An Al Capone Relic?

One of Capone’s first gigs in Chicago was working at the notorious Four Deuces club, 2222 S. Wabash, which was Johnny Torrio’s headquarters. It was here that Torrio taught Capone what he needed to know before passing the empire on to him.

The Four Deuces club is long gone today – there’s a vacant lot on the site, but some concrete remains here and there along the edge that are sometimes said to be the old concrete foundations.

A few months ago, while scoping the space out, we found a bizarre little thing poking out of the ground. After digging, we found that it was this:

At first I thought it was a decoration of some sort, but the wiring made us think it might be a railroad signal switch (the label DOES say “Made for Union Switch and Signal Co. by Ward Leonard Electric CO). But it actually appears, according to some readers who seem to know their stuff, to be some sort of heating coil-type mechanism. Was this a part of the Four Deuces? Just some railroad junk?

We’re guessing the latter, but you never know….

The Haunted Vic Theatre?

I’ve recently heard from some people who work in the Vic Theatre, at Belmont and Sheffield, that the place is haunted – specifically, it’s said to be haunted by a stagehand and by Victoria, the namesake of the theatre, who is said to have killed herself in the building. Footsteps and things like that are heard a lot, and the ghostly stagehand occasionally shouts “Stop it!” at people who are acting up.

It sounds like a lot of ghostly stuff is reported in the theatre (footsteps, strange voices, etc), but I can’t back up the history just yet. The theatre was built in 1912 as a vaudevile house under the name The New Victoria theatre and underwent MANY changes. Like most of the great theatres in town, it was a porno theatre at one point. For a while it was called the Roberto Clemente and played Mexican cinema. In the late 20s it was the German Theatre (which showed operettas), and then was shut down altogether in the Depression. In the 70s, it was even an auto part warehouse and shop for a while. It became The Vic as we know it today around 1984. At the time, the stage hadn’t been used for anything in fifty years.

I can’t trace a single actual death in the place, and can’t actually find any source that says there actually was such a person as Victoria in the first place, let alone anything to indicate that she died there, other than hearsay.

Anyone care to correct me?

The Fool Killer Submarine – more evidence

The best guess anyone has put forth on the origin of the Fool Killer Submarine is that it was built by Lodner Phillips around 1849 – and had presumably been in the water ever since when it was dredged up from the Chicago river in 1915 for display on South State street.

Most of the evidence connecting it to Phillips has come from Phillips’ family lore, but, as we concluded in our book (which features the most complete article ever written about the sub), it’s still the only theory that makes any sense.

This picture may be the best proof of all:

This drawing, by one Col. Fields, shows a Phillips sub – Phillips went on to build several other models with various degrees of success. This one – which had guns attached – would have been a later model, but it does look a LOT like the Foolkiller:

Of course, all subs do look pretty much alike, at least in theory – but this was the 1840s. Submarines didn’t really exist yet, and the models that were built varied widely in appearance. These two could practically be doubles, except for the guns. While I don’t think it’s the kind of evidence that would hold up in court, this is pretty good evidence that the sub was a Phillips creation, wheras the stories published in the papers at the time (namely, that it was from 1870 and had been raised and sunk again around 1890) haven’t had a shred to back them up come to light.

New theory on the “gunshot?”

In the Florentine Room on the tour last night, a 9 volt battery was found on the ground near the door to the hallway where the noise was heard (see previous post). It appeared to be somewhat damaged, as though it had fallen. It made a pretty good noise when dropped. Could the sound we heard just have been a battery falling?

It’s possible, but not likely. For one thing, the sound was much bigger than you’d expect from a battery, and dropping it tended to result in it bouncing around quite audibly. For another, there’s no way to tell if the battery was there on Thursday; if it was, we didn’t notice it – and we looked around pretty carefully. Since Thursday, tables had been set up for an upcoming function in the room – the battery more likely fell out of someone’s pocket (or something) during the setup. If it had been there Thursday, the setup crew on Friday or Saturday probably would have picked it up.

Most importantly, batteries usually don’t just randomly fall out of nowhere. Nothing battery powered was mounted to the ceiling.

So, as a skeptic, I was quite willing to say that the noise had just been the battery, but, frankly, the pieces don’t fit. Still working on this one!

(note: there may not be many entries this week, as I’ll be blogging from Denver at the DNC over on my normal blog as part of the “bonus material” for my upcoming SMART ALECK’S GUIDE TO US HISTORY (Delacorte Press, 2010)).

Update

Sorry for the recent silence – we’ve been occupied with doing some intensive research inside of a certain famously haunted place. We can’t talk about it much yet; this is one of those investigations where loose lips might sink ships. But it’ll be worth the wait – the information (and evidence) that we’re getting on this place is pretty awesome!

Also, don’t forget that next Saturday, the 26th, is the annual Bughouse Square Debates in Bughouse Square, on Clark just above Chicago Ave. Things usually pick up around 11am! I’ll sure be there – in fact, it’s sort of my bachelor party, since I’m getting married the next day.

The book should hit stores in the next couple of weeks – it’s at the printers now!

The Fool Killer Submarine ad

One of our favorite topics around here is The Foolkiller, the submarine found in the river in late 1915 that contained the skulls of a dead man and his dog. How old the sub was, who the guy was, and what became of the thing, are some of the city’s enduring mysteries. People tend to think I’m kidding when I tell the story about kids being admitted to see the wreck and the corpses for half price on Saturday mornings, so I’ve started bringing along a copy of the original ad from the Tribune that I dug up:

Yes, the thing was actually on display in the loop – dead bodies and all! Inflation has certainly gotten bad lately – the goodman theatre offered to show me a skull lately, and the price has has gone up from a dime to $500! It was eventually put on display in a carnival that traveled the midwest, and its last known whereabouts were on the midway at Riverview in late 1916.

100 W Grand (nee ______?)

Research into the building at 100W Grand (currently the location of Fado) is turning out to be pretty tricky.

We know that in the 1980s, it was the Conklin and Adler law firm.

However, it gets a bit hard to trace before that. I’m almost certain that Conklin and Adler were the first to use 100W Grand as the address; prior to that, the entrance was almost certainly on Clark. My guess is that C&A didn’t want to be associated with Clark; they probably moved in at a time not so very long ago when that stretch of Clark was just one strip club after another.

Rumor has it that Clarence Darrow once had an office in the building; we know he had one in the Rookery and one at 94 LaSalle (which, since the 1909 renumbering, would have been half a block down from this building), but I haven’t been able to verify that yet.

We do have some pretty good information on the place, but the number of address changes at this place make it hard to verify things.

Anyone know any more than I do? Send the info along!

H.H. Holmes in Wicker Park #1

We’ve dug up more information that makes us feel that we can now confidently say that the Frank Wilde who owned Frank Wilde’s Fruit and Candy Store was actually just an alias for H.H. Holmes, the murder castle builder of newfound “Devil in the White City” fame. The location of the place was variously given as 1151 or 1152 Milwaukee in the Tribune, but other papers went with 1151 and it seems as though 1152 was never an actual address. After the 1909 renumbering, that would put the location of H.H. Holmes’ candy store at what is now 1513 N. Milwaukee.

See where the AT&T building is? It would have been right there. The building itself is, like just about every Holmes’ building, long gone – we’re working on a database of all the buildings he rented, owned, or even worked in, and haven’t found one (with the possible exception of one wall) in Chicago that’s still standing. In descriptions of his buildings, you run across the words “ramshackle” and “rickety” a lot. Not the sort of stuff that lasts a century.

It was at this spot, though, that Holmes seduced -and probably killed – Emily Van Tassel. Not one book on Holmes has quite gotten this story right; most say she worked for Holmes at his murder castle. In fact, she worked at the candy store, having previously been employed by a photographer a few doors down. She lived with her mother at a Damen street home right about where the Pritzker School is now, across from Wicker Park.

Her mother said that she met Holmes four times, and that she accompanied them on a date once or twice, for long walks and ice cream, but that Emily, who was 16 or 17 and taught Sunday School, was a “good girl” and wouldn’t have gone off with him without telling her. She went missing one day, and Mrs. Van Tassel knew what had happened the moment she saw a drawing of Holmes in the papers.

The police questioned her and her neighbors at great length before deciding to believe her, but as of 1895 they were confident that Wilde was a Holmes alias (the 1890 census only exists in fragments, but there’s certainly no one by that name in the 1880 or 1900 ones in Chicago). For a time, it was believed that he had stashed her body in the basement of the candy store, but most decided that it was more likely she was taken to the castle, murdered, and disposed of in such a way that would leave no trace. Even more likely, though, she would have been taken to the house and “glass bending” factory” Holmes was in possession of a few blocks North of the candy shop.