The Hitchhiking Flapper Ghost of Waldheim Cemetery

Resurrection Mary isn’t the only “vanishing hitcher” in the world; she’s not even the only one said to haunt Chicago. The south side has a vanishing girl who appears on CTA busses around Evergreen Park, for instance.

And Forest Park is home to vanishing “flapper” who was said to hitch hike from the Melody Mills ballroom to Jewish Waldheim cemetery, where she vanished. Some versions of the story say that she tells drivers that she lives at the caretaker’s house before disappearing at the gates.

Unlike Resurrection Mary, there aren’t many first-hand accounts of this, and there’s a bit of confusion as to whether the vanishing “Flapper” and the ghost who hitched rides from Melody Mill are even the same ghost. It seems to me that there are two different stories here that got conflated into one single one over the years.
The story of a hitcher at Melody Mill (a now defunct ballroom) have been circulating since at least 1938, and possibly earlier:  in 1984, Dave Hoekstra of the Melody Mill told the Sun Times about a story that had happened in the ballroom fifty years earlier in 1934: a young man named Wally met a blonde woman in a snow-white gown who asked for a ride home, and who then asked to be dropped off at Wood Lawn Cemetery. By then, though, they’d made a date. A week later, Wally went to her address, where the woman at the door said that the woman Wally described sounded like her daughter, but that she’d died three years before.  How much of this is an accurate description of Wally’s tale is tough to guess – Dave heard it second-hand from Ben Lecjar, Sr, the former owner, making it a third-hand account.
The story is, almost to the letter, a textbook retelling of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” urban legend, featuring just about all of the major motifs except for finding a sweater on her grave the next day. One reason that the Resurrection Mary sightings are compelling is that, while details like going to her home the next day and meeting her in a ballroom are common in retellings of the story, they’re generally absent in first-hand accounts (there’s a bit of a distance between the story that you get from reading reported sightings and the version you usually hear when the story is retold). This Melody Mill story lines up neatly will all the motifs of vanishing hitcher legends that folklorists were identifying in scholarly articles a decade later.

The Melody Mill story got a big boost in 1938 when Tiny Hill, the leader of a band playing there at the time, told the story of a vanishing hitcher live on a WGN radio show. Tiny’s story may have been inspired by the story of “Wally”and changed a bit for dramatic purposes, or it may be the actual source of the story, if Hoekstra was wrong about 1934 being the date when the story began.

According to the radio show, three young men met a woman in white at the ballroom. She asked them for a ride home, then got out of the car at an unnamed cemetery and ran inside. Two of the young men followed her. The next day, the police found two “raving maniacs” in the cemetery, and the third man was dead at the wheel of his parked car. Investigators went to an address they found in a purse that was left in the car, and the woman at the door told them that it was her daughter’s purse, but that she had died three years before.

The Daily Northwestern wrote that “It was a good publicity stunt – and how!”
So we can see that the story of a vanishing hitcher was common at Melody Mill in the 1930s, though it’s hard to be sure it wasn’t invented outright by Tiny Hill.  Whether anyone ever really thought it was a true story in the 1930s is probably an open question. Had “Wally” really been to her home, they would know the ghost’s name, but this doesn’t seem to have been a part of the story.
While most Chicago ghostlore studies have assumed that the vanishing flapper who is said to disappear near Waldheim and the Melody Mill hitcher were one and the same, it seems to me that we’re dealing with two different stories that simply got conflated over the years. The sightings of the ghost at Waldheim have generally concerned a young, dark haired Jewish woman in a flapper outfit. The Melody Mill hicher is said, both in reports of sightings and the fictionalized version, to be a blonde in white. Which cemetery Tiny Hill mentioned (if he mentioned one) is not recorded, but people from Melody Mill actually specified Wood Lawn.

So it seems that we’re really dealing with two different stories here. There are records for several young women who died around the 1920s at Waldheim, but unlike Resurrection Mary, no theory for who she’s the ghost of have emerged. Frankly, no good theory for Mary exists, either – I never found a reliable account where “Mary” actually gives her name, or any hint of how she died. There are 60+ young women named Mary who were buried at Resurrection around the right era, and we’ve identified plenty who died in car wrecks, but stories of her being the ghost of a girl who died coming home from a dance are really pure specuation; there’s almost nothing in first-hand accounts to suggest that she died this way. From what we can actually tell, she could just as easily be one of the many, many girls in the cemetery who died of pneumonia or tuberculosis.

There’s a whole LOT more data analysis on Mary sightings in the new book below:

Some More Couch Tomb Info

The “Couch Tomb” in Lincoln Park absolutely haunts me. I have dreams about going inside of the thing all the time (in my dreams it’s usually bigger on the inside). Newly discovered info is making it even MORE intriguing. In a recent post, we noted that Ira J. Couch, grandson of Ira, the man for whom the tomb was built, said in 1911 that two of his brothers were in the tomb.

Now, this was sort of a shocker, since all available evidence was that Ira J. Couch didn’t have any brothers.  However, newly discovered info in his grandmother’s probate files have him giving sworn testimony that his parents had two stillborn babies who died unnamed. He also indicated that his grandparents (Ira himself and Caroline) had three such unnamed children in addition to Caroline, their only known child.

This isn’t necessarily a smoking gun – those babies would both have been born well past the age when it was actually legal to inter bodies in what was, by then, Lincoln Park, and Ira was probably not old enough to remember the only one of these that was born in his lifetime.  However, between Ira J’s comments and some gossip in newspapers of the day, I do tend to get the impression that the city and the family had different concepts of what could legally be done with the old crypt, so for there to be two stillborn babies in the tomb is not fully out of the question.

And here’s something new for me: I recently located a copy of Caroline Couch-Johnson’s death certificate. Caroline was Ira J’s mother, and Ira-of-the-tomb’s daughter (and, yes, the number of people named Ira and Caroline in this saga can make things a bit confusing). As expected, the death certificate indicated that she was buried in Rose Hill, where the Couches were being interred by the time of her death in 1885, at which point her mother was still alive.

But there was one thing I was shocked to see: the birth certificate mentioned that she was born in the Tremont House, the hotel that her father owned:

It’s awfully unusual to see things like this on a death certificate; they seldom make any comment unless there’s something to note about the cause of death, like when the specify that it was a death by legal execution, or a drowning in Maple Lake, or if the gun-shot that killed the person was an accident or suicide.  Most of them are very matter-of-fact, and I’ve never seen a detail like this added into the birth information. Neat!
However, Caroline and her mother (Ira’s wife) are both certainly at Rose Hill, not in the old tomb. Her mother’s probate file contained some interesting info, like the itemized receipt for her funeral, which indicated that she was buried in an $80 coffin – very nice by the standards of the day. 
My upcoming Ghosts of Chicago book that Llewellyn will put out this Fall will have a section on the tomb and the occasional bits of ghostlore that have sprung up around it, as well as a photo or two of what’s behind the door (don’t get too excited – it gets us no closer to solving the mystery!)  Pamela Bannos, author of the Hidden Truths website about City Cemetery, is preparing a book, as well, which I can’t wait to see! 

Who’s Buried in Ira Couch’s Tomb? Some new info.

One of my favorite topics – one that pops up in my dreams all the freaking time – is the Couch Tomb, the mysterious vault that stands at the south end of Lincoln Park, the most visible reminder that the place was once City Cemetery (we spoke of the tomb in a podcast some time ago).  It was built in 1858 after Couch died in Cuba  (the Tribune once joked that he was among the first Chicagoans to go south for the winter) and was set up to hold about a dozen bodies; estimates often say that it’s about half full (or, uh, half empty). It cost $7000 and was made of several tons of Lockport stone (reports vary between 50-100)

 Odds that there’s anything in there now always seemed slim to me – it’s not exactly air tight, so most anything that was ever there has probably rotted away by now.  I was never persuaded, though, that the bodies would have been moved.  This was a really, really expensive crypt, after all –  $7000, the cost of it, was about the same amount spent on the Republican Wigman a year or two later.

But I just ran across a thing in the Chicago Examiner archives from May, 1911, when the tomb was set to be opened for reasons unclear. This is a few decades beyond the last time the thing was known to have been opened – one later article said that the family had been unable to get it open without dynamite in the early 1890s (this would probably be the case now – it’s awfully well sealed on all four sides of the door).

But in May, 1911, locksmith William McDougald was notified that he was to bring the proper tools to the vault and opened it – an order that made the Examiner. The park commissioners would not say WHY it was being opened – the paper dramatically stated that they maintained “a deep silence.”

The order appears to have been a prank. The next day, the park commissioners said they knew of no such orders, and placed a policeman on guard. A.S. Lewis, the superintendent of the park, stated at the time that the tomb had not been opened since 1880 – and when it was opened then, all the bodies were removed. John Lindroth, a civil engineer who worked for the park board for years, concurred, stating that “I was in it ten years ago. There were no bodies in it at that time.”

Meanwhile, though, the paper sought out Ira J. Couch, grandson of the original Ira Couch, who stated that “My grandfather, his father and mother and two of my brothers are buried in the tomb. I have heard, also, that four other people are buried there. The bodies have never been removed. We hold the title to the vault and can open it if we want to, but we do not want to.”

Well, folks, this is a veritable treasure trove of primary sources! For one thing, we have a first-hand account of being inside of the tomb around 1901 – certainly the only such account that I know of. However, Lindroth saying it was empty isn’t necessarily proof positive that there were no bodies in it – it could simply be that they had all rotted away by then. For a coffin to rot away the twenty or thirty years it would have been since the last interment would not be impossible. Also, I’m not sure he was telling the truth; this might have just been Lindroth’s way of getting people to leave the thing alone. I really wish he’d said more about how he got in, as it was generally said at the time that one couldn’t get in without blasting it open (it’s not just locked, it’s sealed), or why he would have been inside, or how he got the legal clearance to open the tomb without Ira J. Couch knowing about it.

After all, of course, we can’t discount the testimony of Ira J, who presumably would have been in a position to know whether or not the bodies were moved. He may have been mistaken, but I can imagine that this was the sort of topic that came up around the Couch family dinner table occasionally. Particularly given the fact that his brothers were there – if they had been moved in 1880, he should have known, and he should certainly have been informed if the tomb had been opened in 1901 (the Couch family was still prominent in Chicago then). He had been in charge of the family’s estate since 1899, when his grandmother died;  some have pointed to the fact that Mrs. Couch is at Rose Hill, not interred in the tomb, as an indicator that the bodies had been moved, but the cemetery was long out of use by 1899 (I had no idea she died so late until today – the park hadn’t been a cemtery in decades by then, and that would have been years after the supposed incident when they couldn’t open it without dynamite to put Ira’s brother in).  Incidentally, Mrs. Couch’s obituary states that her husband and father-in-law are in the tomb; a 1936 article on the family in the Trib said that Ira J. and his son, Ira L, made an annual custom of visiting the tomb. Ira L eventually moved to Omaha, and said as late as 1960 that there were seven bodies in there. In a 1993 article the family no longer knew for sure.

So, we have some fine new information here from 1911, but still no proper closure! I wish Lindroth had explained why he would have been in there ten years earlier.   For much more about City Cemetery, see Pamela Bannos’s “Hidden Truths”  As a minor update, Pamela tells me that, even having traced all of the Couch family genealogy, this would be the first she’s heard or Ira J having any brothers. Perhaps they were stillborn? Furthermore, Ira Couch’s parents died well after the era when it would have been legal to inter them in Lincoln Park. However, if they died within Ira J.’s lifetime, one would assume that he knew where they were interred. Curiouser and curiouser!

The Woman in Black at the Drake Hotel


This story was published on the blog in several parts four years ago; this is a “collected version” to replace the multi-part story:

 

In January, 1944, Mrs. Adele Born Williams, a 58 year old society “matron,” walked up to her eighth floor apartment at the Drake Hotel with her daughter and found the door unlocked. Inside, they found a gray-haired woman in a black persian lamb coat who had been hiding in the bathroom. Without a word, the woman pulled from her purse an antique pistol and fired two shots at Williams’ daughter. She missed, then left the bathroom and fired several shots at Mrs. Williams, eventually hitting her in the head, causing a wound that would prove fatal within hours. The fur-coated woman then walked out of the room and was seen by a couple of men before Williams’ daughter cried for help. “I could have tripped her,” one of them men later said, “but I’m not in the habit of tripping strange women.”   Later reports said her daughter chased the woman down the stairwell, yelling “stop that crazy woman, she shot my mother.” 


And so began a case that got stranger and stranger. Among the twists in the tale:

– Police launched a massive search of the hotel and found nothing. However, four hours later, the murder weapon was found, shattered, in a stairwell, apparently having been dropped from a high floor. Police had search that place – then gun had apparently been returned to the scene of the crime!

– Similarly, a spare key to Williams’ room was reported missing from the front desk at the time of the murder. Mysteriously, it appeared back on the desk at 10 o’clock that evening.

– Mrs. Williams had $100,000 in cash in a safety deposit box for reasons unclear.

– Mrs. Williams herself seems to have been a bit odd; a commenter on the original version of this story remembered being a small child and living nearby her, and seeing her running out of the house the family rented in peach-colored pajamas; the word at the time was that she had mental problems, but this may just be a rumor.

– No jewelry or valuables were taken, leaving the motive somewhat unclear.

– Just before the murder, a phone call had been placed from Mrs. Williams’ room to a fish and ale house two blocks away.

– One woman who worked the desk at the hotel at the time was a convicted hold-up girl with a bizarre past – much more on her below. 

THE MYSTERY OF THE YEAR

The mystery remains unsolved. There was never a suspect, and though various motives were suspected, none of them really held up. It was a huge story in 1944, and mentioned at least once a year on the anniversary in newspapers for at least a decade later (interestingly, as of the late 1950s, the Trib was still spelling “clue” c-l-e-w.). Today, it’s been almost totally forgotten.

 

One of the theories to emerge was that there had never been a woman in a fur coat, but that Mrs. Wiliams’ daughter, then known as Mrs. Goodbody, had shot her mother herself in the midst of a fight over the gun. One police lieutenant, Lt. Quinn, was sure that this was the case, and alleged that no call for help had been made until 10 or 15 minutes after the shooting (this was refuted by witnesses).

The theory Quinn had arrived on was that the killing had either been an accident in the midst of a struggle after her daughter announced her intention to kill herself, or that it had all been pre-planned by Mrs. Goodbody and her father and that the reason the gun wasn’t found (right away) was that the father/ex-husband (who certainly did hear about the shooting before the police did – he was the daughter’s first call) had smuggled it out. According to this theory, Mrs. Williams was annoyed at her daughter for some reason and was planning on writing her out of her will.

At one point in the investigation, when Quinn demanded, rather harshly, that she “tell the truth,” Mrs. Goodbody allegedly said “Well, I’ll tell you…” then stopped. Some said she was withholding evidence, others say she had been ordered to say nothing about anything by her father’s attorney, who was already present.

Quinn (who comes off as a real jerk in the story) was convinced within minutes of investigating the scene that there was never a woman hiding in the bathroom, and that there couldn’t have been room for her, since an ironing board attached to the door would have taken up too much space. More investigations, however, showed that there was plenty of space for the “woman in black” to hide.

One major piece of evidence in Mrs. Goodbody’s favor was the testimony of the victim herself. The shot in the head didn’t kill Mrs. Williams right away, and she was still able to talk to two people who came into the room to help. Though she repeated the name “Goodbody” a few times, she said that shooter was a woman in black with a rose in her hair, and that it was no one she knew. She was later quoted as saying that the shooter had said “I will get you yet!” and that she thought the woman was firing blanks. Other witnesses also described a mysterious woman in black with something red in her hair fleeing the scene. 

Naturally, Mrs. Goodbody herself was royally ticked off about being accused of being her mother’s REAL killer. Eventually, Capt. Harrison, one of the main detectives, determined that there was, in fact, a third party in the room: the mysterious woman in black. Mrs. Goodbody was never charged.

THE MURDER WEAPON

 

The best evidence in the case was the murder weapon – an antique pistol. The serial number was traced to a fellow named Walter Brown, who said that he stole the gun in Bloomington during a hold-up in 1939 – but turned it into the police. Brown was certainly not a suspect – he was in prison at the time, serving a life sentence for the murder of a McClean County deputy sheriff. According to his story, the gun had been in police custody for five years. How the serial number connected it to him is a mystery to me, since the police never believed he ever really owned it.

The police denied his story, although the officer he had given it to admitted that he’d received other guns from Brown, who was a lifelong friend. The police felt that there was no evidence that Brown had ever legally owned the gun – in fact, Brown’s insistence that he had owned it was the only real thing tracing it to him.

By way of proof, Brown could only say that he had used it to fire several shots into the ground outside of a Hwy 51 roadhouse five miles north of Bloomington one time. The police dug up the whole area and found several bullets, but they were the wrong caliber for the gun in question.

But there was something else to connect Brown to the case – the police officer wasn’t the only person who had ever received a gun from Brown. His sister had, some time before, borrowed one and used it in an attempted hold-up, for which she was on probation.

And at the time of the Woman in Black murder, she was working the front desk at the Drake Hotel.

THE MYSTERIOUS ELLEN BENNETT
 
Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch

So the claims of an Indiana convict that he had owned the murder weapon couldn’t be verified (how the serial number connected it to him is something I’m a bit confused about), but it did lead the police to his sister, who was on probation after using one of his guns in an attempted hold-up, and was, at the time of the murder, working the key desk at the Drake Hotel.

Actually, he had TWO sisters at the Drake, Ellen, a desk clerk, and Anna, whom the Tribune described as a “hotel prowler.”

To say that Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch, alias Ellen Murphy but generally still called Ellen Bennett in the press at the time, had an interesting past barely hints at the matter. A sixth grade drop-out, she married Acott Bennett, a 57 year old, when she was 15, and bore him a son, who sort of disappeared (he was once reported to be a marine). They were divorced after six months of marriage, and Ellen enrolled at Norhtwestern University using a high school diploma that actually belonged to a friend, Eva Soloway, whose name was was using – you might say she was a sort of low-rent identity thief. In 1939, Ellen, who was still formally known as Mrs. Bennett, had borrowed one of her brother’s guns, plus some tape and cords to tie people up, and attempted to hold up a woman in Park Ridge. At the time, she was wearing a blond wig over her red hair, and was driving a car owned by a state senator (who was dead by 1944). When caught, she pretended to be a “night club entertainer” named Peggy Ryan. She was put on probation.

Anna, Ellen’s sister, the “hotel prowler”

In 1941, she was living on the near-west side under the name Ellen Larkworthy, wife of a guy named Vere H. Larkworthy, whom she had married in Milwaukee, where she was living as a barfly while her sister worked as a call girl. She bought several jewels with his money, insured them, and then reported them stolen in a case so fishy she was put on a lie detector test. Larkworthy, apparently another old guy, was murdered shortly therafter, and Ellen was questioned, but not charged. Before his death, he described their courtship as “I came back from the races and met Ellen at a hotel…..we drank, and the next thing I remember I was in Dubuque and married.” They were married only a few weeks before Ellen left him – by then, she had taken him for all he had. His murder was never solved.

Ellen then married for a third time, to a guy with whom she lived for only a few days. At the time of the Drake murder, she 41 years old and was was working as a desk clerk, living in the hotel under the name Ellen Murphy. Both friends and the police described her as cold blooded and with a real penchant for diamond and jewels – which Mrs. Williams had in abundance. She would have been the one to give the woman in black the spare key used to break into the room – and which mysteriously turned up on Ellen’s desk that night.  She was, at the time, occupying a suite in the hotel with her latest lover, Patrick Murphy, whose brother, Francis, was at one time the state labor director.

Two weeks before the murder, a call was made from Ellen’s room at the Drake to The Pub, a fish and ale house a couple of blocks from the hotel. A mysterious call from Mrs. Williams’ room was made to the same location a couple of hours before the murder.

Under questioning, Ellen DID admit to owning a black fur coat, but said she did not own a wig and had never been in Mrs. Williams’ room. She went back and forth on whether she was in the hotel at the time or the murder or in a nearby restaurant, and voluntarily submitted to (and passed) several ie detector tests. Both Ellen and her sister were arrested twice in connection to the murder, but were freed on a writ of habeus corpus. Despite extensive investigations, charges against her never quite stuck. I’ve never found out what became of her; she would be well over 100 today, but I like to imagine her still hanging around in hotel bars in the 1980s, flirting with much younger men; a wealthy widow with a terrible secret.
 

The murder of Adele Born Williams was never solved; the woman in black was never identified. I’ve not been able to determine why, exactly, Ellen Bennett was let off the hook; they probably never had anything but circumstantial evidence on her. To me, it seems pretty likely that she was in the room, trying to steal the jewelry, and freaked out and started shooting. But the police had other theories besides this one, even years after the case dropped from the public eye. It was the story of the year in 1944 (besides, you know, world war 2), but has barely been mentioned in the last half century.

BUT – there is a ghost!

THE GHOST?

The Drake is not one of the more notably haunted hotels in the city, but there are a couple of ghost stories floating around – one about a woman in red on the tenth floor, and one about a woman in black on the eighth. This story would be an odd way to back that one up – the woman in black was the murderER, not the murderEE.

My guess is that this is a case of a mistaken history. Most likely, when some employee was asked if there was a ghost story, he or she remembered that there was some story about a “woman in black” attached to the hotel, and thought it was a ghost story, not a murder.   We’ll cover “The Woman in Red”  ghost in the same hotel later on this week!

The Murder Castle “Ghost Audio”

It was about four months ago now that I went into the basement of the post office on 63rd street – the one built over a portion of the site where the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle stood. Pictures and video are available here.
I was officially just there as a historian, but naturally I did a bit of ghost hunting while I was at it. I had an audio recorder running as I sat in the old tunnel, which runs right into the castle footprint. For lack of a better idea, I started whispering the names of the known victims who likely died there (there are only a few known ones, really, not dozens or hundreds).  I didn’t hear anything at the time, but when I played the recording back, there was this voice – the sort of thing ghost hunters refer to as EVP (“electronic voice phenomenon”)

I’ve no idea what that is – the only “logical” explanation is water running through the pipes, but it sounds awfully human for that. If it’s a ghost, the most likely candidate would be Pearl Conner, who disappeared along with her mother, Julia, around Christmas, 1891. As near as I can transcribe it, she’s saying “Sorry Beefalow,” which sounds like the worst Chef Boyardee product ever. There’s a recipe linked at the site above.

Others, however, have suggested that it’s “buried deep below.” Women, in particular, tend to hear “Why did she go,” which would be presumably a reference to her mother, who had been carrying on an affair with Holmes (according to her ex-husband, to whom Holmes subtly bragged about it). Assuming it’s a ghost, it could be any of these things; perhaps the lack of vocal chords makes it hard to form the sounds one intends to.

The three women whose names I’m whispering – Emeline Cigrand, Julia Conner, and Pearl Conner – are the three people I’m most confident Holmes killed in the castle. Anna Williams and Emily Van Tassel might have been killed on the north side, and the whole thing with Minnie Williams is just weird: alone among his wives and lovers, she seems to have had some idea of what was going on, and is the only woman he called his “wife” who vanished. That she killed Anna herself, as Holmes claimed, isn’t exactly impossible, and the possibility that she ran away instead of being murdered isn’t out of the question. Those are just about the only known Chicago victims. Most of the stories you hear about there being dozens or hundreds more come from 1940s pulps.

What DO you hear in the audio? “Why did she go?” A toilet flushing? I’m not normally one to get too interested in equipment readings; they usually require a of imagination to make you think they’re ghosts, and most can be explained away without too much trouble. That’s why I generally throw in a terrible recipe or something along with the “evidence” – as a researcher, this isn’t the sort of thing I take too terribly seriously. But little imagination is required with this one.  Here’s a recipe for Sorry Beefalow!

The Vampire Hunt in Lincoln Park, 1888

The Vampire Scare of 1888 was an orderly one, as these things go.

In September of that year, people in Lakeview gathered in a little place on Clybourne, just above Fullerton, at which Justice of the Peace Albert Thalstrom told them all about some real cases of vampirism – cases when (consumption) tuburculosis was running rampant and locals had blamed it on vampires. Consumption victims sure looked like vampire victims – they would gradually waste away as though the life was being sucked out of them. Even in the 1880s, there were still instances in rural areas, particularly in New England, when conspumption was blamed on vampires, and bodies of the suspected ghouls would be dug up and mutilated. Sometimes the heart was burned in a public spectacle before the whole town, and the ashes would be fed to the local consumption sufferers.  (update: it had apparently happened in Chicago once).

Thalstrom related all of these stories to a crowd in his book store, then turned over the floor to one Samuel Patton, who claimed that he himself had been plagued for years by a vampire after evil spirits had killed his children. The vampire couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, but he had invented a varnish for glasses that would allow people to see it. A neighbor of Thalstrom, he was giving out samples that came with cards reading “Patton’s Clairvoyic Varnish for Glass,” which he sold for a dime.  He assured people that the vampire was flying up and down Paulina Street right then (it would have been getting awfully close to the site where the Liar’s Club now stands).

A few buyers insisted that they saw it, though the reporter who covered the whole thing for the Tribune seemed awfully skeptical.

Things were quite for a month after, until one Clause Larson went missing and his wife blamed the vampire just after Halloween, 1888. The neighborhood came into some excitement, and a group of kids formed a team that they called “The Vampire Hunters” and went on a hunt through Lincoln Park to find the demon (Lincoln Park had been a cemetery in recent memory, and it was well known that bodies were still buried there). I almost have to imagine that Samuel Patton organized the group himself, ready to sell the parents some accessories (“and as sure as the lord made little green apples, that band of vampire hunters is gonna be in uniform…”)

It’s hard to tell just how serious a scare this was – the Trib indicated that the Lake View area was in a state of excitement, but they might have just been making fun of the slack-jawed yokels who were taken in by a flashy pitch at a medicine show (it missed no opportunity to point out that most of them were Swedish). Surely if the parents thought a real vampire was on the loose they wouldn’t have let their kids go running around looking for it, would they?  In any case, the excitement died out when Mr. Larson returned, sheepishly admitting that he’d just been off on a bender.

It seems like it must have been a slow news day for this to make the Tribune, but it wasn’t – it was the same night that Benjamin Harrison was elected president. Sure, it’s just Benjamin Harrison and all, but still.

Not a lot can be found about Samuel Patton, the maker of the “clairvoyic varnish.”  In his talk at Thalstrom’s place, he spoke of seeing a mysterious light that rose into the sky when he was a boy in Virginia. He described it as a “premonition,” and spoke of having precognitive dreams during his service in the Civil War. He had fathered five children, all of which died, including 8 year old Willie, who, he said, came out of his grave a week after he was buried. Willie had now taken to writing his name and other messages on his father’s forehead. In the mean time, besides vampires, he was tortured by spirites made from “cones and bubbles.” When the spirits tired of him, they set the vampire on him. Meanwhile, inspired by spirit photography, he had invented the “clairvoyic” varnish to help people see vampires and spirits without the aid of cameras. This would have seemed fairly logical to people who believed in spirit photography – if cameras could make a ghost appear, shouldn’t some accessory make them visible without the camera, as well?

Pension records indicate that Patton really was a Civil War vet (he spent much of the talk on vampires saying he had psychic visions during the war), and that he died in 1912 in Washington D.C. He was a blacksmith by trade. The November 1888 paper mentions that he wrote a book called Spirit Life As It Is which is so obscure as to be un-googleable today. Little else has been learned about him – he doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash as a huckster except for his success in starting a vampire craze in Lake View.

As for “Judge”  Thalstrom… though he was referred to as a judge and an expert in all things supernatural, Albert Thalstrom was really just a justice of the peace who seems to have operated a book store in his place on Clybourn, just above Fullerton. Not much can be learned of him beyond what I found on his death certificate, but that tells me that he was only about 30 at the time of the vampire scare. And he was only thirty three when he died in 1891.        Of consumption.

The Murder Castle: Today (or: Good Grief, More HH Holmes) #2

So, is there anything left of the infamous H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle?”

“The Holmes Castle” was a well-known building in Englewood well into the 20th century; contrary to popular belief, the 1895 fire did not burn it to the ground. The top two floors had to be rebuilt and remodeled, but the place was still standing until the late 1930s, when it was torn down to make room for the new post office. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who still remember the place from when they were kids – the story was generally forgotten then, but people were still superstitious about the buildings.

above: Adam in the “tunnel” in the post office basement while filming with the History Channel in 2012. It’s not open to visitors and Adam hasn’t been back in since! 


The post office doesn’t occupy the EXACT same footprint as the castle, though. In fact, there’s not much overlap at all. Most of the castle would had been in the grassy area directly east of the castle. The railroad tracks were grade-level at the time the castle stood.  Climbing the back tree might take you right into the airspace of the “asphyxiation chamber.”

By lining up the three versions of the fire insurance maps (two from when the castle was there, and one from the post office), we can see that it did overlap with the portion of the post office that juts out on the left – between a third of it to all of it, depending on how you measure things (lining up these hand-drawn maps is not an exact science, though lining up the railroad tracks helps a lot).  Here’s an overlay of two of them, with the castle shaded in. You can see just a bit of overlap:
And here’s my best attempt at superimposing the castle where it would have done.

 

So, this brings up the major question: is there anything left? Perhaps of the old foundations? Certainly some of the basement overlaps with the original footprint. Recently, I had the chance to explore the place on a TV shoot with the History Channel.

Down below, there’s a point where you can climb a step-ladder into a hole in the wall that leads to a sort of tunnel/crawlspace. The ceiling is about 5.5 feet off the ground in the tunnel, and there’s one line of bricks:

According to the post office, this was an escape hatch from the “castle.” Now, I’ve never actually seen any account of there being a tunnel down there, and no such thing was mentioned during the investigation in 1895. But these were the same investigators who found a large tank filled with gas and emitting a noxious odor, and decided to light a match to get a better look.

It’s a bit west of the castle site; it’s possible the 1895 investigators could have found it if they knocked out a western wall.  I sent some close-ups of the bricks to Punk Rock James, our official archaeologist, who said that the bricks look right for being from the 1890s; the lower couple of rows were probably underground foundation lays, and the upper ones show some fire damage (which is just what you want to hear if you want to imagine that these are from the castle).  This portion of the tunnel is west, and probably a bit south, of the foundation, so I’d say they’re more likely from a building next door, if it’s not actually an escape hatch.

But at the end of the tunnel it takes a left hand turn to the north, and this part certainly goes RIGHT into the castle footprint:

So, this brings us to the big question: is the place haunted?

Well, I did some some pictures and an audio recording – see our static Murder Castle Ghosts page:

I always say that there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. But this is, as far as I know, the first cool ghost evidence ever collected at the castle site.

I’m a snot-nosed skeptic about all this stuff, though. I’m even skeptical about about the castle itself – I would only say with confidence that three people were killed there. Six to eight tops, including a couple of who died off-site after being given poison there.   Holmes probably only burned a couple of bodies in the castle before deciding that destroying a body in a crowded building was too much trouble and shipping them off-site to one of his “glass bending” facilities (he had a weird pre-occupation with bending glass; people eventually guessed that he was probably really using the massive furnaces he built for that purpose to get rid of bodies. He sure as hell never used them to bend any glass).

I tend to think of Holmes as a swindler, first and foremost, who happened to kill people now and then, not as a regular serial killer. His suspected number of victims stood at 9-12 in his lifetime, and didn’t start inflating until about the 1940s. Nowadays it seems to go up by a hundred or so every Halloween. But as far as hauntings go, the story still checks out – a few murders are more than enough, and as long as ANY of the current building overlaps, I think it’s fair game to look for ghosts there. If you can come back from the dead, you ought to be able to make it down the hall.

So, I’ll have more info for you guys eventually. In the mean time, consider one of Chicago Unbelievable’s line of Holmes-lore ebooks, or the new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book.
Our MURDER CASTLE OF HH HOLMES, a collection of eyewitness accounts, diagrams, and more primary sources has now been expanded into a full-length ebook with tons of new info – everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault!


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Other Holmes-lore ebooks:

Did the people who participated in the trial that sent Holmes to the gallows die mysteriously? The Holmes “evil eye” was not just a story invented by pulp writers years later; papers were speaking of it even before Holmes died, and continued to retell the story for years. Find out all about it in this mini ebook! Amazon (kindle) BN (Nook)
And for more on Punk Rock James, there’s a whole interview with him in The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing, which includes everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century resurrection man – the Smart Aleck way! We here at Chicago Unbelievable strongly suspect that Holmes chose to attend the University of Michigan because of its reputation as a hub for body snatching.

 

Top Ten Myths About H.H. Holmes

Holmes: Not really a Hannibal
Lector. More of a Walter White.

Many “historical mystery” stories fall into a pattern:  They first come on the public, get debunked, go underground for a few decades, then re-emerge with a whole new life of their own, with every-wilder stories getting folded in over time. This is certainly the case with H.H. Holmes. In 1894-6, when his story was first in the public eye, stories and theories went around that he’d killed World’s fair patrons, had an acid pit, cremated bodies in a wood-burning stove, and was an accomplished hypnotist. Most of these stories were quickly debunked, or were never more than wild theories suggested by out-of-town newspapers.
But most of them were repeated as fact in a handful of 1930s-40s tabloids and pulps (most notably Herbert Asbury’s Gem of the Prairie), and when he became famous all over after Devil in the White City came out, most of them had been folded into the story. Today it’s common to hear of Holmes as America’s most prolific serial killer, a possible Jack the Ripper suspect, and other stories.

Getting to the “truth” of the matter with Holmes is frankly impossible. He lied constantly, which muddies the waters considerably.  But if you dig into primary sources – newspapers that had reporters on the ground, eyewitness accounts, court records, etc,  you find a rather different story (you also find that, according to a doctor who examined him and published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, his sexual organs were “unusually small”).
None of this, of course, is to say that Holmes was NOT a criminal mastermind or a murderous monster. He was certainly both of those things. But anyone who wants to study the case should be prepared to learn that much of the story as it’s commonly told is a work of fiction.

Here are ten common myths and misconceptions:

1. The “Murder Castle” was a hotel.
This is sort of half true. The building was sometimes referred to as a “World’s Fair Hotel,” but it doesn’t seem to have functioned as a hotel in the modern sense of the word. The first floor was mostly businesses, the second was mostly labs (and, well, murdering equipment). Most of the “flats” were on the third floor, and seem to have functioned mainly as extended-stay apartments, not as more modern hotel rooms. There was no “front desk.”  People paid rent. As of 1891, the building was a two story affair; Holmes borrowed $3000 from a resident to add a third floor to use a “flats” during the fair, and the third floor was built, but the extent to which he ever rented it out is debatable. It was built so cheaply that one worker examining the roof in March, 1893, put his foot right through the floor, and the lender eventually sued Holmes for pocketing most of the money and not paying it back.  It certainly didn’t operate all through the Fair; Holmes tried to torch it for insurance money in August of 1893. Legal records indicate that he’d put lots of insurance policies on it. 

2. The Murder Castle Burned Down in 1895

There was a fire that destroyed most of the evidence in 1895, but it didn’t burn the building to the ground. The second and third floors were torn down several days after the fire (they were already in terrible shape), but they were rebuilt. The first floor and basement, with the new upper floors, survived until the 1930s. Most of the photos you see of it today are from the 20th century. 

   3. Holmes said “I was born with the devil in me.”
    This is the big one. That Holmes said he was driven to kill my some psychological urge forms the whole basis of thinking of him as a modern serial killer. But he never said it. When it was announced the Holmes’s confession would be published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (a rather reputable paper), The Philadephia North American) published excerpts the day before, and those excerpts were reprinted in papers all over the world. They were the source of the “I was born with the devil in me” line. But neither that or any of the other excerpts actually in the confession itself. The North American quite likely made them up. We have a post on this, too. 

4. Holmes Had a Torture Chamber in the Basement of his Castle.
The castle basement was not soundproof – you couldn’t torture people in there without people finding out. Plenty of people in the building had access to it. The police found an unused quicklime pit and a 12 foot tank full of gas down there, and it seems likely that Holmes probably planned to get rid of their bodies in the basement, but mostly likely he tried it once or twice and found that trying to do it in a crowded building was more trouble than it was worth. Stories were told of trunks being shipped out of the castle frequently, and Holmes had a couple of facilities that he said were for bending glass. These other facilities would have been better places to cremate people.

5. Holmes Is Known to Have Killed Over 200 People
The New York World‘s article, later reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, had
an incalculable effect on Holmes lore. It was a major source for
Herbert Asbury’s account of Holmes. 

The actual “known” victims number about 9, and even a few of those are sort of dubious. The number 200 was casually tossed off in an article in the 1940s and seems to have stuck. The number of suspected victims has never really been much more than a couple dozen – even his own confession of 27 was probably an exaggeration. These days the “estimate” seems to go up every Halloween, but it’s not because new evidence is coming to light. Here’s our master list of known and suspected victims.

The idea that Holmes built the building to lure World’s Fair patrons to their death came from one line in The New York World, a paper that has been described as a mix between the New York Times and the National Enquirer. It was just a theory that they were speculating about. They didn’t realize that Holmes couldn’t have planned the building specifically for the fair; construction began in 1887, when having a fair in Chicago was barely a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and long before the specific location of the fair was determined.


6. The Police In Chicago Knew Nothing About Holmes
The police were well aware of Holmes and his activities – he was being sued and searched constantly, mainly for non-payment of promissory notes. That his “castle” was full of secret passages was even the subject of a Tribune story in March, 1893, before the fair opened. 
What they didn’t know, though, was that he was a murderer, not just a swindler.  A few neighbors later said that they’d known it all along, of course, and one said he accused Holmes outright of murdering Gertrude Connor (who died of heart failure several weeks after leaving Chicago; her doctor issued a statement that it was natural causes).

7. Holmes sold bodies of his victims to be articulated as skeletons for sale to medical schools.

Holmes, as a University of Michigan med student, surely had some experience with the body snatching trade – it was a rite of passage for med students then, and the University of Michigan had a particular reputation for it, even in those days. Holmes even lived in a house on Cemetery Street, and his medical school colleagues did say that he seemed to get a kick out of the dissection.
 But the evidence that he was selling bodies later in life is pretty weak. During the investigation of the castle in 1895, a man named M.G. (not Charles) Chappel came to the police and said he’d bought bodies from Holmes at the castle. His story didn’t hold up, though. None of the colleges he claimed to have bought bodies from had ever heard of the guy, and his relatives told police that he was a heavy drinker who made stories up, then forgot that he had made them up. He told them places in the castle basement to dig for more skeletons, but they didn’t find any. The police kept the bones he gave them, but considered the clue to be weak.  See our full post on him. 

      8. Holmes killed Dr. Holton and his wife.
      They were fine. The story goes that Holmes happened to walk into a pharmacy when he first moved to Chicago, where poor hapless Mrs. Holton was trying to run things while her elderly husband, the doctor, was too sick to work.  Actually, they were only a couple of years older than Holmes, and the wife was the doctor, not some hapless old crone. Her husband worked on the railway. Dr. and Mr. Holton are buried beside their daughter at Oak Woods Cemetery, not too far down the road from the site of the drug store. They both outlived Holmes considerably. See our full post.

      9. Holmes was America’s first serial killer.
     He’s often advertised that way, but it’s not entirely accurate, even if we take for granted that he was really a “serial killer” in the modern sense of the word, not just a swindler who also killed people when they got in his way. But by all available evidence, he was more of a Walter White than a Hannibal Lector. 
     As far as “firsts” go, he wasn’t really even the first one in Chicago. Thomas Neil Cream was operating in Chicago a few years before Holmes came to town. 

10. Holmes stalked victims at the Congress Hotel.
This story seems to come up a lot lately – someone has been going around saying that he stalked or picked up many of his victims here. Not only is there no evidence of this that I could ever find, there’s nothing out there from before a couple of years ago that would even create that impression. I wouldn’t state with certainty that he was never, ever in the building, and that none of his friends or victims ever were, but there’s nothing to indicate that it on record.  The Congress was built in 1893 to cash in on the same World’s Fair Holmes is often connected to, but that’s the only connection. But because of this, a stop there was sometimes used on early Devil in the White City tours (it was a useful bathroom break and the ballrooms are stunning), and the story grew from there. 

I’d love to find a solid connection between Holmes and the hotel (if that building ain’t haunted, no building is), but it remains wishful thinking. He is known to have stayed, or put people up, in a number of local hotels, but I don’t think any of them are still standing – out of a hundred or so buildings that I can trace Holmes to in Chicago, only a small handful are still around. Finding a building Holmes was definitely in, and that is still standing, is a real trick. However, he can be traced to a couple of buildings on the block right across the corner from the Congress – the Robert Morris College building was a department store where his wife worked, and the nearby family hostel is built into the old Kimball Glass Company building – he went there and swindled Mr. Kimball out of about five hundred bucks’ worth of sheet glass. 

  

For more of the primary data and more info, see our other Holmes posts and check out our various Holmes ebooks: