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 archive.org, or on iTunes. 

Excavating.

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.

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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.

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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 urbanremainschicago.com . 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.

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