Did Dr. Thomas Neill Cream Kill Alice Montgomery?

Could a Chicago mystery from 1881 have been the work of one of our early serial killers?
(See an update from 2017 at the bottom of the post!) 
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream.

On April 9, 1881, 22 year old Alice Montgomery checked into a room at the Sheldon House, a west loop-area hotel on West Madison near Racine. After dinner, she casually asked for a glass of water and a teaspoon, then for directions to the ladies’ private closet. Some time later, another roomer saw her emerge from the private closet writing in agony. Soon, she was on the floor, screaming in pain and convulsing. Doctor Seymour Knox was summoned and gave her ether, but after rallying for a moment she died. The doctor believed it was strychnine poisoning. Another doctor, one Byron Griffin, was soon found who told investigators that Alice had recently come to him saying she was in a “delicate condition” and asking for drugs to induce an abortion. He’d refused – it was illegal at the time, after all.  But a superficial examination of the body confirmed that an abortion had been attempted. She found some doctor who would help her. But someone had apparently tampered with the medicine.

The medicine she had taken was traced to a drug store further west on Madison, and was filled from a prescription from Dr. Fraser. Fraser was located and promptly said the drugs she’d been given were probably used to induce an abortion, but that he knew nothing of the prescription. It wasn’t in his handwriting, and contained some obvious misspellings.
An 1881 notice in the Tribune, after Cream was
acquitted of a similar case due to lack of evidence.
The address here was barely half a block from
the site of Alice’s death, which was at 503-505 Madison
in pre-1909 numbers. 434 is 1255 West on the
modern grids; a vacant lot marks the site of
Cream’s old rooms today.

The next day, Dr. Frazer assisted on the most-mortem at an undertaking parlor further west on Madison. It was found that Alice had been pregnant, and traces of strychnine were found (to prove it was strychnine, they fed the traces to a cat, who quickly died). The clerk at the drugstore said he had no idea how strychnine could have gotten into her medicine; it was sealed in a bottle with a skull and crossbones. A coroner’s jury eventually concluded that the strychnine had been added to the medicine later, under circumstances unknown

At the inquest, a letter written by Alice was produced, indicating that she’d paid Doctor Fraser $75 for an operation, and needed another $25 for another, after which she would “be all right.”
It had been sent in the coroner by someone who claimed to know Alice, but how that person came into possession of it was sort of a mystery, as was an accompanying letter saying that it was being sent to clear up the troubles for “Van Minchen,” a name no one had connected tot he case The identity of the person who’d found and submitted the letter was never found.
Dr. Fraser vehemently denied that he’d performed the abortion. The prescription was clearly not his own work, and “anyway, if I desired to produce an abortion, I had the necessary drugs at my own office, and need not have sent a patient to the drug store.”
The coroner’s jury established that Alice had died of accidental use of strychnine, but  exonerated both Fraser and the druggist. How the strychnine had gotten there, and who had done the operation, remained a mystery.

The tone of local newspaper articles from the case – particularly those of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean – make it seem quite clear that they assumed Dr. Fraser was at fault. It DOES sort of seem like damning evidence against him.  But Fraser was exonerated, and, since the case was officially still a mystery, it’s fairly remarkable that no one ever noted that one a known serial killer – one whose crimes frequently combined strychnine and abortion – had an office within a stone’s throw of the Sheldon House.

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream is probably a better candidate for the title of “America’s First Serial Killer” than H.H. Holmes, who is usually advertised as such.  Strychnine poisonings, abortions, and blackmailing doctors were his stock in trade. Giving both the operation and the poison to Alice, as well as perhaps trying to frame Dr. Fraser, seem like just the sort of thing he would have done. And Dr. Cream was operating from an office on Madison at the time of Alice’s death, right near the Sheldon House.
A letter in Dr. Cream’s handwriting published
in the Harmsworth Pictorial Magazine in

Only months before the Montgomery case, in fact, Dr. Cream had been arrested, and eventually released due to lack of evidence, when a woman named Mary Faulkner died after an abortion. Both Dr. Knox and Dr. Fraser were involved in cases with Cream in 1880-81.

I almost feel as though I must be missing something here. Given the publicity of the case connecting Dr. Cream to the abortion/death of Mary Faulkner in 1880, and his proximity to the scene of the action, it seems as though someone would have mentioned him during the Alice Montgomery affair, though neither the Tribune or Inter-Ocean ever mentioned him in connection with (all above info on her is from their April, 1881 accounts)

And given how much publicity Crem got a few months later when he was arrested for the poisoning of Daniel Stott, why did no one think they’d found a logical suspect for Alice’s murder?  Later accounts of Cream, including a full-length book about him from 1995, make no mention of the fact that there’d been a high-profile mysterious abortion/strychnine-related death in his neighborhood only months before his arrest. Indeed, I don’t think anyone ever mentioned Alice in print again after the April, 1881 inquest.

After his November, 1881 conviction for the murder of Daneil Stott (whose wife had obtained poisons to use on him from Dr. Cream’s office), Cream went on to spend several years in prison Joliet before being released and going to London, where he resumed his career of poisoning, blackmail, abortion and murder. He was eventually convicted of killing a woman with strychnine there and hanged; an apocryphal story states that he admitted to being Jack the Ripper before he was hanged, and I’ve long suspected that a 2008 podcast in which a former parter of mine mistakenly attributed that story to H.H. Holmes was the beginning of the current vogue to connect Holmes to the Ripper murders.

I sent an early version of this article to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, who recently wrote a novel, Prisoner 4374, about Cream. After consulting his large prison file, she confirmed that Cream was in town and receiving patients on April 9, 1881, but couldn’t find a definitive link that proved he killed Alice. The drug store Alice was sent to would not have been the one to which Cream usually sent patients, which was on South Clark.

“However,” she noted, “the crime and subsequent letter to the coroner certainly have the traits of his preferred ‘modus operandi.'” She also notes that April 9 was a Saturday, and it’s probably notable that Cream was known to take patients on Saturdays.

So there may not be a smoking gun – there rarely is in case this old, really – but the pieces certainly seem to fit. Either Dr. Cream gave her strychnine or there was some other strychnine-happy abortionist operating in Cream’s same neighborhood. The Sheldon Hotel would have sat on Madison right near Loomis; Cream’s place was across the road and only about a block east; you certainly could have seen it out a second floor window. The drug store Alice called on was a block from the hotel in the other direction. Though it’s not a store Cream is known to have recommended to patients, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios under which Alice would have gone there. If she was in pain or in a hurry, Kraft’s store was much closer than the one Cream normally used, which was in the loop, a little over a mile away.

This is probably a case that can never go beyond circumstantial evidence, since it’s likely that none of the original evidence is still extant, but it’s more compelling to me than just about anything on the list of H.H. Holmes’s possible victims.  The fact that no one seems to have thought to connect Cream to Montgomery before remains the biggest mystery to me here.

  AJ Griffith-Jones’ book is written as a faux autobiography. From prison records, she can firmly establish the truth about rumors that Cream escaped prison and became Jack the Ripper.
The Chicago Daily News wanted to make sure
readers knew that Alice read the Daily News.

Digging through the defunct Chicago newspapers in the microfilm room gives some clue: the most likely time for someone to have made a connection between Cream and Montgomery would have been in late July, 1881, when Cream was first made a suspect in the murder of Daniel Stott, or in September of that year when he went to trial. In July, any mention of Cream at all was buried among the coverage of President Garfield having been shot. In September, Cream’s trial coverage was overshadowed by Garfield’s funeral (he lingered on his deathbed for several weeks after being shot). According to Amanda Griffiths-Jones, there’s even a note in Cream’s prison records saying that authorities were distracted by Garfield news and not taking much note of Cream’s actions at the time of the Stott murder. So it may simply be that the obvious solution to Alice Montgomery’s murder slipped through the cracks.

And, since we can never resist an H.H. Holmes connection: according to an 1895 issue of the Chicago Daily News, when H.H. Holmes was en route to Toronto with the Pitezel girls, he stayed a night in room 18 and 19 of the West End Hotel, which had the same address, and was likely the same building, as the Sheldon Hotel, where Alice died! According to the CDN, he registered as “A. Armstrong.” Other papers were not convinced that this part of the story was true, though, and at this point whether “A. Armstrong” was truly Holmes is probably anyone’s guess.

UPDATE, 2017:
As more newspapers get digitized, more sources come to light! I knew I couldn’t have been the first to connect Alice to Dr. Cream, and it turns out the sheriff in charge of the jail where he stayed before his 1881 trial blamed him for the murder. Here’s The Belvidere Standard, a paper from near Grand Prairie, quoting the Rockford Register on Sept 13, 1881:

The Ghostly Woman of the LADY ELGIN Graves

In 1860, the sidepaddle steamer Lady Elgin was wrecked about nine miles off Winnetka – another ship had collided with it, and the ship was busted up by breakers. Just under 400 people were on board, bound to Milwaukee from Chicago, allegedly after having seen Senator Douglas speaking in his campaign for the presidency (though the real reason was apparently raising funds to preserve an anti-slavery miltia; Douglas was not in town).

Another ship collided with Lady Elgin, and it was overturned and destroyed by breakers, resulting in the loss of around 75% of those on board.  At the time, it was the greatest tragedy that had ever befallen either Chicago or Milwaukee, and is said to have cost each city more lives than any single battle would in the coming Civil War.

The event is now recorded, but not really underlined, in Chicago history. Over time, it’s been overshadowed by disasters like the Great Fire and the wreck of the Eastland, or thought of as more of a Milwaukee disaster, since most of the passengers were from there.

But Chicago was the scene of many of the more gruesome aspects. Bodies were initially taken to City Hall for inquests, then moved to City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park). Contemporary newspaper articles make it look as though the bodies were set up in the “Dead House,” as they called the morgue in those days, but a 1908 reminiscence published in the Tribune described seeing close to ninety bodies lying on the ground in City Cemetery, waiting to be identified. It was certainly more than the dead house could have held.  Most of the bodies who were never identified in Chicago were eventually taken to the receiving vault at Rosehill, and about 27 were buried in a mass, apparently unmarked, grave.

Many of the bodies who came ashore closer to the site of the wreck wound up in a mass grave in Highwood, a small town in the north suburbs. And it was there that a ghost was seen throughout the late 1800s.

Wreckage on the shore at Winnetka. It was still there as of 1892,
when Joseph Kirkland’s Story of Chicago was published.

According to an 1899 Tribune article, the mass gravesite became neglected over time, and was marked only by two small wooden stakes at the turn of the 20th century (Indeed, the site was eventually lost to history altogether, until researchers at the Highwood Historical Society triangulated the location in just the last few years – see their newsletter (pdf link)).  That same 1899 article states that in the 1870s, when houses were being built in a mini “boom” in Highwood, there were stories of a ghost on the grounds – that of a beautiful woman in a black gown that was dripping with water. The ghost had a gold chain on her neck and diamond earrings in her ears, and was often seen waving her hands, as it to drive the builders away. She was particularly said to haunt the site of one particular construction site where the house was never completed. Some probably said that they stopped building the house because of the ghost.

The Tribune tracked down a man named Henry Mowers who said that he knew exactly who the ghost was – or, anyway, he knew which unidentified body it was.  “Yes, I was on the beach immediately after the wreck of the Lady Elgin,” he said. “For days afterward bodies continued to be washed up by the sea on the beach just below the lighthouse. I’ll tell you of one specific case which to me was at once the most pathetic and the most horrible of all. A woman clad in black silk and showing, despite the fact that she had been wave-tossed and beach-beaten for several days, that she had been a woman of beauty, was finally thrown up by a wave of sufficient strength to give her body lodgement on the sands below the bluff on which stands the old lighthouse. We found her there and carried her to a building some distance from the water.

“An examination showed that on the body was a handsome gold watch, a thing somewhat rarer than it is now, while about the neck was a fine gold chain. On the fingers were several rings, two of them containing large solitaire diamonds. The effects were left upon the body and the proper officials were notified…. the next morning, when the officials arrived, the door was opened, but there was neither ring, watch, nor necklace upon the body of the woman…. I saw the chain with its gold piece pendant hanging from the neck of the wife of a prominent Lake County official not six weeks afterwards. The man had entered the building in the the night and stolen the jewelry from that poor drowned woman. A nice sort of official was he not?  The stealing of the jewelry was undoubtedly the reason why the body was never identified. I made a coffin for her with my own hands, and made it rather better than I did the others…Yes, she lies up yonder unknown and forgotten by all save two or three of us. I suppose there is rubbish on her grave, and I know that cows are pastured there, but time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Over the 100th anniversary of the Eastland wreck, there were many astonished stories of how few people in Chicago today know about the disaster. But it’s certainly better known than the Lady Elgin, which seems to have been almost totally forgotten by 1899, even in the small town near which the wreck was eventually found in the 1980s. I haven’t looked into this extensively, but from a quick search I could find nothing about there being a grave site in Rosehill. As Mr. Mowers said, “Time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Conway: The One-Legged Killer Clown of 1912

“It’s Only a Paper Moon…” Charles Cramer, alias Conway, the clown
with a wooden leg, in a postcard photo with his
wife, circa 1911, a year before he murdered Sophia Singer.

In 1908, a woman named Frances Thompson was found strangled to death and robbed in a home on the 1200 block of South Michigan. A man named Luman Mann was tried for her murder and acquitted. During the whole ordeal, Mann’s father, Orville, received an anonymous note stating that he could solve the mystery if he went to Riverview, the north side amusement park, and find a clown with a wooden leg.

Mr. Mann doesn’t seemed to have followed up on the clue at the time, but four years later just such a clown would be arrested for another murder in Chicago, in a story that made from page news before being completely forgotten.

In early October, 1912, an heiress named Sophie Singer came to Chicago with her fiance, Will Worthen. They were met at the station by a “Mrs. Conway” who suggested that they all get a flat together instead of a hotel. This “Mrs. Conway” was really Mrs. Louisa Cramer, the wife of Charles N. Cramer (alias Charles Kramer, alias Charles Conway). The two were in the circus profession; Mrs. Conway was a lion tamer who also called herself The Queen of Burlesque and Mr. Cramer doubled as Conway the Clown,  working as a parachute performer and as the “comet” in a high dive act. Some time before, a circus accident had cost him the portion of one of his legs, below the knee, and he walked with a self-built wooden foot.

The Cramers in court.

The three set up housekeeping in a little flat on the 2900 block of S. Indiana Ave, eventually joined by Mr. Cramer (who the couple, as well as the papers, would usually called “Charles Conway.”) The circus couple had no money, except what their new friends gave them. And they seem to have given them plenty. The Conways, it seems, were the sort of mooches who made people feel happy to pay.

Until Miss Singer started thinking it was time to go back to Baltimore. At that point, Worhten later said, “they seemed to hate us all at once.”  The unlikely foursome moved to another house a few blocks south. Worthen went out gambling (he had a system where he had friends at the races telephoning in results to him before they could be telegraphed to the bookies), and came to the new rooming house  to find the keyhole stuffed. Breaking down the door, he found Sophie’s feet sticking out from under the bed. She had been strangled to death; her hands were tied with clothes line and Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so deep into her throat that police needed pincers to remove it. Her jewelry had been stolen.

After a nationwide dragnet, the Cramers were caught in Lima, Ohio, near where Charles had been born in 1886. Mrs. Cramer quickly confessed, and when he learned of the confession, Charles did, too, though he insisted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder, though he said it had been in self defense, following a quarell after Miss Singer had suggested that Mrs. Cramer should be try prostitution.

In the midst of confessing, he did a bit of clowning with reporters and police. “Say, Captain?” he asked. “Do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the Captain said he’d never heard of a law like that, Cramer said “You have to use a rope!”  Har de har har.

“How did you hurt your foot?” one reporter asked. “A steamboat ran over it,” Cramer joked.

The trial in March, 1913, made front page news, even in the shadow of Woodrow Wilson’s
inauguration as president. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cramer recanted their confession, stating that the police had used “third degree” methods to get them, denying them food and medicine in their separate cells. The judge did eventually throw out the confessions, but the jury found the Cramers guilty. Charles was sentenced to life in one prison, and Louisa was sentenced to fourteen years in another (she served about a year). Charles only narrowly avoided the gallows.

As he was led away, he vowed that he would “get out of this,” and twelve years later he made good on his promise. In 1925, while serving on the “honor farm” at Joliet, Cramer escaped from prison. He last appears in the news in 1932, when his mother tried to get a judge to declare him dead so that she could collect his life insurance. According to articles at the time, he had last been seen in Toledo in 1929.  The world never learned what had really become of the Conway, the murderous one-legged clown, after his escape….

This is one of those stories that I find myself in disbelief over. A one-legged clown was convicted of murder in Chicago, escaped from prison, and was never caught. And, outside of some brief mentions in papers between 1914 and 1932, no one seems to have written about it at all ever since!

I can’t help but think of the peg-legged ghost that is said to haunt the Congress Hotel….

The Ghostly Nun Who Turned to Stone

Some days you win, some days you lose, and some days you follow a story about the Couch Tomb and up with a story about nuns who turned to stone, then allegedly came back from the dead to express anti-semitism. That’s life in Mysterious Chicago.

An image of Mother Galway found in
Holy Family Parish: Priests and People

In 1892, when city officials were debating whether or not James Couch could be buried in the family tomb that had been left behind when City Cemetery became Lincoln Park, it was noted that burials were not allowed in the city on grounds not specifically set aside for burials. Chief Sanitary Officer Hayt noted at the time that one exception had been granted: the seminary on Taylor Street was allowed to bury its members on their property.

A bit more research showed that this was the Sacred Heart seminary on the 1200 Block of West Taylor, a part of the nearby Holy Family parish. The nuns there were semi-cloistered, meaning that they were only allowed to leave the grounds when absolutely necessary. This didn’t happen much; according to a history maintained by Woodland Sacred Heart (pdf link), when the order was moved in 1907, the last sister to leave had not set foot off the grounds in 41 years. Nuns couldn’t leave for things so frivolous as funerals, so they asked (and received) permission to continue burying members in a private cemetery on their grounds.

Both the seminary and its burial ground are long gone. The space where the building stood is a blank space now, and the bodies were removed in 1907, after the order of nuns moved to Lake Forest.

But here’s the thing: according a Tribune article from October 13, 1907, when they moved the bodies,  two of the nuns had turned to stone.

Most of the nuns buried on the grounds were moved with little trouble, but it was a different case for Mother Galway, who had founded the school for girls on the spot (it eventually became the Academy of the Sacred Heart), and Mother Gauthreaux, who had died just months after the Great Chicago Fire (her obituary tells an amusing tale of her trying to call a street car after the fire to help her round up homeless nuns; in her cloistered life she had no idea that street cars were bound to tracks and couldn’t simply come to her door and go where she told them to).

Both of these women had been buried in metallic coffins, neither of which had held up very well under the ground for 40-50 years.  But both were far heavier than anyone expected, requiring eight men to lift them. To determine why they were so heavy, the workers opened them up. Here’s what the Tribune said they found:

There was the body of each woman almost exactly as it had appeared the day the casket had been closed and lowered into the earth beside the seminary. When a member of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart is buried she is clothed in the same black habit she wore during life. Instead of the silver cross on her breast a small wooden one is placed there…then the folds of the black veil are carefully drawn across the face of the dead nun.

The burial ground was somewhere on this block,
north side of W. Taylor between Lytle and Sibley. The
grounds are mostly vacant today.

When the wondering nuns looked upon the bodies of Mother Galway and Mother Gauthreaux the little wooden cross was gone with the passing of the years, and the features looked upon for the last time when the veil was placed over the face were no longer visible. But the outline of the figures was there as perfect as ever. Every line of the body that had been visible twenty years ago was stil there, and the color of the black habit gave a somber hue to the solid figure weighing more than 1000 pounds, where both the women had been but slight in stature during life.

For a moment the nuns of the institution were allowed to contemplate the wonders nature had wrought with the bodies of their predecessors. They saw the familiar white cap had crumbled away, as had he texture of the habits, leaving only a solid figure as if hewn out of ivory. Then the bodies of these dead nuns were incased in new caskets, and they were born to Calvary (Cemetery) to the little plot where the sisters of the institution now bury their dead.

For all the details, this isn’t a particularly good source. The Tribune article doesn’t really specify when it happened (it merely says “recently”); most other local papers from the same date don’t mention anything about the story (at least not right away). It’s also notably lacking in first-hand quotes, and sounds like it may be a second-hand story.

(UPDATE 2019: a newly-digitized Chicago Daily News article from Oct 12, 1907 provides more details, specifying that the exhumation took place the second week of October, 1907, under the supervision of undertaker M. McLaughlin, 416 W 12th Street. It doesn’t give quite so many details of the condition of the bodies, but says that eight men were required to lift the coffin, and eve included some speculation that it was the result of water in the soil in the convent, which had only twelve total burials. Though the article uses the phrase “turned to stone” and “petrified,” it doesn’t include any description of the bodies, only a note that they were in metal coffins)

There are, of course, many explanations for why this sort of thing might happen to a body, the most common being adipocere, which is also known as “grave wax” (see Bess Lovejoy’s essay “The Madame Who Turned to Stone”), but at a thousand pounds each, that’s a lot of grave wax. And I’m a bit surprised that this story isn’t better known, given the Catholic fascination with “incorruptibles” (a colleague of mine just did a photo essay on these for Atlas Obscura, and then there’s the Chicago story of Julia Buccola-Petta, the Italian Bride). The Tribune‘s story was in several papers around the country in late 1907, but it’s hardly been spoken of at all since.

Except for one week, eleven months later, when sightings of Mother Galway’s ghost attracted huge crowds on Taylor Street. Who came with guns.

After the nuns vacated the old seminary, it was set to become a Jewish facility in 1908. Just before the facility opened, rumors swirled that the old place was haunted (what abandoned convent isn’t?), and things came to head on September 18, when a crowd that the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean estimated at 5000 crowded the space outside the iron fence. Some said that they saw ” a pale, bluish, ghostly light suddenly glow in an upper window and then slowly begin an eerie journie, flashing from window to window down the long, faded facade of the old convent.”

The Jewish caretaker and his wife rushed out of the building, with the man crying “It is a spirit! I saw it with my eyes. Far down a corridor I saw the shadowy figure of a woman in black with a lamp in her hand.”

This light had been seen for the past three nights, as well. It was the general belief of the crowd that it was the ghost of Mother Galway, expressing a protest that the school she founded was about to become a Jewish orphanage. The Inter-Ocean noted that her body had recently been found to be turned to stone.

The building at 1258 W Taylor n 1915, when it was the Hebrew Institute.
It had been heavily rebuilt in 1910, so this isn’t quite how it
would have looked. A photograph of the older version can be seen
in this pdf from Woodland Academy

Now, something you see in a lot of ghost stories from this era is that when people saw a ghost, their instinct was always to shoot at it; indeed, the most important tool in a ghost hunter’s arsenal in those days was a pistol.  One would think that they’d at least think twice about attacking a ghostly nun, but when the “ghost” appeared in a second floor window on the Taylor Street side, the crowd began throw anything they could find at it, eventually smashing a window and possibly firing guns.   Patrolman Frank J. Fournier entered the building expecting to find a practical joker or optical illusion, but found nothing but darkness.

By this point, around dusk, the crowd was blocking the street cars, and a riot squad was called in to get them to disperse.   The Examiner, the only other paper that seems to have taken any notice of the mob scene at all, still suspected a practical joker.

The Chicago Hebrew Institute (which was not exactly an orphanage, really – more fo a youth center) opened shortly thereafter.  The building was badly damaged by fire in 1910 and rebuilt; the organization moved to Lawndale in 1926. I haven’t yet found what became of the building in the end, but it’s a vacant lot today.

Kate Durkee: Victim of the HH Holmes Curse, or Total Badass?

One of the more interesting periphery characters in the H.H. Holmes saga is Kate Durkee, a childhood friend of Holmes’ second wife, Myrta Belknap-Holmes, who was used as a dupe in his swindling schemes. Holmes is usually advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” but he was a swindler first and foremost. The stories of him murdering people tend to be exaggerated (his actual number of victims was far lower than people like to say), but people tend to underplay just how accomplished he was a swindler. New Holmes murder stories are rarely dug up, but new swindling tales are uncovered all the time.

Durkee’s name is all over the property records of the “murder castle” property, and when the Holmes story first broke in 1894, some mentioned her as a possible victim, since no one in Chicago had seen her around for a while.

She was alive and well and living in Omaha, and told reporters that on one of her visits to see Myrta, her charming doctor husband had persuaded her to become the titular owner of the building, just as some sort of formality. She signed the paperwork, explaining to reporters that she didn’t have much of a head for business.  In 1892, a drug company suing Holmes to get a lien on the property determined that Durkee wasn’t a real person, and Holmes and his lawyer, D.T. Duncombe, went clear out to Omaha so that she could be interrogated.

In 1896, she came into the news again when Holmes confessed to having murdered Kate Durkee in his famous confession. She was still alive and well and living in Omaha, and issued a statement that “I have never been murdered – not by HH Holmes or by anyone else.”

Though I always loved that “I have never been murdered” quote, her willingness to sign that paperwork always made her seem a bit like a regular old dupe to me (not that there’s any real shame in it -plenty of very smart people were duped by HH Holmes).

But in one of my recent dives into the lawsuit archives, I cam across the Morrison Plummer Drug Co.’s lawsuit against Holmes, which included the full transcript – pages and pages – of her interrogation. And I LOVE it – she comes off as a regular Black Window.  It’s rare that you find full transcripts like this in lawsuit archives, rarer still that they’re typed and legible, and rarer still that they’re as entertaining as this one is.

Here’s a brief excerpt I typed up in order to do a dramatic reading; I “performed” it on the Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez show the other night with songwriter Aly Jados playing the role of Kate Durkee. You can listen to it here; I come it at about the 1:13:00 mark.  It’s edit a bit from the original for clarity.

LAYWER: How Long have you known Mr. HH Holmes?

KATE DURKEE: Four years

Are you now possessed of any property?

I object to answering that.

Have you any reason to decline to answer?

Yes, sir, a personal reason.

What is the reason?

I shall not answer that either.
Have you in the last two years possessed any real estate in Chicago?

Yes, sir, the Wallace Street Property.

Have you a deed for that proprety?

I HAVE had.
Who handed the deed to you?

I object to answering that.


I object to answering THAT, even.

To whom did you sell this property?

To Mr. HS Campbell

Did you ever see him at all?
No, sir not personally. The whole agreement was arranged by HH Holmes.
What did he pay you?

6700 something. 6725, I think.

Did HH Holmes give you the money?

I got my money

But did HH Holmes give you the money?

I object to answering that


Because I do.
Did you look up whether there were any encumbrances on the property?
I had my agent look it up.
Who was your agent? 
I cannot answer that question.
Because I do not wish to.
Do you know that we claim in this case that you never truly owned the Wallace street property?
I suppose I do?
Do you not see how important these questions are?

I am not obliged to answer them if I do not wish to.

Durkee never met HS Campbell personally – it was one of Holmes’s aliases under which he conducted a lot of “castle’ business.

She died almost exatly three years after Holmes was hanged of causes currently unknown; a woman dying in her 40s isn’t necessarily unusual for the era, but I suppose we can add her as a possible victim of the Holmes Curse that reporters talked about a lot in those days. All I know about her death comes from a brief “thanks for the sympathy” note published by her brother in an Omaha paper (right) and a gravestone in Omaha.  (2016 update: it was heart disease). For more on the curse, check out the ebook:

The Resurrection of Nicholas Viana

Il Diavolo

The guards at the old prison on Dearborn and Illinois weren’t afraid of much, but one prisoner really freaked them out: Sam “Il Diavolo” Cardinella, the head of a high insular, secretive gang that operated out of his pool room on 22nd Place. Their whole story was in a previous post: The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang.  The thing people remember about him the most is that he tried to have his body brought back to life after he was hanged: he’d lost a lot of weight and had a breakdown that forced the guards to tie him to a chair to hang him; a shorter drop with less weight meant a better chance he would strangle instead of having his neck broken. Cops caught his friends trying to bring him back in an ambulance out back.

And word among the prisoners was that he thought he’d pull it off because they’d already tested it, successfully, one of his underlings: Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Viana, who had been hanged a few months before on his 19th birthday. In 1936, jail physician Frank McNamara told of stories that had gone around “the grapevine” about “magic” used at a nearby undertaking parlor, which, after an hour, had gotten Viana’s heart beating again, and even gotten him to start moaning, at which point someone gave a signal and the “magicians” backed off, letting him die again (for having been a traitor to the gang).

Some newly-uncovered data suggests that maybe, just maybe, it was more than just a rumor.

These are the facts: Nicholas Viana was, by all accounts, a good kid until the day that he walked into Cardinella’s pool room on the way to choir practice. A week later he committed his first murder. He was eventually sentenced to be hanged, along with Cardinella and a couple of other members of the gang.


I’ve always suspected that his story served as the inspiration for Nicholas Romano, the altar boy-turned-killer in Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door who coined the phrase “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Motley wrote the book while serving as a writer-in-residence at Hull House; Jane Addams attempted to get clemency for Viana. She was unsuccessful, though – they only thing that would have saved him was turning state’s evidence. And Viana  was still so afraid of Cardinella that he refused to give over evidence that might have saved his neck, fearing that Sam would “beat this yet” and take revenge on his mother and sisters.

Viana sang “Misere” from Il Trovatore on the way to “death cell” where the condemned spent their last nights (“beat any show you ever saw,” one witness later said), then shouted “Good bye, boys. Good bye to all but Sam Cardinella. May his soul be damned.” Cardinella heard, but did not respond. Sam had just asked Viana to write him a letter that would clear him. “Kind of a joke, isn’t it?” he asked. “Cardinella got me when I was a boy. He is responsible for what will happen to me tomorrow.”

 Reporters hoped Viana would sing on the scaffold the next day; he didn’t, but he seemed to be in remarkably good humor, repeatedly calling the event a “birthday party.”  “It is no disgrace,” he said “to die for my father, mother and sisters. I forgive everyone in the world…I thank the guards for the kindness they have shown me.”

The Chicago Herald Examiner of
Dec 10, 1920. Papers went back and forth
between spellings “Viana” and “Viani,”
as well as “Cardinella” vs “Cardinelli,”
and continued to talk about Al Caponi well into
the early 1930s. Records go both ways (and a
few others besides).

At this point, Sheriff Peters had the noose attached – it was a new knot method, using 7 turns of the rope instead of 4. The Evening Post said that it had broken his neck instantly. The Herald Examiner, though, said physicians fingered his pulse and found that it had taken him nine minutes to die (the death certificate says the neck was broken) Herald also noted that at the moment he died, a mirror in the courtroom where he had been sentenced fell from the wall and shattered.

Four months later the cops caught Cardinella’s friends trying to revive Cardinella after his own hanging, and stories about Viana began to circulate. They made it to the press that July, when Sheriff Peters announced that from now on, hanged men’s bodies would guarded for at least an hour before being turned over in order to block resuscitation attempts. I saw mention of this in a couple of regional papers on genealogy sites, but the microfilm room yielded some quotes from defunct papers with prison officials – and the undertaker himself – that shed much more light on the story:

“Such an effort was made after the hanging of Nick Viana last December,” he told the Post, ” and doctors with a resuscitating apparatus succeeded in getting a flicker of life back into the body, I am told, though they failed in the end.” This came from an unnamed informant, and the sheriff further noted that it was possible that the informant had lied, and Viana was brought fully back to life and was now up and walking around. He further told the Evening Journal that the body had been brought to the undertaker, according to his source, and an attempt had been made to revive him with a pulmotor, and cited assistant jailer Lorenz Meisterheim as the one who brought it to his attention.  Meisterheim had heard it from friends and relatives of Viana. Both were satisfied that it was true, with Meisterheim saying that the heart had started to beat when some “unforseen circumstance” brought the procedure to a halt.

Chicago Evening Post, June 24, 1921

James Marzano ran the undertaking parlor at 951 W. Polk Street where Viana’s body was taken, and local reporters tracked him down at once. He gave the Journal a flat denial. “I personally had charge of Viana’s body, and embalmed it immediately upon its arrival here,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing to reports that relatives and friends attempted to bring him back to life with the aid of a pulmotor. It is possible some of his friends would have liked to have tried it, but they had no chance.” He went on to say that reviving a strangled man was “barely possible,” but possible.

When he spoke to the Herald Examiner, though, he admitted that it had at least been discussed, and that it could have been done. “There is no doubt but that we would have had some success,” he said. “His temperature had dropped only two points when we got the body, but we were afraid of running afoul of the law.”

Sheriff Peters wasn’t having any of this. “I’m satisfied that the tale is true,” he said. “I do not say that the undertaker had anything to do with it. But the evidence given to us tends to show that the operation took place in his morgue.”

However true the story might have been, it does seem quite likely that Cardinella thought was true. Dr. McNamara remembered that when he met with his family for the last time before his own hanging, he was saying the word “Viana” over and over.

This wouldn’t have been the first time that there’d been an attempted resurrection: a more official had been made a generation earlier, when doctors genuinely experimented with bringing murderer James Tracy back to life. See our post: The Chicago Frankenstein Case.

And for more on these cases, see our ebook Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows.

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A Masked Supervillain Terrorizes Chicago, 1892

In late November of 1892, wild rumors spread about a mysterious  “highwayman,” a masked robber who rode a dark horse with a blazing red leather saddle, and who had been terrifying Lake View, on the north side of Chicago. The Tribune described him as “either a maniac or a desperado.” Lake View and Lincoln Park became police states as dozens of officers were put on call to catch the crook, and stories began to circulate that the costumed crook had supernatural powers.

Children on the north side spoke in whispers that The Highwayman had been heard riding though Graceland Cemetery at midnight, the hoofs clacking over the tombstones as he rode atop them. Another said that he’d been seen on horseback jumping off a bridge and riding the horse right through the filthy Chicago River.

And his fame wasn’t limited to Chicago. The story of the Lakeview Highwayman was retold in papers all over the country, and a few questioned how such a city could be trusted to hold a World’s Fair the next year.

Where was Batman when we needed him?

Seldom has there been an example of how much a little flair for the dramatic can turn a story into a sensation. In reality, the Highwayman’s deeds were pretty low-key. If he hadn’t been wearing the mask, he would have been little more than a simple b-rate robber. But dress up like the Dread Pirate Roberts in a bowler hat and get yourself a dark horse with a white star on its forehead, and you become a supervillain!

The drama began on November 23rd, 1892, when a man in Lake View was approached by a masked rider who wore a mask covering his eye. Above it was a stiff derby hat, and below it a sandy mustache. The “highwayman” ordered him to set all his money on the ground and go away. This same instance was repeated several times all over the north side over the course of the rest of the day, concluding with a daring chase in which a cop took control of a bakery cart and chased the Highwayman a mile through the north side, firing a few shots in the process. He struck at North and Clybourn, at Clark and Lawrence, and at several saloons. However, his net profits were estimated to be in the range of $5.35

The next day, dozens of officers were brought in and armed citizens patrolled the streets, interrogated pretty much anyone they saw riding a horse, but the robberies continued and the rider eluded capture.

After two nights, a mustached man dropped a horse off at a stable, saying he’d be back in an hour. When the was was never called for, the stable owner notified the cops, who were able to confirm that the horse was the one that Highwayman had used. But there was no trace of the Highwayman.

What was generally agreed was that this was no professional robber; the “highway robbery” techniques he used were the sort of thing you saw far more often in dime novels than in real life.  The Highwayman would approach a person and “Got any money? Throw it on the ground,” threatening to shoot if they disobeyed . He’d wait until they’d run far away before picking up whatever they’d tossed.

On November 27, a masked Highwayman with a long rifle (or a pistol in each hand, depending on the witness) was seen in Winnetka and Highland Park in the north burbs, riding towards Evanston. Police went on his trail, but didn’t think it was the SAME highwayman; this one had a black mustache. Apparently, the tales of derring-do had begun to inspire imitators (the one in the north burbs turned out to be a troubled young student from Highland Park who was only out for kicks). One credible rumor was that the criminal was a student who’d promised to put on a mask and rob everyone he saw for four days if Benjamin Harrison lost the election to Grover Cleveland (which he did).  Another masked highwayman – possibly the REAL Lake View Highwayman – robbed of man of 6 bucks in west suburban Riverside the same day, and then repeated the deed the next day in Berwyn, Cicero, and other southwest suburbs, putting the area on high alert.

On the 28th, The Highwayman showed a bit of his true colors when a grocer / undertaker in Aurora was approached by him. THe grocery/undertaker brandished a whip and told the Highwayman to “Shoot and be goldarned,” which was all it took to get him to flee.

The Lake View Highwayman apparently returned to Chicago on November 29th, striking in Avondale, but by this time he was losing his ability to inspire fear: the story of the grocer made the news all over the midwest. On November 30th, a man scared him away from a hold-up on Elston Avenue with a toy pistol.

Then, as suddenly as he came, the Lake View Highwayman simply vanished from the news. Sightings ceased in early December, and papers forgot all about him. In the summer of 1893 there was a only small item stating that the police had arrested a horse thief named James Dustin who was suspecting of being the Highwayman; he had a bunch of masks and fake mustaches in his possession. Several of the Highwayman’s victims were brought to the station, but none were certain that Dustin was the man. He had, after all, been wearing a mask.

As near as I can tell, this blog post is the first thing written about him since 1893. National news for a week, then forgotten for over a century.

I can’t resist ending with the most basic line of them all: Who was that masked man?

The Mystery of Zanzic (and The Guy Who Died While Doing It With a Fake Ghost)

Whether this is even
the same Zanzic is probably
up to debate. 

Something there was about the World’s Fair of 1893 that seemed to make everyone want to build a house full of secret passages around here.

In 1923, Harry Houdini wrote an article in M.U.M., a magician’s magazine, about a conjurer named Zanzic  who a operated fantastic spiritualist “studio” in Chicago on north Michigan Avenue during the time of the World’s Fair.  According to the story (which he got from one of Zanzic’s assistants), the magician had taken the name of Professor Slater and spent five thousand bucks rigging up an old mansion with trap doors, hidden rooms, sliding panels, and other such trickery. It’s hard not to compare the place to the Holmes  “murder castle” on the other side of town.

The Holmes building was really designed more for swindling than killing, and so was Zanzic’s new place: everything was carefully rigged up to help him put on the most convincing phony seances in the business. And he was good at what he did – Houdini called him a “charlatan supreme,” with forgers, detectives, and professional magicians in his employ.

How long it lasted is not a part of the story, but Houdini describes the place as pretty impressive, using every magic trick known to the trade to make the seances convincing, along with tricks like selling “blindness cures” that were really scoops of gutter mud. As much as Houdini hated fake mediums, he really does seem to have admired Zanzic’s gumption. According to legend, one afternoon while performing on stage a pistol malfunctioned during a “watch me get shot in the face” act, and Zanzic lost one of his eyes – but still did the trick again in the evening show.   You really do have to take your hat off to a guy like that.

The most famous tale of the Michigan Avenue Mansion almost has to be Zanzic’s piece de resistance. having convinced a wealthy German man that he was making contact with his late wife, the German offered a huge sum if Zanzic could arrange for him to have a conjugal visit with his wife. Ever the daring optimist, Zanzic said he certainly could, and set to work. He found a prostitute who bore enough of a resemblance, set up the seance to cloud his customer’s mind just enough, and put the plan in motion.

There was one hitch in the plan, though: while Zanzic and his crew were waiting for the “conjugation” to finish, the woman they’d hired screamed. The German had gotten over-excited at renewing sexual relations with his dead wife, suffered a heart attack, and died mid-coitus. An attempt to dress up the corpse and hide him out in an alley someplace didn’t work out, and the trio had to pay the cops off to stay out of jail.

An ad for Zanzic the Necromancer at the Trocodero
around the time of the World’s Fair.  Sandow
the Strong Man was one of the stars of the
fair himself, and was the subject of one of
Edison’s first kinetoscopes. 

The story is charming as hell, though I can’t for the life of me work out whether the slightest bit of it happens to be true. There is an ad in the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean from the time of the fair for “Zanzic the Necromancer” appearing at the Trocedero on State Street (where the Harold Washington Library is now), which at puts Zanzic (or someone using the same name) in Chicago at the right time,  but I can’t find anything about the actual address of the mansion, or any vintage advertisements for it, any news of real estate transactions, or even anything in the spiritualist newspapers of the day talking about the terrific seances at Professor Slater’s place in Chicago. If he really spent that much money fixing the place up, you’d think that Zanzic would have made more noise about it.

None of this, however, necessarily means that the story isn’t true – it stands to reason that this stuff would be hard to trace. Magicians and charlatans of the day tend to be tough to research – even Houdini wasn’t sure what Zanzic’s real name was, and modern researchers know very little of him. There are conflicting sources on both his life and his death. Frauds and phonies of the day tended to change their names a lot, and there were several who used the same name, further muddying the waters. Also, if you’re going to build a house meant to trick people, you’d probably do so without much of a paper trail, and if someone dies in your place while being tricked into thinking he was doing it with a ghost, well, it’s not like you’re going to put out a press release. Houdini sites Ziska, a well known magician who had been one of the assistants, as a source – Ziska was a real guy, which lends the story a bit more credibility, but made a name for himself as doing magical comedy, and known as a great storyteller, so it’s not unreasonable to assume he may have exaggerated a bit.

 Unless more info can be turned up, I’ll have to file it among the “Stories so good that I really hope they turn out to be true, even though someone dies in them” files.