The Fool Killer Submarine: 100th Anniversary Podcast and New Theories!

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This month, January of 1916, marks the 100th anniversary of the day they found bones in the wreck of the Fool Killer, the mysterious submarine found in the Chicago River in November, 1915. It’s one of my favorite Chicago mysteries, and the first one that really sent me down a rabbit hole.

Fool Killer raising

Raising the Fool Killer, Chicago Daily News.

Our most complete article is The Fool Killer: All We Know from several years ago. The short version is this: In 1915, William “Frenchy” Deneau was digging a trench in the river bed to lay down some cables, and came across the wreck of a 40 foot long homemade submarine. In January it was found to have bones onboard – human and dog. In February, 1916, it was on display on South State Street.  For a dime you could see the submarine, and the dead guy, and the dead dog.foolkillerraising

It traveled around a bit from there – it was on display in Iowa in May, and at Riverview, on Western Ave, in June. From there, besides an ad in a magazine saying that it’s for sale, it vanishes from the record. It was probably sold for scrap in World War 1, though no one knows for sure. It could still be in a warehouse someplace.

We’re also left with the mystery of who built the thing, exactly – I’ve got some new clues down at the bottom of the post. The press at the time said it was built by an “Eastern man” who sold it to Peter Nissen, a daredevil / accountant.  around the time of the World’s Fair in 1893.  Nissen had several crafts called The Fool Killer, including this miniature steamship in which he was filmed shooting the rapids at Niagara Falls.

George C. Baker's craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

George C. Baker’s craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

But no known evidence really connects Nissen to this submarine. The federal inspector of Rivers and Harbors, though, said at the time that he’d heard of a submarine built by a naval architect sunk in the river about 15 years ago. The dates are a little off (you know how you still think of 1990 as being ten years ago?), but this would line up fairly well to a submarine invented by George C. Baker, and tested in Lake Michigan in 1892, near the Calumet River. I looked this one up when I was first digging into Fool Killer and brushed it off as not being the same craft. It’s a different shape.

But at the time, I hadn’t seen the thing with Monville talking about the naval architect. And looking up Baker now, I see that Baker was commissioned by the Navy to build more than one; he didn’t live to do it, but maybe someone else did?

One of G.C. Baker's patents. Was this the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

One of G.C. Baker’s patents. Was this the design for the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

Baker had several patents to his name, including 533466A and 525179A, which both look a LOT like the submarine Frenchy Deneau found. There’s even an article or two in out-of-town papers saying that his craft was forty feet long, just the length the Fool Killer was said to be.


Looking more into Baker now, there are some photographs of his ship, but it doesn’t quite look right; articles on him indicate that he hadn’t built more of them as of 1894, when he died. At that time his widow had the craft towed into Lake Michigan, filled with sand, and sunk. It’s probably still out there.


If I had to bet I’d be inclined to ascribe the Fool Killer to Baker, just based on those patents, but by all accounts to football-shaped craft was his only one. The bones were probably a publicity stunt on Deneau’s part – all available evidence indicates that the man was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story!

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Baker at the wheel of his craft, from Pacific Marine Review

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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The Fool Killer Submarine: All We Know!

I tell the story of the Fool Killer, mysterious submarine wreck found in the river in 1915, on almost every one of my tours. “It might have been the first large submarine ever built, if it had worked,” I say. “But apparently it didn’t, because when they raised it up the next month, they found a dead guy and a dead dog onboard the thing.” There’s always an “awwwww” when I mention the dog. By this point in the tour, I’ve told about the gruesome deaths of over 700 people, but you mention a dead dog…..

Tomorrow night (9/5/14) I understand that the episode of Monumental Mysteries I filmed last winter will air on the Travel Channel. You can already see the clip here on

In the show, we say that the sub was found beneath the Madison Street bridge, though this is actually in question. One of the weirdest aspects of the story is that the newspapers just couldn’t seem to tell where the submarine was found consistently – at various times it was said to be found near the Madison Street bridge, the Rush Street bridge, and the Wells Street bridge.  Some believe that this is evidence that Deneau, the finder, built the thing himself and faked the whole thing. But the Eastland Disaster hearings were still going on; tampering with the river would have been a HUGE legal risk.

Below, under the “read more,” I’m gonna go ahead and republish the whole three part article I posted on it back in 2008.  Since then, we’ve found some new information, including a new “last known location;” I found some ads from June, 1916 saying that it was on display at Riverview, the amusement park that stood near Western and Addison, a month after its appearance at a fair in Iowa.

Here’s our original three part post; click the “read more” button to see the whole thing if you don’t see it all at once. This is just about everything we know about this ship!

THE FOOL KILLER (from the Weird Chicago book I co-wrote)

In the days following the Eastland Disaster, a diver named William “Frenchy” Deneau was responsible for recovering around 250 bodies from the murky water. Four months later, in November, he was back in the river, working to lay cables beneath the Rush Street bridge. While he worked, his shovel hit upon a large metallic object which turned out to be the wreck of a forty-foot long iron submarine. Deneau announced to the newspapers that he had found The Fool Killer, and “ancient, primitive submarine” that had been lost for at least eighteen years – and possibly much longer!

At the time, submarines were in the papers almost daily. While attempts at submarine warfare had been made in both the Civil War and the American Revolution, using submarines as weapons had only recently become practical. Half a world away, Europe was in the grip of the world’s first submarine warfare, one of the deadly new types of battle introduced to the world in the first world war. The discovery of the wreck of an old submarine in the Chicago River was an event noted by several regional papers throughout the country.

Initially, it was expected that the sub would be raised by the Chicago Historical Society, but Deneau obtained permission from the federal government to raise the ship for “exhibition purposes.” The next month, after boat traffic died down for the winter, he arranged to raise it up from the murky depths. Once it was ashore, a startling discovery was made: inside of the ship were several bones – including the skulls of a man and a dog!

While police combed their records to identity the body, Deneau made preparations to put the odd craft on display. He appears to have enlisted the Skee Ball company as investors – it seems that they planned to tour the submarine around the country along with their games as a special promotion (imagine the slogan: “Come for the the Fool Killer, Stay for the Skee Ball!”)
By the end of February, the ship was on display at 208 South State Street. For a dime, customers see the remains of the old ship — and the remains of the dead guy and the dead dog! Admission also included a lecture and question-and-answer session by Deneau, a presentation on the history of submarines, and a chance to examine the interior of the Fool Killer itself (at the attendees’ own risk). On Saturday mornings, groups of ten or more children could get in for half of the usual price.

The exact location where Deneau found the wreck is a bit of a mystery – the newspapers first said it was near the Rush Street Bridge, then said it was at the Wells street bridge. A year or so later, while he was in World War I as a doughboy and speaking to reporters, Deneau said “remember that old submarine, the Foolkiller, I found? I found it over by the Madison Street bridge!” It also seems that in the process of raising it, workers had to drag it through the river a couple of miles to the Fullerton bridge.

And the location of the wreck is only one of the mysteries; the list of unanswered questions about the submarine is a long one. Who built it? How long had it been in the river? Who the heck was the dead guy inside of it, and what in the world possessed him to take his dog out on a submarine trip in the river? And whatever happened to the thing?

Research into these questions has proved frustrating – stories and theories abound, but none can really be verified, and the newspaper reports seem to be full of mistakes and contradictions.

Peter Nissen made three crafts called The
Fool Killer
, but this wasn’t one of them.
See him on film

Initially, the Tribune reported that the ship had been first launched in 1870 as a floating craft and sank to the bottom of the lake the first time it was submerged. According to their first article on the sub’s re-discovery, it was believed to have been bought and raised by Peter Nissen, the accountant-turned-daredevil, around 1890, who sank it the first time he tried to use it. The next month, when the skulls were found, the Tribune reported that the ship had been purchased and raised in the 1890s by a man named WILLIAM Nissen – since then, most people have assumed that the skeleton onboard was his that of William Nissen.

However, this is hard to verify – census records indicate that there WAS a William Nissen in Chicago in the 1890s, but he was still alive as of the 1920 census, five years after the bones were discovered! This William Nissen seems to be no relation to Peter Nissen, leaving one to speculate that the report had been a typo, and that the reporter meant to say “Peter,” not “William.”

The fact that they called it The Foolkiller at all may indicate that they – or Deneau – had simply mistaken it for one of Peter Nissen’s boats, which was an easy enough mistake to make. Nissen did build three experimental crafts, named the Fool Killer 1, Fool Killer 2, and Fool Killer 3 (see Peter Nissen: Chicago’s Forgotten Hero), and, though none of those were submarines, buying, raising and testing a dangerous homemade sub sure seemed like the kind of thing Nissen WOULD have done!

Further complicating the matter is the Tribune’s statement that the ship had first sunk in 1870, then raised again and sunk in either 1890 or 1897 (the date seems to change from report to report). One report in the Washington Post even said that it had claimed a number of victims around the time of the World’s Fair. However, if in fact the ship had sailed before, the paper saw no reason to mention it at the time, even though the launch of a submarine in the great lakes in 1870 would probably have been an event noticed by papers all over the world, as later submarine launches in the lake were. Furthermore, if the submarine had sunk in 1870 on the first time out and raised after twenty years, who would be crazy enough to go sailing in it?

Baker’s boat, from an 1892 Trib article. 

Most likely, all of the contemporary reports on the history of the craft were mistakes – no sources were ever given, and they seem to be the result of half-remembered stories of news items from decades before. Perhaps they were mistaking it for the submarine tested in Lake Michigan in 1892 by George C. Baker, which was about forty feet long – roughly the length of the Foolkiller – or the model Louis Gatham tested in the lake the next year. The Tribune also initially said that it was built to be floated, but pictures of the Fool Killer make it clear that it was never built to be a floating vessel.

But the Tribune also once reported that it was first owned by an “eastern man,” and some have speculated that this might refer to Lodner Darvantis Phillips, a shoemaker from Michigan City, Indiana, who also happened to be a submarine pioneer. There were only a very small handful of submarines ever known to be in the Great Lakes in the 19th century- and Phillips just happened to build a few of them, including perhaps the only successful submarine built in its time.

Phillips appears to have designed at least four submarines in his lifetime – according to his descendants, his third model, built in 1851 and known as the Marine Cigar, was stable enough that he was able to take his family on fantastic underwater picnics (this was probably the one he lost in 1853 while trying to salvage the wreck of The Atlantic in Lake Erie – it’s still lost in the lake today). A fourth model had torpedo mechanisms added. These third and fourth models were improvements of his earlier, less successful boats; the first, built in 1845, was a fish-shaped apparatus that sank in Trail Creek near Michigan City. The second just may have been the Fool Killer.

While actual details are scarce, family legend has it that Phillips’ second model was a forty-foot cigar-shaped submarine that was built in the late 1840s (in an 1853 letter to the Navy, Phillips did mention building a sub in 1847). According to these family stories, the machine lacked a decent mechanism for propulsion and sank on a test run in the Chicago River. Phillips’ family said, decades later, that the submarine found in the river was undoubtedly one of his.

That the Fool Killer was a Lodner Phillips creation seems to be backed up mainly by family legend, which is not always reliable; another Phillips family legend states than when Phillips refused to sell one of his boats to the British Navy, they sank it, a story that is almost certainly not true. And the letter Phillips wrote to the Navy in 1853 indicates that the submarine he built in 1847 was a success – no mention is made of it sinking (though the letter was an attempt to sell his latest boat to the Navy, and talking about failed models wouldn’t have been much of a selling point).

A rendering of one of Phillips’ later models. Submarine
designs did not commonly resemble this shape at the time;
most were rounder or more fish-like in appearance, so the
similarity may be a clue.  

But that the Fool Killer was one of Phillips’ subs is still the best explanation that has yet been offered for the origin of the mysterious submarine. No drawings or diagrams for his second submarine survive, but drawings of Philips’ subs from the 1850s do strongly resemble the pictures of the Fool Killer that eventually came to light.  (update: in articles discovered after this was written, it was mentioned by people “in the know” that a couple of military test subs had been sunk in the river at one point. No further details are yet known, though this would be a strong “alternate” theory). 

So, could the submarine have been beneath the river since the 1840s? It’s entirely possible, especially if the reports about the ship being from 1870 are incorrect, as has been suggested. Some recent articles have stated that Phillips sold the submarine in 1871 to a man who promptly sunk it, explaining the early newspaper reports of the sub being from that era, but Phillips was busy being dead by this time.

Who, then, was the poor man who died onboard? Since Peter Nissen died onboard a different ship, not a submarine, and William Nissen seems to have been alive when the sub was raised, the identity of the ship’s poor victim remains a mystery.

It’s possible that the bones were planted on the submarine when it was raised in 1915 as a publicity stunt to get more people to come see it on exhibition. After all, complete skeletons were not found – just skulls and a few other bones. What happened to the rest of them? The Phillips’ family legend about the sub sinking in the river don’t include anything about anyone being onboard at the time. Also, Phillips first and third sub models were known to have escape hatches – why wouldn’t the second one have had one?

William Deneau does seem to have been a bit of a showman – in 1958, on the anniversary of the Eastland Disaster, Deneau told reporters that he had just been onboard the repaired Eastland – which, he said, was still sailing under another name – for a cruise from California to Catalina the year before. In fact, the ship had been scrapped years before. Like most great showmen, Deneau may have been willing to fudge the facts a bit in the name of a great story.

While it’s likely that we’ll never know the truth about the bones, many of the questions about the submarine and its origins could surely be answered today if anyone knew where the submarine was now – but unfortunately, this is another mystery.

In May of 1916, the submarine was listed in newspapers among the attractions at Parker’s Greatest Shows, a traveling carnival run by Charles W. Parker, which had arrived for a weeklong engagement in Oelwein, Iowa. It was listed as “The Submarine or Fool Killer, the first submarine ever built,” being exhibited along with “skee ball, a new amusement device,” but it was merely listed among other top draws, including “The Electric Girl, The Vegetable King, Snooks, the smallest monkey in the world (the paper was especially enchanted with the monkey, who delighted crowds by sucking his thumb), the fat girl, and the Homeliest Woman in the World.” The Fool Killer was mentioned in the papers almost daily, though one can imagine that it didn’t take much to make the papers in the town of Oelwein in 1916. In any case, it does not seem to have been as big a draw as the monkey. No mention was made of the bones, which may not have traveled on with the submarine.

A June 27, 1916 ad from the Chicago Examiner showing
that  Riverview now had the Fool Killer AND
a Monkey Speedway! 

By 1917, Parker’s Greatest Shows had replaced the sub with a new submarine that could demonstrate manuevers in a giant glass tank (and replaced Snooks with a “monkey speedway”), leaving historians to speculate Parker sold the old submarine for scrap, but no one really knows what happened to it – it could still be out there someplace today, as far as anyone knows! (update: shortly after its Iowa appearance, it’s now known to have been on display at Riverview, so Chicago is once again its last known location). 

The Fool Killer Submarine – our first post on the subject!

The Fool Killer Ad our post featuring the Tribune ad (from back when this was the Weird Chicago blog)

The Fool Killer: More Evidence – a post comparing a drawing of one of Phillips’ subs to photos of the foolkiller

Fool Killer Clue? – speculating that newspaper reports dating the sub to the 1870s might have been mistaking it for OTHER experimental subs.

Finding the Fool Killer – a newly-unearthed account of the submarine’s discovery, with an early guess as to its origin.

Finding the Fool Killer Submarine – New Info!

An article detailing the finding of The Foolkiller Submarine, the mysterious sub found in the Chicago River in 1915, has been dug up in the archives of the Chicago Examiner. Offhand, I think this is the first mention of it I’ve seen in a Chicago paper outside of the Trib.

The article states that Deneau was in the river near the Wells Street bridge when he found the zeppelin-shaped craft, half-buried in the river, by stubbing his toe on it. He determined that it was a submarine, and that it had a non-working engine. Upon surfacing, Deneau seemed decidedly amused.

“Why didn’t somebody tell me I was working in a war zone?” he joked. “A man ought to get extra pay when he has to run the risk of submarines every time he dives, oughtn’t he? It’s dangerous. And are there any mines in the river?”

As to an explanation for the origin, we have what may be the best clue yet as to what the thing was, if it wasn’t a vessel built by either Lodner Phillips or Peter Nissen: “I have heard,” said E.S. Monville, the federal inspector of rivers and harbors, “that a submarine made by a naval architect was sunk in the river about fifteen years ago.”

THe Examiner also contacted a man from the Department of Justice who said he was confident that the submarine had NOT sunk the Eastland.

One must remember that at this time, World War 1 was just getting under way, the deadly new submarine boats were in the news regularly. This DOES sort of fly in the face of the notion that Deneau had faked the entire thing, as Gaper’s Block put forth a while ago. There’s still nothing concrete saying how long the thing had been down there or who built it, but I don’t think Deneau built it himself.

The Examiner also described finding the bones in more detail – they were mixed in with the mud and muck that had filled the craft, and were found while it was being cleaned out. The Examiner made no guess as to the identity of the man, but suggested that the dog may have been a collie. By this time, they were stating that it had been built around 20 years before.

Another Examiner find adds another new tidbit: in addition to touring with Parker’s Greatest Shows and its famous engagement on south State street, the submarine was also, at least briefly, on display at the Riverview amusement park! The date here was June, which is a month AFTER it was on display in Iowa. Apparently, it ended up BACK in Chicago after a short run with Parker’s Greatest Shows – so we now have a new “last known location” on it!

Peter Nissen: Chicago Hero on Film

We’ve covered Peter Nissen, the Chicago Daredevil before. This is the guy who twice shot the Niagara Falls rapids in ships of his own devising, and then perished while trying to cross Lake Michigan in a giant canvas balloon called (a tad clairevoyantly) The Fool Killer III.

Here we have a film of his second attempt to shoot the rapids aboard the Fool Killer II, which was said to be the smallest steam ship ever. Even knowing how it ends, it’s a pretty suspenseful minute or two of footage! It makes you wonder how in the HELL he survived in the Fool Killer 1, which was open, so he could wave at people. He had only thought to add shoulder straps at the last minute!

This was filmed by the Edison company. It’s now in the library of congress. This ship is not to be confused with The Fool Killer Submarine, one of our other favorite topics, which was probably so-named due to an erroneous claim that it was one of Nissen’s ships (though making a home-made submarine sure does SOUND like the sort of thing he’d do). Looking at this ship, it sort of makes you wonder if Deneau, the guy who found the sub, actually thought it was this thing at first….

Foolkiller Debate!

Can’t believe I missed this for so long – Straight Dope Chicago has posted an article about the Foolkiller that disagrees with my conclusion that it may have been a vessel built by Londer Phillips. Straight Dope is more of the opinion that William Deneau, the discoverer, simply faked the whole thing.

Actually, I’ve always suspected that Deneau planted the skulls there himself, though I’ve stoped short of saying he faked the whole thing – my general sense is that he found a sub, made up a story to go with it, and didn’t realize how long the thing had actually been in the river. I certainly don’t think it’s a DEFINITE that it was a Phillips sub, but it does match the drawings of one of his later ones uncannily, and I haven’t found a better explanation.

Here’s the article.

And a few replies:

1: OTHER PAPERS I can’t say for sure that the other papers besides the Tribune never covered the story – I just haven’t found any other stories about it. There’s no index of other papers, so it’s tough to say for sure. The suggestion that the other papers didn’t run the story because they didn’t believe Deneau doesn’t really hold – not believing a story was true had never stopped most of the local papers from running it before.

2: PHILLIPS Straight Dope posits that Lodner Phillips was fully incapable of making such a submarine. This would be a better argument if the submarine had been a working one, not the kind that sank and never came back up. Phillips wasn’t exactly educated, and some of his relatives seem to have thought of him as a real ne’er-do-well, but, on the other hand, plenty of guys who really knew their stuff, submarine-wise, seemed to regard him as one heck of a submarine designer (by mid 19th century standards). For him to build the craft in 1849 wouldn’t have been outside the realm of the possible. Of course, for Deneau to have it built as a massive hoax wouldn’t have been impossible either – that’s always Option B.

I’ve never said with any certainty that Phillips made the thing, but, giving Deneau the benefit of the doubt (which we don’t REALLY have a good reason to do, except that no one seems to have publicly called him on the story at the time) that he actually did find the craft underwater, none of the other submarines rumored to have been in the river come as close to fitting the description.

I’m not quite convinced that the story is dead – there could always be another photo found, or some more information. Until then, though, we’re at a sort of dead end in the story. Was it really a submarine that had been down there since 1849? Was it some other sunken craft? Did Deneau build it and sink it himself? The world may never know!

Click the “Foolkiller” tag for our extensive coverage of this goofy mystery!