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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Bertha Warshovsky: Queen of the Arsonists

On November 7th, I’ll be conducting a Mysterious Chicago walking tour of the “Darker side” of Taylor Street for Atlas Obscura. Here’s one of the stories I’ll be covering! 

Bertha in the Herald Examiner

As a grandmother in her sixties, Bertha Warshovsky assumed that no one would ever suspect her if a building burned down. We can imagine that she didn’t always look as threatening as she does here, in the best photo I’ve found of her so far. We’ll go ahead and say it was probably a badly scanned version of a badly-taken photo, shall we?

Having invented a sort of fuse that would enable her to light a match and get safely away before a fire really caught, she made a whole career out of helping people who wanted to burn buildings down for the insurance money. By the 1930s, police were calling her “The Arson Queen.”

One of her fires in 1928 had a particular hiccup – a handicapped 17 year old was still in the building when she set the fire, and lost his life. Bertha took the stand in the resulting case, and it was covered in a November, 1934 issue of the Tribune. In a pattern you see in a lot of cases like this, the papers often complained that attractive woman were treated so well by the courts that they were almost always acquitted (or at least given much lighter sentences than a man would get for the same crime; we never hanged a woman here), but were only too happy to pile unpleasant language on the female defendants they found less attractive. Consider that a trigger warning for what follows.

“Mrs. Warchovsky,” the paper wrote, “a short, dumpy woman told how she ‘touched off’ the fire on Aug 11, 1928. She seemed surprised when Prosecutors Kearney and Nash did not seem to understand some of her firebug phrases. She used gestures most of the time to demonstrate her testimony.”

Warchovsky said she’d charged the owner of the house her usual fee – $170 – to set the fire at Taylor and Racine (earlier articles indicate taht the owner collected about $11,200 in insurance money).   “Yes,” she said. “Harry Brown called me on the telephone and told me that I should come over, that there was going to be a fire there. I took a cab and went right over. We started right in to make balls.”

“What do you mean?” asked the lawyer.

“Balls, paper balls like this (she demonstrated with gesturing). We were supposed to make the fire that day, but when we got the layout fixed up we couldn’t make the fire because some people were sitting outside.”

A rather unflattering shot in the Tribune

The next day, Bertha took another cab over and found that the place was ready to burn except for a lack of gasoline. While one man got the gas ready, Bertha touched up the wick, a process she described in court: “First, I lighted a cigar, and blew like this (blowing) to make the flame red. Then I tied it inside of a bunch of safety matches. The cigar sets off the matches and the matches start the wick to burning and then pretty soon the gasoline paper balls go up and then comes the real fire.”

Several days before, the Tribune had stated that the “dumpy little grandmother” had confessed to at least a dozen such fires. In describing her, the paper said “The ‘queen’ is of Henry VIII proportions on an abridged scaled. The chair into which she was wedged elevated her rotund shins so that her feet swung clear, while her 225 pounds of royalty clamped the throne immovably to its proper place on the floor. …Most of the ‘touch-offs’ were her own work, she admitted, because a woman would be less likely to arouse suspicion.

Prosecutors were asking the death penalty for the owner of the building, though not for Bertha, who presumably didn’t know that the house was occupied. She still would have probably been on trial for murder, but got a severance in exchange for turning state’s evidence.  She seems to have had a regular career as a witness in arson trials after this, stating at one point that she’d started more fires than she could remember.

My research on her is still at an early state; I’ve browsed the Tribune archives but haven’t really checked the defunct papers or the legal archives for the kind of info that hides in there (including perhaps a better photo). I’m not even really sure how the trial described above came out yet. But I wanted to put up the article to plug my upcoming Taylor Street Tour, which will talk about her and several other stories that have been on this blog. See ya there, and GO CUBS!

Fake Nuns and Drunken Revels at the Phony Orphanage, 1908

St. Jospeh’s and three of the
“sisters” in the Chicago American. Papers
differ as to the exact address, but it appears to be
long gone now.

Neighbors who lived near St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans on East 35th in 1908 thought there was something awfully strange about the place. It was a religious home, run by a priest and few nuns, but they sure seemed to party hard there. And late into the night, too.

Fathern Anton de Lubicz, the priest in charge, was a fraud. Like Sam Cardinella, he seems like a guy who read a Dickens book and thought it was an instruction manual. In Cardinella’s case it was Oliver Twist, and for de Lubicz, it was Nicholas Nickleby, in which Nicholas works at Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school where headmaster Wackford Squeers pockets most of the money he should be spending on the care and feeding of the inmates and spends most of his time beating the kids and forcing them to do hard labor. That’s about what St. Joseph’s seems to have been like, with the added twist that Anton de Lubicz claimed to be a priest. Three “nuns” were sent out daily to collect alms, bringing in about $12 a day each.

By most accounts (certainly by their own), the “nuns” had been duped and thought they were real nuns; even the “Mother Superior” who was recruited from a Milwaukee Avenue restaurant where she’d been a waitress. But a servant employed in the home eventually went to the police and the anti-cruelty society with tales of midnight “orgies” and severe beatings of the dozen or so orphans who lived there in September, 1908.  “I never heard such a profane and vile-speaking man as De Lubicz,” she told the Tribune. “He never thought of the little girls he was wronging…nor of the orphans who often heard him, but he swore just like a trooper…. I have seen drunken carousals at the place at all hours.”

A photo from “Father” Lubicz from the Chicago American

“We thought we had been taken into the church,” said one of the “sisters.” “I remember now that there were no vows of any kind and no training. We did not serve as novitiates…. we used to have mass read every morning. Lately the father has only said mass once a week. He declared it was too much trouble to have a daily service.”

The sisters were required to bring in $12 a day fro mbegging, or Father de Lubicz would be “very severe.” The Sisters of Charity outfits were never questioned anywhere. The Armour company donated fifty bucks; ledgers had Schlitz and Atlas brewing companies down for ten bucks each.  Ledgers listed smaller confirmations from several other companies – mostly brewers.

“When our day’s work was over,” said “Sister Fideljon” in the Chicago American, “we had a good time. We took off our charity gowns and put on our other dresses. The father used to bring his men friends to the house and would entertain them until late at night.  The children were beaten frequently; if they did not obey any of the nuns or the father they were soundly thrashed.” One nun told the Examiner that the beatings were administered with a horse whip.

The orphans were literally eating gruel; the servant who informed the cops said she’d been given only $3 per day to feed as many as 18 inmates. According to the Examiner, breakfast was usually small amounts of oatmeal and rye bread, lunch was bread and butter, and dinner was a small bowl of soup.

A member of the anti-cruelty society inspected the place and was appalled. It smelled like sewer gas, the children were barely fed, and there was garbage everywhere. The cops launched a raid on the place a couple of days later.

Anton (or Antonio) de Lubicz in street clothes

“Father” de Lubicz escaped the raid, but soon surrendered. “He told police that he was ordained by The Independent Polish Catholic Church, and had paperwork to back it up, and claimed he was just a scapegoat being dragged through the mud by the former servant, who had been fired.  Other priests insisted that his paperwork was bogus.  “All priests have women in their employ,” he told the Examiner. “And I consider it no sin to drink beer.” This may have been so, but “Father” de Lubicz also had a wife and children living on Leavitt Street, near North Avenue, which would have been distinctly unusual for a real priest.. When found by reporters, his wife wept and said he was “a bad man.”

The next month, he was found guilty of cruelty to children and fined $5.
He was still on trial for other charges related to the orphanage when he skipped his bail and went to Canada, where he was caught again in January, 1909. He was extradited back to Chicago, but I’ve yet to find any data on what happened to him.

Conway: The One-Legged Killer Clown of 1912

“It’s Only a Paper Moon…” Charles Cramer, alias Conway, the clown
with a wooden leg, in a postcard photo with his
wife, circa 1911, a year before he murdered Sophia Singer.

In 1908, a woman named Frances Thompson was found strangled to death and robbed in a home on the 1200 block of South Michigan. A man named Luman Mann was tried for her murder and acquitted. During the whole ordeal, Mann’s father, Orville, received an anonymous note stating that he could solve the mystery if he went to Riverview, the north side amusement park, and find a clown with a wooden leg.

Mr. Mann doesn’t seemed to have followed up on the clue at the time, but four years later just such a clown would be arrested for another murder in Chicago, in a story that made from page news before being completely forgotten.

In early October, 1912, an heiress named Sophie Singer came to Chicago with her fiance, Will Worthen. They were met at the station by a “Mrs. Conway” who suggested that they all get a flat together instead of a hotel. This “Mrs. Conway” was really Mrs. Louisa Cramer, the wife of Charles N. Cramer (alias Charles Kramer, alias Charles Conway). The two were in the circus profession; Mrs. Conway was a lion tamer who also called herself The Queen of Burlesque and Mr. Cramer doubled as Conway the Clown,  working as a parachute performer and as the “comet” in a high dive act. Some time before, a circus accident had cost him the portion of one of his legs, below the knee, and he walked with a self-built wooden foot.

The Cramers in court.

The three set up housekeeping in a little flat on the 2900 block of S. Indiana Ave, eventually joined by Mr. Cramer (who the couple, as well as the papers, would usually called “Charles Conway.”) The circus couple had no money, except what their new friends gave them. And they seem to have given them plenty. The Conways, it seems, were the sort of mooches who made people feel happy to pay.

Until Miss Singer started thinking it was time to go back to Baltimore. At that point, Worhten later said, “they seemed to hate us all at once.”  The unlikely foursome moved to another house a few blocks south. Worthen went out gambling (he had a system where he had friends at the races telephoning in results to him before they could be telegraphed to the bookies), and came to the new rooming house  to find the keyhole stuffed. Breaking down the door, he found Sophie’s feet sticking out from under the bed. She had been strangled to death; her hands were tied with clothes line and Cramer’s handkerchief was shoved so deep into her throat that police needed pincers to remove it. Her jewelry had been stolen.

After a nationwide dragnet, the Cramers were caught in Lima, Ohio, near where Charles had been born in 1886. Mrs. Cramer quickly confessed, and when he learned of the confession, Charles did, too, though he insisted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder, though he said it had been in self defense, following a quarell after Miss Singer had suggested that Mrs. Cramer should be try prostitution.

In the midst of confessing, he did a bit of clowning with reporters and police. “Say, Captain?” he asked. “Do you know that in this case you can’t hang a man with a wooden leg?” When the Captain said he’d never heard of a law like that, Cramer said “You have to use a rope!”  Har de har har.

“How did you hurt your foot?” one reporter asked. “A steamboat ran over it,” Cramer joked.

The trial in March, 1913, made front page news, even in the shadow of Woodrow Wilson’s
inauguration as president. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cramer recanted their confession, stating that the police had used “third degree” methods to get them, denying them food and medicine in their separate cells. The judge did eventually throw out the confessions, but the jury found the Cramers guilty. Charles was sentenced to life in one prison, and Louisa was sentenced to fourteen years in another (she served about a year). Charles only narrowly avoided the gallows.

As he was led away, he vowed that he would “get out of this,” and twelve years later he made good on his promise. In 1925, while serving on the “honor farm” at Joliet, Cramer escaped from prison. He last appears in the news in 1932, when his mother tried to get a judge to declare him dead so that she could collect his life insurance. According to articles at the time, he had last been seen in Toledo in 1929.  The world never learned what had really become of the Conway, the murderous one-legged clown, after his escape….

This is one of those stories that I find myself in disbelief over. A one-legged clown was convicted of murder in Chicago, escaped from prison, and was never caught. And, outside of some brief mentions in papers between 1914 and 1932, no one seems to have written about it at all ever since!

I can’t help but think of the peg-legged ghost that is said to haunt the Congress Hotel….

1893: Another Body Turned to Stone

The bodies of the two nuns on Taylor Street we spoke of in our recent entry aren’t the only bodies in Chicago reported to have turned to stone. Another was found on the beach in 1893.

“Of all the horrible bodies that lie in the morgue,” wrote the Chicago Times, “this thing is the most repulsive. Bloated, puffed up ‘floaters’ are there made more grewsome (sic) by the flecks of disinfecting powder scattered over their purpled faces; there are unclean, ragged tramps battered and torn under car wheels. But the other horros pass unnoticed beside the mysterious scrap of a body which Policeman Jeffry dug out of the sands in Lake View.”

When Officer Jeffry was making the rounds along the beach near Hollywood Avenue in April, 1893, he came upon a ghoulish find: the dismembered torso of a woman, half-buried in the sand. The arms were fully severed, along with the head. Part of the spine and thigh bones protruded from the torso, one all the way down to the knee joint. Some of the flesh was blackened or missing.

But what remained of the flesh appeared to stone. Some papers said it was as white as marble, others described it as gray, but all agreed that when tapped, it made a hollow, hard sound, as though someone was tapping a hollow tree or a papier mache cast.  Only a faint odor of decay was present.

Morguekeeper Sanders had never seen anything like it. At first he speculated that the had been killed by a propeller, but the dismemberment was fairly neat – the head and arms were completely gone, the legs hacked off above the knee. Also, it would have had to happen back in the fall, when boats were still navigating the lake, and the body probably would have decomposed far more in warmer water.  One officer suggested she’d been killed with arsenic, since arsenic could preserve bodies. Others guessed she’d been weighted down in icy water that kept her frozen.

The Times suggested “perhaps after all it is the work of those ghoulish jokers, the medical students. The adolescent scientists who spend their nights smoking big pips and clawing into unpleasant corpses do such things as this sometimes. It is a great joke for your medical students to drop a scrap of a corpse in the street or some out of the way place, hoping thereby to create stir of a mystery.”  One person at the morgue did say that perhaps it had been a medical cadaver from one of the universities that had been dissected and kept in a “pickling vat,” but that traces of the knife had been removed by the water.  .

Several hundred people, according to the Times, came to the morgue hoping for a peek, and were disappointed that it was not on public exhibition.

On April 8, an inquest was held and attended by around 20 doctors. They all agreed that the seemingly-stone body was not “petrified” so much as “preserved” in a natural process in which “minute particles of sand” were ground beneath the skin, making it as hard as rock. (I’d love it if anyone with scientific knowledge could weigh in on this; it doesn’t seem possible to me).

Dr. Louis J. Mitchell, the coroner’s physician, examined the body and declared that the internal organs indicated that it was a man, not a woman.

One theory police came up with – when it was still thought to be a woman’s body – was that this was the body of “Alice,” a mystery corpse from 1889 whose story had been part of what was then called the Crime of the Century: a story recently, and thrillingly, told in Gillian O’Brien’s excellent new book, Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago.

In May of 1889, Dr. Patrick Cronin disappeared. He’d been telling friends that he feared for his life; his work to expose corruption in Irish American rebel societies had made him some very powerful enemies. When he disappeared, opinions flew throughout the city. Some said he’d been murdered, others that he’d fled to Canada or Britain for any number of reasons.  During the early investigations, police had followed men carrying a trunk in a cart who ran off down Diversey and Fullerton to the Lake and refused to stop when told to, and when a bloody trunk was found, it was thought that perhaps they’d dumped Dr. Cronin’s body in the lake.

However, a young horse thief named Woodruff claimed that he’d been involved in moving the trunk, and that it had contained the mutilated body of a woman that the others called “Alice” (some sources say “Allie”), and that he was under the impression that she was a young woman who died during an abortion performed by Dr. Cronin, who had fled the country when she didn’t survive the operation. Police briefly connected her to a missing girl named Alice Villavose. They dragged the pond in Lincoln Park for her body, but came up empty. All I could find about Alice V. was a few notes in out-of-town papers saying she’d turned out to be alive.

In time, Dr. Cronin’s beaten and murdered (but not mutilated) body was found in sewer in Evanston. The resulting trial was the longest in U.S. history at the time, and the story of Woodruff and “Alice” was mostly forgotten. Most probably determined that there had never really been a woman in the trunk at all.

Until that one day in 1893, when police wondered if maybe “Alice” had been real after all.

Given the timeline – the body was found right as the World’s Fair was opening – it’s almost remarkable that no one brought the story up again two years later, when papers briefly tried to blame every murder that had ever happened on H.H. Holmes. Mutilating and preserving a body sounds like the sort of thing you hear about him doing, though it’s more the sort of thing he was said to do in tabloids and pulps than what he actually did.

The Resurrection of Nicholas Viana

Il Diavolo

The guards at the old prison on Dearborn and Illinois weren’t afraid of much, but one prisoner really freaked them out: Sam “Il Diavolo” Cardinella, the head of a high insular, secretive gang that operated out of his pool room on 22nd Place. Their whole story was in a previous post: The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang.  The thing people remember about him the most is that he tried to have his body brought back to life after he was hanged: he’d lost a lot of weight and had a breakdown that forced the guards to tie him to a chair to hang him; a shorter drop with less weight meant a better chance he would strangle instead of having his neck broken. Cops caught his friends trying to bring him back in an ambulance out back.

And word among the prisoners was that he thought he’d pull it off because they’d already tested it, successfully, one of his underlings: Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Viana, who had been hanged a few months before on his 19th birthday. In 1936, jail physician Frank McNamara told of stories that had gone around “the grapevine” about “magic” used at a nearby undertaking parlor, which, after an hour, had gotten Viana’s heart beating again, and even gotten him to start moaning, at which point someone gave a signal and the “magicians” backed off, letting him die again (for having been a traitor to the gang).

Some newly-uncovered data suggests that maybe, just maybe, it was more than just a rumor.

These are the facts: Nicholas Viana was, by all accounts, a good kid until the day that he walked into Cardinella’s pool room on the way to choir practice. A week later he committed his first murder. He was eventually sentenced to be hanged, along with Cardinella and a couple of other members of the gang.


I’ve always suspected that his story served as the inspiration for Nicholas Romano, the altar boy-turned-killer in Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door who coined the phrase “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” Motley wrote the book while serving as a writer-in-residence at Hull House; Jane Addams attempted to get clemency for Viana. She was unsuccessful, though – they only thing that would have saved him was turning state’s evidence. And Viana  was still so afraid of Cardinella that he refused to give over evidence that might have saved his neck, fearing that Sam would “beat this yet” and take revenge on his mother and sisters.

Viana sang “Misere” from Il Trovatore on the way to “death cell” where the condemned spent their last nights (“beat any show you ever saw,” one witness later said), then shouted “Good bye, boys. Good bye to all but Sam Cardinella. May his soul be damned.” Cardinella heard, but did not respond. Sam had just asked Viana to write him a letter that would clear him. “Kind of a joke, isn’t it?” he asked. “Cardinella got me when I was a boy. He is responsible for what will happen to me tomorrow.”

 Reporters hoped Viana would sing on the scaffold the next day; he didn’t, but he seemed to be in remarkably good humor, repeatedly calling the event a “birthday party.”  “It is no disgrace,” he said “to die for my father, mother and sisters. I forgive everyone in the world…I thank the guards for the kindness they have shown me.”

The Chicago Herald Examiner of
Dec 10, 1920. Papers went back and forth
between spellings “Viana” and “Viani,”
as well as “Cardinella” vs “Cardinelli,”
and continued to talk about Al Caponi well into
the early 1930s. Records go both ways (and a
few others besides).

At this point, Sheriff Peters had the noose attached – it was a new knot method, using 7 turns of the rope instead of 4. The Evening Post said that it had broken his neck instantly. The Herald Examiner, though, said physicians fingered his pulse and found that it had taken him nine minutes to die (the death certificate says the neck was broken) Herald also noted that at the moment he died, a mirror in the courtroom where he had been sentenced fell from the wall and shattered.

Four months later the cops caught Cardinella’s friends trying to revive Cardinella after his own hanging, and stories about Viana began to circulate. They made it to the press that July, when Sheriff Peters announced that from now on, hanged men’s bodies would guarded for at least an hour before being turned over in order to block resuscitation attempts. I saw mention of this in a couple of regional papers on genealogy sites, but the microfilm room yielded some quotes from defunct papers with prison officials – and the undertaker himself – that shed much more light on the story:

“Such an effort was made after the hanging of Nick Viana last December,” he told the Post, ” and doctors with a resuscitating apparatus succeeded in getting a flicker of life back into the body, I am told, though they failed in the end.” This came from an unnamed informant, and the sheriff further noted that it was possible that the informant had lied, and Viana was brought fully back to life and was now up and walking around. He further told the Evening Journal that the body had been brought to the undertaker, according to his source, and an attempt had been made to revive him with a pulmotor, and cited assistant jailer Lorenz Meisterheim as the one who brought it to his attention.  Meisterheim had heard it from friends and relatives of Viana. Both were satisfied that it was true, with Meisterheim saying that the heart had started to beat when some “unforseen circumstance” brought the procedure to a halt.

Chicago Evening Post, June 24, 1921

James Marzano ran the undertaking parlor at 951 W. Polk Street where Viana’s body was taken, and local reporters tracked him down at once. He gave the Journal a flat denial. “I personally had charge of Viana’s body, and embalmed it immediately upon its arrival here,” he said. “There is absolutely nothing to reports that relatives and friends attempted to bring him back to life with the aid of a pulmotor. It is possible some of his friends would have liked to have tried it, but they had no chance.” He went on to say that reviving a strangled man was “barely possible,” but possible.

When he spoke to the Herald Examiner, though, he admitted that it had at least been discussed, and that it could have been done. “There is no doubt but that we would have had some success,” he said. “His temperature had dropped only two points when we got the body, but we were afraid of running afoul of the law.”

Sheriff Peters wasn’t having any of this. “I’m satisfied that the tale is true,” he said. “I do not say that the undertaker had anything to do with it. But the evidence given to us tends to show that the operation took place in his morgue.”

However true the story might have been, it does seem quite likely that Cardinella thought was true. Dr. McNamara remembered that when he met with his family for the last time before his own hanging, he was saying the word “Viana” over and over.

This wouldn’t have been the first time that there’d been an attempted resurrection: a more official had been made a generation earlier, when doctors genuinely experimented with bringing murderer James Tracy back to life. See our post: The Chicago Frankenstein Case.

And for more on these cases, see our ebook Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows.

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A Masked Supervillain Terrorizes Chicago, 1892

In late November of 1892, wild rumors spread about a mysterious  “highwayman,” a masked robber who rode a dark horse with a blazing red leather saddle, and who had been terrifying Lake View, on the north side of Chicago. The Tribune described him as “either a maniac or a desperado.” Lake View and Lincoln Park became police states as dozens of officers were put on call to catch the crook, and stories began to circulate that the costumed crook had supernatural powers.

Children on the north side spoke in whispers that The Highwayman had been heard riding though Graceland Cemetery at midnight, the hoofs clacking over the tombstones as he rode atop them. Another said that he’d been seen on horseback jumping off a bridge and riding the horse right through the filthy Chicago River.

And his fame wasn’t limited to Chicago. The story of the Lakeview Highwayman was retold in papers all over the country, and a few questioned how such a city could be trusted to hold a World’s Fair the next year.

Where was Batman when we needed him?

Seldom has there been an example of how much a little flair for the dramatic can turn a story into a sensation. In reality, the Highwayman’s deeds were pretty low-key. If he hadn’t been wearing the mask, he would have been little more than a simple b-rate robber. But dress up like the Dread Pirate Roberts in a bowler hat and get yourself a dark horse with a white star on its forehead, and you become a supervillain!

The drama began on November 23rd, 1892, when a man in Lake View was approached by a masked rider who wore a mask covering his eye. Above it was a stiff derby hat, and below it a sandy mustache. The “highwayman” ordered him to set all his money on the ground and go away. This same instance was repeated several times all over the north side over the course of the rest of the day, concluding with a daring chase in which a cop took control of a bakery cart and chased the Highwayman a mile through the north side, firing a few shots in the process. He struck at North and Clybourn, at Clark and Lawrence, and at several saloons. However, his net profits were estimated to be in the range of $5.35

The next day, dozens of officers were brought in and armed citizens patrolled the streets, interrogated pretty much anyone they saw riding a horse, but the robberies continued and the rider eluded capture.

After two nights, a mustached man dropped a horse off at a stable, saying he’d be back in an hour. When the was was never called for, the stable owner notified the cops, who were able to confirm that the horse was the one that Highwayman had used. But there was no trace of the Highwayman.

What was generally agreed was that this was no professional robber; the “highway robbery” techniques he used were the sort of thing you saw far more often in dime novels than in real life.  The Highwayman would approach a person and “Got any money? Throw it on the ground,” threatening to shoot if they disobeyed . He’d wait until they’d run far away before picking up whatever they’d tossed.

On November 27, a masked Highwayman with a long rifle (or a pistol in each hand, depending on the witness) was seen in Winnetka and Highland Park in the north burbs, riding towards Evanston. Police went on his trail, but didn’t think it was the SAME highwayman; this one had a black mustache. Apparently, the tales of derring-do had begun to inspire imitators (the one in the north burbs turned out to be a troubled young student from Highland Park who was only out for kicks). One credible rumor was that the criminal was a student who’d promised to put on a mask and rob everyone he saw for four days if Benjamin Harrison lost the election to Grover Cleveland (which he did).  Another masked highwayman – possibly the REAL Lake View Highwayman – robbed of man of 6 bucks in west suburban Riverside the same day, and then repeated the deed the next day in Berwyn, Cicero, and other southwest suburbs, putting the area on high alert.

On the 28th, The Highwayman showed a bit of his true colors when a grocer / undertaker in Aurora was approached by him. THe grocery/undertaker brandished a whip and told the Highwayman to “Shoot and be goldarned,” which was all it took to get him to flee.

The Lake View Highwayman apparently returned to Chicago on November 29th, striking in Avondale, but by this time he was losing his ability to inspire fear: the story of the grocer made the news all over the midwest. On November 30th, a man scared him away from a hold-up on Elston Avenue with a toy pistol.

Then, as suddenly as he came, the Lake View Highwayman simply vanished from the news. Sightings ceased in early December, and papers forgot all about him. In the summer of 1893 there was a only small item stating that the police had arrested a horse thief named James Dustin who was suspecting of being the Highwayman; he had a bunch of masks and fake mustaches in his possession. Several of the Highwayman’s victims were brought to the station, but none were certain that Dustin was the man. He had, after all, been wearing a mask.

As near as I can tell, this blog post is the first thing written about him since 1893. National news for a week, then forgotten for over a century.

I can’t resist ending with the most basic line of them all: Who was that masked man?

The Murder Castle Sign Shop Kidnapping (updated!)


new info at the bottom of the post!

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune posted a few 1930s-era photos of the H.H. Holmes murder castle from their archives online. All of them have circulated before, but never in nearly such great quality, or, in some cases, uncropped. I’ve seen the photo of the stove and tile floor still in place as of the 1930s, but never the version with the man standing off to the side.

The exact date of the middle photos is hard to determine. The first was certainly taken in 1895 (it remains the only photo of the version of the castle Holmes knew; the top two floors were torn down and replaced late that year, after a fire damaged them), and the fourth is presumablyfrom January, 1938, when it ran with an item saying the castle was slated to be razed.

1920s or 30s

The middle two are trickier to date. The exterior shot ran in a March, 1937 retelling of the Holmes story, and the “stove” shot has circulated, but I’m not sure it ever ran in the paper.

When it was taken, exactly, is more of a mystery. In it, we can clearly see that the sign store on the site of Holmes’ old drug store was Spatz Sign Shop. The later shot has the name crossed out, and a sign saying they’d moved down the block to 520 W 63rd. However, according to the local Southtown Economist, they moved to that spot in 1930. Could the shots be from before that?

The exact time frame in which the sign shop operated in the castle has been a bit confusing, but in researching it, I came upon another mystery.

BH Spatz in his sign shop, in the site of the HH Holmes
drug store. A couple of papers briefly claimed that
Holmes was cremating bodies in the stove, and this
is STILL often said to be true, though cremating bodies in
such a stove would not have been possible.

The man in the shot is presumably B.H. Spatz, who ran the sign shop until his death in 1939 (at which point his wife, Bess, took over). Bennet Spatz (the middle name was likely Hugo, his mother’s maiden name) appears in plenty of census records, but appears in papers only a couple of times, always related to another mystery: in 1922, his daughter was kidnapped.

Though the story only appears in bits and pieces in scattered articles, it seems that in 1922, his 13-or-14-year-old daughter, Maxine, was kidnapped and held for eight days in the Plaza Hotel at 24 West Huron. After being rescued by the police, she was preparing to testify against a group of five people involved in August of 1922, when she and a couple of neighbors said they’d seen a couple of the group loitering around the neighborhood.


On August 20th, Maxine left her home near 61st and Halsted to run an errand, and never returned. Papers assumed she’d been kidnapped again by the people against whom she was planning to testify. The story was next mentioned in November, when it was said that her mother was doubling her efforts to find her, but that was the last Chicagoans at large ever heard about Maxine Spatz.

This could turn into a whole other rabbit hole of research. Connecting her to Holmes simply because her father worked in a shop in the castle (possibly long after she vanished) is shaky, but when I was working on the ebook about the “Holmes curse“, I found newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century calling people victims of the curse for a whole lot less.

How and when Maxine was eventually found is not yet known; I’ve yet to see any paper announcing that she’d been found. But thanks to a comment from one of her nieces, I was at least able to confirm that she must have been found eventually! She married a man named Charles Keener and moved with him to Indiana, along with her mother, Bessie, and her son, Hugo (which I believe is what the H in B.H. Spatz stood for; it was his mother’s maiden name and comes up a lot in the family). According to records, she died in 1961. She was known to relatives as “Aunt Sissy.”

Cookie, Maxine’s niece (and B.H. Spatz’s great grandduaghter), just spoke to me on the phone a bit. She was born some years after the castle was torn down and replaced with the post office, but remembers being young and walking past the site and being told “If you’re bad, you’ll go down in there and Dr. Holmes will get you!”

She remembers her great grandmother, Bessie, would often point out many of the signs around the neighborhood that had been painted in Spatz’s Sign Shop (she survived him by several decades, dying in 1972; he was a veteran of the Spanish American war, and she was still collecting benefits at the time of her death). The fact that it had been Holmes’s old place was not unknown to the family.  However, the family never spoke of Maxine’s kidnapping, so the story there is still bit of a mystery.