The Ghostly Woman of the LADY ELGIN Graves

In 1860, the sidepaddle steamer Lady Elgin was wrecked about nine miles off Winnetka – another ship had collided with it, and the ship was busted up by breakers. Just under 400 people were on board, bound to Milwaukee from Chicago, allegedly after having seen Senator Douglas speaking in his campaign for the presidency (though the real reason was apparently raising funds to preserve an anti-slavery miltia; Douglas was not in town).

Another ship collided with Lady Elgin, and it was overturned and destroyed by breakers, resulting in the loss of around 75% of those on board.  At the time, it was the greatest tragedy that had ever befallen either Chicago or Milwaukee, and is said to have cost each city more lives than any single battle would in the coming Civil War.

The event is now recorded, but not really underlined, in Chicago history. Over time, it’s been overshadowed by disasters like the Great Fire and the wreck of the Eastland, or thought of as more of a Milwaukee disaster, since most of the passengers were from there.

But Chicago was the scene of many of the more gruesome aspects. Bodies were initially taken to City Hall for inquests, then moved to City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park). Contemporary newspaper articles make it look as though the bodies were set up in the “Dead House,” as they called the morgue in those days, but a 1908 reminiscence published in the Tribune described seeing close to ninety bodies lying on the ground in City Cemetery, waiting to be identified. It was certainly more than the dead house could have held.  Most of the bodies who were never identified in Chicago were eventually taken to the receiving vault at Rosehill, and about 27 were buried in a mass, apparently unmarked, grave.

Many of the bodies who came ashore closer to the site of the wreck wound up in a mass grave in Highwood, a small town in the north suburbs. And it was there that a ghost was seen throughout the late 1800s.

Wreckage on the shore at Winnetka. It was still there as of 1892,
when Joseph Kirkland’s Story of Chicago was published.

According to an 1899 Tribune article, the mass gravesite became neglected over time, and was marked only by two small wooden stakes at the turn of the 20th century (Indeed, the site was eventually lost to history altogether, until researchers at the Highwood Historical Society triangulated the location in just the last few years – see their newsletter (pdf link)).  That same 1899 article states that in the 1870s, when houses were being built in a mini “boom” in Highwood, there were stories of a ghost on the grounds – that of a beautiful woman in a black gown that was dripping with water. The ghost had a gold chain on her neck and diamond earrings in her ears, and was often seen waving her hands, as it to drive the builders away. She was particularly said to haunt the site of one particular construction site where the house was never completed. Some probably said that they stopped building the house because of the ghost.

The Tribune tracked down a man named Henry Mowers who said that he knew exactly who the ghost was – or, anyway, he knew which unidentified body it was.  “Yes, I was on the beach immediately after the wreck of the Lady Elgin,” he said. “For days afterward bodies continued to be washed up by the sea on the beach just below the lighthouse. I’ll tell you of one specific case which to me was at once the most pathetic and the most horrible of all. A woman clad in black silk and showing, despite the fact that she had been wave-tossed and beach-beaten for several days, that she had been a woman of beauty, was finally thrown up by a wave of sufficient strength to give her body lodgement on the sands below the bluff on which stands the old lighthouse. We found her there and carried her to a building some distance from the water.

“An examination showed that on the body was a handsome gold watch, a thing somewhat rarer than it is now, while about the neck was a fine gold chain. On the fingers were several rings, two of them containing large solitaire diamonds. The effects were left upon the body and the proper officials were notified…. the next morning, when the officials arrived, the door was opened, but there was neither ring, watch, nor necklace upon the body of the woman…. I saw the chain with its gold piece pendant hanging from the neck of the wife of a prominent Lake County official not six weeks afterwards. The man had entered the building in the the night and stolen the jewelry from that poor drowned woman. A nice sort of official was he not?  The stealing of the jewelry was undoubtedly the reason why the body was never identified. I made a coffin for her with my own hands, and made it rather better than I did the others…Yes, she lies up yonder unknown and forgotten by all save two or three of us. I suppose there is rubbish on her grave, and I know that cows are pastured there, but time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Over the 100th anniversary of the Eastland wreck, there were many astonished stories of how few people in Chicago today know about the disaster. But it’s certainly better known than the Lady Elgin, which seems to have been almost totally forgotten by 1899, even in the small town near which the wreck was eventually found in the 1980s. I haven’t looked into this extensively, but from a quick search I could find nothing about there being a grave site in Rosehill. As Mr. Mowers said, “Time makes living people careless of the dead.”

Rarely-Seen Eastland Disaster Photos on the 100th Anniversary

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Eastland Disaster, in which 844 people lost their lives when a badly oversold boat capsized in the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle. It’s been a big year for finding new footage of the disaster; film footage was found in Dutch newsreels, followed closely by more graphic footage in a British newsreel.  Last week the Chicago Tribune discovered several new photos in their basement. 

These photos aren’t exactly “new;” but I’m not sure they’ve ever been republished. They were printed in various Chicago papers that now exist only in microfilm archives; these are photos taken of the microfische screens. The quality isn’t always great, but they deserve to be seen.  Most of these have probably never been online before.
The inaccessible life preservers in The Chicago Evening Post , 7/27/1915
Chicago Journal, 7/29/1915
Behind the “read more” link there are a more than a dozen more shots.

Grand Jurors inspect, Chicago Evening Post 7/28/1915
Chicago Evening Post 7/28
Chicago Evening Journal, 7/24
Mayor Thompson inspects the ship, Chicago Journal 7/28
Chicago Evening Post 7/28
Chicago Journal 7/26

Chicago Journal 7/26

Chicago Journal 7/26

Chicago Journal 7/26. Coroner Hoffman is on the left.

Chicago Journal 7/26. Workers watch divers in the hull beneath
Chicago Journal 7/26. Mr and Mrs. Louis M. Johnson and their daughter Esther of 2212 N Rockwell St

From the Chicago American:

And one full article:
Chicago Journal, 7/30


Heroic and Tragic Tales of Eastland Divers

Diver portrait from the Chicago American

Early on in my time as a Chicago ghost tour guide, I heard a story that one of the divers recovering bodies from the Eastland had gone insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. I repeated it on a few early tours, but, unable to find a source to back it up, I phased it out of my stories, but I get asked about variations on it now and then. Just last week, someone asked me if it was true that a German diplomat had killed himself after seeing a ghost at the Eastland site (I have a pretty good idea where both stories came from).

Divers at the Eastland were heroic, to say the least. They were responsible for many of the “good” stories that kept people’s spirits up. According to the Chicago American, cheers and laughter erupted from the crowd on the docks at 3pm when diver came up carrying a baby that had been in the hull of the ship for eight hours – and was still alive.

A Chicago American portrait of a diver at work.

But the idea that a diver would have trouble keeping his composure during such gruesome work didn’t seem unreasonable, and a similar story was told in the Chicago Examiner on July 25, 1915, the day after the tragedy.

Diver Morris Jorgensen worked for three hours in the river on the day of the disaster, and was one of only a few “able to penetrate the grewsome (sic) tunnels made by the decks of the sunken vessel against the river bottom, where hundreds of bodies were pinioned, and remain there for any length of time. Most of the divers went into hysteria as soon as they looked beneath the vessel and had to be drawn to the surface.”

After working for hours, Jorgensen came up, removed his helmet, and gasped for breath, muttering about the bodies as he staggered up to the top of the ship. When told by Captain Baer of the police to move away from there, Jorgensen let forth a hysterical scream.

Two policemen, including Baer, decided that they had to knock Jorgensen out, and set to clubbing him about the face until he lost consciousness. He came to and was able to say his name on the way to the police station.

“Had to do it,” Baer said. “He was out of his head. He is a strong man, and would have thrown some of us into the river if we hadn’t subdued him.”

William “Frenchy” Deneau, Eastland Diver, in 1958

While we’re talking about divers, I should also mention William Deneau (alias Frenchy Deneau) who was said to have recovered around 200 bodies. On the 43rd anniversary of the disaster in 1958, he came to the Clark Street Bridge to reminisce. At the time, he said he’d recovered 300 bodies, and said that he didn’t believe that the ship had really been sold for scrap in 1946.  “I rode on that ship last year on a run from California to Catalina island,” the now-Los Angeles-based Deneau told the Tribune. “It used another name, but I knew her as soon as I saw her.”

From what we know of Deneau, he seems to have liked to tell stories, and perhaps wasn’t the type to let facts get in the way of a good one. A few months after the Eastland, he was the one who found the wreck of the Foolkiller, a homemade submarine, in the river and put it on display on South State street (a story we’ve covered in depth!). Some have suggested that Deneau built it himself as a stunt, but this theory ignores just how risky it would have been to put ANYTHING in the river when the Eastland investigations were still going on. People investigating had to be assured that the sub hadn’t caused the disaster (the captain continued to maintain that pilings on the riverbed had caused it to tip over).

A grandchild of Deneau once left an anonymous comment on my page saying that when they took their grandfather to the Museum of Science and Industry, he made jokes about the U-505 submarine being a “foolkiller.”  If any Deneau relatives are out there, I’d love to chat!

Eastland Disaster Premonitions

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Eastland disaster of 1915; we’re featuring posts on it all week


Even with my general skepticism about paranormal stories, one belief – or half belief- that’s stayed with me is the idea that when people are about to die, a part of them knows it. Think of all the “last speeches” people made that seemed eerie later on.

 My upcoming Ghosts of Lincoln book documents several things Lincoln said or did in the days before his death that seemed spooky later on, ranging from simply saying “Good-bye” in stead of “Good-night” to an aid to eyewitness accounts of him lingering over lines about the assassinated King Duncan while reading aloud from Macbeth. Only one was written down before his death, but several had many extremely high-level sources. It’s very difficult to read about Lincoln’s last few days and not get the sense that on some level, he knew the end was coming.

A similar thing happens with disasters. There are all sorts of stories about people having premonitions before getting aboard the Titanic, before 9/11, and so on. Most of them were not written down until well after the fact, so they don’t necessarily hold up as “evidence,” but the stories still make for fascinating reading. The Eastland disaster, in which an oversold boat capsized in the Chicago River and claimed the lives of 844 people, inspired premonition stories that spread like wildfire through the city in the wake of the disaster.

Two days after the ship capsized, the Chicago Evening Post told the tale of Herman Bottin, a mourner who had come from Iowa to search the morgues for the body of his daughter, Louisa Jahnke, who had been married less than a month before (her husband, Paul, also perished). With him was the girl’s uncle, Mr. Herman Schwandt, who said, “I had a premonition that something was going to happen to Mary and her husband. It was a sort of a dream. It woke me up Friday night.”

According to a 7/17/1915 Tribune article (which was also printed in the Post),  Paul and Louisa Jahnke had had similar dreams of their own, and were  so sure they would die that they made out their wills just before the trip. The two lived at 4817 W. 22nd Place, and their landlady, a Mrs. Altman, said “Both had a dream of the boat. Now they are dead. They were married just six weeks. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Jahnke, and they were so happy. Friday night when Mrs. Jahnke was fussing over lunch, she stopped and expressed a fear that something would happen to the boat. Later Mr. Jahnke rang my bell. ‘Here is my key and the $50 for mother if we don’t come back from the trip,’  he said.”

Their relatives, upon entering the apartment after the disaster, found a letter and a will on the dresser.

The Jahnke’s apparent premonition was, by far, the best documented premonition story. But theirs was not the only one – papers said that stories of eerie predictions were on everyone’s lips, and one paper estimated that at least a dozen similar stories were in circulation. The same Trib/Post article that told the Jahnke’s story also said that Josie Markowska, age 18 of South Sacremento Avenue,  had spoken of a premonition. According to her friend Helen: “Josie told my mother she felt something awful was going to happen and that she did not want to go to the picnic. My mother laughingly told her to go on and have a good time and warned her not to think of disaster else she might bring it on the boat. Now, Josie is dead. She was the only support of her mother and four small brothers and sisters. Mrs. Markowska…dreamed that Josie walked into the room, but it was a neighbor asking for a nightrobe for the body.”

Mamie Ponicki’s obit in the Tribune, 7/31/1915

Some of the premonitions only came out as casual mentions, such as the case of 19 year old Mamie Ponicki, whose obituary mentioned that on her way out the door, she said, “Good-bye, mother. I may never see you again.”

Mr. Tony Biehl was in Oklahoma leading an archestra and told the Tulsa World that as soon as he heard of the tragedy, he had a presentiment that he would “learn something of it concerning me more directly.” Sure enough, he found the name of a cousin of his who lived in Chicago among the names of the dead.

Twelve years later, an Eastland survivor named Gertrude Bendt was about to board a ship called The Favorite with her family at Lincoln Park for a two mile trek down to what is now Navy Pier. She told the Evansville Courier that she hadn’t liked the look of the ship, and suggested waiting for a larger one. Her family, who seem rather insenstive to the natural fears of someone who survived the Eastland, laughed and called her a “crepehanger.” She reluctantly boarded. The weather was fine when everyone boarded, but when a sudden storm hit and the ship began to tip to one side, Mrs. Bendt ran to the opposite side, calling the others to join her. They refused. The Favorite capsized half a mile off the coast of the North Avenue beach, taking the lives of twenty-seven, including four members of Mrs. Bendt’s family. Many papers erroneously stated that it had been the anniversary of the Eastland.

Of course, Mrs. Bendt’s premonition seems far more like sensible nervousness than anything paranormal, and so did many of the premonitions and predictions made about the Eastland in 1915. Such was the case of Martin Collins, a Northwestern student, and Chester Adams, two employees who told the Chicago Examiner that they’d quit working on the ship only days before the wreck because the ship scared them. Adams, who worked as a watchman, said, “We all knew that the Eastland was a freak and unsafe. I quit the boat because I was afraid of the boat from the first night I was on her. Besides the danger of the boat the sanitary conditions were awful.” William Katham, another former employee, told a similar story to the Rockford Morning Star: “Another captain said that summer that the Eastland would tip over some day.”

Similarly, my own fears that people are going to get hurt at the new riverwalk at the Eastland site is no psychic hunch – I’ve come so close to tumbling down the steep stairs or into the water myself in the times I’ve been there that I’m avoiding taking tour groups to the place. But if someone does get hurt there, this post will seem like a grim premonition…

Some Eastland Editorial Cartoons, 1915

In the wake of the Eastland disaster, a hundred years ago this week, lots of fingers were pointed, though nothing ever really came of the hearings and investigations. No one was ever really held responsible, though making the guilty pay was a major theme from editorial cartoons of the day.

 Here are some examples from the days following the tragedy, part of our week of posts on the subject.

Chicago Evening Post 7/26/1915

Chicago Evening Journal 7/28

Chicago Journal 7/30/1915

And three from the Examiner:

Mistaken Identities at the Eastland Morgues

Workers set up arc lights to continue searching for bodies on the night of July 24, 1915, when the Eastland capsized.
From the Chicago Examiner of July 25, 1915
From the Chicago Journal of 7/26/1915.
We’ll be posting many photos from defunct papers on Friday.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Eastland disaster, in which a badly-oversold boat capsized in the Chicago River, leading to the deaths of 844 people. This week I’ll be featuring posts about it daily, culminating  on the anniversary on Friday with a set of rarely-seen photos that I don’t think have ever been online before.

The Second Regiment Armory (now the southwest portion of Harpo Studios).  It was the largest of several morgues used to house the 800+ bodies after the disaster. There were several such buildings used  Here’s my “cheat sheet” of morgues mentioned in papers, besides the Armory and Armory Annex:
912 West Madison – Sheldon’s Undertaking (also vacant store in a building next door)

Reid Murdoch – floor 1 and basement

PJ Gavin’s, 642 N Clark (3 bodies)

Western Casket Co, 90 E Randolph (29)

Central Undertaking, 318 Federal (8)

Carroll’s, 822 N Clark (9(

Arntzen’s 810 N Clark (9)

Bradley’s (1820 W Harrison) (1)

Malonev’s, 1004 N Wells, 3

Sbabaro’s, 708 N Wells 1
Note: there is an urban legend that many were housed in the Chicago Historical Society building, later the Excalibur Club, but it’s just that: an urban legend.

It’s difficult to imagine how hard it must have been for the survivors to examine body after body, looking for their loved ones. But, if you think about it, you can easily imagine how mistakes could be made. There were several stories about bodies being identified as multiple people over time. A Tribune article from 7/28 states that in the morgue at 912 W. Madison, a young boy entered the premises saying he was looking for Mary Morgan. Police told him she’d already been identified by her father and was now at home, but he told them the body at the Morgan home was not Mary’s.  He turned out to be right. Mary’s father had identified the wrong girl. The body had been distorted, but resembled his daughter. Eventually, the real Mary was found, and the girl initially claimed became body No. 571. A Trib article from August 2nd said she was still unidentified. An August 19 article in a Duluth paper says that she had finally been identified as Ann Straka, age 22. Another body had already been buried as Anna Straka; it was exhumed and re-identified as Emma Meyer.
Here’s the Evening Post on one such incident, which segued into a story about another sad scene in the armory:
SAD RIVALRY MARKS HUNT FOR BODIES
Eagerness for Remains of Loved Ones Lost in River Tragedy Leads to Double Identification of Some of Dead
A view published in the Chicago Evening Post two days after the disaster.

A long, silent, sorrowful line of men and women moved slowly into the Second Regiment Armory at Washington Boulevard and Curtis Street today. Those in line wore set features – features that had been molded by a great grief.  The tears of Saturday had worn themselves into the flesh. The first grief at the loss of dear ones now bordered on anguish lest they be denied even the possession of the bodies of these dead ones. And it was the faint ray of hope that in the long row of unidentified of the Eastland’s dead might be the bodies they sought that buoyed up the spirits of the sorrowing multitude and averted utter despair.

To the beholder of the silent procession and the pathetic scenes that moved even the strong-hearted policemen who stood guard there was left no doubt that if in life a child, or a mother, or a wife is dear, then, indeed, in death is the body of that loved one the most highly-prized possession that is left.
The pathetic rivalry that attended the claiming of bodies demonstrated this. As the number of unidentified dead grew smaller, those who had tramped from morgue to morgue thru two long days and nights grasped at the slightest sign, and the result was mistakes in identification.
As body after body was identified it was taken from the row past which the sorrowful line was guided by the police and removed to another row to await the call of the undertaker. In order to handle the great throng more easily, the mourning relatives and friends of the missing river victims were guided away from the row of the bodies that had been identified. Yet, time after time, despairing relatives, failing to find their dear ones in the first long row, broke past the police and made their way frantically to the covered bodies of another part of the large armory floor. 
It was such an instance as this that brought a second identification of the body or a woman. A group of women had passed the long row two or three times. Each body they examined closely, fingering the bits of garments that had escaped the rush of the river. One of them stood despairingly for a moment, then her eye fell upon a pair of suede shoes that protruded from beneath a blanket that covered a body which had been identified yesterday. She pushed her way past the police and knelt at the side of the body.
“Let me see the buttons on her waist. I will know those buttons,” the woman shouted. Then, as the blanket was pushed aside and she saw a peculiar little jeweled button, she cried out: “This is Josey! This is Josey!”

From the Examiner
The police were perplexed. The body was awaiting transportation to the home of relatives who had made another identification. The woman who knelt at the side of the body was Miss Clara Dolezal. She claimed the body as that of her cousin, Mrs. Josephine Sindelar of 4537 West Jackson Boulevard. Already had the bodies of the husband, George, and four children been identified at other morgues. A fifth child is still missing. The entire family of six went down with the ill-fated boat.
“Can’t you open her mouth?” Miss Dolezal finally asked. “I am sure of the shoes and the buttons, but if you doubt me, look into her mouth. Josey has two small rims of gold on her front teeth.” The mouth was opened and there were two narrow rims of gold.
“The identification is positive,” a policeman said. “The other identification must have been a mistake.”
“Oh, don’t let the body go,” pleaded the woman. She was assured that the body would be held.
There were other equally pathetic, heart-rending scenes in the wide space of the armory floor.
Anton Thies, 1535 Tell Place, accompanied by two young songs, Arnold and Max, stopped suddenly beside a body of a young girl. Without a moment of sleep or rest since the first report of the sinking of the Eastland, Mr. Thies had been walking from morgue to morgue, and passing long rows of bodies. Late Saturday, he found the body of his 17 year old daughter, Agnes. His search went on for another daughter, Clara.
As he removed the blanket from a part of the body and looked at it for a moment, the man’s eyes filled with tears. It was his deep grief, mingled with a vague sort of joy, thought brought those tears. He had found the body of Clara. The two boys collaborated the identification. 
Then the determination that had lent the man strength during his long search gave way to an overpowering of grief and he stood at his child’s side, weeping. “Oh, my Clara, my Clara,” he wailed. “She would be alive today if she had not been forced to go on that excursion.”  
Asked what he meant, Mr. Thies explained, “Clara went on the excursion a year ago and she did not want to go this time because of the crowd. But she was forced to go. ‘I don’t want to go, papa,’ she said to me on Friday evening, ‘but I have to go. The boss told us we have to go. I won’t have a job anymore if I don’t go.’ Yes, she was forced to go to her death. She seemed to be afraid that something was going to happen. I can take you to a hundred girls that will tell you that their bosses forced them to go to the picnic. Clara worked for a foreman named Peterson.”

More Eastland Footage

A Springfield, IL theatre ad from July 31, just a week after
the disaster. I’m endlessly fascinated with how theatres
often showed footage on the bill with Chaplin films.
The Mutual Co. version was apparently not considered
by the Chicago censors.

More Eastland Disaster footage has been found in a Pathe newsreel digitized by a British firm. This is far more graphic than the previous footage, showing a body being removed from the hull of the capsized ship.

Again, tracing it back to the known footage is tricky. Did Pathe have a cameraman on the scene, or did they buy footage from one of the others who were known to be there?  Robert Loerzel published several cards from the old film censorship board rejecting Eastland films, and Pathe isn’t one of them. Then again, they clearly didn’t consider every version known. Mutual, for instance, had an Eastland film that wasn’t shown to the censors. So did Paramount Travel Films. And there’s an ad or two out there for theatrical showings of films of the funerals.

But did these companies all make films of their own, or just license footage made by others?

The most common version of the film footage was the one made by the Tribune cameramen, who got about 15 minutes worth of footage that was then exhibited. However, descriptions of it often made a point of saying that nothing particularly “grewsome” (sic) was shown. Then again, some descriptions of the Tribune film do mention bodies being loaded onto wagons, so it’s worth considering that maybe they just had a different idea of what was gruesome (besides a different spelling of the word) at the time.

There are a couple of references in the paper archives – mostly from later on in the saga – mentioning films that do seem to line up exactly with this footage. A few versions of the film were known to be shown in early August (not quite two weeks after the disaster, but already very late in the era when films were shown) refer to the “most complete version” including scenes of the bodies. In no case, though, does either the article or the theatrical ad indicate which version it is, or how it compares to others.

Rockford, IL  8/4/1915, mentioning a scene just
like the one in the Pathe reel.

 One that was shown at the Dreamland Theatre in Rockford, IL on August 4th spoke of bodies being removed from the hull of the ship, exactly as depicted here. However, neither the brief article nor the ad for the theatre itself specifies which version they’re actually showing, only that it’s the “most complete” version, which would generally connect it to the Tribune version. In all the descriptions of that film, though, it’s said that the dead are only shown covered by blankets. The sort of footage seen in the Pathe reel is the sort of thing you’d think they would have mentioned.

But is the Tribune film all that they shot? Sources differ wildly on just how much footage the Tribune got. Most ads and descriptions (including the ones the Tribune made themselves) say that they got about 1000 feet of footage (roughly 15 minutes). But the censorship card says 500. And a few newspaper articles say that they got several thousand feet.

So, once again, there’s no known way to connect this new footage to any of the companies known to be on the scene. My hunch is that it’s an “outtake” that was filmed by the Tribune but sold to Pathe instead of being used in their version of the film.  

There’s a link to the new footage at the post from the Eastland Disaster Historical Society

July 30, Springfield, MA had an Eastland film showing,
followed by a Chaplin lookalike contest.  Classy. 

Eastland Disaster Film Footage Discovered

It’s actually part of my usual tour patter to say that we’re still looking for film footage of the Eastland disaster. Lots of film footage is known to have bee shot and exhibited, but like most of the hundreds of silent films made in Chicago in 1915, it was now lost. “New copies of old films we thought were lost are always turning up in barns and yard sales,” I’ll say. “So you never know.”

Now approaching it’s 100th anniversary, the capsizing of the steamship Eastland was the deadliest disaster in Chicago History. Loaded well beyond reasonable capacity with picnickers from Western Electric, the vessel tipped over in the river between Clark and LaSalle, causing the deaths of 844 people, including 22 entire families.

It’s well established that film footage of the Eastland Disaster was made – in fact, some early reports say that witnesses stated that what caused the ship to tip over was a rush of passengers attracted to one side of the ship by the sight of a moving picture camera.  Films of the disaster were being shown in theaters nationwide only days after the fact.

Now,  at least a portion surfaced in the last few days after it was discovered in a Dutch newsreel posted to Facebook by Jeff Nichols.

Film from the disaster itself and the righting of the vessel were uncovered. The first, a 55 second clip from the disaster, can be seen here. The relevant footage starts at 1:10 in the clip.

The “Tribune” film advertised on a double-
bill with Chaplin in Flint, Michigan

The second, shorter clip shows the righting of the vessel several weeks later, before it was towed to the Halsted Street bridge, where it was docked for some time before being sold.  It can be seen here and begins at 9:10.

Now, the question is: which footage is this? While it’s far from a complete version of the “movies” that were shown in 1915, it’s at least a fragment, and was probably taken from one of them.

Several different Eastland films were being distributed in the weeks after the disaster; of these, the most common (and the only ones that I can confirm were film, not slides), were made by the Tribune Company and the Hearst-Selig newsreel camera.  The Tribune version became a 1000 foot film that was shown to raise money for survivors; at least 40 prints were circulating at one point. It was banned in Chicago (as were all Eastland films), but could be seen as nearby as Forest Park.

Descriptions of both films exist:

The Tribune film was 1000 feet long (roughly 15 minutes). It was shown in City Hall a few days after the disaster for a small board who determined whether or not it could be shown in the city (they voted against it); in an article describing the showing, the Trib gave a fairly detailed description:

The pictures, taken for the most part from a fire escape on the Reid Murdoch building just across from the wreck, start in with a view of the great hulk lying flat, half out of the water, with policemen, divers and life savers busy over it, saving lives of such as could be reached.  The stretchers are shown with their covered burdens, some borne across The Kenosha’s deck and put into ambulances, some carried over the Clark Street Bridge to the Reid Murdoch building. The river full of various craft appears; the crowds massed near by and held back by the policemen; the auto trucks with blankets rushed forward from the great stores to wrap the victims as they were taken from the river.    There were repeated scenes of the Eastland itself and of the water about it. Also of the nurses and firemen at work about the Reid-Murdoch building.  Finally the pictures showed the Second regiment armory turned into an emergency morgue where many went to seek those who were gone, and with the crowds surging around it.   There are no horrors of a repulsive nature. All figures on the stretchers are covered…the distance of the camera prevented any close up effects at all, except of two girl survivors, safe and dry, who posed for the film.

Descriptions of the Selig-Hearst newsreel are a bit more vague. The few descriptions I could find mention shots of the ship, of stretchers being carried, divers doing rescue work, and crowds on the dock.

So, based on what we know, the differences are mainly that the Selig version seemed to show more shots of the crowd on the dock, while the Tribune version showed scenes from the armory, not just from the River. Of course, it’s quite possible that the Trib version had crowd scenes as well, and that the Selig could have had an armory scene that just wasn’t mentioned. Perhaps the only real scene that would seem like a smoking gun would be the shot of the two girls posing, which would identify any footage as being from the Trib.  As it is, some of the footage could have been made from the Reid Murdoch, which would be a point in favor of this being the Trib footage.

But, really, the first clip could come from either of these films, or from some other source altogether.  I’d never heard of there being footage of the ship being righted at all before now.

Jeff notes that more footage may be forthcoming.  The EyeFilm Institute also has the only known copy of an episode of Selig’s Adventures of Kathlyn serial.

More info: Eastland Disaster Historical Society

My new book on silent film in Chicago: