Podcast: Police Controversies of Old

“The patrolmen of the city are entirely too reckless with their revolvers and clubs, and it is about time a stop was put to their shooting and brutality. They defy the law, and act on their own responsibility,but their superiors would seem to wink at the their crimes since it is useless to make complaint; they always manage to go scot free, unless the victim or his friends go over on the north side for justice.”

Sounds like a think piece from this past week, but that’s quote come from an issue of the Chicago Tribune published all the way back in 1879. While I don’t want to be the nine millionth person to weigh in on the events of the day (this is a history blog, after all), I did feel compelled to look up similar cases from the old days, and found quite a few. In the podcast, we look not only at what led the Tribune to make a statement like that in 1879, but a case in which an officer was nearly convicted after shooting a man in 1872, when the rubble of the Great Chicago Fire was still smoldering, and revisit a bit of the Buff Higgins case we blogged about last week.

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Did H.H. Holmes Kill Dr. Holton? (podcast)


Tickets to our first public tours are on sale now, including one of the H.H. Holmes tours that I’ve been running since 2007. The tours have evolved as I’ve researched Holmes in more depth, and I’m quite confident now that they’re the most informative and entertaining Holmes tours in town. If Devil in the White City piqued your curiousity, you won’t want to miss this (or the “Unsolved Mysteries” tour I’ll be running immediately afterwards!)

And in honor of the tour announcement, here’s a new podcast….

One of my favorite posts ever on this blog was the one about H.H. Holmes and Dr. Holton.  In Devil in the White City (and most every other book about H.H. Holmes), there’s a lurid story about Holmes buying a pharmacy at Sixty-Third and Wallace (across the street from the site where he’d build his famous “murder castle” starting in 1887) from old Dr. Holton’s wife. In the story, Dr. Holton is an old man dying of cancer while his hapless wife tries to run the pharmacy herself. She’s only too happy to sell to Holmes, though, as is his fashion, he never pays. When rumors of a lawsuit circulate, Dr. and Mrs. Holton disappear, and Holmes tells everyone they’ve gone to California….

This story was pieced together from scattered bits of info on Dr. E.S. Holton that were available to researchers in days past – newspapers alluding to Holmes’ buying a pharmacy from “Mrs. Dr. Holton,” and Holmes himself alluding to buying a pharmacy from a physician who was eager to sell owing to ill health, and a few later stories hinting that Mrs. Dr. Holton wasn’t seen around much anymore. From these bits of data, an early 20th century writer put the story together, and writers up to the modern day have repeated it without really questioning it. But the critical information is a lot easier to find for me than it was for researchers in the days before Google Books, when finding the one book with the right data was a lot more luck-of-the-draw.

Several articles stated that “Mrs. Dr. Holton” had some trouble getting the money for the pharmacy, but I could never find a lawsuit on file. The most detailed info I have (which is hearsay from more than a decade after the fact) comes from an 1898 Chicago Inter Ocean article in which one G.A. Bogart, a jeweler who ran a shop a bit further west on 63rd, said that “from the first day he was engaged by Mrs. Holton to run the drug store which he afterward bought from her, he determined to have a busiess of his own; and to that end began carrying off the stock, piecemeal. Every time he left the store he carried something away, and very materially reduced the stock before he made a bit for it. After he concluded the deal he only paid his notes at the muzzle of a gun.”

In our research into who Dr. Holton was and what became of the Holtons, we found a completely different story from the one normally told. Listen in above, check out our podcasts page  or subscribe on iTunes!  And we’ll be back next week with another Holmes story/podcast that I promise is a real doozy!   And don’t forget to check out our upcoming Holmes Tour with Atlas Obscura!

cemetery selfie with Dr Elizabeth Holton's grave

My cemetery selfie at Dr. Holton’s grave

Podcast: George W. Green, The Man Who Stole the Gallows


Title page of Chicago's first true crime book, 1885.

Title page of Chicago’s first true crime book, 1885.

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According to legend, after Chicago’s first public hanging in 1840, the gallows were stolen by a man named George W. Green, who used the lumber for furniture that was then sold in his shop. Ironically, fifteen years later, the next public hanging was very nearly Green’s own. But after being convicted of murdering his wife with strychnine, he cheated the public out of getting to see hanging (still a popular spectacle in those days) by hanging himself in his prison cell with a makeshift rope. Not to be denied their morbid curiosity, the public was able to buy daguerrotypes of Green’s body, still hanging in his cell, at a “portable daguerrotype studio” at Randolph and Clark the next days.

Besides the crass “selling postcards of the hanging” incident, the Green case is notable for two things: the first is that Green became the subject of a book entitled Life of the Chicago Banker Geo. W. Green, alias Oliver Gavitt, Who Was Found Guilty of Poisoning His Wife, and Who Committed Suicide By Hanging in the Jail of Cook County. The fifty-page volume was probably Chicago’s first true crime book.

The book – which is in the “special collections” at the Chicago History Museum and the University of Chicago Library – is quite a read. Basing their stories on interviews with neighbors and children of Green, the authors present him as a Dickensian villain who does everything but twirl his mustache as he tortures animals, beats his wife, poisons his neighbors, cheats his sons, kills his daughters, and steals the city’s first gallows (a story they admit is incredible, but insist is true and verifiable by several witnesses).

Even more notable, perhaps, is that the trial was way ahead of its time in its use of analytical chemistry. When Green

Dr. Blaney

Dr. Blaney

told neighbors his wife had died of cholera, he immediately had a grave dug in his garden for her. His brother-in-law suspected foul play, and Green was arrested. The body was exhumed, and various organs were placed in earthenware jars stopped with corks. Dr. James Blaney, an analytical chemist who would soon help found Rose Hill Cemtery, made detailed tests for traces of strcychnine, and detailed his methods and findings to the jury. His detailed testimony was reprinted entirely in the true crime book, as well as several medical and legal journals throughout the world. At various times, Chicago has, at various times, taken credit for being the first to use handwriting analysis (the Henry Jumperts “barrel” case in 1859), finger prints (Thomas Jennings, 1912), forensic use of bone fragments (Adolph Luetgert, 1897).  By some measures we could add Blaney’s use of analytical chemistry to the list.

A couple of mysteries still endure for me: one is whether his wife was reburied right at the house, which stood near Twelfth and Loomis (Roosevelt and Loomis today). A drawing of the house makes it look like a prairie farmhouse. Private family plots on one’s property weren’t as common by then, but weren’t unknown. It’s quite possibly that her body was never moved.

The other is whether any copies of the daguerrotypes of his body survive. As far as I know, none do, but a drawing of it was included in the book, and is reprinted below (if you’re the sort of person who reads history blogs you’ve probably seen far worse drawings, but consider yourself warned):





Drawing taken from a now-lost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green.

Drawing taken from a now-apparentlylost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green. Have you seen a copy?


We’ve written Green into a new edition of Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows!

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Podcast: World’s Fair Charlatans


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New page, new company, new podcast! Rather than just starting a new series of the old Chicago Unbelievable podcast, I decided to launch a whole new one. This particular version will feature several episodes that are just plain storytelling in addition to episodes like the older ones where we’d take a trip to explore a location, or have a roundtable discussion. This way, I think I can do a lot more of them.

To start off, I thought I’d do episode about one of my favorite stories: Zanzic, Charlatan Supreme!



According to an article in a magicians’ trade magazine by Harry Houdini, a man known as “Zanzic” came to Chicago during the World’s Fair and set up a whole house to be the ultimate “Spiritualistic Studio.” It had trap doors, hidden chambers, secret rooms…everything you need to put on a QUALITY fake seance.zanzic_clip

Was the story true?

If so, where was this awesome house?

Could it still be standing?

And did Zanzic and his crew nearly pull off the ULTIMATE fake seance experience for a man who wanted a conjugal visit with his late wife – with deadly results?

Listen in above, or:

Download: archive.org  Stream: Youtube (with slideshow)