The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 1

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows.
Click for info! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales here on the blog this week!

In December, 1920, Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Vianna was hanged in the old Cook County jailhouse on Illinois Street. His hanging was a bizarre present for his 19th birthday.

Nicholas was, in fact, a teenage choir boy – and a heck of a singer – when he wandered into a 22nd street pool room around 1917. A week later, he was a criminal. The pool hall was run by a man known only as Il Diavolo – Italian for “The Devil” – who taught the kids who came into his pool room to commit crimes.

The gang was an offshoot of The Black Hand, the Italian gangs that had terrorized the city before prohibition – whenever an Italian came into property, he could expect to get a letter from the Black Hand demanding money. If he didn’t pay up, that property would be bombed. If he STILL didn’t pay up, his family could end up murdered. The Black Hand was responsible for hundreds of bombings over the years, and Death Corner, an intersection in Little Hell (a sicilian neighborhood that would eventually be torn down to make room for Cabrini Green) averaged about a murder a week for most of the 1910s.

But Black Hand operations were only a sideline to the gang on 22nd street, led by the mysterious Il Diavolo, who was, in reality, a shadowy mug named Sam Cardinelli (or Cardinella; the records vary). In his pool room, he taught kids to run hold ups, and how to kill. He’d send them out on errands, then take a cut of the the money. As often as not, he’d then cheat the boys out of their cuts with loaded dice. One wonders if Cardinella thought “Oliver Twist” was a how-to manual.

Each crime the gang commited was a puzzle to the police – no thread seemed to connect them until a few members of the gang were captured in 1920. When they began to confess, it came to light that they’d been responsible for about 400 hold ups, and a few dozen murders, in just the last six months.

“I was only a boy when I went into the pool room,” said Nicholas Vianna, who had killed over a dozen people. “A week later, I was a criminal.” Vianna gave crucial information that helped send Cardinella to the gallows, but withheld a great deal more, even though it sealed his own fate, for fear that Cardinella would have his mother and sister killed.

While awaiting his own execution, he regularly entertained the prisoners by singing – his voice was exceptional. “Beat any show you ever saw!” said one guard. As he was led to the Death Cell (the library, the nicest room in the jail, where condemned men spent their last nights), he sung the aria Il Miserer to the applause of all, then shouted a good-bye and good luck to all of the prisoners “Except for you, Sam Cardinella. May your soul go to hell!”

None the guards could understand why, a few months later, on the night before his own execution, Cardinella kept repeating the name “VIana” over and over….

Note: Records vary on whether Sam Cardinella’s name was Cardinella, Cardinelli, or some variant thereof. This is often the case in these things; the records don’t clear anything up, they just confuse things further. I’m going with Cardinella for this series. Sam’s is the longest story in FATAL DROP – I can’t believe that it isn’t in every Chicago crime book already, but as far as I know this is the first time the story has been retold in book form.

Farewell, House of Crosses!

A true Weird Chicago landmark, the House of Crosses is no more. It was already abandoned by the time we started up the company, and was a staple on our earliest tours.

The house went on the market a couple of years ago, and was presumed to be a tear-down property. Most of the crosses were removed around May of 2007, though the crosses on the coach house and the back of the house remained. However, it appears that the house wasn’t torn down, in the end. The house and coach house were simply totally gutted and rehabbed. Here’s the house as it appears today:

Click here (or see our book) for our piece on the house – including a link to our interview with the owner, Don Zaraza, whose uncle created the crosses.

The “Lost” New York Times article

Last week, I was asked to write an article about looking for the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt in teh Congress Hotel for today’s edition of The New York Times. They ended up not having room for it in the end (or maybe they wanted me to come off as more of a goofball), so here it is, for you, the Weird Chicago faithful! Roosevelt’s endorsement in the Weird Chicago Blog isn’t QUITE as big a deal as an endorsement in the Times, but, well, dead guys who want to say their piece have to take what they can get!

by Adam Selzer

During the second debate, Senator McCain said “my hero is a guy named Theodore Roosevelt.” I was a bit annoyed; he seemed to be implying that I wouldn’t know who that was. And I ought to know who Teddy Roosevelt was, since I hunt for his ghost a couple of times a week.

I’m a very skeptical ghost hunter – besides running tours of supposedly haunted places, my real job with the Weird Chicago company is doing hours and hours of historical research, trying to get the facts straight on the history behind the ghost stories that we tell. I also go on plenty of ghost investigations, but I never really expect any dead people to show up.

However, I’ve seen women in black dresses appear and disappear on deserted roads. I’ve heard giggling children in empty theatres, and gunshots in empty hallways. Enough, at least, to make me keep an open mind.

Most of the scientific (well, pseudo-scientific) theories that seek to explain ghosts revolve around the idea of a jolt of energy, usually at the moment of a sudden death, having some sort of impact on the environment that we perceive as a “ghost.”. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t die in Chicago, but, given the man’s legendary energy, perhaps he left ghosts of himself all over the world, like a spooky sort of Johnny Appleseed.

The 1893 Chicago hotel that he’s rumored to haunt is a relic of the days when hotels were the classiest places in town. Two of the gorgeous old ballrooms are still there, but in the 1940s, the hotel stopped hiring guys like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington to entertain the guests and replaced them with radios. It was the first step towards the era when hotel ballrooms would have all the class and elegance of airplane hangars. In a way, the hotel itself if a ghost now.

But it has plenty of regular ghosts, too. It played host to more than a couple of murders and suicides over the years, and the security guards have all sorts of stories of ghostly encounters. Most of the guards have heard music coming from the old ballrooms in the dead of night.

The ballroom Roosevelt favored – the one where, in life, he announced he was leaving the Republican party – has been especially “active” lately; strange banging noises have been heard at night, like someone banging loudly on the ceiling, or perhaps even firing a gun. Security is baffled, and our customers think we’re faking it.

Given that these mysterious noises started right around the time of the Democratic Convention, and have gotten louder lately, could it be that this is the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt, trying to say something about the election from beyond the grave?
It’s hard to guess who Roosevelt would endorse this year. Sure, he was a Republican, and might have enjoyed a moose hunt, but it’s difficult to imagine a Harvard-educated New Yorker who felt that big business required big government finding a place for himself in the GOP today.

Furthermore, six weeks after leaving the party in 1912, he was back in the same Chicago ballroom forming the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, whose platform reads like a template for what the Democratic Party would become a couple of decades later. The guy was a true maverick.

Now, I am normally not the kind of ghost hunter who goes around saying “are there any spirits here who have a message for us?” on investigations. I would feel like a first class ding-dong talking like that. But one October night, as I led a tour group into the dark, empty ballroom, I called out “Colonel Roosevelt, if you’re the one making all the noise in here, can you please bang on the wall once to endorse Obama, or twice for McCain?”

There was a short silence. I was about to tell everyone that this is pretty generally what happens when you try to talk to dead guys: you end up standing there looking stupid. Then, lo and behold, the silence was split by one of the room’s mysterious noises – a single, deafening BANG coming from above the ceiling.

There’s nothing above the ballroom but an air shaft, and we haven’t found a way to reproduce a noise that loud without causing structural damage. As a skeptic, I imagine we’ll find out what’s REALLY causing the noises sooner or later; if every other explanation fails, we can always just blame it on swamp gas. But so far, we haven’t found anything earthly to explain them, and if someone is playing a hoax on us, it’s a good one – this is not one of those “stuff a costume full of deer guts and say you found Bigfoot” sort of hoaxes.

For now, though, it’s about the most you can truly hope to find on a ghost hunt: a mystery. And maybe, just maybe, the ghostly noise is the sound of Theodore Roosevelt, bucking his old party once again to endorse Barack Obama.

Adam Selzer of Weird Chicago Tours is the author of Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps: True Tales of an Accidental Ghost Hunter coming September, 2009, from Llewellyn Press. His recent novel, I Put a Spell On You (Random House, 2008) holds the world’s record for most Richard Nixon jokes ever in a children’s book.


Resurrection Mary: Mary Miskowski?

(new info added December, 2011)

For a time, the best candidate for the “real” Resurrection Mary was Mary Miskowski.

According to witness accounts Troy Taylor, my colleague from my time with Weird Chicago, gathered very recenty, Mary Miskowski died on or around Halloween, 1930, at the age of 18 or 19, having been hit by a car on 47th street while going to a Halloween party, at which she was dressed as a bride in her mother’s old wedding dress. A blonde herself, she would have matched the traditional description of Mary – a teenage blonde girl in a white dress – far better than most other canditates (Mary Bregovy was a brunette, and Anna Norkus wasn’t quite 13).

Finding solid information about Mary Miskowski was tough – Troy’s best information came from a woman whom Mary used to babysit. Variant spellings of her name make it hard to pin down records about her. Here, though, is a census record of her family that would have been taken shortly before her death in 1930. Mary was said to live at 4924 S. Damen – according to the Ward maps from 1930, this census record came from exactly the right block.

This backs up the stories Troy was told indicating that she was old enough to be on her own, but still living with her family. The census shows that she was living at home at age 19.

Stories of her death, however, were harder to verify – no Mary Miskowsky (or Miskowski) is listed as dying in Illinois between 1916 and 1950 in the Illinois Death Index. When I started digging into the files, I half suspected it would be one of those times where it turns out the subject not only didn’t die in 1930, but still hasn’t died yet – or, at least, didn’t die until a few years back.

The death index lists a Mary Muchowksi as dying on November 5, 1930 – people familiar with digging through census records and stuff will know that for a record for “Miskowski” written in cursive to be typed in as Muchowski would hardly be unlikely (especially if they forgot to dot the i – just look at it above).

November 5 would be a few days after Halloween, but pretty close to it, as well. Her death does not appear to have made the papers, as Mary Bregovy and Anna Norkus’s did, though, which may be why it wasn’t until the recent stories have come to light that her name has been considered seriously as a candidate.

Research by Ray Johnson, the Haunt Detective has now indicated that the name in the records was not a misprint, and that a woman named Mary Muchowski, age 67, really did die that day, which left the fate of the Mary Miskowski above an open question for some time.

One woman in Chicago named Mary Miskowsky married a man named Roy Jensen in 1937.  THAT Mary Miskowski died just a few years back, but her parents’ names were not John and Helen, indicating that she’s not the Mary Miskowsky from the 1930 census.

New information added here December 2011: The fate of the Mary Miskowsky in the census has now been solved – according to a couple of obituaries (hers and her father’s, from 1963), Mary Miskowsky married a man named John Sutko, with whom she had three children, and died in 1956. She was interred at Evergreen; John died in 2003.

This DOES raise another question – why did the woman (and her cousins) so vividly remember Mary Miskowksy of S. Damen dying in 1930? Were they mistaking her for someone else? There were a number of car accidents around that time, including a boy who was hit by a car and killed on the 5400 block of S. Damen on October 30, 1930, not far away from Mary Miskowsky’s house. The funeral record book that contains Anna Norkus’s funeral information also lists a funeral for a young man who was murdered in 1929 barely a block from Mary Miskowsky’s house.

Here’s Mary’s obit from 1956. The parents and siblings listed here match the ones in the 1930 census exactly:

I’ve blocked out a few names because I tend to get really unpleasant emails about Resurrection Mary and don’t wish for her surviving family to be hassled. The names of her kids and her sisters’ married names aren’t really relevant here. In any case, this firmly establishes that at the time of Mary Miskowsky’s death, she was much older than the ghost is said to be, and she was interred at Evergreen, not Resurrection, and can be eliminated as a candidate. No cause of death is listed, but she would have been 45 years old, and was certainly not killed en route to a costume party in 1930.
For a whole lot more information, check out our Resurrection Mary Roundtable podcast episode!

The Murder Castle – Today! (or, Good Grief – MORE H.H. Holmes)

NOTE: this post has been replaced by a much bigger, more detailed one that I wrote after a trip into the basement of the post office with the History Channel in June, 2012. CLICK HERE for the new, updated one! (or just scroll down, as most of the info has been appended to here)

The murder castle of H.H. Holmes was torn down in 1938. There were rumors that it was haunted while it was still standing, and a few stories now circulate about the basement of the current building on the grounds.

The government bought it in order to put up a post office on the site. This one, to be specific:

Notice the fallout shelter sign on the door – apparently, nowadays people go to the basement to LIVE (at least in theory). t doesn’t occupy the EXACT same footprint – the left hand side of the building would have been in the middle of Wallace Street in the Murder Castle’s time – but it does occupy a portion of the grounds. The drugstore Holmes ran would have been on the right hand side, possibly stretching into the empty space besides the station.  Dr. Holden’s pharmacy, the other drug store Holmes took over, was across the street (in what is now an Aldi parking lot). As far as we know, not a bit of structure from either building remains, though I suspect we might find some foundation if we dug the place out. I don’t think they’ll be letting us do THAT anytime soon, though (update: the basement below IS said to be partly original – CLICK HERE for “The Murder Castle- Today! Part 2

Here’s a diagram showing what overlap there was, based on overlaying three versions of the Sanborn fire insurance maps. The “Castle” is in blue:

As you can see, there’s SOME overlap, but not a lot. The mysterious gas tank said to be used for cremations was well away from the post office itself. But I always say that if someone can come back from the dead, surely they can walk down a hall, too, right?

I DID just have a woman on the tour who lived near the castle when she was young – when it was still standing. She said remembered feeling spooked by the place – enough so that she’d cross the street so as not to walk by the site – but didn’t know why until decades later.

(due to the popularity of this page, I’ve appended the later post from June 2012 right here):


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

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?

I took a number of photos and had an audio recorder running in the basement. I can’t reveal what I found just yet (there are a few toes I don’t want to step on, and I’m still vetting it). Also, I always like to point out that there’s no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence.  But I got a couple of the coolest things I’ve ever found down in the basement – a series of photos that I’d rate as a B+, and an audio recording that is a solid A.  I recorded several minutes of silent audio, both in the tunnel and in the grassy knoll, for use as a play-along podcast where listeners can listen for ghosts themselves – it’ll come out in time. But there’s one bit from the tunnel that I don’t’ mind saying is knocking my socks off, and I’m a snot-nosed skeptic about all this stuff. This is, as far as I know, the first cool ghost evidence ever collected at the castle site:

Some people call spooky audio recordings like this “E.V.P. (electronic voice phenomenon).” On TV, the “EVP” guys are usually the ones saying “are there any spirits here who have a message for me?” I keep hoping there’ll one day be an episode where a ghost says “Yes! Your wife said she wanted you to pick up milk on the way home!”

Most of the time, when someone plays me an “EVP” file, I have to use a lot of imagination to hear what they’re talking about. But now and then we do get something I can’t help but think is pretty cool – like this thing from the basement.

So I don’t make grand claims stating that this is ghostly girl who has come back to life or never crossed over or what have you, especially given that it sounds to me as though she’s saying “Sorry Beefalow,” which doesn’t mean anything. It sounds like the worst Chef Boyardee product ever to me. One suggestion is that the voice is trying to say “buried deep below.”  But I’ve no idea what that voice could REALLY be, and any claims I made would just be me talking out of my ass.     Here’s a recipe for sorry beefalow!

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 10-12 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.

For more photos and videos (and much of this same info), see our Murder Castle Audio/Video page.

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!

Our “Murder Castle of HH Holmes” ebook has now been expanded to nearly triple its original size – it’s now a full-length compendium of diagrams, drawings, eyewitness accounts, and more primary sources, all with detailed commentary – everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault, including a long-lost interview with Holmes himself.

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Our other Holmes-lore books:


A detailed analysis of his 1896 confession(s) for Kindle or nook. Did he really kill 27 people, or were more than half of them lies? The complete text of the confession from the Philadelphia Inquirer, with comparisons to a version published in other papers simultaneously (which contained some major differences) and the mysterious version published the day before in another paper, including the famous “I was born with the devil in me” section. Fully illustrated with newly-discovered evidence.
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.


The Strange Origin of Hull House

You know those mystery stories that open with a crowd of strange people gathered to hear the contents of a mysterious will in a spooky old mansion? LIke, say, Clue?  This kind of “public reading of the will” is the sort of thing that never happens in real life these days – any lawyer will tell you that it’s just a plot device, not something that really goes on. But perhaps it used to be more common – the reading of the will of Charles Hull, who built Chicago’s infamous Hull House in 1856, was like that.

Mr. Hull had been an eccentric man. Rich, but a good friend of the newsies on the corner. He was frequently seen giving candy to neighborhood children. In 1881, he wrote a rambling book that was little more than a list of his opinions on every matter under the sun.

In 1889, Hull died in Houston. His family and friends gathered in his No. 31 Ashland Street residence (which seems to have been gone by 1909, but would have been where 230 North is now) to hear the reading of the will, which he wrote in 1881. He was in possession of between 1 and 2 million dollars worth of personal property and real estate. But the Ashland residence was no mansion – just a modest brick row house, decorated with a few photographs and a “heroic looking bust” of Mr. Hull that presided over the proceedings. I don’t know that it was a dark and stormy night when the will was read (I assume it was probably done during the day), but I like to imagine it was.

His four nephews, niece, and cousin, Helen Culver, who was also his housekeeper, gathered around for the reading of the will. Most of the relatives believed that the estate would be shared equally among them. Only Miss Culver knew otherwise.

The lawyer opened the sealed envelope and read from the foolscap sheet inside. “I, Charles J. Hull, being of sound mind and body…etc…do give Helen Culver, my trusted friend and advisor for all these years, the whole of my estate.”

The nephews turned pale and the niece wept. Their “great expectations” were over.

“There must be some mistake!” cried one of the nephews.

“No mistake,” siad the lawyer. “It’s a good will. A good will. Miss Culver, let me congratulate you.”

Miss Culver, who had lived with Mr. Hull as his housekeeper for decades, smiled softly.

The very next day, the other relatives began to contest the will in court. But Culver, of course, granted a life-long, rent-free lease on Hull’s 1856 Halsted Street mansion to Jane Addams, who expanded to the property into 13 buildings by 1908, where her social work won her a Nobel Peace Prize. The building was restored back to its original state (or close to it) in the 1960s; the only other building from the settlement still standing is the dining hall, which was moved to its present location when the building was being restored.

I’m doing research today on the history of the garden next door – my hunch is that it wasn’t a garden at the time the “devil baby” rumor went around, and, hence, can’t possibly be the burial place of the baby, as some claim (for the millionth time, it was just a rumor – there was no devil baby). But in 1961, when they started planning to restore the house, they also talked of restoring the Jane Addams Garden, which implies that it went up earlier than I thought – perhaps it was put in after Addams death? But Hull House was a big advocate of gardening – they spearheaded the “city garden” project which leased garden space on the south side to poor families. It’s not impossible that there was a garden there early on, though I sort of doubt they had that kind of space available, since the facilities took up a whole block by 1908.

Update: no, the garden was not a garden in 1913; there was a building there at the time. When Jane Addams moved in, there was an undertaking parlor on the spot, and it was torn down to be replaced by the Hull House Children’s Building, which was where they had a nursery/day care center, places for children’s clubs to meet, etc.

The Handprint of Frank Leavy – fact or fiction? (part 1?)

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Frank Leavy’s handprint as seen in a (probably retouched for clarity) 1939 Chicago Times photo sent by a reader. It seems to be officially marked off by the fire department.

No book of Chicago ghostlore is complete without the story of fireman Francis “Frank” Leavy. The story goes that one day in the 1920s, Frank was in the fire station, leaning his hand on the window and saying “this is my last day with the fire department,” or “I’m dying tonight,” or something equally cheery. That night, there was a massive fire that claimed the lives of several fire fighters, including Levy. The next day, his handprint was still on the window, and could not be removed. The print stood up to even the most abrasive cleansers until 20 years to the day after the fire, when the window was shattered by a paperboy.

The story is part of Chicago’s folk mythology.

However, the thing about folk mythology is that it isn’t all true. It doesn’t have to be; whether Resurrection Mary, for instance, is real or not doesn’t make one bit of difference on her effect on Chicago history. And plenty of supposedly haunted places have no real story to back the hauntings up (ala The Red Lion), or the stories that go around are totally false (ala The Excalibur Club). I’m proud to say we didn’t make up any ghost stories for our book, but we did include a handful of famous stories that we regard more as straight up folklore than a “true” story. We didn’t want people to read through it and say “hey, there’s nothing here about Inez Clarke! This isn’t the ULTIMATE Chicago ghost book at all!”

So, what of Frank Leavy? Was this story real or not?

Francis Xavier Leavy WAS a real person, and qualifies as a Chicago hero. He lived at 6507 S. Whipple, where neighbors admired his yardwork. And the fire that killed him and six other fireman really did happen in 1924 at Curran’s Dance Hall on Blue Island Avenue. Leavey left behind a wife and two young children whose care was aided by massive drives in the city for aid to the fallen firemen’s kin. Here’s a photo of the fire – Leavy, as I understand it, was one of the seven firefighters killed when a wall collapsed.

an image from the aftermath of the fire

But the ghostly handprint story? THAT I’m not so sure about. If the handprint was on the window, no one seems to have bothered to take a photograph of it. The earliest mention I can find of the story (so far) is in ghost books published decades after the fire station in question was demolished. (update: a photo eventually surfaced – see above!)

So the story may have been collected from oral tradition, but it also may well be pure fiction. But because of the story, thousands of Chicagoans who never would have heard of this heroic fireman otherwise know Leavy’s name, and the sacrifice he made for the safety of the city.


Leavy’s badge on display at the fire training academy, which has the badges of nearly every fallen fire fighter (though some couldn’t be recovered and have replicas as stand-ins; this may be one of those). Photo by author, added 2016.

If anyone has any backup for this story, please let us know!

(note: the newspaper records of the fire usually spell his name “Leavey,” but the official records I’ve found with his signature spell it Leavy, which is out it appears in most books).

(further note, added 30 march 2010: I’m thrilled to have heard from so many descendants of Frank Leavey who have confirmed that the handprint story has been going on for a long, long time! I’d still love to see a photograph of it or a contemporary account, but I’m certainly convinced that the story wasn’t invented for use in a ghost book).

(further further note added 2015: a picture was recently found. It looks a BIT retouched (as newspaper photos often were in the 1930s for the sake of clarity), but the handprint was clearly not only real, but something the fire department venerated).

The Chicken Man #2

We’ve already talked a bit about the Chicken Man of Chicago, but he’s worth another post just so I can post this wonderful photo that I got from Joe at Imperial Hardware:

“That chicken did everything but talk!” says Joe.

The Chicken Man’s real name was Anderson Punch, but he went by Casey Jones, after the song he sang most often, for much of his life. Born in 1870, he came to Chicago around 1914 and went to work as a street musician. After his accordion broke, he took up training chickens. At any given time, he had three or four trained chickens, traveling around the city having them do tricks and dancing to his accordion and harmonica. He was a well known figure around the city for more than half a century; when one of his chickens died, there was a public funeral at a vacant lot on State Street. On more than one occasion he was hauled into court for one reason or another (usually obstructing traffic) and got out by having his chickens do their act. In 1971, he was still performing on the south side when he celebrated his 101st birthday. He died in 1974.

One interesting thing to note is that he hit every corner on the south side, but, as of the 1940s, said that his favorite place, financially, was at 63rd and Halsted – only a couple of blocks from the site of the H.H. Holmes murder castle. Imagine standing outside of the castle (which was still standing until 1938) and watching a dancing chicken in front of it – how surreal can you get?

Look for more on the chicken man and other such Chicago icons in our upcoming book – up for pre-order soon!