HH Holmes and Jack the Ripper: The Chicago Evidence (with podcast)

 

Listen to the audio above; or check out the podcast on archive.org or iTunes!  Or check out the video version on youtube.

 My massive new book, HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL is out now from Skyhorse Publishing, on the heels of starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal! 

In 1895, as the Chicago police dug through the building now known as the “Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes,” Inspector Fitzpatrick was asked about new rumors linking Holmes to the murder of Mrs. Kron, a Wilmette neighbor of Holmes who’d been brutally murdered a few years before. Fitzpatrick brushed it off. “That theory is ridiculous,” he said. “The murder of Mrs. Cron was done in too crude a manner for Holmes to have had anything to do with it. He was a scientific criminal and would never think of engaging in a burglary or shooting a person in cold blood. You might as well connect him with the Cronin murder as that of Mrs. Cron, or even with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ horrors in London, England.” (“Tell Tale Letter,” Chicago Evening Journal, July 27 1895)

Little could he have guessed that a century or so later, people would be being talking about Holmes as a ripper suspect! This was the main premise of The History Channel’s American Ripper, on which I appeared in several episodes and served as “consulting producer,” which basically means that I provided them with a lot of data. Some of it was used in the show, some of it wasn’t.

Quite a few people have emailed me asking about the parts of the book that place Holmes in the United States during the Ripper murders, and now that the show is ended, I think I can put this post up laying out what evidence I’m using.

A bit of background: In Autumn of 1888, a number of prostitutes were brutally hacked to bits in Whitechapel, a rough neighborhood in London. Though the killer was never identified, he went down in history under the name “Jack the Ripper,” based partly on a letter received by the police (which was likely written by a reporter, not the killer). There are dozens of theories as to who the killer was and what motivated him, and no one is totally sure how many murders could really be attributed to him. The five “canonical” victims, the ones that are generally agreed on, were Mary Ann Nichols (Aug 31, 1888), Annie Chapman (September 8), Elizabeth Stride (September 30), Catherine Eddows (September 30), and Mary Jane Kelly (November 8).

Other possible “Ripper” victims are spread between about February, 1888 and well into 1889 and beyond. But going just by the canonical five, the most important question is: can we tell where Holmes was between late August and early November, 1888?  You often hear that Holmes disappears from the record during this period, which was true if you only go by the data that shows up in a google search or a couple of 20th century Holmes books, none of which really talk about where he was in that period. But those books, and particularly the hundreds of blog posts summarizing his career, are based on incomplete data. During most of that period, he would have been working in the drug store of the “castle’ building (which was built earlier than most sources say, from Aug-Oct 1887), and dealing with lawsuits over its construction.

Though I’ve never found a true smoking gun like, say, a signed promissory note taken out at the Bank of Englewood during those dates, there is abundant documentary evidence that Holmes was in the United States during that whole period. Indeed, though there are lots of stories and rumors about him going to England or South America, there’s little or nothing on record to suggest that he really ever left North America in his life. The only real thing suggesting he did is a letter he wrote to District Attorney George Graham in May, 1895, mentioning that the New York Herald was hard to find in London as of a year before. And we know that Holmes could not have been in London in Spring/Summer 1894, when he was busy in Fort Worth, Denver and St. Louis, so he was either going on something he’d been told by someone else, or just making things up.

So, as to the evidence we do have about Holmes in Fall, 1888:

  • Holmes’ daughter, Lucy, was born July 4, 1889, in Englewood – likely in the Castle building. This isn’t exactly hard data for this sort of thing, but, well, we know ONE thing he was doing in Autumn of 1888.
  • Holmes registered to vote in Englewood on October 9, 1888, giving “701 Sixty-Third St” (the castle, in pre-1909 renumbering) as his address. The registry notes that he didn’t vote in the election, but he did register. This would be THE smoking gun if it was in his handwriting, not a clerk’s; as it is, though, it’s just a hard one to explain away, as a clerk wrote all of the names in the registry.

Detail of voter roll dated Oct 9, 1888. It's a clerk's handwriting, but that's definitely the same Holmes. It's the pre-1909 address of the castle.

Detail of voter roll dated Oct 9, 1888. It’s a clerk’s handwriting, but that’s definitely the same Holmes. It’s the pre-1909 address of the castle.

  • In November of 1894, when Holmes was first arrested as a swindler and became a media sensation, several Boston newspapers sent reporters to interview the Mudgetts, his family in New Hampshire. Holmes had just made a surprise visit there himself a couple of weeks before, so his long absence was fresh on their minds. Both Clara Mudgett, his first wife, and Levi Mudgett, his father, said that prior to his arrival there in early November, following a letter to his brother some weeks before,  he’d last visited them in October, 1888. The Boston Herald, speaking with Clara, said “In October, six years ago, he came to see her for the last time.” (Boston Globe Nov 21 1894). Days after he left in 1888, according to his father, he wrote his brother from a New York hotel. A New England trip in late October would explain why he didn’t end up voting in Chicago in November.
  • Holmes was dealing with at least three lawsuits in Chicago during the summer/fall of 1888; he was being sued by Simon Waixel (a drug store supplier), George Kimball (a glass dealer) and Aetna Iron and Steel, who had provided construction and materials for the “castle” the year before. And one meeting with his attorney clearly took place in late September or early October.

The Waixel and Kimball suits, looked at from a certain angle, could actually strengthen the idea that Holmes was in England from August to November. He was a no-show in court in late October when the Waixel case was called (after having shown up for it in late July), and the September paperwork in the Kimball suit saying no property could be found and Holmes hadn’t paid up as ordered may just mean that Holmes wasn’t around; there’s no mention of the deputy actually searching the place.

However, that could also back up the stories of him going to New Hampshire in late October, a timeline of the suit with Aetna Iron and Steel places Holmes far more clearly in Chicago right in the middle of the London murders.

The facts of the Aetna lawsuit are these: In Spring of 1887, Holmes entereded into contracts with Aetna Iron and Steel, as well as will Berger and Gallouner, architects, to design, supply materials, and build his new building at Sixty-Third and Wallace, the one we came to know as the castle. Construction began that August of 1887 – details of it are pretty well enumerated in the lawsuit that Aetna and the architects launched the next summer when they hadn’t been paid (many relevant portions of the suit are in the ebook companion to my Holmes book, Very Truly Yours HH Holmes, which includes over 100k words of letters, articles, depositions, etc by Holmes and his various associates, many of which have never been published).

It’s harder to place him in a courtroom during the first few months of the Aetna suit, but a few things in the pile of paperwork that survives make it seem clear that Holmes was around Chicago that Fall. On the surface, the most damning is this filing, stamped Sept 18, 1888, stating “Now comes Lucy T. Belknap, Harry H Holmes…” etc:

Aetna_Iron_Works_v_Belknap__w_Castle_Diagram___pdf

However, this piece alone isn’t quite the smoking gun it looks like – Holmes didn’t necessarily have to be present for his attorney to enter his appearance.

Far more damning, though, is the fact a few days later (probably Sept 24th), Aetna Iron and Steel put in a lengthy affadavit telling the story of their dealings with Holmes; so did Berger and Gallouner, who were made parties to the suit only on September 21. On September 26, 1888, Berger’s lawyer filed a notice to Maher that he’d obtained a ruling for Holmes to answer their charges within twenty days.

Wrapper from the lawsuit paperwork of the answer to a creditor's claims Holmes gave in late sept/early Oct, 1888.

Wrapper from the lawsuit paperwork of the answer to a creditor’s claims Holmes gave in late sept/early Oct, 1888.

Maher seems to have tried to get out of it; he answered with a demurrer (a legalistic way of saying “so what?”), but on October 3 the court denied the demurrer. Hence, in accordance with the ruling, Holmes’ answers were filed with the courts on October 12, 1888. From the detailed answers in the paperwork, it’s fairly clear that Maher met with Holmes to speak to him, and this meeting probably would have had to have happened between Oct 3 and Oct 12, and couldn’t have been before the late September date on the affidavit he was answering.

So, to sum up, the data is pretty clear that Holmes was in Chicago, dealing with the lawsuit, in late September and Early October, 1888, which would make it impossible for him to have committed the Jack the Ripper murders.

But, again, these aren’t necessarily smoking guns if you’re really determined to believe Holmes was in London at the time. The October, 1888 date in the 1894 papers talking about his New Hampshire trip never comes from a direct quote, just a summary of what the relatives were saying. They could have been a bit off. And theoretically, Holmes could have sent a someone else to register him to vote, and brought Myrta with him to London (or some have suggested that perhaps he wasn’t really Lucy’s father). Maher could have written the answers all on his own (though how he knew the answers to some of what Aetna and the architects claimed is hard to explain). And if Holmes never spoke of the trip, well, one could say that a trip to kill prostitutes is the sort of thing you’d want to keep quiet about.

But these seem like stretches to me, to say the last. In particular, sending someone to register to vote for you would be a lot of effort, and a big risk – individual voter fraud has always been a high risk, low reward sort of swindle, which makes it a very rare crime.

And that’s just the documentary evidence placing Holmes in Chicago. Stronger still is the fact that Holmes doesn’t really make that good of a candidate for the Ripper to begin with, as he just wasn’t the sort of killer who went around hacking random prostitutes to bits. Though he is often portrayed that way these days, as a killer who used gas chambers, hanging, and stabbings stories of him being that sort of killer have more roots in tabloids and pulps than from more reliable sources. There are only a handful of known victims (plus some “maybes,” see my list), and none were random. None were stabbed to death – in all cases where there’s much to go on, he seems to have favored poison.

For a lot more on HH Holmes, of course, check out my book, HH Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, the most comprehensive biography of the man yet, out now from Sky Horse, and the ebook companion collection of his writings, Very Truly Yours HH Holmes

Some previous Holmes posts on the blog that cover topics I discussed on the show:

HH Holmes and Chappel, the “Skeleton Articulator”

The Murder Castle Site

The Hanging and Burial of HH Holmes – in detail

Did HH Holmes Fake His Death?

HH Holmes: Master List of Known and Suspected Victims 

Holmes and Jack the Ripper: Chicago Evidence (Video on Youtube)

Now that the show has wrapped, I think i can discuss this all more freely; email press and media inquiries to  adam AT mysteriouschicago.com .

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!

holmeslettersbutton

Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

Listen above, at archive.org 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.

murdercastlearchitect_s_diagram

 

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 archive.org!

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

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

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

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

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

(new podcast! Click above, or see archive.org 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.

One_Hundred_Years_of_Brewing__A_Complete_History_of_the_Progress_Made_in_the_____-_Google_Books

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.”

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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….