Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

Listen above, at archive.org or check out the podcast on iTunes!  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago papers published a number of articles about how many ghost stories there were on Sheridan Road. One of them came up just a bit in my HH Holmes research – the legend of a woman who dreamed for several nights that a body was buried in the Evanston Woods, near murderer Holmes’ old house in Wilmette. Upon sending her husband to dig in the spot, a skeleton was found.

I’d never given the story too much though, but further research today finally dug up some news stories from when the skeleton was first found in September, 1896. And checking the microfilms for Chicago papers back then blew the whole story wide open. Give a listen to the podcast to see what happened!

Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

(new podcast! Click above, or see archive.org or iTunes
In 1888, a book of anecdotes about early Chicago retold a heck of a ghost story: one night on West Randolph, a woman heard ghostly footsteps up and down the stairs, then saw a disembodied hand shoving her apartment door shut. She ran away, then came back to find her baby in the oven (but alive), her dog dangling from a ribbon, and a bloody handprint on the door.

This story is a blast, because it seems like an embyronic version of a LOT of 20th century urban legends, like the old yarn about the babysitter putting the baby in the oven, and  the classic ghost story about “your dog isn’t the only one who can lick your hand,” not to mention the folklore motif of “the handprint that never faded away.”

We’ve had more than one “ghostly handprint” stories in Chicago over the years – in the podcast above we mention Frank Leavy’s hand, of which a photograph surfaced fairly recently .

0-handprint (1)

A 1939 Chicago Times photo of the Leavy handprint – probably retouched a bit for publication, but appears to be marked off with some sort of official seal. I’ll see if I can find this article for Halloween…

With few details in the 1888 book, it took some elbow grease to find the original source of the story! A regional reprint of an 1866 issue of the Chicago Post was eventually located, and gave the original ghost story in far greater detail – the story originally had a few more characters, took place over the course of two nights, and had a lot more objects flying around the room. By 1888, the story had been conflated and pared down to its basic urban legend components.

The house, said to have been the sight of “many dark deeds,” was given in the 1866 article as 128 West Randolph, which would be 645 West Randolph in modern numbering (where the Fiat dearly is now, across the corner from the Haymarket monument – so close that it may be one of the four story buildings in the photograph of the intersection of Randolph and Des Plaines above). As far as dark deeds, all I could find was a story of adultery and threatened murder going on there a few months before the hauntings began.

All of the details are in the podcast!

The Ghostly Nun Who Turned to Stone

Some days you win, some days you lose, and some days you follow a story about the Couch Tomb and up with a story about nuns who turned to stone, then allegedly came back from the dead to express anti-semitism. That’s life in Mysterious Chicago.

An image of Mother Galway found in
Holy Family Parish: Priests and People

In 1892, when city officials were debating whether or not James Couch could be buried in the family tomb that had been left behind when City Cemetery became Lincoln Park, it was noted that burials were not allowed in the city on grounds not specifically set aside for burials. Chief Sanitary Officer Hayt noted at the time that one exception had been granted: the seminary on Taylor Street was allowed to bury its members on their property.

A bit more research showed that this was the Sacred Heart seminary on the 1200 Block of West Taylor, a part of the nearby Holy Family parish. The nuns there were semi-cloistered, meaning that they were only allowed to leave the grounds when absolutely necessary. This didn’t happen much; according to a history maintained by Woodland Sacred Heart (pdf link), when the order was moved in 1907, the last sister to leave had not set foot off the grounds in 41 years. Nuns couldn’t leave for things so frivolous as funerals, so they asked (and received) permission to continue burying members in a private cemetery on their grounds.

Both the seminary and its burial ground are long gone. The space where the building stood is a blank space now, and the bodies were removed in 1907, after the order of nuns moved to Lake Forest.

But here’s the thing: according a Tribune article from October 13, 1907, when they moved the bodies,  two of the nuns had turned to stone.

Most of the nuns buried on the grounds were moved with little trouble, but it was a different case for Mother Galway, who had founded the school for girls on the spot (it eventually became the Academy of the Sacred Heart), and Mother Gauthreaux, who had died just months after the Great Chicago Fire (her obituary tells an amusing tale of her trying to call a street car after the fire to help her round up homeless nuns; in her cloistered life she had no idea that street cars were bound to tracks and couldn’t simply come to her door and go where she told them to).

Both of these women had been buried in metallic coffins, neither of which had held up very well under the ground for 40-50 years.  But both were far heavier than anyone expected, requiring eight men to lift them. To determine why they were so heavy, the workers opened them up. Here’s what the Tribune said they found:

There was the body of each woman almost exactly as it had appeared the day the casket had been closed and lowered into the earth beside the seminary. When a member of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart is buried she is clothed in the same black habit she wore during life. Instead of the silver cross on her breast a small wooden one is placed there…then the folds of the black veil are carefully drawn across the face of the dead nun.

The burial ground was somewhere on this block,
north side of W. Taylor between Lytle and Sibley. The
grounds are mostly vacant today.


When the wondering nuns looked upon the bodies of Mother Galway and Mother Gauthreaux the little wooden cross was gone with the passing of the years, and the features looked upon for the last time when the veil was placed over the face were no longer visible. But the outline of the figures was there as perfect as ever. Every line of the body that had been visible twenty years ago was stil there, and the color of the black habit gave a somber hue to the solid figure weighing more than 1000 pounds, where both the women had been but slight in stature during life.

For a moment the nuns of the institution were allowed to contemplate the wonders nature had wrought with the bodies of their predecessors. They saw the familiar white cap had crumbled away, as had he texture of the habits, leaving only a solid figure as if hewn out of ivory. Then the bodies of these dead nuns were incased in new caskets, and they were born to Calvary (Cemetery) to the little plot where the sisters of the institution now bury their dead.

For all the details, this isn’t a particularly good source. The Tribune article doesn’t really specify when it happened (it merely says “recently”); most other local papers from the same date don’t mention anything about the story (at least not right away). It’s also notably lacking in first-hand quotes, and sounds like it may be a second-hand story.

There are, of course, many explanations for why this sort of thing might happen to a body, the most common being adipocere, which is also known as “grave wax” (see Bess Lovejoy’s essay “The Madame Who Turned to Stone”), but at a thousand pounds each, that’s a lot of grave wax. And I’m a bit surprised that this story isn’t better known, given the Catholic fascination with “incorruptibles” (a colleague of mine just did a photo essay on these for Atlas Obscura, and then there’s the Chicago story of Julia Buccola-Petta, the Italian Bride). The Tribune‘s story was in several papers around the country in late 1907, but it’s hardly been spoken of at all since.

Except for one week, eleven months later, when sightings of Mother Galway’s ghost attracted huge crowds on Taylor Street. Who came with guns.

After the nuns vacated the old seminary, it was set to become a Jewish facility in 1908. Just before the facility opened, rumors swirled that the old place was haunted (what abandoned convent isn’t?), and things came to head on September 18, when a crowd that the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean estimated at 5000 crowded the space outside the iron fence. Some said that they saw ” a pale, bluish, ghostly light suddenly glow in an upper window and then slowly begin an eerie journie, flashing from window to window down the long, faded facade of the old convent.”

The Jewish caretaker and his wife rushed out of the building, with the man crying “It is a spirit! I saw it with my eyes. Far down a corridor I saw the shadowy figure of a woman in black with a lamp in her hand.”

This light had been seen for the past three nights, as well. It was the general belief of the crowd that it was the ghost of Mother Galway, expressing a protest that the school she founded was about to become a Jewish orphanage. The Inter-Ocean noted that her body had recently been found to be turned to stone.

The building at 1258 W Taylor n 1915, when it was the Hebrew Institute.
It had been heavily rebuilt in 1910, so this isn’t quite how it
would have looked. A photograph of the older version can be seen
in this pdf from Woodland Academy

Now, something you see in a lot of ghost stories from this era is that when people saw a ghost, their instinct was always to shoot at it; indeed, the most important tool in a ghost hunter’s arsenal in those days was a pistol.  One would think that they’d at least think twice about attacking a ghostly nun, but when the “ghost” appeared in a second floor window on the Taylor Street side, the crowd began throw anything they could find at it, eventually smashing a window and possibly firing guns.   Patrolman Frank J. Fournier entered the building expecting to find a practical joker or optical illusion, but found nothing but darkness.

By this point, around dusk, the crowd was blocking the street cars, and a riot squad was called in to get them to disperse.   The Examiner, the only other paper that seems to have taken any notice of the mob scene at all, still suspected a practical joker.

The Chicago Hebrew Institute (which was not exactly an orphanage, really – more fo a youth center) opened shortly thereafter.  The building was badly damaged by fire in 1910 and rebuilt; the organization moved to Lawndale in 1926. I haven’t yet found what became of the building in the end, but it’s a vacant lot today.

The Haunted Coffin Handle of Graceland Cemetery

In 1907, the Trib asked for readers to send in accounts of paranormal experiences. One anonymous guy sent in a second-hand story of an man in the Austin neighborhood, a “stalwart Norseman” who had experienced something that had “transformed a skeptic into an ardent believer in the occult.”

The “norseman” was a widower with four children. One day, while visiting his wife’s grave at Graceland, his oldest daughter found a gorgeous silver coffin handle lying around – one which had apparently broken off of a recently-exhumed coffin. It was said to feature “exquisite workmanship,” and the daughter took it home with her.

That very night, as the man sat smoking in his library, he heard the vestibule door swing open and a mad flurry of feet charging in. But when he got up to investigate, there was no one there, and the door was still locked.

The incident happened again night after night, and the footsteps extended their reach from the front vestibule to all over the house. “The noises,” the teller wrote the Trib, “increased until pandemonium reigned every night, and the family was panic stricken and nightly locked themselves in their rooms.” Furniture began to moved around, and the piano opened and closed violently. The family, in the typical style of ghost hunting of the era, would charge downstairs with guns, but would find nothing.

They were just about to abandon their haunted house when the father, on a thorough search, found the coffin handle in a basket of curios in the fireplace. He took the handle and threw it as far into the alley as he could – and that was the end of the ghost.

This particular  sort of “took an object from a graveyard” story (a pretty standard folk motif) always leaves me with a lot of questions. In this case:

 – Why not return it to the cemetery?
 – So, was the ALLEY haunted now that the coffin handle was there?
 – Why make such an effort to throw it? You could get it further away if you just TOOK it someplace. I’d kind of expect it to crawl back, like the cat in “The Cat Came Back,” if I didn’t get it further from the alley.

At least it’s not as bad as the “Golden Arm” story, in which a guy decides not to bury his wife with her golden arm and gets haunted by her. Who the hell gets a false arm made out of gold? Most of the variations on that story don’t say how the woman died, but it was probably either of curvature of the spine or running out of money and starving to death because she blew all of the family money on a ridiculously impractical golden arm (and god knows what ELSE such a person was spending money on). I have no sympathy for anyone wanting to be buried with such an expensive item. Leave it up in the world where it can still do some good, why doncha? Also, gimme your organs.

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.

Forgotten Chicago Hauntings – The Icebox Ghost

In September, 1902, the Ward family had what must have been one tense family reunion at Mrs. Ward’s house on Polk St near Halsted. Two months before, her son, Thomas, had threatened to kill her and even fired a gun at her, hitting her in the arm. At the reunion, he was up to his old tricks, beating her and threatening to kill her, until his brother pull a gun and shot him in the face.

A couple of months later, his ghost began to be spotted sitting on an empty ice box on the porch, which was visible from Blue Island Ave. Crowds would gather to see it, and, by the time it made the papers, onlookers were simply saying “Tommy’s on the ice box again!”

The sightings had apparently stopped by 1903 – we haven’t found a case of anyone seeing it since then.

Or have we?

The section of Polk and Blue Island where the ghost was seen no longer exists. Currently, the spot where the house stood seems to be right where the student center at the University of Illinois now stands – right next to Hull House.

Forgotten Chicago Hauntings #1

From time to time, newspapers have been publishing accounts of local haunted houses for well over a century. Many of the best Chicago ghost stories relate to buildings that are now lost and gone forever – for instance, the Robey Tavern on Robey (which is now Damen) and Washington was said to be haunted by Mrs. Robey, who walked the grounds in a black dress with a white lace collar, ringing her hands and sighing. The story went that the city’s first “hanging bee” was held at a tree on the property, which is now little more than parking for the United Center.

Here’s the Robey Tavern as it appeared in 1900:

This is one of only dozens of ghost stories that fell by the wayside over the years. Here’s an excerpt from the “Forgotten Haunted Houses” section I did for the Weird Chicago book (I worked with them from 2006-9)

The Helm House
In the 1880s, a rickety frame house stood on the Northwest corner of Halsted and Lill, near Lincoln Avenue (very close to both the Biograph Theatre (which, believe us, is NOT haunted) and The Tonic Room). The story went that sometime in the 1870s a man and his two children were found murdered in the house. The bodies were found on the first floor, but, based on blood stains found on the stairs, had apparently been dragged down from the garrett. Chris Helm, who owned the ramshackle frame house in the 1880s, offered $5 to anyone who would spend the night in the garrett, where the ghost seemed most active. He claimed that anyone who tried would be awakened by horrible screams and open their eyes to find a woman in white with eyes like saucers holding out a plate of burning sulfur. Two people attempted to sleep there, and neither lasted more than an hour. Policemen on the beat claimed that they wouldn’t go near the place. Helm was still telling the same story 10 years later! It’s worth noting, of course, that Helm tended to get people REALLY drunk before sending them up to the garrett, suggesting that the guy was faking the ghost to scare people away – a regular Scooby Doo villain!

On the site now: a large brick building now occupies the spot where the old house stood.