hanger-on, switching sides among various aldermen and aldermanic candidates in the 42nd Ward, where he had been trying to open dives of his own while living in a room at the Wacker Hotel (now the Felix). On September 1, 1929, he came into the C and O Restaurant looking for trouble.

The C and O Restaurant and Cabaret, 509 N. Clark, was a hangout both for gangsters and politicians – there was a lunch room up front, a cabaret in the back, and, off and on, a casino in the basement. Booze seems to have flowed pretty freely, even though prohibition was in full effect. Though not one of the better known gang hangouts today (it’s overshadowed by places whose gang history is wildly exaggerated), it sure as hell seems to have been a tough place in its day. It’s even been suggested that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was not really a Capone job, but revenge for the killing of William Davern in the C&O in 1929  (though the real killer in that version of events was in jail at the time, so most historians tend to brush it off).

Months after the massacre, a drunken Hoops-a-Daisy walked into the C&O and approached a table occupied by James McManus and Ernest Fontana, a pair of north side gangsters.  According to the Evening Journal, McManus later said “Connors came up to our table, evidently intoxicated, and said ‘Come n in the back and I’ll give you a drink. We refused, saying we were busy.”

The two were apparently old pals of his from when he supported Dorsey Crowe as alderman, but had quarreled with him since he switched his allegiance for Crowe’s opponent. Going into the back with him seemed like a bad idea.

“Then Connors pulled a gun and swore,” McManus went on, “ordering us to get into the back room. That’s when the shooting started.”

Connors stood  on the step that separated the lunch room from the cabaret, swearing and pointing people around with his pistol. As he did, someone standing behind him opened fire. When the police arrived, Connors was lying dead across the dividing line between the lunch room and the cabaret, having been shot in the back, the eye, and the groin. There were many witnesses, including a couple of cabaret singers, a musician, a waiter, and several customers, but none claimed to have seen the killer.

McManus and Fontana were said to have blamed Conners for the recent killing of John E. Bowman, and it was speculated that he had come to the C&O to kill them for daring to think such a thing (or perhaps for knowing too much). In the coming weeks, several other gang killing would be connected to the Connors killing: less than two weeks later, a carnival barker and 42nd ward political hanger-on named Charles Brown was “taken for a ride” and thrown out of a car to die of his wounds at 53rd and Lowe.  Some said Brown was an informer for prohibition agents, others said it was all a gambling fight, but police theorized it may have been retaliation for Connors’ killing.

The next month, George Riggins, a friend of the slain Bowman, was in his gambling house near Madison and Racine when six gangsters came in. They robbed 30 dice players, then put Riggins against the wall, cussed him out, then shot him nine times. Police speculated that this was revenge for the Connors killing, as well.

Whether these killings were really connected to Connors will likely never really be known, and neither will the identity of his killer. Like the story behind his fantastic nickname, they’ll probably remain mysteries for all time.

Conway: The One-Legged Killer Clown of 1912

“It’s Only a Paper Moon…” Charles Cramer, alias Conway, the clown
with a wooden leg, in a postcard photo with his
wife, circa 1911, a year before he murdered Sophia Singer.

In 1908, a woman named Frances Thompson was found strangled to death and robbed in a home on the 1200 block of South Michigan. A man named Luman Mann was tried for her murder and acquitted. During the whole ordeal, Mann’s father, Orville, received an anonymous note stating that he could solve the mystery if he went to Riverview, the north side amusement park, and find a clown with a wooden leg.

Mr. Mann doesn’t seemed to have followed up on the clue at the time, but four years later just such a clown would be arrested for another murder in Chicago, in a story that made from page news before being completely forgotten.

In early October, 1912, an heiress named Sophie Singer came to Chicago with her fiance, Will Worthen. They were met at the station by a “Mrs. Conway” who suggested that they all get a flat together instead of a hotel. This “Mrs. Conway” was really Mrs. Louisa Cramer, the wife of Charles N. Cramer (alias Charles Kramer, alias Charles Conway). The two were in the circus profession; Mrs. Conway was a lion tamer who also called herself The Queen of Burlesque and Mr. Cramer doubled as Conway the Clown,  working as a parachute performer and as the “comet” in a high dive act. Some time before, a circus accident had cost him the portion of one of his legs, below the knee, and he walked with a self-built wooden foot.

The Cramers in court.

The three set up housekeeping in a little flat on the 2900 block of S. Indiana Ave, eventually joined by Mr. Cramer (who the couple, as well as the papers, would usually called “Charles Conway.”) The circus couple had no money, except what their new friends gave them. And they seem to have given them plenty. The Conways, it seems, were the sort of mooches who made people feel happy to pay.

Until Miss Singer started thinking it was time to go back to Baltimore. At that point, Worhten later said, “they seemed to hate us all at once.”  The unlikely foursome moved to another house a few blocks south. Worthen went out gambling (he had a system where he had friends at the races telephoning in results to him before they could be telegraphed to the bookies), and came to the new rooming house  to find the keyhole stuffed. Breaking down the door, he found Sophie’s feet sticking out from under the bed. She had been strangled to death; her hands were tied with clothes line and Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so deep into her throat that police needed pincers to remove it. Her jewelry had been stolen.

After a nationwide dragnet, the Cramers were caught in Lima, Ohio, near where Charles had been born in 1886. Mrs. Cramer quickly confessed, and when he learned of the confession, Charles did, too, though he insisted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder, though he said it had been in self defense, following a quarell after Miss Singer had suggested that Mrs. Cramer should be try prostitution.

In the midst of confessing, he did a bit of clowning with reporters and police. “Say, Captain?” he asked. “Do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the Captain said he’d never heard of a law like that, Cramer said “You have to use a rope!”  Har de har har.

“How did you hurt your foot?” one reporter asked. “A steamboat ran over it,” Cramer joked.

The trial in March, 1913, made front page news, even in the shadow of Woodrow Wilson’s
inauguration as president. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cramer recanted their confession, stating that the police had used “third degree” methods to get them, denying them food and medicine in their separate cells. The judge did eventually throw out the confessions, but the jury found the Cramers guilty. Charles was sentenced to life in one prison, and Louisa was sentenced to fourteen years in another (she served about a year). Charles only narrowly avoided the gallows.

As he was led away, he vowed that he would “get out of this,” and twelve years later he made good on his promise. In 1925, while serving on the “honor farm” at Joliet, Cramer escaped from prison. He last appears in the news in 1932, when his mother tried to get a judge to declare him dead so that she could collect his life insurance. According to articles at the time, he had last been seen in Toledo in 1929.  The world never learned what had really become of the Conway, the murderous one-legged clown, after his escape….

This is one of those stories that I find myself in disbelief over. A one-legged clown was convicted of murder in Chicago, escaped from prison, and was never caught. And, outside of some brief mentions in papers between 1914 and 1932, no one seems to have written about it at all ever since!

I can’t help but think of the peg-legged ghost that is said to haunt the Congress Hotel….