Bughouse Square on the UFO Crash at Roswell

In 1947, when the supposed UFO crash at Roswell was still an unfolding story, a couple of small town papers carried an article about the debate about the crash going on in “Bughouse Square,” Chicago’s “free speech park” in which soapbox orators and hecklers would gather every night when the whether was good.  The article is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a transcript of debates between regulars such as One Armed Charlie and The Cosmic Kid.

“One Armed Chollie” Wendorf was known as “king of the soapboxers.” He had the constitution memorized and could put down a heckler better than anyone – his catch phrase was “if brains were bug juice, you coudn’t drown a gnat!”

He blamed the Roswell UFO sightings on mass hysteria, and said “the terrible thing is, the more water you throw on (mass hysteria), the more it burns.” He stated that these “visions” of flying discs that people were having could be eliminated through healthy living. “And to be healthy,” he said, “you got to eat living things. I eat fifty dandelion blooms a day when they’re in season.”

On the next soapbox over was Herbert “The Cosmic Kid” Shaw, whose style was to take listeners on “philosophic flights of fancy to empyrean realms of thought,” and who would eventually be given a Druid funeral in the park. He took the UFO sightnings a bit more seriously, and believed they were evidence of life on other planets.

“Science,” he said, “now has a wide open view of the possibility that life exists on some planets.” He went on to say that the people of Mars “have an understanding of cosmic process in advance of ours and have a theory that the interpenetration of radition of energy into interstellar space holds the solar systems together…Martians now are making explorations to prove their cosmic theory, and this explains the flying saucers.”

The reporter noted, with awe, that The Cosmic Kid got all of that out in one breath.

Next to the Kid was “Porkchops Charlie,” a “knight of the open road and moutpiece for the Hoboes of America.  He claimed to have witnessed flying saucers many times while riding in boxcars, and said he believed they were moving shadows between the sun and earth that traveled so fast as to play tricks on the eye due to “electric vibration.”  

The most bizarre explanation came from one Ted Moren, who said that “they were plates carrying t-bone steaks because they’re so high.” Or, failing that, he suggest “maybe it’s those ENIACS – you know, those thinking machines invented at Harvard and Princeton that are doing some thinking and inventing on their own…if the machines can almost think it’s reasonable to believe they could think of something like flying saucers that not even our scientists can match.”
The next morning, newspapers would carry the official explanation: it was just a weather balloon.

I’ve collected a ton of material on the park, including some great interviews that I used in the now-defunct Weird Chicago podcast, including interviews about the park with aldermean Leon Dupres and 1960 Beatnik Party “anti-candidate” for Vice President Joffre Stuart. One of these days I’ll re-edit into a Chicago Unbelievable podcast.

Coming Friday: a new podcast to kick off “Grave Robbing Week,” which will be running all next week right here at Chicago Unbelievable!

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!

Bughouse Square #1 – The Bird Woman

Bughouse Square, the park formally known as Washington Square on Clark Street just above Chicago avenue, was known for decades as Chicago’s Free Speech Park. People used to gather nightly to make speeches and heckle other speakers – up to 3000 people per night would show up when the weather was good. It was THE place to be for Chicago area weirdos for nearly a century up until about 1960. Today, we launch a new series that will feature some of these historical Chicagoans individually, beginning with…


While not known to make speeches, the Bird Woman was a familiar site in the park around the 1930s and 40s. She was sort of like the “Feed the Birds” woman from “Mary Poppins,” with one major difference: she was psychotic!

During this time, Bughouse Square was pretty generally thought of as a real dump, littered with drunks, bums and garbage. But the little old bird woman would stake out a spot early each day, asking “have you fed the birds today, dearie?” to anyone passing by.

If you were so foolish as to say you had not, she would work herself into a fever pitch with a tirade that the Tribune quoted at length in 1942:

“And the life of man who walketh upon the Earth is not worth one cent!” she would rail, “while the life of birds who fly in the air transcends all! And you, you transgressor who feedeth not the birds, your life is not worth half of one cent! I am the one appointed by God to feed his birds! God in heaven smiles at me, but you, but you….”

At this point, according to reporters who dared not quote her further, the speech would descend into a mix of religion and profanity as she chased the poor people through the park.

For more on Bughouse Square, see here.

The Chicken Man of Chicago

Driving around the city on tours, there are a handful of Jawas (which is what Ken and I call the wandering junk mechants) that we see regularly – the most recognizable of the bunch is probably the one I call Fagin, a sleazy-looking gent who’s always trying to sell me a watch, necklace, or other such shiny thing. I just know the guy has a whole army of street urchins picking pockets for him.

But wandering performers and junk merchants are a dying breed in Chicago. The flute-playing guy who plays Star Wars music (and not just the main title, either; I’ve heard the guy bust into “Yoda’s Theme” and “Luke and Leia”) is far and away my favorite today, but none of them hold a candle to the late, great Chicken Man, alias Chicken Charlie, who was seen so often all over the city than people wondered if there were more than one of him. He’d show up at Bughouse Square, on Maxwell Street, on the El…everywhere.

His act was simple – he had a trained chicken that would ride around on his head. Sometimes the chicken would dance, and sometimes he’d have it walk across a tightrope. Decades after his prime he became a character in several Daniel Pinkwater books, including The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, my favorite book of all time, which also introduced me to two other nearly-forgotten Chicago landmarks: Bughouse Square and The Clark Theatre. I’ll cover those in other posts, of course.

Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can now see The Chicken Man for yourself – it’s even stranger, and more wonderful, than I imagined it would be!

There’s also this one, which starts out with a minute or so of footage from another aspect of Chicago life that is lost and gone forever – Maxwell Street: