Newsboys Alley – or the space where it used to be – is featured on most of our “Architecture of Mysterious Chicago” walking tours.
Newsboys Alley – or the space where it used to be – is featured on most of our “Architecture of Mysterious Chicago” walking tours.
This year, I had the distinct honor of running the “Haunted History” tours at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which gave me a good opportunity to research some interesting aspects of the Zoo that I didn’t know about, search as zoo director Marlin Perkins’ search for the Yeti. And, of course, the ghost stories.
In the 1890s, Lincoln Park was widely regarded as the most haunted spot in town. It had been a cemetery within living memory at the time, but that was seldom mentioned as the origin of the park’s ghosts. The Tribune wrote that “there have been violent deaths enough to furnish a ghost for every shadowy nook.”
In particular, many pointed to the High Bridge over the lagoon, which was widely known as “suicide bridge.” Exact figures for how many people jumped off of it are not known, but 100 over its roughly 30 year existence (from the early 1890s to 1919) seems about right. Its reputation as a place to do away with oneself was such that not everyone even chose to use it for jumping; some went there to shoot themselves or hang themselves.
One ghost story I heard from zoo employees was that a little girl was sometimes heard crying in the middle of the night near the north end of the zoo. Now, it’s worth noting that zoos are FULL of noises that could lead to mistaken identity, but the story goes that one employee was so disturbed by the sobs that she quit her job. The location was near enough to suicide bridge that I felt that it was worth looking to see if a historical story might be connected to it.
I did have some vague recollection of an article in which a boy had been begging his sisters to “stay away from Suicide Bridge,” and pulled it up to find a real heartbreaker of a story (with a photo, above, that is probably the saddest, and, let’s be honest, spookiest, photo I could possibly find).
It was 1907. Two young girls, Emma and Clair Pontius, ages 12 and 10, fell from the bridge into the lagoon. At first, it wasn’t noticed for some time, as it was thought that there were no witnesses. After the bodies were found, their father and stepmother speculated that one of the girls had fallen, and the other had jumped in after her. Their grandmother, though, had a different theory: she said the girls had been suicidal over their mother’s death and their stepmother’s treatment of them, and had spent the day at their mother’s grave at Graceland before going to Lincoln Park, away from which their brother, superstitious about the bridge, had begged them to stay.
It was eventually ruled an accident, but a witness, a young boy, emerged with a detail that seems to me to establish that it was likely suicide: the girls hadn’t screamed. One had simply slipped in, followed by the other. He also added another detail: that a man had gone into the water to save them and never returned. It was several days before the third body, later identified as John Duetinger, was found. Duetlinger had spent two years recovering from a nervous breakdown, and was in the habit of walking in the park every day. An expert swimmer, he had saved a child from drowning in Douglas Park the year before.
Now, whether this really led to the sound of a crying girl being heard near the bridge site is impossible, but I always like it when someone tells me a ghost story and I can connect it to something historical. Another example at the zoo is a ghostly woman who is said to haunt the women’s bathroom at the Lion House. In 1912, when another bathroom in the park was renovated, it was announced that their would be an attendant hired in both the mens and womens’ room; the man would be paid $55 a month, and the woman would get $50. Now, statistically, that’s a bit ahead of the “pay gap,” but if I were that woman, I’d probably want to haunt the place myself!
I plan to be back to run the zoo tours again next year. See ya there!
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Recently, Valancourt began republishing a bunch of novels by Michael McDowell, who is best known for writing the screenplays to Beetle Juice and Nightmare Before Christmas. Mostly forgotten, his horror novels are fantastic books that deserve to be among the first rediscovered as readers start sifting through the rubble of the 80s-90s horror boom. I’ve been devouring them. While the six part Blackwater saga is probably his masterpiece, I particularly liked the hilariously gory The Amulet, which manages to be a dark meditation on the legacy of the Vietnam War, insanely gruesome, AND extremely funny. But my favorite is Gilded Needles, about one aristocratic family and one criminal family in Victorian New York.
In Gilded Needles, one of the aristocratic guys writes a series of articles for a newspaper about a neighborhood in lower Manhattan (where Soho is now) called The Black Triangle – the articles run alongside sermons about the crime and sin-infested area. Though there were certainly neighborhoods like that in New York, I couldn’t find anything specific about a place called The Black Triangle. And I wish McDowell was still alive so that I could ask if he’d seen the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean articles about the area they called The Black Hole, which are exactly like the articles he describes.
We had a lot of “vice districts” in Chicago over the years, and mapping them out isn’t usually an exact science. One can find any number of articles plotting out the areas known as Cheyenne, Little Hell, Bed Bug Row, Hell’s Half Acre, The Levee, Satan’s Mile, Whiskey Row, etc. After all, even “official” neighborhoods don’t have strictly designated boundaries most of the time; I’ve seen my own neighborhood listed as River West, West Loop, Ukranian Village, Noble Square, West Town or Wicker Park, depending on how any given realtor wants to market it. A realtor might say an apartment is in “West Bucktown” and mean just about anything east of, say, Cicero Avenue. This is hardly unique to Chicago; in Los Angeles a real estate listing saying “Studio City-adjacent” can mean you’re in Mexico.
But with The Black Hole, we have a specific map, published right at the time, giving a distinct area. It overlaps some with The Levee, Whiskey Row, and other unsavory places – and might well have been largely an invention of the reporter.
The Inter-Ocean began writing of The Black Hole in a series of articles beginning in 1882. In the area bounded by State and LaSalle at the east and west, and by Van Buren and 14th at the North and South, they said there were roughly 400 saloons, 200 “houses of ill-fame,” 50 or 60 pool halls, and several “variety theatres” and “concert halls” that they considered the worst of the lot. They also claimed that at least 3000 “abandoned women” (prostitutes) lived there. It was an area “where more souls are given to the devil annually than we can dream of.” “By day,” they wrote, “it is a plague spot. By night, it is a hell.”
Now, how seriously we should take these claims is hard to tell; just looking at the map it seems like it would be hard to fit them all in, and that 3000 women could hardly be enough to provide employee for the number of brothels they counted. And, throughout the articles, there are broad hints that the authors know that the stories won’t stand up to fact-checking.
For instance, the author declines to say what, exactly, is so shocking about the place. Early on in the first article, they note that “It would need a graphic pen to depict in all their horrid outlines the dark side of Chicago city life. In doing this one should not lose sight of the fact that he must not outrage public taste. For to describe crime and sin in a way that would pander to a morbid curiosity on the part of those whose only delight in such reading is to learn something more of ‘ways that are dark and tricks that are vain’ would do no good whatsoever.”
The reporter also noted early on that if someone came to check the area out for themselves, they’d probably think he was exaggerating, and tried to defend against such claims right from the start: “The respectable citizen, who does the correctness of this article,” he wrote, “cannot do better than himself to go over the ground which has been mapped out. He will see enough to surprise and disgust him but he will not see all. The reason why he will not see all may be told right here. The proprietor of a den wherin exists that which should not be is no man’s fool. He is a good judge of human nature, and can at sight tell the difference between a man who comes to spy upon him and a man who comes to ‘see the elephant’ and pay for it.”
Hence, the reporter helpfully volunteered to go around to various “dens” as a paying customer, beginning with a few of the small shops that dotted the area, which he referred to as “dago dens” (it’s worth noting that the writer was racist as all get out; the line about “ways that are dark” is from a common anti-Chinese poem from the era). “The dago,” he wrote, “always speaks very bad English. He has no heart, no conscience.” These shops were mostly small versions of what we’d now call bodegas, usually with a rudimentary bar attached. The reporter assumed they were all fronts for brothels.
But worse than such “dens” were the variety theaters, where one would see “Tier on tier of women, some of them shapely enough, and never a skirt in the party.” And “worse immeasurably” than the variety show was the concert saloons, most of which were essentially “open mic” affairs where volunteers would sing songs at the piano. “The proprietor of the place is never known to smile. The waiters are saturnine and insolent. How any one can go to such a place for amusement is a mystery. There is no amusement there. The idiotic songs fall on deaf ears….these places are nothing more than assignation houses where the courtesans meet their friends and count the gains of their last venture, and plan new schemes of crime.”
Now, keep in mind, this is 1882. I can only imagine what this guy would have thought of the jazz clubs that came up a generation later!
Since it’s to be assumed that the stories were exaggerated, one has to wonder why the reporter would go to such lengths to make the area look bad. One reason was to drum up business and prestige for the pastors who sermons against the neighborhood were printed alongside the articles. More importantly, though, they were supposed to make mayor Carter Harrison look bad. After all, Harrison was a democrat, and the Inter-Ocean was a proudly republican paper. “Suppressed under Republican administrations, (these places) always flourish as soon as a Democrat takes hold for a term.” They went on to say that every single low-down establishment and den of thieves had a portrait of the mayor on the wall.
This was, of course, a ridiculous claim, but a Democratic paper probably would have said the same about a Republican mayor (and been just as racist while doing so). Trying to connect the modern parties to their Victorian roots is a fool’s errand – what positions were liberal vs conservative then, and which party was which, simply don’t always line up with modern times.
Really, the Inter-Ocean seems to have been the only place that called this area The Black Hole. Other sources divided it up into other luridly-named neighborhoods – one really can’t overstate the extent to which the articles about it were largely about publicity and politics. But they weren’t just making up stories outright- right in the midst of the area was Carrie Watson’s famous “resort,” after all, and as late as the early 20th century one can find reports of judges refusing to prosecute criminals who worked the area because men who went there and got robbed should have known better than to go there in the first place.
It’s always hard to know just how seriously to take stories about these neighborhoods when one reads them now. Many stories one sees about historical vice today come from 1940s pulp retellings that were probably at least half fiction (Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of Chicago, alias Gem of the Prairie, tends to be a particular culprit; Asbury wrote really entertaining history but wasn’t shy about repeating hearsay, or even making things up outright). Sometimes the stories about these places came from reporters and politicians who were just telling wild tales to score political points (or, perhaps more often, fire up people’s racial prejudices and sense of moral outrage). And, of course, this continued to happen into the years – just as the Inter Ocean guy said every criminal had a portrait of Mayor Harrison, 50 years later similar Frank Loesch, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, claimed, in some versions of his story of meeting Al Capone, that Capone had a picture of Mayor Thompson on the wall.
– how many people on TV have you seen saying that we Chicagoans can’t walk to a grocery store without getting shot?
The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Tree Studios on E. Ohio Street opened as an artists’ colony in 1893, and right from the start the papers loved telling crazy stories about the bohemians and weirdos who took up residence there. It’s always been fun to make fun of hipsters.
Tree, which is still standing as an event space, became home to several prominent writers and artists over the years, and stories about things that happened there could probably fill a book on their own. But even prominent artists whose work was mostly very formal, “high brow” work in traditional disciplines could be total bohemians and free spirits, and one enduring mystery they left behind stands out to me: Whatever became of Baby Rembrandt, the baby boy left in the studio that they artists decided to keep?
Officially, Tree Studios was a “no children allowed” zone in 1902 – the owner thought they’d spoil the mood of the place. But in July of that year, artists were surprised to hear the cries of a baby coming from the door. Janitor Edward Torrey ran for the Ohio Street entrance and found that a three week old infant had been left in a basket on the doorstep, wrapped in a shawl and a petticoat. The screaming baby was brought inside, and the artists decided they simply had to keep him and raise him as an artist. They named him Rembrandt Michael Angelo Tree Torrey I. It was announced in the press that Torrey and his wife would adopt the baby, but it was understood that it would belong to the artists, half a dozen of whom immediately began to works in shifts as babysitters.
Though it’s hard to imagine that the city didn’t immediately get involved and take the baby elsewhere, the child became sort of a celebrity in the city. A milk company donated all the necessary formula, and it was reported that little Rembrandt was chugging down 15 bottles per day. One paper said that “he is to be brought up on novel lines; that is, he is not to be hampered in any way, and will be allowed to follow his own inclinations.”
At the end of July, five of the artists appeared in court, where they were given some sort of guardianship, and the child was given the more formal name of James Vincent Whistler, after the recently deceased painter. Those named as guardians include several artists who went on to be reasonably well-known: Julia Bracken (sculptor), Geneve Rixford Sargeant (painter), Louis Tipton (composer), John Johansen (painter), and Marie Gelou Cameron (painter). Bracken may be the best known; in 1893 she had worked on several architectural sculptures for the World’s Fair, and several of her pieces are still prominently displayed around the world. Johansen would be hired to paint the first official portrait of President Hoover.
After the judge formalized the guardianship (or some sort arrangement), a couple of charity events were held for the baby’s welfare. As of early September, it was said in the press that the child was currently residing at St. Vincent’s home, but that his five guardian artists were arranging for him to be adopted by “a childless young wife of culture and sympathy and with their ideas as to his rearing.” Though it was said that she was an artist’s wife, the names were not disclosed.
Most of the early September data comes from a Boston paper reprinting a Chicago American article for which the microfilm reel is missing at the library here; it’s possible that the original had more data, or that the American later gave an update that I haven’t stumbled across yet and wasn’t reprinted by any paper that’s been digitized. So far, though, I’ve found no data on what became of the baby after September of 1902. It’s likely that he didn’t keep the name of James Vincent Whistler. Though a couple of possible matches to that name come up in the census records, there’s no one I can definitely connect to the “Tree Studio” baby.
There may be more clues in the probate records, but for now it stands as a strange story from a time when adoption was a very different process!
I was researching a whole other story in the old Chicago Post 1903 microfilms when I came across an article about Viola Larsen, a 17 year old girl who was on trial for plotting to kidnap one of her neighbors. She told the judge that she was just looking for material to work into the books she planned to write one day – just like she was when she was caught stealing a horse and buggy the previous fall, and when she’d written “letters of a peculiar character” to another friend a few months before.
Viola, it seems, was desperate to become a famous – and scandalous – author, the sort whose books shocked the world almost as much as her wild and crazy lifestyle. In explaining why she stole the horse and buggy, she wrote “I wanted to feel just as the hero of my book will feel.” In another article, she said “What right has a writer to imagine things and call them truths?” In yet another, she said stealing the buggy and being chased by police made her feel “Delicious, beautiful, wonderful. The blood tingled in the veins (and I was) wild, intoxicated with pleasure.”
By July of 1903, when the “kidnapping” was attempted, she was also running a group called the Genevieve Meredith Mischief Club, a rival to another club she’d started, The Sacred Annoying Club – a socialist club that she’d quit when all the other girls became anarchists. All of this was “research” and “gathering material” for her book, which she intended to call The Adventures of a Young Girl. “Although this discourages me considerably, to be arrested again, I do not intend to give up,” she told the Post. “The book will be published, and then I will be famous.” When asked if she’d read Mary McClane, a scandalous author she was accused of trying to emulate, she said admitted she had, but said “I am a stranger character than that.”
Viola’s adventures were only beginning. Soon, she’d shoot at herself in Jefferson Park, have herself committed to (and escape from) an insane asylum in Kankakee, spent some time in jail, and, eventually, offer to sell her index finger to a wealthy woman who’d lost her own. These adventures made the press, both in Chicago and around the country – half the reporters in the world seemed to have come to her for quotes when she was in jail for the horse theft, and she gave juicy quotes to each of them. They called her “Sensational Viola.”
Viola married three times when she was young, though none of the marriages lasted very long. She once said that the first didn’t count because the man was an actor; the second ended when the new husband, a much older man, died. The third she married after a three day fling, and before they went to the judge she made him sign an agreement promising to “let her do as she pleased,” including receiving “admiring letters from intellectual friends,” but the union lasted only days; she explained at the time that she liked her love affairs to be intense and brief – and to furnish her with writing material. “I played on the strings of his heart as carelessly as an amateur handles a violin,” she said, “but to me he represented just so much gray matter that I might manipulate, experiment with. The trouble with him is an intense desire to spread his happiness over a lifetime. This does not appeal to me. As in my childhood days, I did not care for the bread and molasses unless I could lick the syrup off in one quick taste… I do not want his love. Especially I do not want his love which, interpreted, means physical desire.” As early as 1902, when she was just 16, she told a reporter that she didn’t understand how girls could be interested in “just one boy.”
Alienists and psychologists of the day absolutely loved to talk about Viola; she herself spoke often of having a “dual personality,” frequently comparing herself to Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One 1903 article in The Alienist and Neurologist held her up as an example of “mixoscopia” in teenagers – a term that now refers to the fetish of watching others have sex, but in the article just served as a catchall term for all sorts of fetishes. They may not have been wrong; the “letters of a peculiar character” to her friend referred to fantasies about “marring” her beauty, and there’s a section of her book in which The Sacred Annoying Club orders that a rich girl be stripped and dressed in rags. Some accounts even say that in 1908 she took out an ad in the papers offering herself as a slave.
Between the lines in several articles about her are vague hints of lesbian tendencies, and her own description of herself as a “man hater” who didn’t believe in love or marriage doesn’t exactly discourage this interpretation. The “annoying” letters she wrote to Stella Berger don’t survive in full (that I’ve been able to find), but they apparently contained references to having fallen in love with her face, and one excerpt published in The Chicago Journal contains the line “You are beautiful; I say this much even if I am a girl. Girls can admire as well as men.” The impression I get was that the letters told Stella that the “Sacred Annoying Club” was planning to attack her because she was too beautiful, and Viola’s plan was to “save” Stella and win her gratitude – a very roundabout (and ill-advised) way of trying to impress a girl on whom she had a crush.
Really, reading over the articles about her, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person from her era more clearly coded as gay. And though the meaning of the word was different then, it’s difficult not to chuckle at a 1903 article she wrote entitled “My Confession.” The first line of chapter one was “To begin with, I am queer.” The first line of chapter two: “Yes, I am queer.”
That she was grappling with sexual feelings that would have made her feel out of place in 1903 is further evident from a clue much later in her history – in the 1940 census, 55 year old Viola was living in an apartment near Ashland and Erie with a French woman listed as her “partner.”
By then, Viola’s life had taken a stunning turn. After a twenty year absence from the news, she suddenly reappeared in 1936, when she was given the Eichelberg International Humanitarian Award for her work rescuing lost, stray, and abused dogs. Working out of her apartment, and then a shelter at 513 N. Ashland, she was rescuing around 3000 dogs per year. The Tribune called her “a one woman humane society” and proudly called her “Chicago’s dog lady.” Nearly every day, she would venture out on foot, armed with an axe and a pistol (she bragged that she could shoot the ace off of a playing card), looking for dogs who needed help. She even made a return trip to jail once – after breaking down a garage door with her axe to save a dog who was being beaten, the owner had her jailed for six hours. She proudly told reporters later that it was well worth it – the man never got the dog back. Shortly after winning the Eichelberg award, she got her picture in the papers for the first time in 25 years for keeping people from panicking when the film in a movie theatre caught fire, organizing the orderly evacuation. This time, instead of the “serious” photos of her youth, she was shown smiling, surrounded by dogs.
From then until her death in 1962, she was locally famous for her humane work. Though census records make it clear that “The Chicago Dog Lady” and “Sensational Viola” were one and the same, none of the later articles ever brought up her wild past. One wonders how she’d react if she were asked about it in her sixties!
This still leaves us with the mystery of what became of her two books. The Inter-Ocean published a bit of the preface of Adventures of a Young Girl, as well as a portion of the chapter about the Sacred Annoying Club, and detailed descriptions of what each chapter was about, but it doesn’t seem to have ever come out; The Search for Realism may simply be an alternate title. The 1910 article about her in The Alienist and Neurologist refers to The Search for Realism as an article she wrote for the September, 1909 issue of Towle’s Magazine, which seems to have been a very, very obscure periodical. Around 1908 she was saying that the book hadn’t come out merely because no publisher would “come to her terms.”
A judge in 1903 told her in no uncertain terms that she was a lousy writer. “A ten year old child could do better,” he said. “Get these notions out of your head, and go home and mind your father and your mother.” But he may have just been what we would now call “a dick.” Calling a patrol wagon “the hearse of shattered hopes and dead ambitions” may veer a bit towards purple prose, but Viola’s own account of her carriage theft written in 1902 for The Pittsburgh Gazette under her alias, Viola Nesral (“Larsen” spelled backwards), is reasonably well written; in 1909 she even wrote at least one regular article for The Inter-Ocean, a profile of a woman who was teaching “occult” techniques such as hypnosis to helps parents raise their children. The surviving excerpts of The Adventures of a Young Girl are not exactly lost literary gems, but they’re certainly comparable in quality to the “scandalous” novels of the day that she was trying to emulate.
In the mid 1910s, she wrote regular letters to the editor of the Chicago Day Book; the letters were well-written, well-reasoned, and even quite progressive. In one, she castigates a southerner who’d tried to justify his prejudice against black people by saying that some of them commit crimes (a letter that seems distressingly modern). In another, she compared Billy Sunday, the popular preacher, to P.T. Barnum. But even in 1915, excerpt for the daring move of mocking a preacher, she seems miles removed from the “Sensational Viola” of a few years before. To put it in very simplistic terms, she’d grown up.
Reading of her early exploits, it’s easy to get the impression that she must have been an absolute pain in the neck, constantly going out of her way to shock and impress people, fully convinced that she was a genius and that usual rules and laws didn’t apply to her. I can just imagine her on Tumblr today, posting videos of herself singing “Blank Space” but insisting she hates Taylor Swift.
But one also can’t help but admire her for being so daring and adventurous, especially given the notoriously stuffy standards of the day, and how she must have struggled to understand her own sexuality. Just imagine being not just gay, but kinky, in 1902. How would you know that anyone else had the same feelings you did? Though there’s always a chance that Viola didn’t really feel that way (it’s always hard to diagnose someone from this far into the future, and I’m usually very conservative about it), but she certainly thought no one else in the world was like her when she was young. And, at least to some extent, she loved that about herself.
“My object,” she said in 1908, “which caused many persons to believe me insane, was to be able to show people how life could be lived we dared… To live – that was the whole cry of my soul.”
Which stories become a part of history can be a luck-of-the-draw affair. Newspaper archives are full of stories of heroes whose tales captivated the nation once, but if no one rewrote those stories into a book later on, they were generally forgotten as generations passed. The Civil War papers are particularly replete with tales of soldiers who were national icons when they died, the namesakes of streets and towns throughout the country, but whom even the biggest Civil War buff would struggle to name today. The deaths came fast and furious in those days, and thousands of stories simply got lost in the avalanche. I have to imagine that by Autumn of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, back in April, must have seemed like a million years ago.
But there was one name from Shiloh still being bandied about in Chicago at the time: Captain Irving W. Carson, a Chicagoan who’d become the chief scout for General Grant. In addition to his duties in the field, he was moonlighting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His exploits as a scout during his short career made him famous even during his lifetime, and his death made him the first American journalist to be killed in the war – or any war, as far as I can tell. And, though his friends tried to keep his story alive and lamented that he was being forgotten even in the 1870s, this blog posts is, I believe, the first time a photo of him has ever been published.
Carson was born in 1838 – most sources say in Connecticut, though a couple of sketches of his life written by friends said he was born in Scotland (based on his writings, my hunch is that he had an affinity for Scottish culture and told people he was born there because he thought it sounded more interesting than saying he was from Hartford). After coming to Chicago in 1853, he worked for a time on the railroad, first as a mechanic and then as a conductor, before becoming a law clerk. He’d just been admitted to the bar when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.
He joined the army at once, enlisting first in Barker’s Chicago Dragoons, where he served alongside William Medill, brother of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill, for a three month hitch. Upon returning to Chicago in late July, at which point the Dragoons broke up, he appears to have taken a job with the Tribune covering military activity in Cairo, IL, a hotbed of secession activity near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. There, he was quickly taken into General Grant’s staff and put to work as a scout.
From then on, he did double duty, taking orders from Grant but largely doing his own thing; journalist Franc Wilkie recalled that Carson “wrote or fought according to the requirements of the situation.” In September, 1861, barely a month into his career, a Missouri Democrat writer referred to him as a famous scout whose adventures could fill a book, and in November, the New York Herald wrote “Carson, the tall scout, is along (with us), and commands his usual company, of which he is exclusively general, staff, colonel, and rank and file.”
Other soldiers in units that interacted with him, like the 7th Illinois, Chicago’s Board of Trade Battery A, and the 6th Ohio, may not have even realized that he was a journalist; one soldier, T.R. Dawley, wrote that “He appeared and disappeared like a flash…. We have known him to come into the room, hastily sieze his saddle, suprs, and pistol, mount his horse, dash off in a direction no one ever thought of taking, and only a few hours after would be strolling about the St. Charles (Hotel, where he was stationed) like some awkward rustic just in from the Egyptian swamps.”Carson made frequent trips behind enemy lines, often in disguise, either to get a look at enemy positions or to carry messages. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he disguised himself as a Kentucky farmer early one morning, rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and stole a wagon, two mules and some corn, which he then quite deliberately let rebel General Polk confiscate. Polk, believing that the awkward man he’d encountered was just a local farmer, generously let him keep one of the mules, and even let him check out the rebel fortifications. Carson was able to draw up a full map of the the water battery near Columbus, KY, marking off all the guns, including their calibre and range, before rowing a skiff back across the river to Cairo with a the map (and a bonus mule).
In another event related by Dawley, after the Battle of Donelson one of the captured rebel soldiers was carrying a letter from his sister asking him to send her a “yankee boy” to keep as a pet. When he got the chance, Carson went to the address, told the young woman that her brother had captured him, and he was there to be her pet – and demanded to be fed. He then informed her of the truth – it was her brother who had been captured, not him – and escaped before the neighbors could catch him.
Carson seems to have been a bit bloodthirsty. In one letter to a friend in Chicago, he wrote “I have got a natural hatred for traitors and never intend to let any chance clip when I can dispose of them in a decent way.” Dawley wrote that he’d shout out curses at traitors in his sleep, and even sleepwalk brandishing his sabre. One Tribune dispatch (likely written by him) wrote of him chasing a rebel “desperado” for a mile before shooting him; a couple of months later, a New York Times reporter who’d traveled with Carson in the Bohemian Brigade (as writers called themselves) expanded on the story, stating that Carson had chased the desperado down, shot him, then ran a sword through him and left him for dead – only to find out the man was alive and well a month later. Carson told that reporter that if he had another chance, he’d cut the man’s head off and carry it fifteen or twenty rods from his body.
However, he clearly loved the dangerous life he’d carved out for himself. An unidentified friend wrote to the Chicago Journal that “the perilous business of scouting became a passion with him, and his adventures and hair-breadth escapes would fill a volume.” But for all of his recklessness, the New York Times called him “one of the most daring and serviceable men in the service,” and Grant clearly trusted him.
In the buildup to what became the battle of Shiloh, though, Carson told one friend to hang on to his “trinkets” in case he was killed, and wrote to a woman in Chicago that he may not survive the battle. At the same time, though, in an anecdote published less than two weeks later in the Chicago Journal, he was speaking the day before the battle about how much he loved his dangerous work, and marveled that “he had been fired at so often and grazed by so many bullets that he believed he had a charmed life,” and was heard to remark “The ball has not been cast, and never will be, that can kill me.”
Stories of soldiers saying things like this just before they die are common, and that was the case with Carson. Given his affinity for dangerous missions, it would be logical to guess that he died on some reckless, Poe Dameron-like crusade, but war doesn’t always play along with the rules of drama.
On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was having trouble holding his position, and sent Carson to find out whether General Buell’s troops could arrive soon enough to save the day. Just as he delivered the important news that help was coming, and that Grant should keep fighting, a random cannonball took his head off, killing him instantly and splattering the general with his blood. Even in death, he inspired legends: there were conflicting stories told about the exact extent of his injuries – most reports said his head was taken clean off, a later account side it was only one side of the top of it, leaving his chin. One account in the Appleton Crescent, written only days later, said “The case of of the celebrated scout, Carson, was horrifying. His face and the entire lower portion of his head were entirely gone, his brains dabbling into the little pool of blood which had gathered in the cavity below.” One suspects that he’d enjoy the fact that people swapped gruesome stories about him; one soldier remembered that his death was talked of for weeks by Shiloh veterans.
For a time I was skeptical that he was really a journalist, as none of the Tribune accounts of his death and funeral mentioned it. Most of the information we have about him being a reporter came from Franc Wilkie’s 1888 book Pen and Powder, which briefly named him as a Tribune correspondent. But, at length, I found a few other reports from other journalists stationed around him in 1861 and 1862 that referred to him as being among the group of “Bohemians,” and, as later accounts from his friends state that Grant took him into his staff well after he came to Cairo, it’s a good explanation for what he was doing there in the first place.
So, while I’m satisfied that he did work as a newspaper man, there remains the question of which articles in the Tribune are his – individual bylines were rare in those days. Only one writer seems to have tried to figure it out – Myron Smith, who cited several Carson articles in his book Timberclads in the War. However, I think Smith just assumed all of the dispatches that came from the right location and weren’t signed B (Albert Bodman) or GPU (George P Upton) were Carson’s. One dispatch is signed with a C, but most of the dispatches are unsigned.
It would be wonderful, though, to bring his work back to light, and there are two that seem most obviously to be his own – the one signed “C,” and one written aboard the USS Conestoga, published on a day (Feb 25, 1862) when the Tribune also published dispatches that were credited to Bodman and Upton. And from the articles that I was able to identify as his (more or less), I’m pleased to say that he was really an excellent writer. From the Conestoga dispatch, in particular, we can see that Carson really, really liked puns. This is a good clue to identify his others; many of the unsigned dispatches go to great pains to work in a pun.
Most of the dispatches are fairly mundane, just lists of what was going on in the area, what the soldiers were talking about, which brigades had arrived, what the weather was like, and other such mundanities, though sometimes he’d work in something fun – often there are references to Carson’s exploits in dispatches he probably wrote himself. One early report ends with the line “Dry time in Cairo – no whisky, no excitement.”
Here, then, are some excerpts from Tribune dispatches that are at least strongly likely to be the work of Irving W. Carson. Eventually I’ll expand and move most of these over to a dedicated page on Cemetery Mixtape.
From the Nov 11, 1861 account of the Battle of Belmont, signed “C:”
“Many shots fell near us, some short, and others beyond, and not a few fearfully near us. Shells were seen to burst at great heights; others, after drinking the water. Their large shot, eighteen inches long and terminating in cones, were projected from rifled cannon. These made horrible music as they passed near us…They fought desperately, but in an incredibly short time, the work was done. The enemy had surrendered, or abandoned their artillery, and were in full flight…Their flag pole was cut down, their colors taken possession of, and their encampment enveloped in flames.”
“Our columbiads were too much for them. Several times at the flash of one of them, I observed a dozen men and horses turn somersaults together…Never did fellows fight, or try to fight, more bravely. They seemed to actually court death at the very muzzles of our heavy guns, and vast numbers of them sought it not in vain.”
Feb 20, 1862, unsigned account marked “From our own Reporter.” Just after the union took Fort Donelson.
“There was one scene that will remain in my memory forever – that of Sunday morning when the Stars and Stripes were flung to the breeze above the ramparts of the fort. I was in a position where I could see the occupation of the surrendered fortress and the works beyond. Stand with me for fifteen minutes on the deck of the New Uncle Sam, the headquarters of General Grant. It is just nine o’clock. The day is mild and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south. The sun is shining through a cloudless sky. Far away, beyond the sound of the iron lipped cannon, one ship and shore, church bells are calling worshippers to the house of God; but here, fifty thousand men are standing in breathless expectation of an event which, in its results, is to have an abiding influence upon nations and peoples, for all coming time. They stand at one of the turning points of time…. It is a glorious moment – a Sabbath morning which will live in history. You may be sure that although I believe in keeping Sunday, I kept it on this occasion with a hurrah.”
“I was one of the first to jump on shore, and was not long in mingling with the crowd of rebels. I cannot give you a daguerrotype of the scene. Running up the bank, I came upon a squad of soldiers by a smoldering fire. They were dressed in grey pants, of negro cloth, with a strip of black cotton braid down the legs. It was not a prepossessing outfit. They showed that they had had a hard time. Some had white cotton blankets, with the smallest possible mixture of wool – white once, but painted a Spanish brown by frequent contact with the mud. There were old bed quilts, which their grandmothers had patched years ago – new bed quilts, which in mistaken patriotism had been given to the sinking cause…. I could but pity them.”
“The Tennesseans were more cheerful than the Mississippians. I conversed with them. One said he was glad it was over. He didn’t care what became of him, only he was glad he had not got to fight any more. A Mississippian wanted to know if Old Abe was an abolitionist.”
“Continuing my ramble, I came upon a rebel Kentucky regiment, which was burying its dead. There were six corpses lying in a pile, thrown together as you wold toss sticks of wood. How strange it is that man becomes indifferent to the death scenes of the battle field. The regiment paid no heed to the dead. The men who were digging the shallow graves were smoking pipes and laughing, to all appearances unconcerned as if digging post holes.”
“I counted ten dead bodies of those of our own troops which fell before the fire in front of the pit. Behind the pits were those Confederates, lying some face downwards, as if kissing their mother earth, to whose kindly embrace they had returned after life’s fitful fever* – others with their faces towards heaven, as if looking up to the Great Father of us all. Some were lying upon their sides as if in slumber. There was one with a quiet smile upon his face – a middle aged man… There was the same unconcern among the living. Men were eating their dinners with as much unconcern as they would in their own homes, with nothing around to remind them of the solemn and untried realities beyond this life of ours. I felt the same influence, and stepped upon the pools of blood, and trod the crimson gore almost as unconcerned. Who can explain the anomaly which makes us kind, considerate and tender, moved at the sight of suffering, in times of peace, while in war we are devils.”
* – this is a line from Macbeth, the exact passage Lincoln himself was reportedly moved by when reading outloud from the play only days before his assassination.
Feb 25, 1862 – we can be fairly certain this is Carson, because the other two correspondents, Upton and Bodman, signed initials to dispatches published the same day. It finds him in a jovial, particularly pun-happy mood, with some indications that perhaps other writers teased him a bit about his long, literary column excerpted above, published the day this one was written. It also includes another reference to a play that takes place in Scotland, though he’s at pains to explain the quote here – perhaps the others ribbed him for not marking the Macbeth line with quotation marks! Marked “from our own correspondent” and dated Feb 20th
“I am now lying at Clarksville. Honest confession for a newspaper correspondent. I will change it. The Conestoga is now lying here and I am writing on her gun deck by the lantern burning dimly.
First a morceau from Pillow, Gideon J Pillow, late (confederate) Generalissimo at Donelson, who took precious good pains not to be too late to get away. He is a little particular about the location of his ditches, an old trick of his, and he was careful to interpose the ditch called the Cumberland between himself and Gen Grant. Gideon, on assuming command at Fort Donelson, gave under his hand and seal the following, which I copy from the original document. The handwriting is bad. The lantern a little nearer, dear sergeant:
(Here he transcribe’s Pillow’s General Order No. 1, dated Feb 9, making himself commander of the fort and proclaiming the battle cry to be “Liberty or death.”)
Now this is well done of Gideon, who from this seems to be a very good Pillow for a military head. But the proof came later, and the valiant general in choosing between ‘liberty or death’ took excellent care that it should be the former, and of the largest pattern.
We left Ft. Donelson on the morning of Wed the 19th, following some hours after the US gunboat Cairo. Our trip was marked with little to interest. The Conestoga is of the racer breed of boats and walked the water like a thing of life, an entirely original term I beg you to note. When Gen Foot has despatch in his eye he takes the Conestoga. I have observed it is customary to praise the boat you ride on, but this is not merited, not a puff, the Conestoga not being now in the carrying trade (though by the way I take that back, she did the other day help to carry Fort Henry).
Just above Donelson we passed the still smoking ruins of the Cumberland Iron Works which do not now cumber the land with appliances to aid the rebels… The blackness of ashes marks where they stood, as the wizard remarked to Mr. Lochiel*. Will the printer stand by, and hold hard with quotation marks? And so on to Clarksville, thirty miles from Fort Donelson.
* – (note: a reference to a short Scottish poem/play, The Wizard’s Warning, by Thomas Campbell)
At 3pm the Conestoga rounded a bend in the river called Linwood Landing, and before us loomed Fort Severe. It was severely situated for us… for the muzzles of its few cannon looked almost down our chimneys from a height two hundred feet above our heads. We counted two guns and a white flag, and that settled it. There was nothing to fear from Fort Severe.
Clarksville is now in the Union and her scared residents may come home again. They are fond of the white flag. It will be better that they float the red, white and blue. Our land forces are in possession and the way is open to Nashville. We shall hear from there soon that the Stars and Stripes are floating there, and there are many in Nashville who will welcome the day. God speed it.
From March 3, 1862, unsigned letter dated 2/28 and marked “From our Own correspondent”
“I have it from good authority that numerous bottles with Northern newspapers enclosed have been thrown into the river for the edification of Reverend General Polk and his rebellious flock, who go bottle fishing with much regularity every morning. If the contents are half as effective as those other bottles, much in vogue Columbus-ward, the rebels will soon be in a tight place.”
From March 13, “From our own correspondent”
“All last night it rained heavy guns, accompanied by a violent gale of wind. The morning dawned dimly through thick murky clouds of vapor, as if there had been a terrible battle of the elements and the smoke of the conflict yet hanging over the turbid, swift-flowing rivers and the bottomless marshes and lowlands. By noon, however, the sun had shot its arrows through the mists and dispelled them, and, as I write, the sky is cerulean, the atmosphere crystelline, and the soft, balmy air proclaims that spring comes slowly up this way.”
These are just a few excerpts from the many dispatches in the Tribune that might be Carson’s work – again, it’s hard to be sure. And is hard to believe that some of these could be the work of a rookie writer in his early 20s, but Franc Wilkie later remarked that, if he’d only lived, Carson would have gone on to become a major general, or the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper.
When later memoirs and reports, particularly about Shiloh, left Carson out, or barely mentioned him, his friends objected. Two wrote to the Tribune in the 1870s that Carson should be considered one of the heroes of Shiloh. Others were annoyed that people (mostly political rivals) were claiming that Grant wasn’t really under fire or in any personal danger at Shiloh, and pointed out Carson’s death, only a few feet away from the general, as evidence to the contrary. In 1881, lamenting that history was already forgetting Captain Carson, Ebenezer Hannaford wrote “ Byron’s famous satire on military glory defined it as being killed in battle and having one’s name misspelled in the official gazette. But what shall we say of this case, where a brave man met the most tragic of deaths, and his name – nay, even his fate – was not so much as hinted? “
But in the months after his death, before it became just one of so many other lost stories, Carson briefly remained famous – his name WAS in the papers, and spelled correctly. His funeral and burial were covered by all of the major Chicago papers, and he was spoken of as one of Chicago’s two great heroes, along with Ellsworth (who is now equally unjustly obscure, though in the days after his death he was among the most famous in the country).
But that’s simply life in war – great lives are snuffed out in an instant, and the stories get lost just like so much mud and mire.
Though it seems to have been common in 1861-2 to say that stories of Carson’s adventures would fill a whole book, not enough of the stories were ever written down. This article is, I believe, the first time a photograph of him has been published. It was taken from a carte de viste that was donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 20th century. The image is tiny, but the only one known. Perhaps more letters and diary excerpts dealing with his exploits will one day come to life; I’ve certainly found quite a few tidbits about him published by reporters during his lifetime. Being one of the “Band of Bohemians,” he of course had access to lots of ears to tell his stories to!
Carson appears to have lived in what is now the loop for the whole of his time in Chicago, including one apartment that was right where the Harold Washington library is now. He is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, where I’ve started featuring his grave on tours. He was only twenty-three years old.
With posters from the 1933 Century of Progress in every gift shop and a seemingly endless series of books and exhibits on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it’s easy to forget that we’ve had OTHER great fairs around here, too. In the new episode of my Cemetery Mixtape podcast, I cover some events surrounding one that should be a lot more famous than it is: The Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair of 1865.
The fair was intended simply as a fundraiser for wounded soldiers, and one of the planned attractions would have caused particular notice: Abraham Lincoln himself. In February of 1865, a delegation representing the fair visited Lincoln at the White House and asked if he would come to give the opening speech; he told them that meeting so many people was always wearisome to him, but if he could get away from the office to make the trip – and he thought he might – he would. It would have been his first visit to Illinois since leaving for his inauguration four years earlier.
Of course, by the time the fair opened that Summer, the world had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, and the war was effectively over. The fair, then, became sort of a victory lap for the Civil War. Thomas Bryan (the founder of Graceland Cemetery, later VP of the Columbian Exposition and a major HH Holmes swindling victim) introduced such speakers as General Grant, General Sherman, and General Hooker. Included among the exhibits were an old slave auction block (and several other gruesome relics of the now-extinct institution), Grant’s horse (which was raffled off), John Brown’s carbine, the bell from Jeff Davis’s plantation, Lincoln and Douglas’s outfits from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, relics of Libby prison, the catafalque on which Lincoln’s coffin had rested barely two months before, and a wax figure of Jefferson Davis dressed in the dress he was said to have been captured in (though it was really one of the dresses taken from a trunk he’d been captured with; Elizabeth Keckley, the Lincolns’ dressmaker, identified it as one she’d made).
The fair was held over the course of several days (not several months, as the larger fairs were), and scattered between several buildings, including Bryan Hall and a “main building,” pictured above, which was on Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, around the current site of the Cultural Center.
Connections between HH Holmes and the World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition of 1893 are mostly fictional – though he did claim he was adding a third floor to his building to serve as a hotel during the fair, the “hotel” was never open for business, and the notion that he was preying on fair patrons was just something a New York newspaper casually suggested, and which gradually got folded into the legend. The number of people who came to the fair, went missing, and can honestly be connected to him is exactly one – Nannie Williams, who came to join Holmes and her sister Minnie in Chicago that year.
But, while Holmes didn’t see the fair as a great opportunity to murder people, he DID see it as a great way to make money. Nearly everyone in town did. By claiming to start a hotel, he was able to swindle investors, supplies and insurers galore.
By 1893, though, he’d already completed his biggest connection to the fair: swindling Thomas B. Bryan, the vice president and “commissioner at large” of the exposition.
Bryan had come to Chicago in 1853, when it was still a young town of just 30,000 people – early enough that later articles called him a pioneer. Though he set up as a lawyer at first, he got involved in real estate investments that proved lucrative, and by the time he met Holmes, he had been a pillar of the Chicago community for decades. He was the founder of Bryan Hall (a popular meeting place and lecture hall in Civil War era Chicago) and the founder and first president of Graceland Cemetery (a newspaper note from 1861 notes that he was arranging for an omnibus connected to the North Chicago Horse Railway to make daily trips to the cemetery; the fare would be eight cents). An now-amusing note from the Cemetery that year bragged that it was “sufficiently remote from the city never to be encroached upon, no matter what may be the prosperity of Chicago.” This was fairly silly to say even then; at the opening ceremonies a year or so before the Tribune noted that it would be part of suburbia “at no distant day.”
. In 1865, he introduced people like General Grant and General Sherman at the Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair. He later served as commissioner of the District of Columbus under President Hayes.
By 1891, he was working from an office in The Home Insurance Building (whose steel frame construction made it a landmark itself; the first modern skyscraper) and acting as Vice President and Commissioner at Large of the upcoming World’s Fair. In this capacity, he traveled the world, meeting with people like the pope to promote the interests of the fair.
Somewhere along the line, a fellow named Frederick Nind persuaded him (by sheer persistence and making a pest of himself) to become half owner in The ABC Copier Company, a company designed to sell a copy machine for which Nind had bought the patent in England. But Bryan seems to have almost immediately wanted out, as he had no real time to manage a copier machine business himself, and Nind began to look for a buyer. In late 1890 or early 1891, he met HH Holmes and told him all about the opportunity.
The connection to Bryan is what seems to have interested Holmes the most; H.W. Darrow, who ran a cigar shop in Holmes “Castle” building, later said that Holmes told him that this Bryan fellow seemed “like good fruit for a sucker.” Holmes offered to buy his half share of the business for around $7000. Bryan agreed, on the condition that his name not be used to establish credit or connections. Holmes paid him with a promissory note, the proceeded, naturally, to use Bryan’s name to establish credit and connections all over town, eventually borrowing thousands of dollars that he had no intention of repaying.
Here’s an excerpt from a deposition Bryan gave as part of the endless lawsuits that came from these borrowings:
Q: Had the business which this company was organized to carry on been previously carried on by some other company, firm or person?
A (Bryan): No, but it has since February 1891 been improperly attempted to be carried on by a man by the name of Holmes.
Q: The same one who is now president of the company?
A: He has no office. He assumed some office, but he was never appointed.
Q: He assumed the office of manager?
A: I don’t know what he assumed, but he assumed something. He never was actually appointed. He was an assumed officer.
The sheer amount of the promissory note, which Holmes (of course) never paid off, may qualify Bryan as Holmes’ single biggest swindling victim. His frequently given motto, “Take care of details, beware of cocktails,” indicates that he was what we’d now call a “detail oriented” man; in his notes to investors and his deposition, you can see how frustrating his light dealings with Holmes made him – it almost seems that it’s less about the money and more about Holmes’s exasperating tendency to obfuscate details!
Bryan died of heart trouble in Washington D.C. in 1906; he is buried there, far away from the cemetery he founded.