The Headless Ghost of Winnetka

I normally don’t get into stories from the suburbs around here, but you’ll have to excuse me – I’m a SUCKER for headless ghosts. Over on another blog I’ve reviewed several variations of Legend of Sleepy Hollow. 

Sheridan Road used to be known as a real hotspot for ghosts – occasionally local papers would run features on all the murder sites and haunted spots you would see driving along it; it even put you in spitting distance of H.H. Holmes’ place in Wilmette, and one story told a lurid tale of a woman finding a skeleton buried near there after having a dream about someone being buried in the woods (more on this later – I’ll check into it).

But chief among these was stretch of Hubbard’s Woods near the ravines that was haunted by a headless man. As of 1902, the latest of the articles, residents still remembered the “headless horror” of 1881, when a headless corpse was found in the woods. Local legend had it that every night, on the anniversary of the murder, the headless ghost would wander through the woods, searching for its head.

In may, 1881, a twelve-year-old boy was going hunting for birds’ nests in the woods when he came upon a headless corpse about fifty feet north of Green Bay Road. It was leaning as though the head “must have rested upon the swelling base of the tree as upon a pillow,” and would have been face up, except, well, there was no face. The head was nowhere to be seen. The pockets had been turned inside out, suggesting a robbery. THe head-chopping was so cleanly done that some thought that a machine must have been used, like a guillotine. A bearded human head had been found upon the lake shore about six weeks prior, in a direct line from where the corpse had been found.

Clues came in fairly quickly. Cards from a hotel in BRemen, Germany were in the pockets. A new search of the area where the head had been seen yielded a high-crowned black derby hat with some human hair and blood in it.   The clothing had bit slit lengthwise, as though the killer had intended to strip it all off, but then got nervous and left it. There were signs of a terrific struggle.

The city had the body buried in a shallow grave near the tree where it was found (to the consternation of residents), then hastily dug up to see if it could be matched to a body-less head that was exhumed from Dunning (I couldn’t tell if this was the same head that had been found on the beach, which some reports say had washed away). When dug up, the body was no more than three feet down, and in a pool of stagnant water. The smell was about as one would expect, and the corpse, though only just buried, was barely recognizable as anything that had ever been human. The head, too, was in bad shape, but was found to be a reasonably good match – close enough, anyway. The two articles were put into one box and taken out to Dunning.

For a time the body was said to be that of Bernhard Polzig, but checking on the origin of the clothes yielded a theory that it was a missing Bohemian man named Ignaz Hopf, who had recently fled Bremen and was probably murdered in March, only weeks after arriving in the United States. Who killed him, and exactly why, were never exactly determined.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the Trib occasionaly made mention of the belief among the locals that the headless ghost walked around the ravine, at least on the anniversary of the murder, looking for its head. Whether they actually believed this, and if anyone actually claimed to see it, were not mentioned. By the time these stories came out, the way the story was being retold differed a bit from the way it actually happened; in the retellings people usually said that a  bunch of boys found the head after the body was found.

The Missing EASTLAND movie?

In 1915, when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago river, one enterprising camera man ran to a fire escape on the Reid Murdoch building, just across the river from the disaster, and began to film. Eventually he got footage not just of the boat on its side, with firemen racing across it, stretchers (with the bodies covered) being carried around, and divers plying their trade. There were also, according to contemporary accounts of the film, shots of workers rushing about in the Reid Murdoch itself (which became a hospital/morgue) and in the Second Regiment Armory. A few girls who survived voluntarily posed for the camera.

The film was about a thousand feet long, and was being exhibited around the country only days after the disaster. Around forty prints were known to exist at the time. The city censors (we had film censors then) refused to let it be shown in the city limits; a note about the rejection indicates that it was made (or distributed)
by the Selig Polyscope company; various papers credit the filming to the Chicago Tribune company of the Universal Current Events company. It could be that Selig simply made a hasty film of his own re-enacting things.   The ad at the right is from The Flint Daily Journal on July 31, a week after the disaster. What an odd double feature – The Clark Theatre couldn’t have come up with a stranger pairing.

So far as I can tell, there are no surviving prints, and information about it is hard to come across. Does anyone know more about    this? Practically all films from that era are now lost.

Cryptic Vandalism: He Whom Waits Behind the Rose

One of those mini-mysteries that pop up now and then – this odd phrase was found scrawled on the memorial sign at the Eastland Disaster site on the tour on Friday night:  He whom waits behind the rose.

The phrase doesn’t come up at all when typed into google. Is this a scavenger hunt clue? An odd bit of graffiti? If we’d looked at all the OTHER signs on the river walk, would we find that this was one line or a larger poem, like a Burma-Shave sign?  I’m always amused by cryptic vandalism.

Ghouls of the Eastland Disaster

Robbery of the dead does not seem to have been as major an issue after the Eastland Disaster as it was following the Iroquois Theatre fire. This may be due to the fact that people didn’t carry as many valuables or as much cash on a boat trip, or it may simply be that Western Electric company employees didn’t have as much as to carry as theatre patrons did.
But that’s certainly not to say that there were no incidents.

Above: the “floating morgue” beneath the Wells Street bridge

One victim was Mrs. Mary Puts, 1210 Addison. More than $2000 worth of jewelry was found on her person after her body was recovered from the interior of the boat – a lavaliere containing three diamonds, several diamond rings, a pair of earrings containing two diamonds each, a cameo pin and ring, and a gold wedding band.  The jewelry was taken by two patrolmen and given over to the DeWitt Cregier, the city custodian, just as it should have been (the police seem as though they may have been more careful to handle valuables found on victims in this manner after what had happened with the Iroquois victims).  But when Joseph, her husband, went to the office to retrieve them, they couldn’t be found. I don’t know if they were were.

More common that this seems to be a particularly dastardly form of robbery – ghouls would go right into the homes of the bereaved families of the victims. This type of thieve, known as a “mourning raffle,” would go into the homes of victims during their wakes, kneel beside the mourners, and approach the coffin, then deftly steal the jewelry from the coffin. if they had the room to themselves, the sometimes also stole furniture, pictures, and anything else they could get their grubby hands on. The Tribune reported at least a score of these “raffles” were operating in the Cicero area, and the police began to station guards at the homes of the grieving families.

One Tribune article did refer to there being ghouls caught stealing from victims as they were pulled from the hull of the ship or as they were laid out in the improvised morgues.

Heres a photo of the disaster site taken by Lynn Peterson on one of the tours just last week – some see the image of a person trying to climb out of the river in the photo.

Resurrection Mary and the Eastland Disaster

While we’re looking up possible candidates for the “real” Resurrection Mary, why not look back a few years further than we normally do?

In 1915, when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago river, killing more than 800 people, it was the worst tragedy in Chicago history. The dead had come from all over the city, though most came from the West side, and the most notably-large chunk were of Bohemian descent (though suggesting that Resurrection Mary may not have been Polish tends to generate some pretty odd hate mail).

At least five young women named Mary who perished aboard the Eastland were buried at Resurrection, and one other may have been.

 One was Mary Malik, age 20 or 21 (depending on the source you’re looking at), who was buried in the same casket as her 18 year old sister,  Stella (their parents could only afford one – this sort of flies in the face of stories I hear about the Western Electric company bending over backwards to make sure everyone had a coffin). Both girls lived at S 3023 48th Court in Cicero. Mary was born in Moravia, Poland and settled with their parents in the Chicago area as a girl. Upon completing her education at St. Mary’s Polish school at 13, Mary got a job with the Western Electric Company and had been with them for 7 years at the time of the disaster. Stella had been working there for four years herself.

Also listed among the casualties of the disaster buried at Resurrection:
Mary Ceranek – age 17 according to modern casualty lists, though the Tribune said she was 20 at the time. She lived at 2838 S. 48th Av, Cicero, and had five brothers and sisters. She had been working for Western Electric for four months.
Mary Krzyzaniak-Dudek. 27 year old wife of John Dudek – probably too old to be the ghost.
Mary Kaszuba, 24. A single women who worked for the Novelty Candy Co, lived at 8042 Throop, had four sisters and two brothers.
Mary Kupski (or Cooper) – age 23, lived at 2832 Lawndale Ave. An employee of Western Electric, she was the family’s only means of support, as the rest of the family was unemployed.

Another -the “maybe” – was Mary Bizek (or Bezik), who was buried along with her sister Anna. The two, aged 19 and 16 respectively, lived at 2828 S. 50th Court. They had been raised in Chicago. Mary worked for Sears and Roebuck as a mail stamper, and both helped to support the family. The Eastland casualty list I consulted said that both girls were actually buried at Bohemian National, as does find-a-grave.com , though the funeral description in the Trib certainly makes it sound like it was at Resurrection.

The description is part of a section of the Trib that also speaks of the Maliks:

As one of the motor trucks left the church it contained two coffins. They contained the bodies of Miss Mary Malik, 21 years old, and her sister, Miss Stella Malik, 18…They worked on the same bench in the Wester electric plant, went on the steamer together, and found death at almost the same moment. A single grave in Resurrection Cemetery received their bodies.  Two other households contributed two members each to the cortege. They were Antonia and Agnes Ignaszak….and Angela and Ladisslaus Latwoski… In the afternoon services were held for Mary and Anna Bizek. 

We don’t have photos of and of these women, as far as I know, and they died a few years before most Mary “candidates” did. But they’re roughly the right age, the right name, and at the right cemetery, which makes them just about as good as candidates as anyone else we know of. The “ideal” candidate is a blonde girl named Mary, age 16-24 (give or take), who died on or around Archer Avenue some time before about 1935, preferably after going out dancing, and was buried at Resurrection. Once again, no one fits all of those criteria, as far as we know. Of the three “major” candidates, Mary Bregovy was a brunette who died in the Loop, Anna Norkus was only 12 and buried at a different cemetery, and Mary Miskowski actually died in her 40s, not at 19, as the story goes.

To consider any of these candidates, you have to jump to some wide conclusions:

1. That the ghost is real in the first place.
2. That her name is really Mary. Most of the eyewitnesses don’t seem to get her name at all. And, even if one of them did, was she giving her real name?

Reading all of these obituaries is really terribly depressing. That the people in charge of the ship were never tried for criminal negligence, after adding tons of cement to the deck, raising the capacity after simply adding more life boats, etc,  is simply shocking (they were only ever tried for conspiracy to run an unsafe ship, of which they were innocent). Yes, I’m familiar with the argument that the ship tipped over because the out-of-control government required it to have too many lifeboats (since the Titanic had just gone down without enough boats, prompting a handful of new regulation), but that theory doesn’t hold water with me. The added weight from the boats didn’t concern them so much that they didn’t add all that cement, and they RAISED the capacity instead of lowering it. The government probably never should have allowed that ship -which was known as fussy both before and after – to be used as a passenger ship at all.

For a whole lot more information and speculation, check out our Resurrection Mary Roundtable podcast!

The Hauntings of Harpo Studios

I wonder if Rosie O’Donnell knows that her new studio has a long-standing reputation for being haunted? Employees aren’t supposed to talk about it, but I’ve heard from several of them. There’s said to be a bathroom (normally kept locked) where people here someone crying, a mean guy upstairs, and, perhaps most famously, a woman in a long gray outfit, which I like to call The Phantom of the Oprah (thanks, folks, I’m here all week).

The building now known as Harpo Studios has a long and storied history. In the 19th and early 20th century, the building was home to the 2nd Regiment Armory. It was here that the police armed themselves to charge on the Haymarket rally a few blocks away in the 1880s (the fact that Oprah was so close to Haymarket Square has always amused me to no end).

But the ghostly reputation comes mainly from those sad says in July, 1915, after the Eastland capsized in the river, leading to the deaths of something like 844 people.

The common myth around the city is that the bodies were taken to the Chicago Historical Society (now The Excalibur club), but this is a misconception. Photos of the bodies were often labeled “Chicago Historical Society,” but that was the organization that provided the photo, not the location where it was taken. The bodies were taken a few places, such as the Reid Murdoch building on the river and a “floating morgue” underneath the Wells Street bridge. But the majority of them were taken to teh Second Regiment Armory.

Over the years, I’ve heard MANY stories about Oprah’s own reaction to the ghost stories – some say that she knows and loves the ghosts, others say that she won’t go into the building alone, especially after dark. I have no idea which of these, if either, is true. When i first got started in the business I thought the ghost stories were just silliness and an attempt to write Harpo Studios into ghost tours, but I’ve spoken to several people who worked in (or near) the building who have all kinds of stories about strange sounds. I’ve never met a witness to the “gray lady,” but I’ve spoken to several people who’ve heard the sounds of screams, cries, and, more often, of children running around laughing.  I hope the latter is the real one.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll try to dig up some more stories about the history of the building. And wish good luck to Rosie, who won my heart by refusing to live in the Trump building.

Temporary Morgues

Gosh, it’s cheerful around here lately, isn’t it? Let’s talk about temporary morgues!

Temporary morgues are set up when disaster strikes, leaving too many dead bodies to fit in a regular morgue. You never can tell when a place you’re walking around might have been a morgue once.

A few from Chicago history:

870 N. Milwaukee Ave (formerly 64 Milwaukee) – near Milwaukee and Racine. This was the site of a stable used as a temporary morgue following the great Chicago Fire.

C.H. Jordans Saloon and Annex, State and Madison – Numerous soucres list the seventh or eighth floor (depending on which source you read) of Marshall Field’s as a temporary morgue after the Iroquois Theatre fire. It was really more of a hospital (though many people surely died there). The main temporary morgue was nearby at Jordan’s saloon and annex, 14-16 E. Madison (old numbering). Incidentally, the story of the guy yanking gold fillings from teeth seems to be apocryphal, but the NYT reported that there was a lot of that kind of thing going on.

Harpo Studios, The Reid Murdoch building, and Under the Wells Street Bridge – though most of the bodies following the Eastland disaster were brought to the Second Regiment Armory (now Harpo Studios),  some were brought to the Reid Murdoch (right next to the site of the tragedy) and to a floating morgue under the bridge (the LaSalle Street bridge didn’t exist yet). Contrary to legend, none were brought to the building where the Excalibur Club is now.

The Brueschater Buildling – 21st and Leavitt. In 1889 this saloon (then still operated by William Brueschater, whose name is still clearly visible on the turret)  was used as a morgue when a building across the street collapsed in a storm, killing at least 8 people.

Chicago, The Eastland, and the Last Shot of World War 1

In June of 1921, The Tribune announced that the last official shot of the World War had been fired – in Chicago (or in Lake Michigan, at least). A German U-Boat, U.C. 97, had been sunk in Lake Michigan, torpedoed by a US gunboat.

This wasn’t exactly a battle – the U.C. 97 had been surrendered to the United States a few years before, shortly after the Armistice. But under the Treaty of Versaille, all trophy ships had to be sunk by July 1st, so the USS Wilmette carried out the duty about 20 miles off of Highland Park. It was said to be the first time a naval gun had fired an explosive shell on the Great Lakes “since Perry whipped the British on Lake Erie in 1813.”

The USS Wilmette was the name the Navy had given to the Eastland, which, six years before, had tipped over and killed more than 800 people.

One sailor, Ernie Pyle, later wrote that the ship was “still in sinking condition…it constantly shied to the right and once in a while felt as if it wanted to lie down.”

The U.C. 97 is still out there in the water. The wreck was discovered in 1992, but the exact location has never been made public.

More info and pictures from the Eastland Historical Society