Murder in the Drinking Water: The Lake Tunnel Murder of 1864

Urban folklore in Chicago is full of stories of the city being cursed – most of which have little basis in fact. One often hears that Cap Streeter cursed the Streeterville area on his death bed (if it happened, no one wrote it down at the time), or even that Potowatomi Indians did a “ghost dance” on the present site of Hull House to curse the white man after the Battle of Fort Dearborn (I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with that).  Left out, though, is the fact that for seventy-odd years, much of Chicago’d drinking water flowed through a murder site on the way to our faucets – the sort of thing that seems like it OUGHT to inspire a curse story.

Chicago’s reputation as a “murder” town is an old one. As early as 1858, the Chicago Times wrote “Another murder! The word has become so familiar to the ears of our citizens that it would seem scarcely adequate to excite their wonder. Murder is growing common in Chicago!”

Photo of the Lake Tunnel from a stereopticon image.

In the late 1850s, though, murder was a relatively minor problem – the article in question was talking about a sixth accused murderer being taken to the jails, but that year cholera was killing off hundreds of people per year. And, though they only barely understood it at the time, part of the problem was the disgusting drinking water taken from the mouth of Lake Michigan, which was mingled with all of the city’s sewage and waste.

In the early 1860s, civic engineers determined that they could solve the problem by getting the drinking water from two miles out, where the water was clearer, and in 1864 construction was begun on a tunnel beneath the lake, running from the famous water tower to a “crib” far out in the water. Though not nearly as well known as other feats of the day, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the two mile tunnel was every bit as remarkable and important a feat of engineering. And, though one still hears almost constantly that cholera epidemics in the 1880s were killing off 10-20% of the population, those stories are outright myths. The lake tunnel didn’t end lake pollution, but it helped a lot.

Few seemed to notice, or care, that the drinking water flowing through that tunnel was going right through a murder site. On August 25 of 1864, the Times announced that “about 12 o’clock on Tueday night a shocking and horrible murder was committed at the lake tunnel! A miner named Patrick Hunt was stabbed in the neck with a file in the hands of Michael Corry, and received a wound, the result of which was almost immediate death.”

Patrick Hunt and Michael Corry (or Carry, in some accounts), it seems, got into a fight over reports of how much work each of them was doing, and came to blows down in the tunnel, lit only by a lantern ten feet away. Witnesses heard Corry say something to the effect of “Let’s go up on land and fight it out,” to which Hunt agreed – but as soon as Hunt’s back was turned to head for the shaft, Corry attacked. Witness E.W. Offerman went down the shaft, where Corry, bleeding from the mouth from a blow by Hunt, was dragged to mouth of the tunnel. Corry, all the while, shouted “murder! Murder!” and Offerman shouted that Hunt had murdered Corry. But it was Hunt that received the worst of it – another worker found him slumped up against the tunnel wall, “struggling in the last agonies of death, with the blood pouring in torrents from a ghastly wound in his neck.”  The file, missing its handle, had been wiped clean of blood and tossed about four feet from the shaft that lead down to the tunnel. Hunt died within seconds, and Offerman, immediately seeing that Corry was the killer, nearly took the file and attacked him in retaliation.

The sort of work Hunt and Corry were doing.

But cooler heads prevailed, and Corry and the corpse were both taken the the North Market Station House. After an inquest, Corry was taken the the jail, which would have been in the old courthouse where City Hall now stands. Crowds gathered to see the body, and, according to the Times, it took great effort on the part of the police to stop crowds from attacking Corry.

From the coroner’s report published in the Times, we see that Hunt, 34, a native of Ireland, left behind a wife and three children who lived on the west side; the coroner’s jury said he was a man of good character who only rarely drank. Corry, 28, was of Irish descent as well, but born in Pennsylvania, and had lived in Chicago since February of 1863, and, though he had been “a regular, faithful and steady man” since getting the job, he was “represented as being of an excitable and quarrelsome disposition, and as being addicted to the use of liquor.”  Witness Herman Kraschell said he’d seen Corry drunk many times, though he seemed to be sober at the time of the murder.

Four months later, in December, he was indicted for murder, though no digitized paper ever seems to have offered any further news on the case. It’s possible that the final disposition of Corry is buried in a microfilm reel of an 1865 paper, but, as those can’t be searched by text, finding the article would largely be “luck of the draw.”  From my own files, I see that the Times didn’t follow up much on the story; Fall of 1864 was approaching, and by the very next day editor Wilbur F. Storey was too busy bad-mouthing Abraham Lincoln and peddling conspiracy theories about the impending election to worry much about local matters. Given the accounts of Corry’s own injuries, it’s likely that he managed to establish that his attack was in self defense.

It seems odd, really, that this didn’t become more of a part of Chicago folklore, as it seems like a ghost story or curse story waiting to happen; if you’re the sort to think the Streeterville area is cursed, or that the water tower is haunted, this is probably just as good an explanation for it as any of the mythical stories that have gone around – at least in this case the history behind it is real!

The tunnel was in use until 1936, but the murder was forgotten almost as soon as it happened, and only recently started to rediscovered, having been retold in a couple of books on the Lake Tunnel, most recently Benjamin Sells’ excellent The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel that Saved Chicago.  

The “Widow in Green” Blackmail Mystery

“Does anybody know the woman in green?” asked the Tribune in  November of 1908. “Can anybody tell the name of the mysterious woman motorist who for the last month has been an unfailing topic of conversation for those who have time to observe humanity as seen in Chicago’s streets? Who is she?”

For a month, Chicagoans had been observing a woman, roughly 30 years old, driving around the loop in a rented green touring car, dressed from head to foot in green, including a green hat and veil (except for a couple of days when she tried red or white outfits, each time with a matching car). Each day, she’d drive a circuit through the loop, occasionally stopping for some sort of meeting in the Marquette building. Once in a while she’d have a chauffeur, and once she nearly drove off the road, having been agitated by the sight of a certain man with a black mustache, but she was otherwise said to be perfectly capable of handing the car herself – the paper noted that she “handles her machine in a manner which shows her mastery over the art of chauffeuring”

In the Tribune’s 1908 feature, one gets the impression that they could have solved the mystery easily enough – she went to the same garages and drove the same route daily – but preferred to revel in the wild, romantic backstories people were inventing for her. It might seem odd today, more than a century on, to imagine that someone driving around could create such excitement, but we have to remember that this was 1908. Cars weren’t quite the novelty they’d been a few years before, but they were still in their infancy. Female drivers might have been a bit of a shock to some, as well. The veil, the tendency to match her outfit to her car, and her taking the same route daily were about all it took to attract attention.

It may be, though, that the real story was wilder than the Tribune dared to hope.

In January, the Inter-Ocean began telling stories of a “Widow in Green” who’d been blackmailing wealthy hotel guests. The Inter-Ocean certainly thought it was the same woman; stating that there was a small gang of blackmailers operating “under the leadership of the ‘woman in green,’ who created a furore among residents of the Michigan Avenue hotels by appearing each day dressed entirely in green. A large green touring car was constantly at her beck and call.”

The “Widow in Green,” it was said, was “a beautiful brunette, very attractive and a good conversationalist (who) speaks with a slight French accent.” She would scan the registers of Michigan Avenue hotels, find wealthy men who were in from out of town, and then seduce them in the dining rooms with her brilliant powers of conversation (though the “seduction” may have amounted only to go to their hotel rooms to discuss an investment plan for the money she claimed to have inherited, with her simply signing into the hotel as the man’s wife). Later, the wealthy men would receive letters demanding money, always signed with the single name “Gladys.”

Stories of Gladys the Green’s life of crime spread quickly – there were tales of her having a fist fight with the woman who owned one of the hotels, of her forging a check at another hotel. Though saying she was part of a “gang” might have been overstating it, she did employ a couple of “attorneys” who dealt with unruly victims, and who helped her draw up bogus mortgages to sell. To one victim, she sent a valentine showing a man being beaten with a rolling pin; the back read “I hope the new year will bring you as much happiness as you have brought me unhappiness – Gladys.”

The man who received the card told the press (through his attorney) that he’d remained silent and paid a fortune up until now “because his wife and children had been heretofore unaware of his escapapde with the dashing ‘widow in green,'” whom he’d met at the Lexington Hotel.  But his attempts to find her seem to have been in vain.

The flair for the dramatic may have been her undoing – though most papers in town barely mentioned the story (to my surprise – it seemed like the kind of story the American would have been all over), the Inter-Ocean covered it in several articles over a week or so in January, 1909, and several out of town papers picked up their coverage as well. With her newfound fame, the Widow in Green’s cover was blown, and operating in town likely became too risky. She presumably took off for parts unknown, and her story disappeared from the papers. So far as I know, she was forgotten by the end of the winter.

The Strange Case of Baron von Biedenfeld

While doing research for the new Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tour, I ran into some fascinating data about Baron Cut von Biedenfeld, one of the late 19th century Chicago’s more colorful characters, who is all but forgotten today.  Look him up online, and you’ll mostly find references to his father writing letters back and forth with composer Richard Wagner.

Born in Germany in the early 1860s, Baron von Biedenfeld managed to blow through all his money as a young man, and moved to the States nearly penniless, earning his first money by shoveling snow in New York during the Great Blizzard of 1888. Thereafter, he moved to Chicago, where he married his way back into high society, and became known as a man about town, occasionally making the society columns in the papers and living in a mansion at 20th and Indiana, near the famous Prairie Avenue district. He occasionally made the police blotter as well; an 1892 account in the Inter-Ocean speaks of the Baron (then still known as Count von Biedenfeld) getting into a scuffle at a bar on 22nd and Michigan – when a man insisted that the Count pay for the drinks, things got rough, and ended with Von Biedenfeld hitting the man in the head with his cane six times.

the Baron shows off a horse and carriage

This was all a precursor to a day six years later, when the baron was drinking at Redpath’s Saloon on Jackson, and was heard to remark “All Turks are cowards.” Police Officer Charles McDonald, who knew the Baron pretty well and thought he was using “Turk” as a slang term for an Irishman, said “I’m a Turk, and I’m not a coward.”  Baron von Biedenfeld drew a piston and shot McDonald to death.

In court, a number of witnesses from red light districts affirmed that McDonald had a reputation as a rough character, and lawyers claimed that he’d been out to get the Baron for three years. The Baron himself insisted that the “unfortunate” shooting was self defense on his part, as McDonald was reaching for his own gun. The jury agreed, and he was acquitted. He gathered his things from the county jail (pausing to joke with prisoners who asked him to come back and visit), then moved right back to Germany.

A year later, he published a book about America. Only excerpts in English seem to be available, but some of them are rather interesting: “Immigrants who do not possess a certain sum of money, or who have no relatives in the States,” he wrote, “are promptly sent back…. Americans only have use for a man who has something of which they can rob him.” He went on to say “There is one weakness peculiar to the entire American people: the respect for success without regard for the means by which it was achieved.”

Redpath’s Saloon stood where the Steger Building is now, adjacent to the Pickwick Place, the courtyard where Architecture of Mysterious Chicago tours begin.

 

HH Holmes’ OTHER Murder Castle in Fort Worth: Diagrams and More

Been a while since I had a new Holmes post up! But I spent the last year researching him in depth for my massive new book on him, and with a couple of Holmes bus tours coming, I thought today would be a good day to share a bit about the lesser-known OTHER Holmes Castle in Fort Worth, Texas – just a bit of the previously unexamined data about him I’ve been poring over for the last several months.

It’s mentioned in a couple of books about H.H. Holmes that after leaving Chicago in late 1893, he attempted to build another “castle” in Fort Worth, but found that the authorities there were a bit nosier than the ones in Chicago had been, and never finished it.

Like nearly everything about Holmes, this isn’t exactly right. For one thing, the authorities in Chicago knew quite a bit about the “Castle” there – it had been the subject of countless lawsuits that generated boxes and boxes of paperwork, as various investors and suppliers sued Holmes and the co-owners. In August, 1893, Holmes had the flimsy third floor torched and tried to cash in on the four insurance policies he’d taken out on it. The companies smelled a rat at once and began investigating the place from top to bottom (generating a lot more paperwork in the process). Sure that he’d be arrested arson and fraud if he stuck around, Holmes left Chicago in December 1893 or January 1894, married his latest girlfriend in Denver, then met with Ben Pitezel in Fort Worth, where he had deeds to some property at Second and Rusk that he claimed to have bought from Minnie Williams. In reality, he’d probably murdered her. He’d murder Pitezel later that year.

Throughout winter and spring, 1894, Holmes and Pitezel (under names Pratt and Lyman) supervised construction new building in Fort Worth, which was, in fact, actually completed, though never occupied or used. Though about twice the square footage, being on a wider lot, it was almost exactly the same design as the Chicago castle on the outside.

When Holmes became national news the next year, more than one Texas paper sent reporters out to investigate this second “castle,” and I ran across their accounts while researching my new HH Holmes book (which will be out through Skyhorse in April, 2017). One even including a drawing, which not only shows us a very good view of the place, but might actually be a good representation of what the Chicago castle really looked like – we don’t honestly know quite how it appeared in Holmes’ day. It was originally built as a two story structure in 1887, with the very flimsy third floor (the “hotel” portion) added in 1892-3. Though there’s one photo of the place from 1895, it was only after the fire had wrecked the third floor and been replaced by what one paper called an “unsightly temporary roof.”  The view of the Ft. Worth building above, with the pointed turret, might be closer to what the original castle looked like during Holmes’ time there.

The only photo of the castle from Holmes' lifetime shows only the "temporary" rebuilt portion of the third floor that was wrecked in the Aug, 1893 fire. This is from two years later; no photos or drawings from Holmes' time in Chicago survive.

The only photo of the Chicago castle from Holmes’ lifetime shows only the “temporary” rebuilt portion of the third floor that was wrecked in the Aug, 1893 fire. This is from two years later; no photos or drawings from Holmes’ time in Chicago survive, other than one architect’s diagram of the front portion of the first floor that I haven’t spread around yet.

Stories did swirl about the place, and it does seem as though Holmes planned the place to have even more secret rooms than the original cast.  In 1895, after sitting empty a year, the place did give people the creeps, even for practical reasons: papers took to calling it “The Rusk Street Fire Trap.”

Galveston Daily News reporter sent to investigate said “The grim, half-completed building nearby, (and) the dark alley give the place an uninviting appearance. The weeds grow above the spot and the smell of the surroundings is suggestive enough.” He further noted that in the middle ages, the place would have been called “The Castle of Many Doors.” Rumor had it that there was a chute leading right to a sewer, which would have been a great way to dispose of a body (though a careful investigation pretty much debunked the story).

The description of the castle written for the upcoming book, based on the news reports:

The second floor was sort of a nest of rooms – an outer tier sat just inside the windows with doors that made it so one could go almost all the way around the perimeter without ever stepping into the hall. An inner tier contained rooms that didn’t connect to each other at all, and were lit only by a “queerly designed skylight,” which was in V shape from the roof down the side of the walls. The walls of the closets were uneven, and the walls were filled with all sorts of gas pipes. It was an easy building in which to get lost. A “closet within a closet” on the third floor suggests that room had been set aside for a new walk-in vault. An artesian well sat in the back.

A diagram from the Galveston Daily News of the Fort Worth Castle HH Holmes build in 1894

A diagram from the Galveston Daily News of the Fort Worth Castle HH Holmes built in 1894

 

From accounts of his doings in Texas, it seems that the Ft. Worth castle was built with much the same goal as the original: as a vehicle for swindling. Holmes used the construction to buy materials on credit that he never intended to pay back, and got involved in some horse swindling while he was at it – creditors started breathing down his neck quickly, and Holmes got out of town before doing anything with the building. No one is known to have been murdered there, and it probably wasn’t planned as a place to kill people any more than the Chicago one was (it was a vehicle for swindling first and foremost; the torture chamber stories were mostly, in the words of Holmes’ lawyer, “*#*%*ing rot.”  But while Holmes’ Chicago building was a long-term project, in Texas the idea was just to improve the land with the building, sell it for a profit, run as many swindles in the process as he could, and then move on. But it’s easy to imagine that the strange “nesting” construction of the place indicates that Holmes may have had something more sinister in mind.  The “artesian well” suggests that Holmes may have been plotting to relaunch his old scheme of selling “mineral water” from a few years before.

Though gone today, the Ft. Worth Castle survived about as long as the original – up to the 1930s or so (I couldn’t find exact data on when it was torn down). After filtering through several legal disputes, the place became a hotel and apartment building for a while, caught fire pretty regularly, and was the site of at least one grisly death, when a man died of a morphine overdose in one of the rooms in 1898. Papers in Ft. Worth continued to refer to it as the “Holmes Castle” for decades, and by the 1920s reporters and locals seem to have forgotten that it wasn’t the same “Holmes Castle” that had attracted so much attention back in 1895! Recaps of it then spoke of skeletons being found in the basement.

Much, much more on the construction of the castles will be detailed in my H.H. Holmes book (of which the subtitle is still TBA) coming in April, 2017!   In the meantime, if you want to hear a LOT more about Holmes, I’ll be running two bus tours about him on the afternoons of Oct 29 and Oct 30, 2016, through Atlas Obscura, and Holmes comes up a bit on the Rosehill Cemetery tours I’ll be running throughout October!

Some major sources for this article include:

“Fort Worth Girls Murdered” Fort Worth Daily Gazette Nov 21 1894

“Holmes Fort Worth Castle” Galveston Daily News, Aug 5 1895

“Holmes’ Texas Castle” Galveston Daily News, Aug 16, 1895

 

Podcast: Thomas Neill Cream – Antique Serial Killer

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

o-DR-THOMAS-CREAM-570A few months ago I had to take a quick trip to Madison, WI and made a side trip along the way to Garden Prairie, IL, searching for the grave of Daniel Stott, which lies in a quiet little graveyard surrounded by farmland. Most of the gravestones there are faded out and hard to read, but you can’t miss Stott’s, pictured above, which even gives his cause of death: “Poisoned by his wife and Dr. Cream.”

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream may qualify for the mantle of “Chicago’s first serial killer,” though it depends a lot on what you count as a serial killer (there’s a lot of debate here, but he qualifies for it at least as well as H.H. Holmes, who arrived in Chicago five years after Cream was imprisoned).  We discussed him here before with Did Thomas Neill Cream kill Alice Montgomery, a look a murder in his neighborhood that sounded a LOT like his handiwork. She died from strychnine-laced painkillers after an attempted abortion, which was his usual m.o. An Madison Street doctor by trade, he performed abortions on the side, and had a habit of tampering with medicines to add more strychnine, then trying to blackmail the pharmacist.

To get more on Dr. Cream, this podcast includes a skype chat with Amanda Griffiths-Jones, the first to examine Cream’s prison record from Joliet, which she used for a novel entitled Prisoner 4374, all about Cream’s career based on her unique findings. She was a pleasure to chat with! Check out her book for a lot more info on Cream and what sort of killer he was – including her theory on where the idea that he was Jack the Ripper came from.

Yes, Cream is sometimes said to be a Jack the Ripper suspect – legend has it that on the scaffold, when he was eventually hanged in London, his last words were “I was Jack The…”  It’s generally not taken seriously, since Cream was in prison in Joliet while Jack the Ripper was active in London. Some research into the story told me that the story came from an article published in a number of newspapers after the hangman, Jack Billington died – apparently a UK paper had a huge article of the hangman’s stories, retold by one of his friends, and the friend said that Billington always believed that Cream was the ripper.  A number of 1902 papers worldwide carried the bit about Billington  being the Ripper, and one book later included an excerpt of another story (I tell it in the podcast), showing that it’s part of a larger article. But no accessible paper that I can find (so far) included the whole article, and the Bolton, England paper in which the article originated is only on microfilm – possibly only in Bolton! I’m not going that far for an article.

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

Kate Kane, Chicago Lawyer, and her Fists of Fury

Kate Kane Rossi in 1908. "Those policemen actes as brutes. If I had been a man they would have been afraid to attack me," she said.

Kate Kane Rossi in 1908. “Those policemen actes as brutes. If I had been a man they would have been afraid to attack me,” she said.

In the 1885 “trunk murder” case, three Italian men were charged with killing a man, stuffing his body in a trunk, and mailing him to Pittsburgh. One thing stands out in notes about their high-profile trial that diffrentiates it considerably from other such trials of the day: two of the men were represented in court by a black man, and the other was represented by a woman, Kate Kane.

And, as widely-known as the “trunk murder” case was in its time, it’s possible that lawyer Kate Kane was already more famous than her client. Sometimes said to be the only woman lawyer in Chicago at the time, a couple of years before the Trunk case she had made national news when she tired of a judge’s sexist comments and threw water in his face.   In the drawing at the left, she is being ejected from the Mayor’s office in 1908, after being refused admittance to see him. “No wonder the town is full of criminals and blackhands,” she shouted. “When a little poodle like you can stand around here and order respectable people out… I couldn’t vote myself, but I went out and rounded up 22,000 votes for the Mayor.”

Only the thirteenth woman to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, Kate Kane (later Kate Kane Rossi) practiced law in Chicago for nearly forty years, representing every sort of crime, she once said, except for treason and piracy, and representing every race and creed except “followers of Zorostoar and Mahomet.” She once ran for the job of First Ward Alderman, and tried to be made superintendent of the police at one point. She would have been considerably more qualified than many men who got the job in her era, when the gig was strictly political and often went to people with no background in a field related to law enforcement at all.

But what kept Kane in the news for the first half of her career were her occasional bursts of violence. When she took her daughter to work (which she did long before “take your daughter to work day” was a thing), someone stepped on the girl’s toes, and Kate, taking it for a deliberate assault, clobbered the guy. More than once she hit a guy over the head with a parasol, and when a court worker didn’t realize she was a lawyer and tried to bodily remove her from her seat, she beat him over the head with a shoe. More than once she ended up arrested for contempt of court.

Chicago_s_Girl_Lawyer_Miss_Kate_Kane_as_Handy_with_the_Pen_as_with_the_Brief_-_GenealogyBank

Even papers trying to compliment Kate Kane sometimes did so awkardly. Here, in 1892, the Philadelphia Inquirer holds her up as one of the most successful lawyers in Chicago, but still calls the 42-year-old Kate Kane a “Girl Layer.”

To be sure, she received her share of sexist abuse, both from the bench and the press, who might not have thought twice about a male lawyer smacking someone around (but, then again, might have). Even papers who were trying to be complimentary to Kane were known to refer to her as a “girl lawyer.” In a move that might not happen today, a police officer was once fired for winking at her. But the press also frequently praised her for her eloquence and her capabilities as a lawyer.

Stories from her trials in the archives are endlessly fascinating. When prosecuting a father for neglecting his wife and baby, the baby died in the courtroom in the middle of the trial. She had one woman excused of vagrancy on the grounds that women were “not made for work” and thus could not be vagrants. When her husband pawned some of his clothes, she tried to sue the pawnbroker for taking stolen property (since she, not he, had paid for them).

Stories from her career could make a dynamite TV series – partly because the main character would be complicated and frankly flawed. Though her quick and sometimes violent temper is probably understandable, she was also recorded making racial comments during fights with black lawyers and officials that were uncalled-for and shocking even by 1890s standards, and would be instant career-enders today. We can hope that the reports were just “newspaper talk,” but a few of the nastier ones were quoted by multiple reporters in town.  The fact that someone is a pioneer doesn’t mean they aren’t also a product of their times.

 

Kane-Rossi's name in a sample ballot in the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, October 1896

Kane-Rossi’s name in a sample ballot in the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, October 1896. Her campaign was not a success; after the first ballots were counted, the front-runner had about 22,000 votes, Rossi had about 30.

Still, she did admirable work; later in her career she seems to have focused on defendingprostitutes and “white slaves,” whose oppression she campaigned hard against, even running for State’s Attorney as a member of the “Abolition of Female Slavery” party. Her ground-breaking career – she was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court in 1900 – deserves more attention than it’s gotten to date. Figuring out exactly what sort of person she was, and what her politics were, can be a bit tricky based on extant sources; far more of her character was probably revealed in a regular column she had commenting on people and events of the day in a newspaper called the West Side Weekly. However, that paper doesn’t seem to survive. Could a microfilm reel be out there someplace?

She remained in the profession until 1920, and died in 1928. I’ve also been unable to find many photographs of her;  usually more photos will exist of prominent people who lived until that late, but all I’ve come across so far are the one photo seen twice above and newspaper drawings of it. The local Hearst papers (few of which are currently easy to search) probably have more of them. Though not all of her views and actions would be considered admirable today, the story of Kate Kane Rossi deserved to be studied in more depth than it has been.

Mary Holland: “Chicago’s Woman Sherlock Holmes”

St__Louis_Post_Dispatch_Sun__Mar_28__1909__jpg

Mary E. Holland.

Mary E. Holland is a largely forgotten figure today, but she was well known around town in her time, and deserves to re-take her place as a famous part of Chicago history. One of the first female detectives in America, she presented forensic analysis at the  first modern trial in which a man was convicted on fingerprint evidence,  and was assistant editor of Detective magazine. Her real adventures inspired the fictional Madelyn Mack, star of a series of Hugo Weird novels which became a series of silent films.

She even played a role in one of Chicago’s enduring mysteries: The Bate Murder:

The facts of the murder are these: on a cold November morning, 1904, young William Bate was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car out beyond the edge of the suburbs. A bullet hole in his head made the cause of death obvious. His hand was still clutching the gear levers. No one had ever been murdered in an automobile before, which made the story bigger news. Making it bigger news was the fact that there was no clear motive, and the car and driver had been rented by a mysterious figure known only as “Mr. Dove.”

Who was Mr. Dove? Why did he kill Bate? And where was he?

The story was all the papers talked about for a week or two, and in the middle of it the police called upon Mary to investigate. She analyzed the car, the bloodstains, the coat fibers in the seat, and the fingerprints, and determined that Mr. Dove may not have been the killer. There was a third person in the car – her theory was the Dove was the victim, and before dragging Dove’s body away, the killer also murdered Bate to keep him silent. “There exists in the blood stains on the automobile the unmistakable evidence that some person or heavy object has been dragged from the rear seat over the right side of the machine,” she wrote. “This was done when the blood was wet. I cannot be mistaken in this.”  The American was a full-on tabloid in those days, even publishing photos recreating the murder (it was one of those papers that took full advantage of the new ability to use photographs), but, like even the worst of the tabloids, sometimes their intrepid reporters did get some fantastic info, and sometimes they did things like inviting a female detective to weigh in.

 

Mistress of Mysteries: Three Stories.

At the time of the Bate murder, Mary was helping to educate U.S. authorities in the science of fingerprint analysis, which she’d studied in London.  While not an official member of the Chicago police, she often consulted for them. Testimony she gave about fingerprinting led to the first person hanged for murder based on fingerprint evidence in 1912.

Whether she was right about the third person in the Bate murder is still not known – the mystery was never solved. I’m now working on putting together more of the mystery of her own life; I knew she died around 1915, but I’m not sure what the cause of  death was. And her probate file brings up some NEW mysteries: she’d been divorced from her husband in 1909 (he sued for divorce on the grounds that she’d deserted him for two years), then remarried and divorced again very quickly, and was on good enough terms with her first husband in 1913 that he was a witness when she signed her will.

I had never heard of Holland until I ran across an article she wrote for the Chicago American about her findings from examining the Bate Murder car, but she turned out to be fascinating. In 1913, she even wrote a series of short stories about her adventures under the name “Mistress of Mysteries;” one of them was about the Bate murder. I located some of them and republished a compilation on Amazon for the lowest price they’d let me – they’re delightful cozy city mysteries.  I also included an introduction about her life and a copy of her analysis of the Bate murder car (and priced it as low as Amazon would let me). I feel as though her career as a writer was probably just getting started when she died in 1915.

You can also read some Madelyn Mack stories at archive.org  

 

 

Podcast: George W. Green, The Man Who Stole the Gallows

 

Title page of Chicago's first true crime book, 1885.

Title page of Chicago’s first true crime book, 1885.

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According to legend, after Chicago’s first public hanging in 1840, the gallows were stolen by a man named George W. Green, who used the lumber for furniture that was then sold in his shop. Ironically, fifteen years later, the next public hanging was very nearly Green’s own. But after being convicted of murdering his wife with strychnine, he cheated the public out of getting to see hanging (still a popular spectacle in those days) by hanging himself in his prison cell with a makeshift rope. Not to be denied their morbid curiosity, the public was able to buy daguerrotypes of Green’s body, still hanging in his cell, at a “portable daguerrotype studio” at Randolph and Clark the next days.

Besides the crass “selling postcards of the hanging” incident, the Green case is notable for two things: the first is that Green became the subject of a book entitled Life of the Chicago Banker Geo. W. Green, alias Oliver Gavitt, Who Was Found Guilty of Poisoning His Wife, and Who Committed Suicide By Hanging in the Jail of Cook County. The fifty-page volume was probably Chicago’s first true crime book.

The book – which is in the “special collections” at the Chicago History Museum and the University of Chicago Library – is quite a read. Basing their stories on interviews with neighbors and children of Green, the authors present him as a Dickensian villain who does everything but twirl his mustache as he tortures animals, beats his wife, poisons his neighbors, cheats his sons, kills his daughters, and steals the city’s first gallows (a story they admit is incredible, but insist is true and verifiable by several witnesses).

Even more notable, perhaps, is that the trial was way ahead of its time in its use of analytical chemistry. When Green

Dr. Blaney

Dr. Blaney

told neighbors his wife had died of cholera, he immediately had a grave dug in his garden for her. His brother-in-law suspected foul play, and Green was arrested. The body was exhumed, and various organs were placed in earthenware jars stopped with corks. Dr. James Blaney, an analytical chemist who would soon help found Rose Hill Cemtery, made detailed tests for traces of strcychnine, and detailed his methods and findings to the jury. His detailed testimony was reprinted entirely in the true crime book, as well as several medical and legal journals throughout the world. At various times, Chicago has, at various times, taken credit for being the first to use handwriting analysis (the Henry Jumperts “barrel” case in 1859), finger prints (Thomas Jennings, 1912), forensic use of bone fragments (Adolph Luetgert, 1897).  By some measures we could add Blaney’s use of analytical chemistry to the list.

A couple of mysteries still endure for me: one is whether his wife was reburied right at the house, which stood near Twelfth and Loomis (Roosevelt and Loomis today). A drawing of the house makes it look like a prairie farmhouse. Private family plots on one’s property weren’t as common by then, but weren’t unknown. It’s quite possibly that her body was never moved.

The other is whether any copies of the daguerrotypes of his body survive. As far as I know, none do, but a drawing of it was included in the book, and is reprinted below (if you’re the sort of person who reads history blogs you’ve probably seen far worse drawings, but consider yourself warned):

 

 

 

 

Drawing taken from a now-lost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green.

Drawing taken from a now-apparentlylost daguerrotype of the death of George W. Green. Have you seen a copy?

 

We’ve written Green into a new edition of Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows!

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