Great 19th Century Swindles – #1

Today I’ve been reading up on some of the swindles that were popular on the streets of Chicago back in the 1890s – the sorts that were precursors to todays “I need diapers for my baby” and “I need new uniforms for my soccer team.”

Today’s swindle:
THE ONE-LEGGED FIREMAN

A man comes hobbling along o a crutch, saying that he was once a lieutenant in the fire department, but was injured fighting a fire. “I was disqualified from service, and fired, when I lost my leg!” he would moan. Though the guy who pulled the scam most frequently around Chicago back in the 1890s pretty generally smelled of whiskey, he was able to take people for “much money and more sympathy.” In reality, the fire department paid a pretty good pension to firefighters who were injured and unable to go back to work.

Variations of this are still going around, mostly in the form of injured “veterans” who hang around on Michigan Avenue.

Terrifying Tales of the Post Office

On Clark Street near grand, back in 1898, a rather grizzly murder took place at a site now occupied by the back wall of a post office. A woman named Tillie Wolf (great name) got into a fight with a rival and ended up getting stabbed in the head with a sharpened umbrella. The umbrella shaft went through her skull and into her brain, killing her at once. Sounds like something out of a Batman comic, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it was lingering bad vibes that led people to put so cheerless an institution as the post office on that spot nearly a century later.

Another Belle Gunness update: curiouser and curiouser!

A few months ago, we reported that Belle Gunness, the Chicago candy store owner-turned Indiana serial killer, was exhumed from her grave due to suspicions that it wasn’t really her inside of it – many people doubted that she had cut off her own head and hidden it where it would never be found before jumping under a falling piano in the middle of a fire.

Well, inside the coffin, they found the remains of three children.

Resesarcher have now also exhumed Gunness’ three kids, who also died in the fire, and tests are being done to see if they were her biologicial children, which has always been a bit of a question mark, and to shed some light on who might hae been in that coffin along with Gunness – or whoever it was in there. Some speculate that parts of the children were buried in one grave, and parts were buried in another. If the children found in the Gunness grave aren’t hers, who are they?

More updates as they come. Here’s the tribune article.

Murder Castle Ebook Outtake!

While we endeavored to cram every contemporary eyewitness account, drawing, and diagram into our Ebook on the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle, we also had to keep it short enough to print out. Some things just didn’t fit in – here’s the first of our outtakes, on Davis, who ran a jewelry shop n the castle. He had always insisted that there would be bodies found in the basement, but seemed a bit amused by the whole affair.

During the excavations, The Chicago Daily News reported the following exchange:

“The morbid novel writer was also abroad in the shape of a pretty young woman of about twenty summers. She dropped into the drug store with her pencil and pad and began to question jeweller Davis.
“There’s Holmes’ brother,” said the jeweller, pointing to his roommate, who was standing near. The young lady novelist opened her eyes wide with amazement. She tried to speak to the man, but almost went off into hysteria with excitement. As the man passed out, Jeweller Davis said “Good by, Holmes.”
“So long, Davis,” was the quick reply, and young lady novelist almost fainted.

This speaks volumes about the reliability (or lack therof) of many of the firsthand accounts. Some tenants who hadn’t seen a thing probably wanted to get into the story as it caught national news, and other bits of made-up gossip by annoyed residents probably got passed around as fact.

Davis was back in the spotlight in 1905, when Johann Hoch, a bigamist/murderer not unlike Holmes, was on trial in the old Courthouse on Dearborn and Hubbard. Papers had been reporting that Hoch had been a regular at the castle in Holmes’ day under the name Jacob Schmitt, and Chappel, the skelton articulator Holmes employed, swore that it was true. Davis swore that he’d never seen Hoch in his life, at the castle or otherwise.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to pick up your copy of the Ebook!

John Dillinger’s Great Escape

In honor of Johnny Depp coming to town to film a Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, here’s a post about John Dillinger’s great escape. In 1934, Dillinger, America’s favorite bank robber, was imprisoned in Indiana, awaiting trial and a sure death sentence. But he carved a fake gun out of wood and used it to break out of prison, leading to a five month man-hunt ending in the infamous Chicago “shoot out” – which was actually probably either an assassination or a hoax, depending on who you believe – outside of the Biograph Theatre, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Here’s a picture of the phony gun:

Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells to pull a scheme like this – that gun wouldn’t fool anyone who looked at it for even a second. I’m no gun nut, but I don’t think the words “colt 38” are normally actually written on the side like that. According to most versions of the story, no one really SAW it – Dillinger stuck it in a guard’s back, said “stick em up!” and soon had acquired several REAL pistols from the guards.

The alley where Dillinger was shot is now between two Mexican restaurants and features of a mural of a guy playing a guitar. Until its recent touch-up job, the painting always made me want to say “hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Here it is, pre-touch-up:

Incidentally, if the cast of “Public Enemies” would like a tour, we’d be happy to oblige 🙂

Rising from the Suburbs….Belle Gunness!

Belle Gunness, the female blue beard, has finally been dug up.

We usually think of Gunnesss as an Indiana serial killer; we have plenty of our own around here, so we don’t mind letting them have this one. Sort of throwing them a bone, if you will. It was in Indiana that Belle set up a farm where she would lure wealthy bachelors with lovelorn classified ads, then murder them and feed them to her hogs. How many men she killed isn’t known; some suspect that it was upwards of 100.

But there’s a Chicago connection – Belle was, in addition to being a killer, an insurance fraudster. One of her first major schemes involved burning down a candy store that she and her husband ran at Grand and Elizabeth in Chicago in the 1880s (right around the same time that her male counterpart, HH Holmes, was getting his start). From there she moved to the suburbs. After she died in a fire at her Indiana farm, which also killed her daughters, she was brought back to Chicago, where she lay buried in Forest Park. Until now.

The body found at the Indiana farm was headless. The head was never found – the only things to identify Belle were a couple of dentures. Most people don’t lose their heads in fires, and no one chops their own head off and hides it before dying. There has, therefore, long been speculation that Gunness’ death was faked, and now we’re going to find out for sure:

Chicago Tribune: Belle Gunness exhumed

This isn’t the first time that stories of a faked death have led to exhumation; Jesse James was dug up a year or so ago to see if it was really him (which it certainly was). I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I do enjoy a good faked death story; they tend to seem much more plausible than conspiracies that require thousands of people to keep a secret. Some skeptics claim that no one has ever successfully faked their death, but there’s sort of a catch: if we knew about it, it wouldn’t have been successful! Of course, they won’t be able to say that at all if the headless corpse is someone other than Gunness!

My thoughts be bloody or nothing-worth!

Across the street from Couch Place (alias Death Alley), a regular tour stop, is The Goodman Theatre. It’s an unlikely place to find a body, but tucked away in some guy’s desk is the skull of comedian Del Close, who left his skull to the theatre in his will so that next time they do Hamlet he can play Yorick.

Some employees have told us that they don’t think it’s his skull (in fact, it’s pretty well established that it was just a skull Close’s girlfriend got from a medical supply shop when the coroner wouldn’t give her the real one), but, regardless, next time they do Hamlet, it’ll surely be one of the more noteworthy productions of that show in the city. But most historic version of Hamlet in Chicago may have been the one presented in 1862. Here’s an ad for it – check out the star:

John Wilkes Booth was Chicago’s theatrical sensation of 1862, playing a three week stint at the (now demolished) McVicker’s in January followed by a two week stand in June. During these stands, he played at least half a dozen of the greatest Shakespeare characters, including Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Othello. Most people think that the real talent in the family was Booth’s brother, Edwin (who had a career that lasted for decades), but the Tribune called John Wilkes a genius. History books today rarely mention just how popular an actor he was. I can only imagine how weird it must have been for people who saw him plotting to kill the king as Hamlet, or plotting to kill half of England as Richard III, to remember those scenes in 1865!

While in Chicago, Booth stayed at the Tremont House, a (now demolished) hotel on Dearborn and Lake that had been owned by Ira Couch, whose tomb still stands in Lincoln Park, the last remaining crypt of the old City Cemetery (and, yes, he’s thought to be in there – the mystery is who’s in there WITH him). Abraham Lincoln also stayed at the Tremont House whenever he was in Chicago; he gave a version of his “House Divided” speech from the balcony in 1858, and held a reception in the lobby after his election in 1860.

After the Lincoln assassination, there were reports of Booth being sighted, alive, in McVicker’s theatre – one of many reports that the person killed in the barn was not really him. Twenty years later, his daughter, under the name Rita Booth, was said to be working as a dancer in a burlesque comedy in Chicago.