Victorian Criminologist’s HH Holmes Data Discovered

In the middle of researching HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, a podcaster asked me if I’d found everything, or if research was just for completism. If I remember right, I said I was mostly looking for minor details at this point, but you never know what you might find.

Only days later, I made a find that went almost beyond my wildest dreams.

In picking out local Philadelphia coverage of Holmes’ imprisonment as he awaited execution, I ran into several articles about a noted criminologist named Arthur MacDonald (or, in some articles, Alexander MacDonald). He made the news by applying for permission to have Holmes be strapped to a kymographion – a device that measure’s one breathing rate – while he was being hanged.

The application was denied, but MacDonald was allowed to visit Holmes in prison, where he subjected him to all of these wonderful toys:

Dr. MacDonald's wonderful toys - he was well respected in his time, but it mostly looks like Victorian junk science today.

Dr. MacDonald’s wonderful toys – he was well respected in his time, but it mostly looks like Victorian junk science today.

Most of the data he gathered by subjecting Holmes to these was utterly useless today – they’re barely a step above throwing Holmes in the water and saying he was a witch if he floated.  However, in a couple of the articles about him, MacDonald claimed that he he had been in touch with more than 200 of Holmes’ old associates asking for anecdotes about his character. Now, those, if they were still extant, would be something to see!

Digging deeper on MacDonald, I found that he had published all or part of about 30 of the letters in a book entitled Man or Abnormal Man, in a chapter called “The Case of H.” He didn’t mention Holmes by name (though it’s absolutely obvious that it’s him), which is probably why nothing written about Holmes before seems to use them as a source. Turning the pages and seeing just how many letters there were, my eyes got wider and wider, and I got so excited that I could barely contain myself. This was the kind of find you dream of making!

And, as a source, they’re an absolute treasure trove. The bulk of the letters came from old colleagues and professors from medical school, and give us a much clearer picture than we had before of his college days, his aptitude as a student, his living situation, and his relationship at the time with his firs wife, Clara, and their son, Robert, who lived with him in Ann Arbor for a while. We learn that his college nickname was “Smegma,” details about a breach of promise suit, what his professors thought of him, a lot about his domestic life, and some gruesome anecdotes about his prowess in the dissecting room.

There was also, perhaps most importantly, a letter from Clara Lovering-Mudgett herself, the clearest comment I’ve ever seen from (there were only a few quotes from her in newspapers, and many of them I don’t really buy as reliable). Elsewhere were letters from Marion Hedgepeth, his old cellmate, a childhood neighbor, Carrie Pitezel’s father, a castle resident, and more.

Of course, 30 letters is not 200. Perhaps MacDonald was exaggerating, but perhaps there are another 170 out there yet. I’ve checked with a university library that has his archives, but the search came up empty.

I wound up quoting them at length and referring to them frequently in HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, but it was too big a find to simply sit on and refer to. Hence, I’ve included all of them (with notes on who the anonymous writer was, when I could identify them) as an appendix in Very Truly Yours, HH Holmes, a new ebook collection of Holmes letters, writings, confessions, affidavits and more. It’s sort of a supplement to the official book, containing 150k words (about 700 pages!) of data, all either primary source material on Holmes or an important contemporary document that helped the legend grow (such as the New York World’s phony version of his forthcoming confession). Most of them have not been republished in over a century, and many of the cross-examinations, legal statements, and affidavits have never been publicly available at all. Check it out!


Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

Listen above, at or check out the podcast on iTunes!  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago papers published a number of articles about how many ghost stories there were on Sheridan Road. One of them came up just a bit in my HH Holmes research – the legend of a woman who dreamed for several nights that a body was buried in the Evanston Woods, near murderer Holmes’ old house in Wilmette. Upon sending her husband to dig in the spot, a skeleton was found.

I’d never given the story too much though, but further research today finally dug up some news stories from when the skeleton was first found in September, 1896. And checking the microfilms for Chicago papers back then blew the whole story wide open. Give a listen to the podcast to see what happened!

HH Holmes “Murder Castle” Architect’s Diagram Discovered

I’ve been sitting on the above photo for quite a while, but now that advance copies of my book, HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, are going around and they include it, I figure it’s time to release this one to the wilds of the internet.

The initial construction of the building now known as the HH Holmes “Murder Castle” took place in 1887 – at the time, it was just a two story building, with retail on one floor and apartments on the next. The third floor, which was ostensibly to be used as hotel rooms, was added in 1892.

The details for both phases of construction are well documented for one simple reason: Holmes didn’t pay his bills. In 1888, he was sued by Aetna Iron and Steel, who provided materials and labor. The architects sued him as part of the same lawsuit. Later suits with suppliers, investors, and insurance companies give excellent insight into more details.

Though I’ve found about 60 Holmes-related lawsuits in the legal archives, Aetna Iron and Steel vs Lucy T. Belknap (Holmes’ mother-in-law), is probably the one with the best info. Dragging on for over a year, Holmes filed affidavits telling the story of building the place, personally cross-examined a couple of workers, and more. There’s a ton of exciting data folded into the suit.

But nothing is quite as cool as the castle diagram, drawn by architect Edward Gallauner on a large sheet of very thin paper:

The Murder Castle architect's diagram, unfolded in the legal archives in Chicago, where it was folded into old lawsuit paperwork.

The Murder Castle architect’s diagram, unfolded in the legal archives in Chicago, where it was folded into old lawsuit paperwork.



It shows only the front portion that will face 63rd Street, and doesn’t have anything as lurid as, say, “torture equipment here,” (the bits about torture gear in the castle wouldn’t become part of the story until the 1940s), but it does give the exact dimensions of the front of the place. Other descriptions of it vary a little bit as to exactly how wide the place was.

Just for some perspective to help you see what we’re looking at here, here’s the diagram with the famous New York World diagram of the second floor overlaid:

The NY World diagram of the castle overlaid on the original architect's diagram

The NY World diagram of the castle overlaid on the original architect’s diagram

I’ll be covering more of the suit in a couple of upcoming blog posts, and transcribing some of the most important bits in Very Truly Yours, HH Holmes, a supplement to HH Holmes: The True Story of the White City Devil, which will include over 120k words of Holmes’ letters, statements, articles, confessions, affidavits, and more, many of which have never been published, and many more of which haven’t seen print since the 1890s.

In the mean time, here’s another plug for HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil,

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!

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!

Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

(new podcast! Click above, or see or iTunes
In 1888, a book of anecdotes about early Chicago retold a heck of a ghost story: one night on West Randolph, a woman heard ghostly footsteps up and down the stairs, then saw a disembodied hand shoving her apartment door shut. She ran away, then came back to find her baby in the oven (but alive), her dog dangling from a ribbon, and a bloody handprint on the door.

This story is a blast, because it seems like an embyronic version of a LOT of 20th century urban legends, like the old yarn about the babysitter putting the baby in the oven, and  the classic ghost story about “your dog isn’t the only one who can lick your hand,” not to mention the folklore motif of “the handprint that never faded away.”

We’ve had more than one “ghostly handprint” stories in Chicago over the years – in the podcast above we mention Frank Leavy’s hand, of which a photograph surfaced fairly recently .

0-handprint (1)

A 1939 Chicago Times photo of the Leavy handprint – probably retouched a bit for publication, but appears to be marked off with some sort of official seal. I’ll see if I can find this article for Halloween…

With few details in the 1888 book, it took some elbow grease to find the original source of the story! A regional reprint of an 1866 issue of the Chicago Post was eventually located, and gave the original ghost story in far greater detail – the story originally had a few more characters, took place over the course of two nights, and had a lot more objects flying around the room. By 1888, the story had been conflated and pared down to its basic urban legend components.

The house, said to have been the sight of “many dark deeds,” was given in the 1866 article as 128 West Randolph, which would be 645 West Randolph in modern numbering (where the Fiat dearly is now, across the corner from the Haymarket monument – so close that it may be one of the four story buildings in the photograph of the intersection of Randolph and Des Plaines above). As far as dark deeds, all I could find was a story of adultery and threatened murder going on there a few months before the hauntings began.

All of the details are in the podcast!

The Huck Tunnels of the Gold Coast: Can You Find Them?

A special post with the draft of a chapter for the Mysterious Chicago book, coming Oct 26 from Skyhorse!

When John Lennon apologized for his infamous “Bigger than Jesus” remark at the Astor Tower Hotel, it’s quite likely that he was sitting several floors atop a network of lost pre-Fire tunnels.

It’s hard to get rid of a tunnel. You can fill it with damp sand, like the LaSalle Tunnel under the river, or block it off, like the one connecting the Congress Hotel to the Auditorium Theater, but unless you tear it all away to make room for a new basement or something, the tunnel will still be there. In most cases, workers know where the tunnels are. But the John A. Huck Brewery Tunnels of the Gold Coast remain a mystery.

For some background, John A. Huck was a Chicago brewer; I first became aware of him by running into his nifty tombstone at Graceland, which features a bas relief portrait of him. Every time I need a neat one with a name I don’t recognize, I look the name up. It’s amazing how often they turn out to be brewers.


Huck’s first Brewery, Chicago and Rush.

In the 1840s, Huck opened the first lager brewery in Chicago at Chicago and Rush, back when the area was still practically the wilderness. In the 1850s he moved to a new location at Banks and Astor, just south of the Catholic portion of City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park), which started at Schiller. The area seems to have been bounded by State and Astor at the West and East, and from Banks to Goethe from the North to South – a full square block, across the corner from the future Playboy mansion, though one source says that it went clear north to Schiller. In what was then quite an innovation, the brewery featured a whole network of subterranean tunnels and vaults for brewing the beer at low temperatures year round – a 1901 book about brewing history says there were two full miles of them in total.

The brewery was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but the tunnels remained.

They first seem to have made the news in again in 1910 when vandals broke into the mansion of Charles Plamondon, 1344 N. State, and spent a day stealing and destroying things, having what seemed to be a hell of a food fight, destroying priceless art and furniture, and generally trashing the place. Though a burglarly on a grand scale, the food fight led police to belief that it was simply the work of neighborhood boys, who then abandoned much of the loot in the old brewery vaults nearby.

“Three deep caverns at this corner (Banks and Astor),” wrote the Tribune, “have been known for years among the boys in the neighborhood as the ‘robbers’ dens.’ They were formerly the underground vaults of a brewery and are covered with the exception of three entrances facing Astor Street.”

The robbers went through all of Miss Marie Plamendon’s wardrobe, breaking one of her

Mare Plamendon (right) and a bit of her home from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Aug 31, 1910

Mare Plamendon (right) and a bit of her home from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Aug 31, 1910

old dolls, throwing letters and ribbons and photos everywhere. More than half a century later, Miss Plamendon, now in her 80s, was reached by the Tribune when they first heard the story of the tunnels in 1963.

“Certainly I remember the tunnels!” she said. “When we were kids we played in them all the time, and believe me, we got many a scolding and spanking for going into them. We thought they were our discovery, and tried to keep them a secret from the adults, but it didn’t work. There were tunnels underneath a lot of the property on Banks Street, near Astor…. I remember once when our house was burglarized while we were in the country, we found all kinds of stolen things – ribbons, odds and ends – down in the tunnels. We always wondered if the robbers were lurking down there.”

The Tribune had contacted Miss Plamendon while following up on a letter sent to them by Gilbert Amberg, who thought of them when the Ambassador prepared to teardown some brownstones nearby.  “The entire half block on State between what is not Goethe and Banks was the site of a brewery,” he wrote. “The area was honeycombed with tunnels that were used as storage areas for aging the brew. Some of them were dug up for the Ambassador East hotel foundations in 1927, but you’re going to see a lot more of them when the old brownstones come down.”

Reached by phone for a follow-up, Amberg laughed and said “I was pretty young then, and I don’t know if I can trust my memory on this, (But) I do remember walking through the tunnels; they were probably well over six feet high. My guess is that they were made of either brick or stone. There were two connected tunnels that ran under our yard, and they had high arched roofs. I suppose they were perhaps 30 feet underground, because we only discovered them after the lot had been excavated…it’s quite possible that the tunnels weren’t discovered when the brownstones were built, because the foundations for those homes only went down about six feet below the basements.”


Huck’s tombstone at Graceland

Amberg’s brother John, a minister, added to his account: “There was a solid brick wall along our property line, and when the excavation for the hotel had been made, the construction workers found a doorway in the wall about four feet under the surface of the yard. This was the entrance to the tunnels, which sloped down under our yard and ran for some distance. They were caved in a little to the north. It explained something that had always puzzled us. There was a vacant lot next to our house where we children used to dig. We could never get very deep without hitting a solid stone-like surface. We must have been hitting the roofs of the tunnels, of course.”

The Tribune also tracked down Walter Fisher, who remembered playing in the tunnels around 1900 (but probably declined to ask if he was one of the burglars). “We boys used to make candle lanterns out of tin cracker boxes; in those days crackers came in shiny tin boxes that made wonderful toys. We would explore the tunnels, which we were strictly forbidden to do, because our parents suspected that tramps slept there…they were perhaps 10 or 15 feet deep, and filled with rubble, but they were wide enough for several boys to walk abreast. They were made of brick, I think, and the roofs were arched; they were more like vaults than tunnels.”

Jospeh Cremin had lived on State as well, and noted that when they “had the devil’s own time” trying to lay foundations for the hotel because of the tunnels, it cleared up an old puzzle for him. “For years, we had tried to freeze our back yard for skating, but the water would soak right into the ground and disappear. We even had the fire chief out to inspect the yard, and damned if he knew what was wrong, either. We found out later that the water had been draining into the tunnels.”

In a particularly enterprising bit of reporting, the Tribune even tracked down Joseph Beuttas, president of the construction company that had built the Ambassador East decades before, who was away on a Norwegian cruise. “I saw (the tunnels),” he said. “I walked in them. They were about 8 to 10 feet high, built of stone, and were about 20 feet below ground. They extended to the east and to the south. We destroyed the ones where we were building, (but) no doubt more tunnels will be found when they start excavating for the addition to the Ambassador East.

Now, newer construction has probably resulted in basements now occupying some of the space where the tunnels used to be, and it’s worth noting that the memories of just how deep they went seem a bit fuzzy and conflicting. But James Jardine, water commissioner as of 1963, told the Tribune that it was hard to tell – since they were private property, there might not have been a record of their construction to start with (not to mention the loss of records in the Fire). “Of course,” he said, “when the public utilities were installed, the engineers might have run into these tunnels, and undoubtedly they would have made a note in their log books. But the log books aren’t part of the public record, and they’re probably buried deep in some warehouse.”

Given the sheer scope that the tunnels seem to have covered, it’s unlikely that all of them have been destroyed. There may be no way to access them without some heavy-duty equipment by now. With such patchy records, it’s impossible to know how far the tunnels went, where exactly they’d be, or anything else. But with such an extensive network, it’s to be assumed that some are still around. I keep hoping some kid playing Pokemon Go will find something completely unexpected….

Citizen Kane and the Civic Opera House

There’s a scene in Citizen Kane when Kane is celebrating his wedding to his new bride, Susan Alexander, whom he’s promised to make into an opera star. “Charlie says if I can’t (sing at the Met) he’ll build me an opera house!” Ssuan squeal. “That won’t be necessary,” Kane laughs. From there, the film immediately cuts to a headline: “Kane Builds Opera House.” She proceeds to flop.

The story gets repeated on a lot of Chicago architecture tours – lots of them claim that utilities kingpin Samuel Insull built the Civic Opera House so that his wife, rejected in New York, would have a place to sing. It’s frequently said  that Insull built it to look like an armchair with its back facing east so he could figuratively turn his back on the big apple out of spite.

Many tour guides will quickly say that this is a myth – Mrs Insull would have been 60 years old in 1929, hardly an ingenue (in some versions of the story he built it for his daughter or girlfriend, though he had no daughters). I’d long assumed that the story was just the result of some tour guide who’d seen Citizen Kane a few too many times. After all, wasn’t it pretty well known that the Susan Alexander part of the plot was based on William Randolph Hearst pushing Marion Davies’ film career?

But on digging in a bit, I found more than meets the eye here – Orson Welles did say that there really was a millionare who built an opera house for the “soprano of his choice,” and that the character of Kane was partly based on Insull (particularly visually; if you look at the cover of Time that Insull graced you can see a certain resemblance to Charles Foster Kane). He apparently denied that Insull’s wife was the soprano, but co-writer Hermnan Mankiewicz did apparently say the the next scene in the movie, in which a reviewer passes out drunk after writing one line of a review calling that soprano “pretty, but hopelessly incompetent,” was based on his own experience reviewing Insull’s wife on stage. In this version of the story, Mrs. Insull appeared on Broadway, and Mankiewicz was outraged to see an old woman playing a teenager in a “production bought for her like a trinket,” in biographer Richard Merryman’s terms.  Herman wrote just one line, calling her “an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur,” before passing out. This was the incident that worked its way into the screenplay.  Hollywood historian Maurice Zolotow, who worked on the Times at the time, told Pauline Kael that Mankiewicz did in fact pass out from a mixture of booze and rage while trying to write a review of Mrs. Insull’s stage skills about four years before the Civic Opera House went up.

Welles and Mankiewicz may have been stretching the facts here a bit if they said the passing-out scene happened just as it does in the movie, but that wouldn’t be out of character for Orson. There’s a delightful scene in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles in which his assistant describes one of Orson’s stories as “according to Orson, which means it probably isn’t true, but it ought to be.” There is certainly SOME truth behind the story, though the real one doesn’t line up QUITE with the plot of Citizen Kane, or have much of anything to do with the building of the Civic Opera House.

Insull’s wife did appear onstage in 1925 on Broadway, but she was not an opera singer, and wasn’t even really an amateur. As a young woman in the 1890s, she’d been a professional actress under the name Gladys Wallis, retiring around 1900 to become a millionaire’s wife.

But the theatrical bug never left her, and in 1925, at the age of 56, she put together a charity run of performances of Richard Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal, starring herself as young Lady Teazle, to raise money for a children’s hospital in St. Louis. It was so successful that Mrs. Insull decided to take it Broadway.

And, by all accounts, the production was a reasonably good one; such New York reviews as I could find were very kind (or at least very polite). The Daily News said that “without conscious effort, , she carried it to something very like a legitimate triumph.” About the worst review I could find was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which gave the production a good review overall, saying only that “Mrs. Insull as an actress is not, to be sure, inspiring. She carries herself well, is not easily abashed, trips smilingly through the comedy without stumbling literally or figuratively and also without anything approaching brilliance. She has a nice manner and is hopeful that manner alone will answer for the many graces and subtleties an actress playing Lady Teazle should be heir to.”  They do seem like they’re being very courteous here, rather than simply saying “she was just okay,” but it’s a far cry from calling her an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur.

No particularly bad review ever ran in the Times; if Mankiewicz did write a line about her being a hopelessly incompetent amateur, it didn’t run.  Several sources cite the New York Times article in question as one from 1925 entitled “Mrs. Sameul Insull Returns to the Stage,” but that article was a preview, not a review, written several months before she hit New York. The actual review that ran was very polite – Kael called it “a masterpiece of tact” – and said Mrs. Insull’s Lady Teazle was “as pretty as she is diminutive.” To call her an amateur wouldn’t exactly have been fair; she was a retired pro, though if Mankiewicz had some sort of grudge against Insull (and as rich and powerful as Insull was, he might have), one can imagine him being filled with rage over his wife being onstage and feeling any pressure to be tactful in his response. Look at how many people go ballistic when some viral video star gets a TV deal.

The Kane connections don’t quite stop there, but for further events to have inspired the movie, we’d have to use the term “very loosely based.” Insull did not build the opera house just to give his wife (or anyone else) a place to sing, but his wife did fail in the theatrical business in 1926, and Insull did built the opera house around the same time.

After her 1925 Broadway run, Mrs. Insull returned to Chicago for a few more performances that were kindly received by the press (who had no fear of criticizing the Insulls or printing gossip about them). Months later, Samuel leased out the Studebaker Theater, where his wife attempted to start a repertory company (and the Tribune did joke about it just being an excuse to do School for Scandal again), though Mrs. Insull worked mainly behind the scenes as producer, intending only to take a role now and then. The company was a flop, and Mrs. Insull brushed it off with a laugh and a frank admission that it was a waste of money – Chicago, she said, just wasn’t the right town for it.

It was around this same time that Insull started work on getting the Civic Opera building built, though he’d started well before his wife’s stint at the Studebaker went down – in December, two months after the New York run of Scandal, he first laid out his plans for the building. Already deeply involved in the local opera business, he initially wanted a 7.5 million dollar home for the opera – at the time, everyone thought the Auditorium Theater, where operas were usually staged was outdated and would be razed any minute. The plans eventually grew larger, until the new theater became a 20 million dollar building. Office space in the “arms” of the armchair-shaped building was to generate money to cover the costs of the opera, which was not a self-sufficient venture at the time; putting an opera on cost more than ticket sales alone could generate in the smaller Auditorium; there would be more seats in the new theater, but another source of income couldn’t hurt.

The Civic Opera building opened with a performance of Aida on November 4, 1929, only days after the great market crash.  Mrs. Insull never appeared there, and it seems that no one connected to Insull personally did, either, in the brief period between the time when it opened and the time when he lost all his money and fled to Europe. He’d been involved enough in local opera before that he could have gotten a love interest onto the stage without building her an opera house.

It’s generally known that characters and events in Kane are composites of real people, real events, and pure fiction; it’s not impossible that Kane and Mankiewicz were thinking of the Studebaker stint when they wrote about Kane buying his wife an stage, at least a little. Maybe they even noticed that the Civic Opera went up right around this time.

So there are bits of truth behind the connection between Citizen Kane and the Insulls, but the facts appear to have been mixed with other stories and given a fictional gloss, after which a little bit of muddy research turned into a misunderstanding that evolved into the grander urban myth that the Civic Opera building was built so that Insull’s paramour would have a stage on which to perform. All too often, this is how history works!