Today, we’re back at Graceland Cemetery, searching for the grave of a deranged Victorian private detective. My job is pretty sweet.
I’ve lately been back working on the HH Holmes case, trying to gather, evaluate, and catalog all of the best data available. Researchers into the case will often come across the name Robert Corbitt (or Corbett), author of The Holmes Castle, possibly the first book on Holmes. He pushed the odd theory that Holmes was actually innocent of murder. One does notice a pattern in article on him: one day he’ll be saying he’s found the evidence that will convict Holmes, then something bad will happen to him, then he’ll be saying Holmes was innocent. The book is very rare now, but the text is collected in The Strange Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes.
Plenty of evidence suggests that he was a bit on the paranoid side, at the very least. He spoke to reporters often saying he knew that various Holmes victims had checked into various hotels under assumed names, or that he’d seen them on the street, but was never really able to back his claims up. Records and stories of him don’t paint much of a flattering picture.
Above: the nifty grave of Timothy Webster, a Pinkerton detective who helped save Abraham Lincoln from an 1861 assassination attempt. The “Harve Birch” mentioned on the stone is a character in a James Fennimore Cooper novel. How often do you see a pop culture reference on a tombstone?
However, whatever his shortcomings as a private detective may be, had was actually present at the “murder castle” investigation, may have known Holmes personally (they certainly exchanged letters), and wound up in possession of a LOT of Holmes data that modern researchers can only dream of (letters, account books…even Holmes’ own pistol and knife!) He is also the guy who discovered the “glass bending factory” that we’ve come to know as “The Body Dump.”
Anyway, Ray Johnson and I have been preparing an article on Corbitt, and found that he’d died in 1932 and the body was taken to Graceland cemetery. So on this cold December day, we headed up to the ol’ graveyard in search of his grave. Along the way, we say several graves of people related to the Holmes case, including detective Allan Pinkerton, and discussed the cool stuff we saw along the way. Ray and I will be recording a couple of podcasts about how we do this sort of research, including trips the archives, cemeteries, and more. We hope to have a few new episodes up very soon! Get Ray’s book, Chicago’s Haunt Detective.
Again, you can download today’s episode from feedburner, archive.org, or iTunes (the episode may take a few hours to get to iTunes). Or just listen right here: And if you’re not sick of me, I also recently did a podcast interview for Your Chicago that was a lot of fun:
The short version is this: at the south end of Lincoln Park stands the tomb of Ira Couch, the last major relic of the days when the park grounds were City Cemetery. Couch died in 1857, and may have been joined in the tomb by as many as seven other people, ranging from family members to family friends and perhaps a stranger who died in the Tremont House, the hotel Ira owned at Dearborn and Lake (where the parking garage is now). Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth both stayed there after Ira’s death.
The front is covered by a large metal door that is very well attached to the stone – if you think I’ve never had a drunk on the tour hop the fence and try to open it, you’d be wrong. Plenty of people who grew up in the city, especially in the 90-or-so year period when there was no fence around the mausoleum, have stories of trying to break in; there’s even a nick near the door handle where it looks as though someone tried to crowbar their way in. But it’s stayed sealed.
The door is not really a door at all – it’s a metal slab with a handle that’s probably just for decoration. There’s no keyhole, no latching or locking mechanism, and no hinges. It appears to be welded to some L brackets on the inside. But on a tour last winter, I noticed a bug crawling underneath it and realized that there was a crack under the “door” about the size of one’s pinky finger.
A thorough check of the Cemetery Care Act didn’t make me think it was illegal to take pictures of the inside of a tomb, so, using some very high tech equipment that I call The Tomb Snooper 500 (an iPhone taped to a wire hanger), I’ve been able to get some photos of the inside of the tomb, one of which will be published in GHOSTS OF CHICAGO, my new book on Chicago ghostlore.
I was going to hold off on publishing the photos until the book came out, but I’m scheduled to sign advance copies at the Llewellyn booth at the ALA (American Library Association) conference here in Chicago on Sunday, June 30 at 1pm. So the cat’ll be out of the bag as of then, and I might as well publish here, for the first time, photos of the inside of the Couch Tomb.
What’s behind the door is…. another door. Behind the slab/door is a small antechamber headed off by a larger, more impressive door.
It’s so covered in dust and grime that it’s difficult to tell what it’s made of; there are some early references to the tomb having a marble door or slab behind the front door, but there are some spots that might be rust. On the right is a shot of the stone wall on the left, and the door (with a knob of some sort visible) on the right.
It’s a pretty large and impressive door, with a rounded protrusion on the right on which the door probably pivots when opened. These are the two best shots that I could get; getting a good picture in such a small, enclosed place is difficult even when you can focus properly.
This door may have once been the front door, really. Some early drawings show a sort of gate where the front “door” is now. THis might have been visible through the gate for the first 50 odd years of the tomb’s existence.
Cool as this is, it gets us no closer to determining who is or isn’t inside of the tomb. I feel as though I’ve gotten past level one, but I’m stuck on level two. There are times when my job is not unlike being stuck inside of one of those “interactive fiction” text adventure computer games from the 80s. Interactive nonfiction! Hector and Erin joked on our last podcast that if we ever see inside of door #2, there’ll be a person inside saying “sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another tomb.”
As we’ve seen in previous posts, no one is sure who is/isn’t in the tomb anymore. Rose Hill says Ira is there, but have nothing more than his name on a family plot to back it up. There’s no record one way or the other regarding IRa, or any of the others entombed here, being moved.
Of course, anyone who wants to learn more about the tomb and City Cemetery should peruse Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths. I called Pamela and sent her the “door” pictures a few months ago; Pamela is reasonably sure Ira is in the tomb, and probably in one of those Fisk Patent Metallica Burial Cases, the really ornate metal coffins with viewing windows over the face that were all the rage when Ira died. He had to be transported back from Cuba, necessitating a good casket, and, anyway, if you’re springing for a $7000 tomb, why not pay the extra hundred for the best coffin on the market at the time? If he is in there, and in one of those cases, there’s a chance that he could even still be recognizable. I run into stories of Fisk cases being dug up fairly often; the corpse seems to be in good shape about half the time.
My new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book covers the ghosts that have been reported in Lincoln Park since the very early days of the park, when police officers there were more apt to blame the ghosts on the suicides that often occurred in the park in those days. It’s out in September, but up for pre-order now, and will be officially released in September. On Sunday, June 30th, I’ll be signing copies (presumably the typo-laden advance proofs!) at ALA at 1pm at the Llewellyn booth.
Here’s a small shot of the back side of the front door (well, mostly the wall next to it), showing what appears to be the metal to which the front door/slab is attached:
And here’s a shot of the lower left portion of the interior door, showing the ground in front of it. There doesn’t seem to be a crack under this one. There appears to be some metal hooks at various points around the edges of the door.
And one more shot showing the door and the ceiling above it, view a view of the doorknob:
Most Chicago ghostlore fans know the basics: at Mt. Carmel stands a statue of a woman, Julia Buccola, in her wedding dress. Beneath the life-sized edifice is a photograph of the Julia in her coffin. Though she appears not to have decomposed much, an inscription below states that the photo was taken when she had been dead for six years.
Legend has it that her mother, Filomena, had nightmares in which Julia demanded that her body be disinterred, and, though there are various scientific explanations, some say the well-preserved state of her body is a sign of holiness. I’ve been researching the story heavily for the last few months, including conducting interviews with Filomena’s great grandchildren, who provided a few photographs that have never been in circulation before. Much of what I found came too late to be added to my new Ghosts of Chicago book, so I’m publishing it online, both here and in a new article for Caitlin Doughty’s Order of the Good Death.
And for you Chicago Unbelievable followers, I’m presenting here a new podcast on the subject (our first in over a year!), and, below, a detailed timeline of the Buccola and Petta families, as pieced together from records and interviews, with never-before-seen photos:
AN “ITALIAN BRIDE” TIMELINE:
1909 – Enrique (Henry) Buccola arrives in Chicago from Palermo Italy. His brother Giuseppe (Joseph) appears to have already been in Chicago; his widowed mother Filomena and sisters, Rosalia and Guilia (Julia) remain in Palermo, Italy.
Joseph and Henry Buccola. Henry
paid for Julia’s exhumation and the
new monument. Courtesy of
Antony Edwards, used by permission.
1910 – According to the census, Henry is living in Chicago with Joseph Buccola and his wife Anna in Chicago (per the census). Henry is working as a tailor, Joseph is a designer. Both are going by the “Americanized” versions of their names in records.
1911 – Rosalia Buccola emigrates to Chicago from Italy and marries Mariano Lunetta
1913/01/24 – a Sadie Lunetta is born to Mariano and Rosalia. She appears in some records as Lynn Sadie, and in most census forms under the name Rosaline.
1913/08 – Filomena Buccola, (Joseph, Henry and Rosalia’s mother), and Julia Buccola, (their sister), arrive in New York from Palermo en route to Chicago, where they’ll eventually move in with Henry in what is now the West Ukranian village. 1913/09 – The famous “Devil Baby” rumors swirl around Hull House. Filomena and Julia didn’t live in the Hull House neighborhood, but I’ve always liked to imagine that one of Filomena’s first acts as an American might have been to join the crowd of other old world women who went to Hull House demanding to see the (non-existant) devil baby.
1915/09/15 – Joseph Lunetta is born to Mariano and Rosalia.
1917 – Henry Buccola, working as a tailor and living on the 2200 block of W. Erie, lists Filomena as solely dependent upon him financially in a draft card. Julia presumably lives with them, as well.
1917 – Joseph’s draft card shows he’s working at the same place as Henry, though living a mile or two north.
1920, May – Julia is licensed to marry Matthew Petta.
1920, June 6 – Julia and Matthew marry at Holy Rosary Parish on Western Avenue (which still stands). They establish a home a couple of blocks away in an apartment building on West Huron Street, a block or two from Henry’s house (it, too, is still standing today). The apartment is pretty much in shouting distance of the house on Erie where Henry and Filomena are probably still living.
Filomena and Flora, her granddaughter,
in Chicago, a year or two before
Julia was exhumed. Courtesy of
1921 – March 17 – Julia dies giving birth to a stillborn son, just over nine months after the wedding. Her funeral is held at Rago Brothers, next to the church, and she is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside two days later.
1922 – Joseph Buccola serves as witness to Mariano Lunetta’s naturalization as a U.S. citizen.
1923/04/08 Henry Buccola marries Anna Covolo in Chicago. Anna was born to Italian parents in Venezula and spoke Spanish.
1924 – Henry and Anna’s daughter, Flora, is born.
1925 (or so) – Matthew Petta, Julia’s bereaved husband, marries Margaret Collins, mother of a young boy named Eugene Miles. Eugene’s father is listed in the 1930 census a Missouri man; more info on him is unknown. Margaret is an Iowa woman of Irish descent.
1926/03 – Henry’s son Gaetano (“Guy”) is born in Chicago. Around this time, Henry and Joseph both move to Los Angeles, where the climate is closer to that of their native country. Filomena will spend the rest of her life going back and forth from Henry and Anna’s house in Los Angeles to Rosalia and Mariano’s in Chicago. She appears to have made the move with Henry and his family. 1926: According to the family, it was after the move to L.A. that Filomena began to have nightmares about Julia. The exact content of the nightmares is not known, though folklore in Chicago states that Julia was demanding to be dug up, or that Julie was still alive. If nightmares weren’t involved, it may be that Filomena wanted Julia moved out of a Petta family plot (though there’s no evidence that she was ever buried in a spot other than her current one). In any case, Filomena begins to lobby for Julia to be disinterred. If this is really when the nightmares started, it was a fairly quick process.
1927 – Julia is exhumed from her grave (at her brother Henry’s expense). Records do not indicate that she was moved; she seems to have be re-interred in the same plot. No primary sources or records regarding the circumstances of the exhumation have ever been uncovered, or of how in the world they got permission to do it, but a photo of Julia in her coffin is taken, establishing that it happened. Her face is still recognizable.
1927-8? – An elaborate new monument is commissioned at Henry’s expense – the current version with the life-sized statue, two messages from Filomena, two photos of Julia in her wedding dress and the one of her in her coffin, well preserved after six years in the grave. The name Filomena Buccola appears twice on the gravestone: the front reads “Filomena Buccola Remembrance of my Beloved Daughter Julia Age 29 yrs.” An inscription on the back says (in Italian) “Filumena (sic) Buccola I offer this Gift to My Dear Daughter Guilia.”
The seldom-noticed inscription on the back
Notably, Julia’s married name, Julia Petta, appears nowhere on the monument. There is no record as to what the original monument (if any) looked like or said. The immense cost of the new monument (believed to be in the 10k range) creates a great deal of friction in the family – Henry Buccola’s wife is said to be furious, and Henry himself apparently isn’t happy about it, either. But the monument is built. No one knows now what the cost is, but family lore speaks of Henry lamenting that if they just had that ten thousand dollars, they’d be set for life.
1928: Flora, age 4, is unable to speak. A doctor says it’s merely confusion based on the fact that four languages are spoken in the house (English, Italian, Spanish, and Filomena’s thick Sicilian dialect). Anna, her mother, decrees that only English will be spoken in the house. Flora will eventually be able to understand Italian as an adult.
Filomena in the 1930s with Rosalia, her daughter
(Julia’s sister). Courtesy of Antony Edwards
1930 – In the census, Filomena is listed as being back in Chicago, living with Rosalia and Mariano and their children, Rosaline (Lynn Sadie) Lunetta (17) and Joseph Lunetta (14).
The same census shows Henry Buccola in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, Guy and Flora. He is now working as a designer for women’s clothing. Joseph Buccola is now in LA, as well, doing the same work.
1932 – Henry’s family (probably including Filomena) move into a new house in L.A. The family still owns the house today.
1930s: In the new house, Flora shares a room with Filomena. Later in life, she’ll tell her children stories about Filomena loudly praying the rosary at all hours, prompting her to shout “Shut up, Nonna!”
1934/06 – A son – with the same name as Julia’s stillborn child – is born to Matthew and Margaret Petta back in Chicago.
Filomena with grandchildren Gaetano (Guy) and Flora
in California. Courtesy of Antony Edwards.
1940 – The census states that Filomena is now living with Rosalia and Mariano in an apartment just around the corner from Julia’s old place. By now, Rosalia and Mariano’s daughter, Rosaline / Lynn Sadie is in Los Angeles.
Matthew Petta is operating Matty’s Inn, a tavern, on Clark Street, near Division. He and Margaret also have an infant daughter (who passed away in 2013 while this article was being prepared). Eugene is 16 (his father is now listed as Matthew, not a missouri man), their other son is five.
1943/01/16 Mariano Lunetta dies at 61 – burial at Mt. Carmel.
1943/05 Lynn Sadie Lunetta, age 30, is licensed to wed Arthur Golluscio (b 1891) in Los Angeles. They are married 5 days later in a ceremony at which the officiant is a minister of the “Temple of Light Institution of the Masters.” Henry Buccola, her uncle, serves as a witness.
1944/09/23 – Henry Buccola dies in Los Angeles.
1945/03 – Rosalia Buccola-Lunetta dies in Chicago; Filomena moves in with Jospeh Buccola and his wife in Los Angeles.
1945/05 – Matthew Petta dies in Chicago, aged 55, and is buried at All Saints. His widow moves the children to Iowa.
Filomena’s burial plot (space 8), a few feet to the left of Julia’s (space 5), at Mt. Carmel Cemetery. The Muscato family plot is between the two.
1945/10 Filomena dies in Los Angeles. She is buried in Chicago, a few feet away from her daughter’s grave. Her space is unmarked, but only a few feet away from the massive monument that bears her full name twice.
2006 – Flora Buccola-Edwards, Julia’s niece and Filomena’s granddaughter, dies in Los Angeles, in the very house where she once shared a room with Filomena. Described in her obit as a “fierce liberal” and “staunchly pro-labor,” the family suggests donations to the United Farm Workers of America in lieu of flowers.
note: I’ve left out a handful of exact dates, addresses, and the name of one person still living. Note: I’m grateful for the family and children of Flora Buccola-Edwards for the photographs and information, especially Antony and Mariana Edwards.
In section 19 of Mt. Carmel cemetery stands a monument sometimes known as The Family Group – an elaborate, and beautiful, statue that serves as a gravestone for Angelo and Rosa Di Salvo:
The carving is elaborate and remarkable. Though worn with time, one can distinguisht the grains in the woods, the jewelry on people’s hands, and the folds of the dresses. On its own, it’s perhaps the finest statue in a cemetery full of wonderful carvings.
But the most fascinating thing about it is that it moves! The statue actually spins on its base. It’s not that easy to move (it’s heavy, and I kept feeling awkward about what part of the statue on the left’s body I was putting my hand on), but it does turn. Here’s Hector turning it:
Little seems to be known about the Di Salvo family. The monument states that it serves as the burial place for Angelo and Rosa Di Salvo, who died in 1932 and 1927, respectively. Though there are photographs of them included on the monument, almost nothing has been found about them in the public records. Unlike many other mysterious statues and graves (see our upcoming podcast an article about their Mt. Carmel neighbor, Julia Buccola), we don’t even seem to have any hearsay or legends about the family in this case. What we DO know is that the 1920s were apparently very good to them (well, if you don’t count the fact that Rosa died in 1927).
As of 1920, Angelo and Rosa lived with three children, Anthony, Clementine and Cecilia, as well as Clementine’s five year old daughter, Lena (Clementine and Lena had a different last name, De Lucco; perhaps her husband had died). They rented their house at 255 De Koven at the time, and Angelo did some sort of work in a factory while Clementine waited tables. Angelo and Rosa had come to the United States from Italy some twenty years before.
By 1930, however, circumstances appear to have been very different. Rosa had died by then, and Angelo was no long working at all, but he and Anthony were living in a $15,000 house (a very nice house at the time on Edgemont Avenue (near near what is now Roosevelt and Canal).
Also absent, even from folklore, is what the statue is supposed to be OF, exactly. While many have noted that it looks like a 19th century family photo of some sort, what family is it? Are both Di Salvos buried here depicted among the five figures in the photo? Who are the others? And whose idea was the spinning monument, anyway?
More information on the family and how their circumstances came to change so much in the 1920s would be appreciated!
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!
In 1907, the Trib asked for readers to send in accounts of paranormal experiences. One anonymous guy sent in a second-hand story of an man in the Austin neighborhood, a “stalwart Norseman” who had experienced something that had “transformed a skeptic into an ardent believer in the occult.”
The “norseman” was a widower with four children. One day, while visiting his wife’s grave at Graceland, his oldest daughter found a gorgeous silver coffin handle lying around – one which had apparently broken off of a recently-exhumed coffin. It was said to feature “exquisite workmanship,” and the daughter took it home with her.
That very night, as the man sat smoking in his library, he heard the vestibule door swing open and a mad flurry of feet charging in. But when he got up to investigate, there was no one there, and the door was still locked.
The incident happened again night after night, and the footsteps extended their reach from the front vestibule to all over the house. “The noises,” the teller wrote the Trib, “increased until pandemonium reigned every night, and the family was panic stricken and nightly locked themselves in their rooms.” Furniture began to moved around, and the piano opened and closed violently. The family, in the typical style of ghost hunting of the era, would charge downstairs with guns, but would find nothing.
They were just about to abandon their haunted house when the father, on a thorough search, found the coffin handle in a basket of curios in the fireplace. He took the handle and threw it as far into the alley as he could – and that was the end of the ghost.
This particular sort of “took an object from a graveyard” story (a pretty standard folk motif) always leaves me with a lot of questions. In this case:
– Why not return it to the cemetery? – So, was the ALLEY haunted now that the coffin handle was there? – Why make such an effort to throw it? You could get it further away if you just TOOK it someplace. I’d kind of expect it to crawl back, like the cat in “The Cat Came Back,” if I didn’t get it further from the alley.
At least it’s not as bad as the “Golden Arm” story, in which a guy decides not to bury his wife with her golden arm and gets haunted by her. Who the hell gets a false arm made out of gold? Most of the variations on that story don’t say how the woman died, but it was probably either of curvature of the spine or running out of money and starving to death because she blew all of the family money on a ridiculously impractical golden arm (and god knows what ELSE such a person was spending money on). I have no sympathy for anyone wanting to be buried with such an expensive item. Leave it up in the world where it can still do some good, why doncha? Also, gimme your organs.
I normally don’t get into stories from the suburbs around here, but you’ll have to excuse me – I’m a SUCKER for headless ghosts. Over on another blog I’ve reviewed several variations of Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Sheridan Road used to be known as a real hotspot for ghosts – occasionally local papers would run features on all the murder sites and haunted spots you would see driving along it; it even put you in spitting distance of H.H. Holmes’ place in Wilmette, and one story told a lurid tale of a woman finding a skeleton buried near there after having a dream about someone being buried in the woods (more on this later – I’ll check into it).
But chief among these was stretch of Hubbard’s Woods near the ravines that was haunted by a headless man. As of 1902, the latest of the articles, residents still remembered the “headless horror” of 1881, when a headless corpse was found in the woods. Local legend had it that every night, on the anniversary of the murder, the headless ghost would wander through the woods, searching for its head.
In may, 1881, a twelve-year-old boy was going hunting for birds’ nests in the woods when he came upon a headless corpse about fifty feet north of Green Bay Road. It was leaning as though the head “must have rested upon the swelling base of the tree as upon a pillow,” and would have been face up, except, well, there was no face. The head was nowhere to be seen. The pockets had been turned inside out, suggesting a robbery. THe head-chopping was so cleanly done that some thought that a machine must have been used, like a guillotine. A bearded human head had been found upon the lake shore about six weeks prior, in a direct line from where the corpse had been found.
Clues came in fairly quickly. Cards from a hotel in BRemen, Germany were in the pockets. A new search of the area where the head had been seen yielded a high-crowned black derby hat with some human hair and blood in it. The clothing had bit slit lengthwise, as though the killer had intended to strip it all off, but then got nervous and left it. There were signs of a terrific struggle.
The city had the body buried in a shallow grave near the tree where it was found (to the consternation of residents), then hastily dug up to see if it could be matched to a body-less head that was exhumed from Dunning (I couldn’t tell if this was the same head that had been found on the beach, which some reports say had washed away). When dug up, the body was no more than three feet down, and in a pool of stagnant water. The smell was about as one would expect, and the corpse, though only just buried, was barely recognizable as anything that had ever been human. The head, too, was in bad shape, but was found to be a reasonably good match – close enough, anyway. The two articles were put into one box and taken out to Dunning.
For a time the body was said to be that of Bernhard Polzig, but checking on the origin of the clothes yielded a theory that it was a missing Bohemian man named Ignaz Hopf, who had recently fled Bremen and was probably murdered in March, only weeks after arriving in the United States. Who killed him, and exactly why, were never exactly determined.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, the Trib occasionaly made mention of the belief among the locals that the headless ghost walked around the ravine, at least on the anniversary of the murder, looking for its head. Whether they actually believed this, and if anyone actually claimed to see it, were not mentioned. By the time these stories came out, the way the story was being retold differed a bit from the way it actually happened; in the retellings people usually said that a bunch of boys found the head after the body was found.
It’s one of my favorite local ghost stories. The usual version goes like this:
Many people walking through the woods to Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery have reported seeing a house out in the woods. They never agree on where the house IS in relation to the cemetery, exactly, but they all describe it the same way: a white, two story Victorian farmhouse, with a soft light glowing from the inside. Some say it gets smaller, or further away, as you walk closer to it. Some others say that if you go inside, you never come back out. When you come back out from the cemetery, the house will have disappeared. And there is no record of any house ever having been nearby.
There are a few things wrong with this – one is that there are certainly records of there having been houses around there, and a couple of foundations of them are still out in the woods. However, the foundations don’t seem big enough to be the house that people are describing.
And there was a house there within living memory – the Schmidt house, pictured here in 1914. It was located a short walk west of the cemetery.
The house above was built around the 1890s, and had clearly been expanded on occasionally. I’d guess that the portion visible to the left and the main house seen in the background here were built at separate times.
Another interesting thing is that the house seems to have changed over the years. When Richard Crowe was first talking about the house in the 1970s, he told the Tribune that all of the witnesses he’d interviewed described it as a one story house. All of the witnesses I’ve spoken to – and all of the ghost books published in the last fifteen or twenty years – say it was a two story house.
Now, on the surface, this might seem to discredit the story. But if the house can appear, disappear, move around the woods, and shrink, then it’s not so unreasonable to think that it could also build an addition.
And, furthermore, if the house is the “ghost” of the Schmidt house, one can see from the picture how a witness could describe it as either one or two stories, depending on what angle they saw it from.
Now, given that the Schmidt house changed shape over the years, and likely continued to change beyond the 1914 picture, it’s hard to tell what it looked like by the 1940s (when it was still known to be standing). No one is entirely sure yet when it was finally demolished, but it may have been standing as late as the 1960s. I’ve spoken with witnesses who swear that they used to have picnics outside of the house in the 1960s. It was certainly gone by the early 1970s, though. It could be that the whole legend arose from teenagers breaking in to the cemetery and woods to get trashed in the 1970s (which was very common) and vaguely remembered there having been a house there years before, and, having had a few beers or perhaps something harder, were freaked out upon realizing that the house wasn’t there anymore.
I’d love to hear from anyone who’s seen the house – either the “original” or a ghostly version. Drawings would be greatly appreciated!