More Pioneer Ghostlore (Podcast)

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There’s wasn’t time in last week’s podcast, The Bloody Hand of West Randolph, to cover all the great stuff in the 1888 Chicago book about early ghost stories. So now we’re back, covering a few more, including:

  •  – The Prairie Wraith, a woman in a pale yellow dress who was often seen floating around the prairie grass on the northwest side back in the 1840s, arms outstretched as though she was looking for something. There was no hint as to who she was the ghost of, so we speculate that it may be have been Lucretia Thompson, whose nw side murder in 1840 led to Chicago’s first hanging.
  • The Court House Ghost, whose disembodied shrieks around the old courthouse made national news in 1867. Here, it’s suggested that it’s the ghost of one of new men who’d been hanged in a double murder around that time – presumably Fleming and Corbett, who were hanged together in 1865. The drawing above is them as pictured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
  • And a phosphorescent…. mule. Yep. A glowing mule was said to haunt the area below the loop between 22nd and 31st, about where Chinatown is now.

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Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

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In 1888, a book of anecdotes about early Chicago retold a heck of a ghost story: one night on West Randolph, a woman heard ghostly footsteps up and down the stairs, then saw a disembodied hand shoving her apartment door shut. She ran away, then came back to find her baby in the oven (but alive), her dog dangling from a ribbon, and a bloody handprint on the door.

This story is a blast, because it seems like an embyronic version of a LOT of 20th century urban legends, like the old yarn about the babysitter putting the baby in the oven, and  the classic ghost story about “your dog isn’t the only one who can lick your hand,” not to mention the folklore motif of “the handprint that never faded away.”

We’ve had more than one “ghostly handprint” stories in Chicago over the years – in the podcast above we mention Frank Leavy’s hand, of which a photograph surfaced fairly recently .

0-handprint (1)

A 1939 Chicago Times photo of the Leavy handprint – probably retouched a bit for publication, but appears to be marked off with some sort of official seal. I’ll see if I can find this article for Halloween…

With few details in the 1888 book, it took some elbow grease to find the original source of the story! A regional reprint of an 1866 issue of the Chicago Post was eventually located, and gave the original ghost story in far greater detail – the story originally had a few more characters, took place over the course of two nights, and had a lot more objects flying around the room. By 1888, the story had been conflated and pared down to its basic urban legend components.

The house, said to have been the sight of “many dark deeds,” was given in the 1866 article as 128 West Randolph, which would be 645 West Randolph in modern numbering (where the Fiat dearly is now, across the corner from the Haymarket monument – so close that it may be one of the four story buildings in the photograph of the intersection of Randolph and Des Plaines above). As far as dark deeds, all I could find was a story of adultery and threatened murder going on there a few months before the hauntings began.

All of the details are in the podcast!

Excavating the H.H. Holmes “Body Dump” Site

We used to call it “The Body Dump.” It was a little bit of a stretch to give it a name like that, but really… who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Right near the homes of half of his known local victims?  

The site of the building that papers said was H.H. Holmes’ “glass bending factory” was a regular tour stop of mine for nearly a decade, but now it’s about to become condos. Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains invited me to come check it out. Here’s a special half-hour video featuring the whole story of the site, stories of what we enountered there on tours over the years, and clips from the “excavation.” It’s available both as a video and audio podcast, and an article summarizing it all is right here, below the video:

Get the audio version on our podcasts page, on, or on iTunes. 


Excavating along the approximate site where the “Glass bending factory” was. Holmes pretended he was starting a glass bending business several times in different locations, but never convinced anyone he knew how to bend glass.


In the course of human events, sometimes we lose a good tour stop. The House of Crosses was once a popular attraction, and we were lucky to get to interview the owner about its history before it was torn down.  Now we’ve lost the site I used to call The Body Dump. It’s being dug up for a large condo complex. The original building was already long gone, but the new condos going up will sap a lot of the spookiness from the place, as well as making it harder to access. However, I did get to assist on digging through the rubble, so that’s cool.


I try not to make EVERYTHING be about HH Holmes around here, but he’s my number one research topic; my book on him will be out in 2017. Holmes, of course, is the guy who’s advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” and the subject of the smash hit Devil in the White City. According to legend,  he rigged his Englewood building with secret passages and hidden chambers to prey on visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair, of whom he may have killed hundreds. Now, how TRUE all that is is a whole other question (and evidence that it’s mostly fiction is strong), but if people say this guy killed a lot more people than he really did, well, it’s not like we’re besmirching the honor of a good man here. He did probably murder at least 9 or 10 people, and ruined the lives of many more.

I started running tours based on him back in 2006. Now, that year I was still running one of the ghost tour companies in town, and one of my partners sent me a little 1895 article he’d seen about ANOTHER Holmes castle, discovered shortly after a fire at the Englewood building ended the police’s investigation of it.  This new place was no castle – just a one-story unnumbered brick building, the only address being “where 65 Sobieski Street ought to be,” near where Robey (Damen) and Fullerton intersected, and northwest of the railroad lines, not far from an apartment Holmes had rented for one of his girlfriends and her sister in 1893. By the time a private detective discovered the place, all that was left inside was some of Holmes paperwork, some mysterious ashes, and the wreck of a 150 foot long furnace.

The body dump as it appeared until recently

The body dump as it appeared until recently

Now, who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Papers suggested that Holmes was cremating bodies there. It was right next to  a coal yard, and in those days you could have tossed ashes into a coal yard and no one ever would have found a thing.

Now, there is no Sobieski Street anymore, so figuring out where this place was presented a challenge for me, and helped me learn about things like Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, street name guides, and renumbering guides. It turned out that was a little dead end street, now a part of Seeley Avenue, not only near the Wrightwood place but also near the home of one of his other suspected victims, a girl named Emily Van Tassell. She and the other two, Minnie and Nannie Williams, actually represent about half of Holmes’ known Chicago victims (the World’s Fair murder stories mostly came out of a tabloid article). And this “Sobieski Street” site would have been a much better location for getting rid of a dead body than the castle itself actually was.

And for every person who vanished from the castle, there was a story about Holmes needing

The "Body Dump" with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

The “Body Dump” with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

help carrying the large trunks out of the place. It’s quite possible that he had this off-site place to do his cremating, as the Chicago papers suggested at the time. It’s even likely that Emily Van Tassell and the Williams girls would have been killed there, not at the castle. It was a more isolated area, not many neighbors spoke English, and the Luetgert Sausage factory, just a few blocks away, might have even been running by then to cover up smells.

So, one of my partners and I went out to Seeley Avenue, and even though the building itself was long
gone, the area seemed nice and spooky. A dead end street, an overgrown vacant lot, and a couple of trees that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. And, weirdly, even though it hadn’t been Sobieski Street in years, there happened to be a billboard up for Sobieski vodka, which sure seemed odd in the heat of the moment. The real bonus for us is that it was RIGHT on the tour route at the time, in between the Liar’s Club and the Virgin Mary Salt Stain. We came to call the place The Body Dump; I dearly loved getting people on the bus after looking around at Hull House and saying “All right, folks, who wants to go to the body dump?” It was a standard stop of mine from about 2008-2014, and I even wrote it in as a location in Just Kill Me, my new novel about a ghost tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people at them, which’ll be out through Simon and Schuster in August:

just-kill-me-9781481434942_lg“…the dead end street does look pretty ominous, even in the glaring summer daylight. The curling weeds look like they’re beckoning us all to our doom. There’s something about the place that just doesn’t feel right. When I step off the bus, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The breeze seems like it’s cooler than it ought to be, and everywhere I look there are little touches that make this space seem eerier than the average dead-end street. There’s even some sort of blood-red sap oozing from a tall Tim Burton-style tree at the edge of the lot.” – from Just Kill Me

Now, the stories about this being a “body dump” for Holmes could have all been BS, and I was pretty upfront about that. The same could be said of all the castle stories, after all. Evidence he was involved with the place were fairly strong, but it was never fully investigated in the 1890s, so this might have just been some random factory that Holmes had little connection to. Maybe his ex janitor was just getting rid of old paperwork there.  We just started going there as a historical curiosity, since the “murder castle” site was way too far away to be a regular stop.


The spooky old tree.

But here’s the thing: More weird stuff happened there than anyplace else I went on ghost tours. Early on I remember nights when people said they heard moans coming from the ground. In the summer some sort of blood-red sap would drip out of one of the creepy trees – probably just iron oxide in the soil, but when you go to what may have been a serieal killer’s body dump and see a black branch with blood that keeps dripping, it’s creepy.

There was also a flood-light that seemed to turn off and on like clockwork when people said the name “Emily Van Tassell” some nights.

I remember one night we pulled in and there was snow on the ground at the vacant lot. There were flurries going on, but it wasn’t sticking anywhere else. Just there. Which is another one of those things that I’m sure CAN be explained, but don’t ask ME how, and it was spooky in the moment.

Another night there were chickens. Six or seven of them, just crossing the road. And here you thought that only happened in jokes.

Besides the general weirdness, we had a lot of reported ghosts there, including a number of sightings of a ghostly woman in a black dress who’d be there one second, and gone the next. I never figured out if it was someone messing with us or what. We got a number of ghostly photos beyond the usual “weird lights” and “if you look closely at the random visual noise” stuff – the top three are in the video.


Sometimes the vacant lot would get so overgrown the weeds would be as high as your head. Cops told us that besides the Holmes stuff, bodies were found there in the 80s pretty regularly. I’m not sure if they were telling the truth, but it looks like a good place to stash a body.

There was even one night when we thought we hit the ghostly woman on the bus. The windows on the bus were fogged up, and as we were backing the bus up, we hit something. We heard the THUD and felt the impact. I thought we’d hit someone’s car. The driver said it was just a tree. But some people in the back said “No, there was a woman back there!” I ran ouside and around the back and found nothing anywhere near us – no car, no tree, no fire hydrant, no footprints. I reported it on the blog at the time. I’m interested now to note that it was in October, as I seem to recall there being snow. Maybe the windows were just fogged from the heater – it happened a lot on that bus.

So, since we first started going there, I’ve researched the place about as much as I could – which isn’t much. By the time the place was discovered in 1895, neighbors were still around to identify Holmes as the owner of the place place, and to identify Pat Quinlan, Holmes’ right hand man, as the guy who’d cleaned out cartloads of rubbish a month or two before, but the cops in Chicago were fed up with the Holmes case and didn’t care to investigate it any further. We do know from some letters Holmes wrote, though, that the night he killed a boy named Howard Pietzel outside of Indianapolis, he hopped on a train to Chicago and spent the next day there, and while he was there he went to the factory and talked to Pat Quinlan. He alluded to the place in a couple of his writings.

Fire insurance maps indicate that the building may have still been there in 1914, though it was listed as “vacant.” The site’s connection to Holmes was simply forgotten about until that night when my then-partner and I went to check it out. For the next several years it was regular stop for me, and the History Channel occasionally shows me strolling around the vacant lot looking all pensive. But it’s a stop I knew wouldn’t last; a vacant lot in Bucktown isn’t going to stay vacant forever. My understanding was that the lot was buried under a ton of foreclosure lawsuits from 2008 that would take years to get through, but those years seem to be up: last week they started digging the lot up for condos. The trees are totally gone, and we only have pictures to remember them by.IMG_9002

Last week, I happened to get a message from Eric Nordstrom, who runs a place called Urban Remains, an architectural relic shop nearby my house. He goes to tear-downs and excavations and collects bits of architecture, and happens to be a researcher and blogger himself. You can see his blog post on it at . Video clips are above.


And here’s some of what we found:

Some sort of pipe connection.

Some sort of pipe connection.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

Chunks of glass.

Chunks of glass.

Bits of bottles.

Bits of bottles.

Several bricks that are likely bits of the "factory."

Several bricks that are likely bits of the “factory.”

As with a lot of Holmes locations, there’s a lot we’ll never know about this place. The actual site of the factory was likely about where the sloping metal garage is now, which is still standing, so it might still work as a tour stop now and then. But without the old tree and the vacant lot, the atmosphere just won’t be the same.

So, farewell, body dump! At least I got a cool video, a neat book location, and a lot of great tour stories out of you.

Podcast: Charles Volney Dyer, Chicago Badass

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Of the many fascinating characters who grace Chicago history, but didn’t really make the history books, few had quite as storied or interesting a career as Dr. Charles Volney Dyer, an Underground Railroad Conductor, vampire witness, anatomist, cemetery founder, comic, and all around ass-kicker. He’s one of the most recent rabbit-holes I’ve fallen down recently, and though I’m still gathering info, the announcement that Harriet Tubman will soon grace the $20 bill has people talking about the underground railroad, so it seems an opportune time to talk about Dr. Dyer.

Dyer settled in Chicago very early in 1835; by the age of the 30 he was the town clerk. In 1840, when John Stone became the first man hanged in Chicago, his body was given over to Dr. Dyer to dissect.

A friend of Abraham Lincoln, he was perhaps the city’s first prominent abolitionist, and it wasn’t just a theory to him: he used to shelter fugitive slaves in his home when they were on their way to freedom in Canada – by some estimates over a thousand of them. An 1868 biographical sketch says that he and the other leaders in the Chicago underground railroad “assisted in rescuing over a thousand panting fugitives from the odious wretches who, under the shield of law, hunted down God’s creatures innocent of crime.”  He was known to hide slaves in the Tremont House (the same hotel where both Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth stayed) and to sneak them in among cargo on train cars. He was once nicknamed “President of the Illinois Underground Railroad.”

On one occasion in 1846, a slave-owner recaptured a slave that Dyer had been sheltering and took him to the Mansion House, a downtown hotel, where he was held under guard until a blacksmith could be found to attach new manacles to his arms. Dyer broke into the room, cut the ropes, and helped the young soon-to-be-former-slave out the window, then calmly walked out onto the street, where the slave owner accosted him with a bowie knife. Dyer, ready for action, busted his cane over the man’s head. Grateful friends chipped in to buy him a new one, which is supposedly in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, though I couldn’t find anything in their catalog about it. According to an 1870s Tribune article it was engraved with the phrase “Sic Semper Tyranis,” which would not have seemed ironic in 1846, nearly twenty years before John Wilkes Booth shouted it after shooting Lincoln.

Two years later, a fugitive slave from Missouri was on trial, and Dyer stalled things with a technicality, stating that nothing had been shown to the court proving that slavery was established in Missouri. While the court waited for such proof to be procured, Dyer helped the fugitive escape out the window, where a waiting crowd carried him away. When a constable pulled both a bowie knife and revolver to threaten Dyer, he said “You are more deserving of arrest for displaying such cutlery in the street without a license.” The constable withdrew and the fugitive, so far as is known, escaped successfully.

Dyer didn’t remain a physician long; after selling land he had bought in Chicago for a few hundred dollars a year years earlier for forty-six thousand, he pretty much retired, though in 1863 President Lincoln sent him to Africa after appointing him Judge of Mixed Court for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade.

I also mentioned that he was a “vampire witness.” In the 19th century, there was a superstition (or pseudo-scientific belief) that when a person died of tuberculosis, they could infect their family from beyond the grave. Now and then a body would be exhumed, and a few internal organs burned, in attempt to stop the spread of the disease.It was more of a New England thing (with Mercy Brown being the most famous case), but is known to have happened once in Chicago. About all that is known of this case, though, simply comes from the fact that Charles V. Dyer told demonology expert Moncure Conway about it. It may be this story that led Dyer to decide a better cemetery was needed; he was one of the founders of Rosehill (though he’s buried at Oakwoods).

Dyer was known  as a firebrand and a comic; friends said he would have used his last breath for a pun. The biographical sketch stated that he would attack shams, imposters, and hypcrites viciously, and said that “When he opens his magazines of ridicule, sarcasm, and invective, nothing but absolute stupidity or the epidermis of a rhinoceros can survive the onslaught.”  One example given was that he was once at a fourth of july celebration in Europe, and several British officers were present. After bashing President Lincoln a bit, one officer offered a toast to the Queen, with the common line that “The sun never sets on her dominions.” Dyer quickly responded with “That’s because the Lord can’t trust an Englishman in the dark.”

Another joke that survived: after buying some property just north of the old City Cemetery, he quipped that “I have secured a home beyond the grave.”

At one point part of Halsted Street, from 2200S to 3900S, was named Dyer Street in his honor.



The Lonesome Death of Barton Edsall (podcast)

Hear the podcast version of the story above, or get it on iTunes!

Here’s a new story I came across while working on the MYSTERIOUS CHICAGO book; it quickly became a staple of my Graceland tours!

Near the famous “Inez” statue is the Hurlbut family plot, built for the founder of the Hulburt and Edsall drug supply shop, which was a landmark of the loop in 1860s Chicago. Among the small markers in the plot is one for Barton Edsall, the partner in the firm, whose date of death, Oct 6, 1871, will spark a bit of recognition for those who know their Chicago history. That was a busy week around here.

Early in the morning of Oct 6, Barton was found dying of a gunshot wound in the entryway of his house at Clark and Washington (now Clark and Delware, across from Bughouse Square). The front door was standing open, and a pistol was lying at Barton’s side. Why he’d gotten out of bed at all was unknown. By the time a doctor arrived, it was too late.


The Chicago Times, Oct 8, 1871. From the University of Chicago

There were three possibilities – either he’d committed suicide, accidentally shot himself while messing around with a pistol, or a burglar had come and shot him. A coroner’s inquest dismissed the suicide theory, but there was convincing evidence for both other theories.  There’d been burglaries in the area lately, a maid had seen Barton shooting his pistol at a rat, and the results forensics that could have established whether the bullet came from Barton’s own gun or another one weren’t clear.

The inquest lasted for two days, and couldn’t come to a conclusion. From October 6th, when the story first spread, through October 8th, when the inquest was concluded and Barton was buried in his friend’s plot at Graceland, it was a major topic of debate around the city. Newspapers vowed that the story wouldn’t be forgotten, and that rewards would be offered for information about who might have broken into the Edsall home that night.

But hours after Barton Edsall was buried, on the evening of October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire broke out, destroying a large swath of the city, including Barton’s home. Any chance at further investigation was destroyed, and Edsall’s story vanished from the news at once, though in weeks that followed a few out-of-town papers published a story that his wife, distraught with grief, was moved to an asylum just as the fire broke out, and the asylum burned in the fire, killing her. I couldn’t confirm that story, but couldn’t find anything to disprove it, either.

I’ll be covering the story in far more depth in the book – I ran across it quite by chance while tracking another fire mystery in copies of the Chicago Times from that week in the University of Chicago Special Collections. More on that mystery soon – it’s another real doozy!

The Fool Killer Submarine: 100th Anniversary Podcast and New Theories!

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This month, January of 1916, marks the 100th anniversary of the day they found bones in the wreck of the Fool Killer, the mysterious submarine found in the Chicago River in November, 1915. It’s one of my favorite Chicago mysteries, and the first one that really sent me down a rabbit hole.

Fool Killer raising

Raising the Fool Killer, Chicago Daily News.

Our most complete article is The Fool Killer: All We Know from several years ago. The short version is this: In 1915, William “Frenchy” Deneau was digging a trench in the river bed to lay down some cables, and came across the wreck of a 40 foot long homemade submarine. In January it was found to have bones onboard – human and dog. In February, 1916, it was on display on South State Street.  For a dime you could see the submarine, and the dead guy, and the dead dog.foolkillerraising

It traveled around a bit from there – it was on display in Iowa in May, and at Riverview, on Western Ave, in June. From there, besides an ad in a magazine saying that it’s for sale, it vanishes from the record. It was probably sold for scrap in World War 1, though no one knows for sure. It could still be in a warehouse someplace.

We’re also left with the mystery of who built the thing, exactly – I’ve got some new clues down at the bottom of the post. The press at the time said it was built by an “Eastern man” who sold it to Peter Nissen, a daredevil / accountant.  around the time of the World’s Fair in 1893.  Nissen had several crafts called The Fool Killer, including this miniature steamship in which he was filmed shooting the rapids at Niagara Falls.

George C. Baker's craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

George C. Baker’s craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

But no known evidence really connects Nissen to this submarine. The federal inspector of Rivers and Harbors, though, said at the time that he’d heard of a submarine built by a naval architect sunk in the river about 15 years ago. The dates are a little off (you know how you still think of 1990 as being ten years ago?), but this would line up fairly well to a submarine invented by George C. Baker, and tested in Lake Michigan in 1892, near the Calumet River. I looked this one up when I was first digging into Fool Killer and brushed it off as not being the same craft. It’s a different shape.

But at the time, I hadn’t seen the thing with Monville talking about the naval architect. And looking up Baker now, I see that Baker was commissioned by the Navy to build more than one; he didn’t live to do it, but maybe someone else did?

One of G.C. Baker's patents. Was this the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

One of G.C. Baker’s patents. Was this the design for the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

Baker had several patents to his name, including 533466A and 525179A, which both look a LOT like the submarine Frenchy Deneau found. There’s even an article or two in out-of-town papers saying that his craft was forty feet long, just the length the Fool Killer was said to be.


Looking more into Baker now, there are some photographs of his ship, but it doesn’t quite look right; articles on him indicate that he hadn’t built more of them as of 1894, when he died. At that time his widow had the craft towed into Lake Michigan, filled with sand, and sunk. It’s probably still out there.


If I had to bet I’d be inclined to ascribe the Fool Killer to Baker, just based on those patents, but by all accounts to football-shaped craft was his only one. The bones were probably a publicity stunt on Deneau’s part – all available evidence indicates that the man was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story!

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Baker at the wheel of his craft, from Pacific Marine Review

Did H.H. Holmes Fake His Death (new info and podcast!)

A former employee of serial killer H.H. Holmes swore that he was never really hanged… we examine his claims!   Get_it_on_iTunes_Badge_US_1114  More Episodes

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch.

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch from after the hood was put on, just before the trap door fell.

Rumors continue to swirl that H.H. Holmes, subject of Devil in the White City and our most fascinating antique multi-murderer, is going to be exhumed from his grave to address rumors that it wasn’t really HIM who was hanged in May, 1896. Holmes’ descendant Jeff Mudgett’s novel, Bloodstains, suggests as much (Jeff freely admits that the account in the book is a work of fiction that merely presents a plausible scenario).   (note: this post was originally added in 2015; the exhumation began in April, 2017).

This is not a brand-new theory that Jeff invented, though. As early as fall, 1896, there was a lawsuit with Holmes still going on in court, and the plaintiff expressed doubts that Holmes was truly dead (though the judge threw out the suit). And I recently found a couple of January, 1898 articles from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean in which a man named Robert Lattimer claimed to have seen letters proving that it wasn’t really Holmes who was hanged in Philadelphia. Lattimer (sometimes spelled Latimer) has a very interesting pedigree as a witness: he not only knew and worked for Holmes, but in April, 1896, Holmes confessed to having murdered him. Holmes’ famous confession included admissions to the murder of several people who weren’t actually dead yet, and Latimer, a former janitor at the famous “murder castle,” was one of them!

According to Lattimer, Holmes had convinced his lawyer, priests, and the jail officials that he was really innocent, and used their belief (and the money he got from writing the phony confession) to get them to go along with a daring scheme. In the scheme, they found a recently-deceased body who looked like him. The substitute body was stashed beneath a hidden partition under the trap door on the gallows, along with two prison employees. When Holmes was brought out to the scaffold, the priests and officials stood in front of him, pretending to tie his arms while they were actually having the other body raised up from beneath the trap door. Then Holmes slipped away, the prison guys propped up the already-dead body (like Weekend at Bernies), and quickly hanged the corpse. Holmes himself slipped into the coffin and escaped from the vault at the cemetery later. By the time the coffin was buried, he was in a New York hotel, and a month later he was living in South America, growing coffee in a small town called San Parinarimbo.

Detail from an 1891 summons from a lawsuit between Charles S. Brown and HH Holmes. Brown never believed Holmes was really hanged.

Clip from the summons for an 1891 lawsuit between C.S. Brown and Holmes. Brown never believed that Holmes had been hanged.

Now, this IS the kind of switcheroo that a decent magician could probably manage. And several people who knew Holmes in Englewood thought the story held up; Charles S. Brown (who once sued Holmes for nonpayment of a loan), told the Inter Ocean that he never believed Holmes was really capable of cold-blooded murder, and also never believed for a second that he’d really been hanged. Others in the neighborhood also expressed a belief that Lattimer wasn’t capable of coming up with such a detailed story all by himself, and that Holmes was such an audacious swindler that they wouldn’t put it past him.

But others in the area weren’t buying it. C.E. Davis worked in the jewelry department of the drug store Holmes ran in the “Murder Castle” building. The building was still there in 1898 (the 1895 fire damaged it but didn’t destroy it, as is commonly written), and Davis was still working there; the Inter Ocean article makes it look as though it was now being called the “Castle Drug Store,” and that he was now managing the place, not just running the jewelry department. He had always provided good copy to the papers, and was the first to suggest turning the place into a tourist attraction. But he didn’t buy the phony hanging. “Holmes is good and dead,” he said. ” Latimer is ‘windy,’ and is always ready to tell wonderful stories if he can find a good listener.”

W.M. McKenzie, who was running the restaurant in the castle building, also didn’t buy it. “I was an officer for seventeen years,” he said. “And I don’t believe that prison officials could be found who would dare to take such risks.”

The letters Lattimer claimed to have seen never seem to have materialized, and a look at the many first-hand accounts of the hanging discredit the tale quickly. There were many witnesses from the press, and when Holmes first mounted the scaffold, he gave a little speech in full view of them. A hood was placed over his face only as he was being pinioned (hoods were absolutely standard at hangings in the 19th century; every account of a judicial hanging I’ve checked, included several others at Moyamensing Prison, used them).

The biggest problem with the  Latimer’s story is the claim that there was a partition blocking anyone from seeing what happened below the trap door on the scaffold, so that no one could see (or smell) two men who were waiting with a dead body to make the swap. Reporters had a very clear view of what happened beneath the scaffold. Several reporters talked about the body dropped and jerking around, and from the various drawings that were made (there were at least three drawings of the scaffold in different papers) it’s pretty apparent that the body would have been in full view at all times. There was no hiding place beneath it.

In fact, the body was hanging, in full view of the reporters, for about half an hour. During that time, several doctors checked for the heartbeat. After it was taken down, the face was partially exposed as officials struggled to get the rope off, and the hood was removed when the body was placed in the casket, exposing the face to at least a couple of reporters. First-hand accounts, in agreement except for minor details, appeared in The Philadelphia Times, Inquirer, Record, Item, Public Ledger, and Item, as well as the Journal, World and Tribune in New York, each of which sent reporters. None reported anything like the execution Latimer described. 

The papers differ slightly as to how many people were present, partly because there are some X factors here. The sheriff issued 51 tickets, but prison officials brought 20 or 30 more people, much to the sheriff’s chagrin. And the final number may or may not include the prison officials, priests, etc who were present.

In all, a little under 100 people would have been present at the hanging, including those who worked at the prison. Included in the crowd were several public officials, Detective Geyer, Dr. MacDonald (who’d examined Holmes in his cell), various ex sheriffs, and a great many doctors. Most to all of them would have had to be in on it if Holmes was faking it.

Furthermore, Lattimer said Holmes was living in San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, on a coffee farm, with two women he was supposed to have killed (presumably the Williams sisters). As near as I can tell, that is not even a real place. The story, in a word, was absurd.

(edit in 2017): One possibility is that Lattimer had seen a book/pamphlet entitled Hanged By Proxy: How HH Holmes Cheated the Gallows. Published around the same time, it now survives only as a listing in a copyright catalog; no copy has surfaced. However, excerpts of a newspaper article from the Paris Mercury (Paris, MO) indicate that it was written by L.W. Warner, who shared with Latimer the distinction of having been one of the people Holmes confessed to murdering. He was alive in living in Newton, Iowa at the time.  It’s been noted lately (2017) that the story sold a lot of newspapers, but that’s exaggerating. It was a two day story buried in one local paper.

Philadelphia Times sketch of Holmes on the scaffold, tucked into the Library of Congress copy of his autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez)

Holmes on the scaffold – clip from the Philadelphia Times tipped into the Library of Congress’s copy of Holmes’ autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez!). This would be Holmes when he made a speech saying he never killed Benjamin Pitzel or his children, only two women who died after “illegal operations” he performed on them.

I am a regular sucker for a faked death theory, so it’s worth noting that a few reporters in attendance DID say that Holmes didn’t look like you might expect him to if you’d only seen pictures. It’s also worth mentioning that no autopsy was performed, just a brief examination to show that the neck was broken. And that having the body encased in cement, as Holmes’s was, IS unusual, to say the least. Holmes motives for wanting to be buried in cement aren’t terribly clear, and the story that he just didn’t want to be dissected isn’t very convincing to me. As a medical student we know from his colleagues that dissecting OTHER people sure didn’t bother him. So, if someone got an exhumation going, I for one would not object. I assume it’s really him in the grave, but I’m very curious as to what sort of shape it would be in. A lot depends on what kind of filler material is in the cement. Also, I really want them to shave the cement down until he looks like Han Solo in carbonite.

Added 2017: In the past week, as the story of the exhumation broke, news accounts have been treating the 1898 stories as though they were a really big story and a popular theory at the time. They were not. It was a two day story in the Inter-Ocean, and not front page news either day. I’m not aware of any other papers picking up their story at all. 

For a lot more data on this story and accounts of the execution, including more interviews with Holmes’ friends and neighbors from 1898, listen in to the podcast above, subscribe on itunes, and of course,  (added in 2017): check out my Holmes bio, HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL  

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Major sources:

Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Jan 20 and 21, 1898

May 8, 1896 accounts of Holmes’ hanging in the Philadelphia Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and New York World.

Assorted Nov, 1894 and July, 1895 articles mentioning Robert Latimer

Brown V Holmes, 1891 case 90746



W.H. Donaldson: The Lost Aeronaut (Podcast)

New podcast! Listen above or download from iTunes

“The next record I have of Donaldson (performing a hot-air balloon ascension)  is at Chicago, IL, July 4, 1872, filling his balloon in Green’s Garden, preparatory to giving Chicagoans a blood-curdling sensation, as they never feel satisfied until they kill someone or have an explosion or conflagration that will startle the world.”  – M.L. Amick, History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions

Now that air travel is so dull,  it’s hard to imagine a time when people would cram into a theater just to hear about what it was like to go up in a hot air balloon. But Washington Harrison Donaldson would do balloon ascensions by day and pack people into theaters at night just to tell them how it felt to soar above the clouds. And he didn’t just soar – he’d go a mile in the sky and do an aerial act from a trapeze that dangled beneath the balloon. Even now, that sounds pretty damned impressive. History_of_Donaldson_s_Balloon_Ascension_pdf__page_6_of_229_

Donaldson came to Chicago twice – once in July of 1872, and again in July of 1875. His fourth Chicago “ascension” would prove to be his last; he and a Chicago Evening Journal reporter perished (presumably) when the balloon was lost in a storm over Lake Michigan.

On the podcast, I tell about Donaldson, read accounts of the Fourth of July celebrations from 1872, discuss rumors that he miraculously survived, tell how he described the city as it appeared from above only months after the Great Chicago Fire, and even chat a bit about a real-life Bad Bad Leroy Brown who terrorized the south side of Chicago back in 1900. What, exactly, became of Donaldson’s balloon is one of Chicago’s lesser-known unsolved mysteries (in that the wreckage was never found); don’t forget to check out our upcoming Unsolved Mystery Tour. Roll up!

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Check out a recent book on Donaldson: