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!

Al Capone and the Jewelers’ Building

In my gig as a tour director for student groups, I take a lot of other peoples’ boat tours, bus tours, and walking tours. One thing I’m always curious to see is how they’ll tell the story of Al Capone throwing parties in the dome of the Jeweler’s Building at Wabash and Wacker. According to most tales, the dome was once home to the Stratosphere Club, a speakeasy that was either owned or frequented by Al Capone, depending on who’s telling the story. Some are quick to point out that Capone’s connection is just a rumor, others really double-down on saying it was true.

Capone stories almost always fall into the “Not true, but it should be” category of Chicago lore – and that of other cities, as well. I can’t even tell you how many tourists have assumed that I know all about their small town, because it was where Al Capone had his summer home/hideout/warehouse. It seems that there’s hardly a town in the midwest where kids aren’t told that Al Capone used to hang out in town a lot.

The other story of the Jeweler’s Building is that it once housed an elevator for cars, so that jewelry dealers who worked in the building would never have to step out of their car with their valuable stock and into Roaring 20s Chicago, even for a second. Instead, they could drive right into the building and be lifted right up to the floor where their office or showroom was.

Digging into the newspaper archives, it’s quite clear that the elevator story is true: much was made of the car elevator when the place was built; the twenty-three story garage took up about 25% of the total building’s space at the time. A 1924 article in the Tribune said that it would be the tallest garage in the world.  It didn’t totally protect the builders – shortly after it opened (and was quickly renamed The Pure Oil Building), there was a big jewelry robbery there in 1926; three young bandits burst into a gem shop with pistols and made off with $25,000 in jewels.

And the Stratosphere Club in the dome was certainly a real place – but it wasn’t a speakeasy, and there’s no way that Al Capone was ever there.

When the 40-story Jeweler’s Building was first built in the 1920s, the dome seems to have sat empty for some time. In 1932 it was reported in the Tribune that a hawk had taken up residence in the dome and was preying on migratory birds in the loop.  A reference or two in the archives seems to indicate that it was used for storage.

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

The creation of the Stratosphere Club was announced in the press in the Jan 10, 1937 Tribune article entitled “City’s Highest Restaurant Being Built.” Owned by Paul Streeter and taking its name from a club that had been in Rockefeller Center in New York, the club was set to open in March, and would cover four floors – a kitchen on the 37th, a regular restaurant on the 38th and 39th, and a cocktail lounge on the 40th, with decorations to make it look as though one was in a hot air balloon. By March of 1937, when it opened, Capone had been in Alcatraz for some time, and liquor was perfectly legal again.

The club was a hit, by most accounts, but my 1954 the space had been converted into a showroom for a commercial artist (and still using the old circular bar at the time); it’s now the showroom of architect Helmut Jahn.

None of the necessarily proves that there wasn’t a speakeasy there in the 1920s, after it was first built, but people were generally pretty open in reminiscing about their favorite speakies in later days, and I’ve never found a reference to indicate that there was one in the dome. It’s one of those Chicago stories that isn’t quite true – but it should be.

Why The Ceres Statue on the Board of Trade Has No Face

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

When built in 1930, the 600 foot Board of Trade building that anchors LaSalle Street was the tallest building in Chicago – an honor it held for decades. Though now dwarfed by the supertall skyscrapers around it, the art deco building is still stunning to behold, and pointed out by every architecture tour. But if you take a few, you might notice something strange: no two tour guides seem to agree as to why the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture who stands atop the building, doesn’t have a face. Some say that it’s just an art deco thing, and others say that the sculptor figured that no other, taller building would ever be built nearby, so no one would be able to see the face, anyway. Some say outright that they’ve heard a lot of theories, but nothing totally convincing.

The truth, according to sculptor John Storrs’s own statement in 1930, lies somewhere in between – though the style did keep it in line with the art deco style of the building itself, he also figured that details were less important than outlines, given how far away most people would be from the statue.

Storrs, a Chicagoan himself who spent much of his time in Paris, explained his design and ideas in great detail to the Tribune in their May 4, 1930 issue, about month before the statue was to be put in place:

“When I was given the order to execute a sculptural piece to cap the tall Board of Trade building, I had two major points to consider. First, I wanted my work to be in architectural harmony with the building on which it was to stand. Second, I wanted it to be symbolical of the business which the organization the structure was to house.

“The first point I have accomplished through treating the subject in an extremely modern manner. The vertical lines of the building itself are retained in the lines of the statue. Because of the great height at which it will stand the matter of detail did not have to be taken into consideration. The outline of a woman’s figure is suggested rather than rendered exactly.

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

“As to the second point, I borrowed a thought from the classical period. Ceres well symbolizes the activity of the Board of Trade, so I took this goddess sister of Jupiter for my subject. However, while the thought is classical, the treatment is thoroughly modern.

“From the street the statue will appear to pedestrians mostly in silhouette. The hands holding the sheaf of wheat and the sample bag extend from the body abruptly instead of being attached to arms. The face, too, is suggested, inasmuch as there are no regular features.”

He also noted that he considered the top of the Board of Trade to be “one of the most commanding positions for a statue to be found in America.”

Chicagoans were very enthusiastic about the design when it was built. However, there was another reason why ignoring details was probably wise – within just a few weeks of being placed, the statue was completely blackened by soot from smokestacks, and didn’t get a bath for 12 years!


Excavating the H.H. Holmes “Body Dump” Site

We used to call it “The Body Dump.” It was a little bit of a stretch to give it a name like that, but really… who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Right near the homes of half of his known local victims?  

The site of the building that papers said was H.H. Holmes’ “glass bending factory” was a regular tour stop of mine for nearly a decade, but now it’s about to become condos. Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains invited me to come check it out. Here’s a special half-hour video featuring the whole story of the site, stories of what we enountered there on tours over the years, and clips from the “excavation.” It’s available both as a video and audio podcast, and an article summarizing it all is right here, below the video:

Get the audio version on our podcasts page, on, or on iTunes. 


Excavating along the approximate site where the “Glass bending factory” was. Holmes pretended he was starting a glass bending business several times in different locations, but never convinced anyone he knew how to bend glass.


In the course of human events, sometimes we lose a good tour stop. The House of Crosses was once a popular attraction, and we were lucky to get to interview the owner about its history before it was torn down.  Now we’ve lost the site I used to call The Body Dump. It’s being dug up for a large condo complex. The original building was already long gone, but the new condos going up will sap a lot of the spookiness from the place, as well as making it harder to access. However, I did get to assist on digging through the rubble, so that’s cool.


I try not to make EVERYTHING be about HH Holmes around here, but he’s my number one research topic; my book on him will be out in 2017. Holmes, of course, is the guy who’s advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” and the subject of the smash hit Devil in the White City. According to legend,  he rigged his Englewood building with secret passages and hidden chambers to prey on visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair, of whom he may have killed hundreds. Now, how TRUE all that is is a whole other question (and evidence that it’s mostly fiction is strong), but if people say this guy killed a lot more people than he really did, well, it’s not like we’re besmirching the honor of a good man here. He did probably murder at least 9 or 10 people, and ruined the lives of many more.

I started running tours based on him back in 2006. Now, that year I was still running one of the ghost tour companies in town, and one of my partners sent me a little 1895 article he’d seen about ANOTHER Holmes castle, discovered shortly after a fire at the Englewood building ended the police’s investigation of it.  This new place was no castle – just a one-story unnumbered brick building, the only address being “where 65 Sobieski Street ought to be,” near where Robey (Damen) and Fullerton intersected, and northwest of the railroad lines, not far from an apartment Holmes had rented for one of his girlfriends and her sister in 1893. By the time a private detective discovered the place, all that was left inside was some of Holmes paperwork, some mysterious ashes, and the wreck of a 150 foot long furnace.

The body dump as it appeared until recently

The body dump as it appeared until recently

Now, who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Papers suggested that Holmes was cremating bodies there. It was right next to  a coal yard, and in those days you could have tossed ashes into a coal yard and no one ever would have found a thing.

Now, there is no Sobieski Street anymore, so figuring out where this place was presented a challenge for me, and helped me learn about things like Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, street name guides, and renumbering guides. It turned out that was a little dead end street, now a part of Seeley Avenue, not only near the Wrightwood place but also near the home of one of his other suspected victims, a girl named Emily Van Tassell. She and the other two, Minnie and Nannie Williams, actually represent about half of Holmes’ known Chicago victims (the World’s Fair murder stories mostly came out of a tabloid article). And this “Sobieski Street” site would have been a much better location for getting rid of a dead body than the castle itself actually was.

And for every person who vanished from the castle, there was a story about Holmes needing

The "Body Dump" with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

The “Body Dump” with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.

help carrying the large trunks out of the place. It’s quite possible that he had this off-site place to do his cremating, as the Chicago papers suggested at the time. It’s even likely that Emily Van Tassell and the Williams girls would have been killed there, not at the castle. It was a more isolated area, not many neighbors spoke English, and the Luetgert Sausage factory, just a few blocks away, might have even been running by then to cover up smells.

So, one of my partners and I went out to Seeley Avenue, and even though the building itself was long
gone, the area seemed nice and spooky. A dead end street, an overgrown vacant lot, and a couple of trees that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. And, weirdly, even though it hadn’t been Sobieski Street in years, there happened to be a billboard up for Sobieski vodka, which sure seemed odd in the heat of the moment. The real bonus for us is that it was RIGHT on the tour route at the time, in between the Liar’s Club and the Virgin Mary Salt Stain. We came to call the place The Body Dump; I dearly loved getting people on the bus after looking around at Hull House and saying “All right, folks, who wants to go to the body dump?” It was a standard stop of mine from about 2008-2014, and I even wrote it in as a location in Just Kill Me, my new novel about a ghost tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people at them, which’ll be out through Simon and Schuster in August:

just-kill-me-9781481434942_lg“…the dead end street does look pretty ominous, even in the glaring summer daylight. The curling weeds look like they’re beckoning us all to our doom. There’s something about the place that just doesn’t feel right. When I step off the bus, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The breeze seems like it’s cooler than it ought to be, and everywhere I look there are little touches that make this space seem eerier than the average dead-end street. There’s even some sort of blood-red sap oozing from a tall Tim Burton-style tree at the edge of the lot.” – from Just Kill Me

Now, the stories about this being a “body dump” for Holmes could have all been BS, and I was pretty upfront about that. The same could be said of all the castle stories, after all. Evidence he was involved with the place were fairly strong, but it was never fully investigated in the 1890s, so this might have just been some random factory that Holmes had little connection to. Maybe his ex janitor was just getting rid of old paperwork there.  We just started going there as a historical curiosity, since the “murder castle” site was way too far away to be a regular stop.


The spooky old tree.

But here’s the thing: More weird stuff happened there than anyplace else I went on ghost tours. Early on I remember nights when people said they heard moans coming from the ground. In the summer some sort of blood-red sap would drip out of one of the creepy trees – probably just iron oxide in the soil, but when you go to what may have been a serieal killer’s body dump and see a black branch with blood that keeps dripping, it’s creepy.

There was also a flood-light that seemed to turn off and on like clockwork when people said the name “Emily Van Tassell” some nights.

I remember one night we pulled in and there was snow on the ground at the vacant lot. There were flurries going on, but it wasn’t sticking anywhere else. Just there. Which is another one of those things that I’m sure CAN be explained, but don’t ask ME how, and it was spooky in the moment.

Another night there were chickens. Six or seven of them, just crossing the road. And here you thought that only happened in jokes.

Besides the general weirdness, we had a lot of reported ghosts there, including a number of sightings of a ghostly woman in a black dress who’d be there one second, and gone the next. I never figured out if it was someone messing with us or what. We got a number of ghostly photos beyond the usual “weird lights” and “if you look closely at the random visual noise” stuff – the top three are in the video.


Sometimes the vacant lot would get so overgrown the weeds would be as high as your head. Cops told us that besides the Holmes stuff, bodies were found there in the 80s pretty regularly. I’m not sure if they were telling the truth, but it looks like a good place to stash a body.

There was even one night when we thought we hit the ghostly woman on the bus. The windows on the bus were fogged up, and as we were backing the bus up, we hit something. We heard the THUD and felt the impact. I thought we’d hit someone’s car. The driver said it was just a tree. But some people in the back said “No, there was a woman back there!” I ran ouside and around the back and found nothing anywhere near us – no car, no tree, no fire hydrant, no footprints. I reported it on the blog at the time. I’m interested now to note that it was in October, as I seem to recall there being snow. Maybe the windows were just fogged from the heater – it happened a lot on that bus.

So, since we first started going there, I’ve researched the place about as much as I could – which isn’t much. By the time the place was discovered in 1895, neighbors were still around to identify Holmes as the owner of the place place, and to identify Pat Quinlan, Holmes’ right hand man, as the guy who’d cleaned out cartloads of rubbish a month or two before, but the cops in Chicago were fed up with the Holmes case and didn’t care to investigate it any further. We do know from some letters Holmes wrote, though, that the night he killed a boy named Howard Pietzel outside of Indianapolis, he hopped on a train to Chicago and spent the next day there, and while he was there he went to the factory and talked to Pat Quinlan. He alluded to the place in a couple of his writings.

Fire insurance maps indicate that the building may have still been there in 1914, though it was listed as “vacant.” The site’s connection to Holmes was simply forgotten about until that night when my then-partner and I went to check it out. For the next several years it was regular stop for me, and the History Channel occasionally shows me strolling around the vacant lot looking all pensive. But it’s a stop I knew wouldn’t last; a vacant lot in Bucktown isn’t going to stay vacant forever. My understanding was that the lot was buried under a ton of foreclosure lawsuits from 2008 that would take years to get through, but those years seem to be up: last week they started digging the lot up for condos. The trees are totally gone, and we only have pictures to remember them by.IMG_9002

Last week, I happened to get a message from Eric Nordstrom, who runs a place called Urban Remains, an architectural relic shop nearby my house. He goes to tear-downs and excavations and collects bits of architecture, and happens to be a researcher and blogger himself. You can see his blog post on it at . Video clips are above.


And here’s some of what we found:

Some sort of pipe connection.

Some sort of pipe connection.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

Bits of porcelain and dishware.

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?

Chunks of glass.

Chunks of glass.

Bits of bottles.

Bits of bottles.

Several bricks that are likely bits of the "factory."

Several bricks that are likely bits of the “factory.”

As with a lot of Holmes locations, there’s a lot we’ll never know about this place. The actual site of the factory was likely about where the sloping metal garage is now, which is still standing, so it might still work as a tour stop now and then. But without the old tree and the vacant lot, the atmosphere just won’t be the same.

So, farewell, body dump! At least I got a cool video, a neat book location, and a lot of great tour stories out of you.

The Lonesome Death of Barton Edsall (podcast)

Hear the podcast version of the story above, or get it on iTunes!

Here’s a new story I came across while working on the MYSTERIOUS CHICAGO book; it quickly became a staple of my Graceland tours!

Near the famous “Inez” statue is the Hurlbut family plot, built for the founder of the Hulburt and Edsall drug supply shop, which was a landmark of the loop in 1860s Chicago. Among the small markers in the plot is one for Barton Edsall, the partner in the firm, whose date of death, Oct 6, 1871, will spark a bit of recognition for those who know their Chicago history. That was a busy week around here.

Early in the morning of Oct 6, Barton was found dying of a gunshot wound in the entryway of his house at Clark and Washington (now Clark and Delware, across from Bughouse Square). The front door was standing open, and a pistol was lying at Barton’s side. Why he’d gotten out of bed at all was unknown. By the time a doctor arrived, it was too late.


The Chicago Times, Oct 8, 1871. From the University of Chicago

There were three possibilities – either he’d committed suicide, accidentally shot himself while messing around with a pistol, or a burglar had come and shot him. A coroner’s inquest dismissed the suicide theory, but there was convincing evidence for both other theories.  There’d been burglaries in the area lately, a maid had seen Barton shooting his pistol at a rat, and the results forensics that could have established whether the bullet came from Barton’s own gun or another one weren’t clear.

The inquest lasted for two days, and couldn’t come to a conclusion. From October 6th, when the story first spread, through October 8th, when the inquest was concluded and Barton was buried in his friend’s plot at Graceland, it was a major topic of debate around the city. Newspapers vowed that the story wouldn’t be forgotten, and that rewards would be offered for information about who might have broken into the Edsall home that night.

But hours after Barton Edsall was buried, on the evening of October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire broke out, destroying a large swath of the city, including Barton’s home. Any chance at further investigation was destroyed, and Edsall’s story vanished from the news at once, though in weeks that followed a few out-of-town papers published a story that his wife, distraught with grief, was moved to an asylum just as the fire broke out, and the asylum burned in the fire, killing her. I couldn’t confirm that story, but couldn’t find anything to disprove it, either.

I’ll be covering the story in far more depth in the book – I ran across it quite by chance while tracking another fire mystery in copies of the Chicago Times from that week in the University of Chicago Special Collections. More on that mystery soon – it’s another real doozy!

Did H.H. Holmes Fake His Death (new info and podcast!)

A former employee of serial killer H.H. Holmes swore that he was never really hanged… we examine his claims!   Get_it_on_iTunes_Badge_US_1114  More Episodes

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch.

HH Holmes hanged, New York World, May 8, 1896. Gallows sketch from after the hood was put on, just before the trap door fell.

Rumors continue to swirl that H.H. Holmes, subject of Devil in the White City and our most fascinating antique multi-murderer, is going to be exhumed from his grave to address rumors that it wasn’t really HIM who was hanged in May, 1896. Holmes’ descendant Jeff Mudgett’s novel, Bloodstains, suggests as much (Jeff freely admits that the account in the book is a work of fiction that merely presents a plausible scenario).   (note: this post was originally added in 2015; the exhumation began in April, 2017).

This is not a brand-new theory that Jeff invented, though. As early as fall, 1896, there was a lawsuit with Holmes still going on in court, and the plaintiff expressed doubts that Holmes was truly dead (though the judge threw out the suit). And I recently found a couple of January, 1898 articles from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean in which a man named Robert Lattimer claimed to have seen letters proving that it wasn’t really Holmes who was hanged in Philadelphia. Lattimer (sometimes spelled Latimer) has a very interesting pedigree as a witness: he not only knew and worked for Holmes, but in April, 1896, Holmes confessed to having murdered him. Holmes’ famous confession included admissions to the murder of several people who weren’t actually dead yet, and Latimer, a former janitor at the famous “murder castle,” was one of them!

According to Lattimer, Holmes had convinced his lawyer, priests, and the jail officials that he was really innocent, and used their belief (and the money he got from writing the phony confession) to get them to go along with a daring scheme. In the scheme, they found a recently-deceased body who looked like him. The substitute body was stashed beneath a hidden partition under the trap door on the gallows, along with two prison employees. When Holmes was brought out to the scaffold, the priests and officials stood in front of him, pretending to tie his arms while they were actually having the other body raised up from beneath the trap door. Then Holmes slipped away, the prison guys propped up the already-dead body (like Weekend at Bernies), and quickly hanged the corpse. Holmes himself slipped into the coffin and escaped from the vault at the cemetery later. By the time the coffin was buried, he was in a New York hotel, and a month later he was living in South America, growing coffee in a small town called San Parinarimbo.

Detail from an 1891 summons from a lawsuit between Charles S. Brown and HH Holmes. Brown never believed Holmes was really hanged.

Clip from the summons for an 1891 lawsuit between C.S. Brown and Holmes. Brown never believed that Holmes had been hanged.

Now, this IS the kind of switcheroo that a decent magician could probably manage. And several people who knew Holmes in Englewood thought the story held up; Charles S. Brown (who once sued Holmes for nonpayment of a loan), told the Inter Ocean that he never believed Holmes was really capable of cold-blooded murder, and also never believed for a second that he’d really been hanged. Others in the neighborhood also expressed a belief that Lattimer wasn’t capable of coming up with such a detailed story all by himself, and that Holmes was such an audacious swindler that they wouldn’t put it past him.

But others in the area weren’t buying it. C.E. Davis worked in the jewelry department of the drug store Holmes ran in the “Murder Castle” building. The building was still there in 1898 (the 1895 fire damaged it but didn’t destroy it, as is commonly written), and Davis was still working there; the Inter Ocean article makes it look as though it was now being called the “Castle Drug Store,” and that he was now managing the place, not just running the jewelry department. He had always provided good copy to the papers, and was the first to suggest turning the place into a tourist attraction. But he didn’t buy the phony hanging. “Holmes is good and dead,” he said. ” Latimer is ‘windy,’ and is always ready to tell wonderful stories if he can find a good listener.”

W.M. McKenzie, who was running the restaurant in the castle building, also didn’t buy it. “I was an officer for seventeen years,” he said. “And I don’t believe that prison officials could be found who would dare to take such risks.”

The letters Lattimer claimed to have seen never seem to have materialized, and a look at the many first-hand accounts of the hanging discredit the tale quickly. There were many witnesses from the press, and when Holmes first mounted the scaffold, he gave a little speech in full view of them. A hood was placed over his face only as he was being pinioned (hoods were absolutely standard at hangings in the 19th century; every account of a judicial hanging I’ve checked, included several others at Moyamensing Prison, used them).

The biggest problem with the  Latimer’s story is the claim that there was a partition blocking anyone from seeing what happened below the trap door on the scaffold, so that no one could see (or smell) two men who were waiting with a dead body to make the swap. Reporters had a very clear view of what happened beneath the scaffold. Several reporters talked about the body dropped and jerking around, and from the various drawings that were made (there were at least three drawings of the scaffold in different papers) it’s pretty apparent that the body would have been in full view at all times. There was no hiding place beneath it.

In fact, the body was hanging, in full view of the reporters, for about half an hour. During that time, several doctors checked for the heartbeat. After it was taken down, the face was partially exposed as officials struggled to get the rope off, and the hood was removed when the body was placed in the casket, exposing the face to at least a couple of reporters. First-hand accounts, in agreement except for minor details, appeared in The Philadelphia Times, Inquirer, Record, Item, Public Ledger, and Item, as well as the Journal, World and Tribune in New York, each of which sent reporters. None reported anything like the execution Latimer described. 

The papers differ slightly as to how many people were present, partly because there are some X factors here. The sheriff issued 51 tickets, but prison officials brought 20 or 30 more people, much to the sheriff’s chagrin. And the final number may or may not include the prison officials, priests, etc who were present.

In all, a little under 100 people would have been present at the hanging, including those who worked at the prison. Included in the crowd were several public officials, Detective Geyer, Dr. MacDonald (who’d examined Holmes in his cell), various ex sheriffs, and a great many doctors. Most to all of them would have had to be in on it if Holmes was faking it.

Furthermore, Lattimer said Holmes was living in San Parinarimbo, Paraguay, on a coffee farm, with two women he was supposed to have killed (presumably the Williams sisters). As near as I can tell, that is not even a real place. The story, in a word, was absurd.

(edit in 2017): One possibility is that Lattimer had seen a book/pamphlet entitled Hanged By Proxy: How HH Holmes Cheated the Gallows. Published around the same time, it now survives only as a listing in a copyright catalog; no copy has surfaced. However, excerpts of a newspaper article from the Paris Mercury (Paris, MO) indicate that it was written by L.W. Warner, who shared with Latimer the distinction of having been one of the people Holmes confessed to murdering. He was alive in living in Newton, Iowa at the time.  It’s been noted lately (2017) that the story sold a lot of newspapers, but that’s exaggerating. It was a two day story buried in one local paper.

Philadelphia Times sketch of Holmes on the scaffold, tucked into the Library of Congress copy of his autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez)

Holmes on the scaffold – clip from the Philadelphia Times tipped into the Library of Congress’s copy of Holmes’ autobiography (thanks to Kate Ramirez!). This would be Holmes when he made a speech saying he never killed Benjamin Pitzel or his children, only two women who died after “illegal operations” he performed on them.

I am a regular sucker for a faked death theory, so it’s worth noting that a few reporters in attendance DID say that Holmes didn’t look like you might expect him to if you’d only seen pictures. It’s also worth mentioning that no autopsy was performed, just a brief examination to show that the neck was broken. And that having the body encased in cement, as Holmes’s was, IS unusual, to say the least. Holmes motives for wanting to be buried in cement aren’t terribly clear, and the story that he just didn’t want to be dissected isn’t very convincing to me. As a medical student we know from his colleagues that dissecting OTHER people sure didn’t bother him. So, if someone got an exhumation going, I for one would not object. I assume it’s really him in the grave, but I’m very curious as to what sort of shape it would be in. A lot depends on what kind of filler material is in the cement. Also, I really want them to shave the cement down until he looks like Han Solo in carbonite.

Added 2017: In the past week, as the story of the exhumation broke, news accounts have been treating the 1898 stories as though they were a really big story and a popular theory at the time. They were not. It was a two day story in the Inter-Ocean, and not front page news either day. I’m not aware of any other papers picking up their story at all. 

For a lot more data on this story and accounts of the execution, including more interviews with Holmes’ friends and neighbors from 1898, listen in to the podcast above, subscribe on itunes, and of course,  (added in 2017): check out my Holmes bio, HH HOLMES: THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE WHITE CITY DEVIL  

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Major sources:

Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Jan 20 and 21, 1898

May 8, 1896 accounts of Holmes’ hanging in the Philadelphia Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and New York World.

Assorted Nov, 1894 and July, 1895 articles mentioning Robert Latimer

Brown V Holmes, 1891 case 90746



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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The Foolkiller Submarine: New Data!

We love to talk about the Foolkiller, the submarine wreck that was found buried under three feet of muck in the Chicago River in 1916. It’s one of those great mystery stories where you think you’ve exhausted the last bit of data on it, then, next thing you know, another clue pops up.

A bit of a refresher for if you didn’t hit the link:  In 1916, diver William Deneau found the wreck of a homemade submarine in the Chicago River. Newspapers published all sorts of stories about where the submarine came from, none of which can really be verified. Some say it was built and sunk around 1850 by a submarine inventor named Lodner Phillips. Others say it was a military test craft, or something used by Peder Nissen, the daredevil sailor.

In any case, Deneau raised it up and put it on display on South State Street for a while. Shortly thereadter it became a bit of a carnival attraction, appearing at a fair in Oelwein, Iowa. Until this week, its last known location was on display at the Riverview amusement park in Spring, 1916.

But Jeff Nichols (who also found the recent Eastland disaster footage) ran across an ad in a September, 1916 issue of The Billboard which gives us a bit of a new clue:
So, as of spring, 1916, it was put on sale (probably be Deneau, who is known to have been short of cash due to a divorce at the time), and advertised as “a wonderful moneymaker.” 

Did someone buy it? Did he find no takers and sell it for scrap? The world may never know, but the stream of clues never quite seems to end here. As more and more papers and magazines are digitized, new clues become available.  One other thing I can bring up is that now and then people tell me they think Deneau probably knew that the submarine was there along, and raised it up when he needed some money.
But, by way of introducing some anecdotal evidence, a couple of weeks ago I brought a lunch hour walking tour group to the site where it was found just as divers were at work digging logs out of the river bed. They told me that even with modern lighting equipment, visibility in the river is about a foot and a half, maybe three feet. And that’s when they first go in – once they’ve been in there and moving around for a minute, they’re practically working blind.  So it’s entirely possible that something as large as a 40 foot submarine could have been buried under the river muck for years.
Big thanks to Jeff Nichols!
Divers at the Eastland site, from my instagram

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