The Massacre Tree

In July of 1824, a small band of settlers from Ft. Dearborn, the first major settlement in the area, fled the fort, fearful of a British invasion. They were accompanied by about 500 Potawatomi warriors, whom they had enlisted to help them make it to Ft. Wayne, which, apparently, the British didn’t care much about. Capt. Nathan Heald had offered them guns, ammo, and whiskey for help, but his other officers, fearing that giving potentially hostile people guns and booze might not be so bright, threw the guns down a well and poured the booze into the Chicago river.

They made it about a mile – to where about where Prairie Ave and 16th are now – before the infamous Ft. Dearborn Massacre started. The settlers, outnumbered roughly 2:1, were routed. Those who weren’t killed were sold as slaves to the British (who, to their credit, promptly let them go). The fort was burned to the ground.

Decades later, some of the descendants of these Potowatomi warriors were on “display” as part of the midway at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

By that time, Prairie Avenue, between 16th and 18th, was known as the home of the richest people in town – those few mansions that still stand there were really a site to see.

And outside of the Pullman mansion, by many accounts the fanciest of the lot, stood The Massacre Tree: a tree that still contained bullet holes from the Ft. Dearborn Massacre.

The tree stood until August of 1894, when it fell in a storm. Crowds gathered to dig up chunks of the roots as keepsakes. Newspapers illustrated it as follows:

The Chicken Man of Chicago

Driving around the city on tours, there are a handful of Jawas (which is what Ken and I call the wandering junk mechants) that we see regularly – the most recognizable of the bunch is probably the one I call Fagin, a sleazy-looking gent who’s always trying to sell me a watch, necklace, or other such shiny thing. I just know the guy has a whole army of street urchins picking pockets for him.

But wandering performers and junk merchants are a dying breed in Chicago. The flute-playing guy who plays Star Wars music (and not just the main title, either; I’ve heard the guy bust into “Yoda’s Theme” and “Luke and Leia”) is far and away my favorite today, but none of them hold a candle to the late, great Chicken Man, alias Chicken Charlie, who was seen so often all over the city than people wondered if there were more than one of him. He’d show up at Bughouse Square, on Maxwell Street, on the El…everywhere.

His act was simple – he had a trained chicken that would ride around on his head. Sometimes the chicken would dance, and sometimes he’d have it walk across a tightrope. Decades after his prime he became a character in several Daniel Pinkwater books, including The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, my favorite book of all time, which also introduced me to two other nearly-forgotten Chicago landmarks: Bughouse Square and The Clark Theatre. I’ll cover those in other posts, of course.

Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can now see The Chicken Man for yourself – it’s even stranger, and more wonderful, than I imagined it would be!

There’s also this one, which starts out with a minute or so of footage from another aspect of Chicago life that is lost and gone forever – Maxwell Street:

The Legend of Dillinger’s Ding-a-Ling

Continuing our Dillinger series in honor of Johnny Depp coming to Chicago to start as Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” here a bit on our very favorite piece of Dillinger lore.

In the last post, I noted that to break out of prison with an obviously-fake gun, Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells. Well, that’s actually not far off from the legend. Rumors have gone around for years that Dillinger had a 23″ member that is now on display at the Smithsonian. Here’s the picture of his corpse that started the legend:

Rigor mortis had set in, causing his arm to be bent at the elbow, creating this tent-like protrusion above his crotch. See how the onlookers (except for that one woman) look awfully impressed? It does indeed LOOK like he’s awfully happy to be on the slab.

Once again, if the cast of “Public Enemies” wants to take the best tour in town, we’ll be happy to oblige!

John Dillinger’s Great Escape

In honor of Johnny Depp coming to town to film a Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, here’s a post about John Dillinger’s great escape. In 1934, Dillinger, America’s favorite bank robber, was imprisoned in Indiana, awaiting trial and a sure death sentence. But he carved a fake gun out of wood and used it to break out of prison, leading to a five month man-hunt ending in the infamous Chicago “shoot out” – which was actually probably either an assassination or a hoax, depending on who you believe – outside of the Biograph Theatre, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Here’s a picture of the phony gun:

Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells to pull a scheme like this – that gun wouldn’t fool anyone who looked at it for even a second. I’m no gun nut, but I don’t think the words “colt 38” are normally actually written on the side like that. According to most versions of the story, no one really SAW it – Dillinger stuck it in a guard’s back, said “stick em up!” and soon had acquired several REAL pistols from the guards.

The alley where Dillinger was shot is now between two Mexican restaurants and features of a mural of a guy playing a guitar. Until its recent touch-up job, the painting always made me want to say “hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Here it is, pre-touch-up:

Incidentally, if the cast of “Public Enemies” would like a tour, we’d be happy to oblige šŸ™‚

Ghost Pictures!

Kim Hartley has sent in a few possible ghost pictures from the Friday night tour that are cool enough to warrant a post here. Here is our standard ghost picture disclaimer:

DISCLAIMER: Chicago Unbelievable never claims any ghost picture to be “authentic.” There are always other explanations for weird photos, ranging from weird camera issues to simple optical illusions. There is no such things as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence – we post these as examples of the latter.

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s a shot from the basement of the former funeral parlor where some see a vague, humanesque form at the right. I can see what they’re looking at, but, as sometimes happens, it looked more distinct on the LCD screen. I’ve messed with the brightness and contrast a bit in attempt to make it more distinct:

And two from inside the windows at Hull House that appear to show faces behind the curtains. There are MANY ways to get a “ghost picture” that’s really just an optical illusion at this place, but, on the other hand, I’ve had more kids than I can count say that they’ve seen a woman in these two windows, and the curtains were moving around a lot on this particular night – more than they normally do from the air vents. No adjustments have been made to these ones. What do you think? See anything?

Al Capone’s World War I Draft Card

From our extensive historical file:

Capone never served, but everyone had to register for the draft. This would have been a couple of years before Torrio brought Capone to Chicago to work at the Four Deuces club on South Wabash.

While digging through the draft card registry, I also found one for my great grandfather which indicated that he had served in the Russian infantry for three years. Boy, must THAT have sucked!


Had a tour with a couple of especially spooky stops last night; we swung by Hull House and found that, possibly due to some renovations, it was seeming more actively creepy than it has been in months (although, I’ll repeat: there was never any devil baby! See earlier post!) Even better, we got a possible apparition photo in the basement of an old funeral parlor – I hope that we can post that picture here soon!

In the mean time, though, here are some photos from our first Zombie Pub Crawl on New Year’s Eve:

That’s Ken in the front seat.
I was the Zombie Ned Flanders myself:

It wasn’t really a pub crawl, in that we didn’t need to hit that many pubs. Rather, we spent our time:

– Getting out of the bus at crowded spots (Michigan Avenue, theaters that were just letting out, etc) and roaming around shouting “BRAAAAAINS!”

– Going “zombie caroling” (which is like regular caroling, only the word “brains” is thrown into the song at every possible opportunity) before crashing a party at DJ CarrieMonster’s house.

– Doing the Thriller dance at the metro

– having a BIG snowball fight on Lake Shore Drive. Traffic was at a total standstill when it got close to time for the fireworks at navy pier, so we all got off the bus and had a fine snowball war with the other people who were stuck in traffic and with the people stuck on the street down below (we had the high ground, giving us a distinct advantage).

– toasting the new year and singing “Auld Lang Brains.”

We are DEFINITELY doing this again!

Strangers With Candy

Lately, every bit of research I do leads me to some candy store or another. Here are some spooky candy shops (mostly long gone, of course) of Chicago:

1. Frank Wilde’s Fruit and Candy Store – Milwaukee Ave. Though different addresses were given for this place, I’m reasonably confident I’ve figured out where it was – it was certainly on Milwaukee, between Ashland and Damen. In the 1890s, a teenaged girl named Emily Van Tassel worked here. Exactly who Franke Wilde was is not known for sure, but it’s believed that he did not exist, as such, and was just an alias for the true owner of the store: the murderous H.H. Holmes. She is listed as one of Holmes’ victims, and was thought to be buried in the basement of the store. I’m pretty confident that the building no longer stands.

2. Sorenson’s Candy Store – Elizabeth and Grand. Only a handful of blocks from Frank Wilde’s, this is the candy store we’ve mentioned many times lately that was owned – and burned for insurance money – by Belle Sorenson, wife of the owner, Max Sorenson. Under the name Belle Gunness, Gunness became one of the most prolific murderers in history. The exact name of the candy and stationery store has not been determined.

3. Terry’s Toffee – 1117 W. Grand. This current AWESOME shop happens to be in the site once occupied by Rose’s Sandwich Shop, where Richard Cain, an FBI/mafia double agent who is sometimes said to have been involved in the Kennedy assassination, was murdered in one of the mob’s most public hits in 1973. Joey “The Clown” Lombardo is thought to have been behind the hit. Right down the road from the Sorenson’s site – be careful buying candy in River West!

4. 63rd and Wallace – In the days when H.H. Holmes ran his “murder castle” in Englewood, one of the other businesses in the building was a candy store. The other day I saw an article that named the owner, but now I can’t find it again! I want to say the name was something like Mrs. Gloomis. I’ll post an update if I can find it. EDITED TO ADD: Found it! It was buried in the midst of our hundreds of files on holmes. The candy store owner was named Mrs. Barton.

5. 321 E. 43rd – here stood a candy store run by Nathan Higgins, who was accused of murder in 1965.