Some New Hull House Information

Charles Hull’s monument at Rose Hill. When the grounds were
dedicated in the late 1850s, many prominent citizens stayed after
the ceremonies to pick out their plots. Being so close to
the gate, I assume that Charles was one of them.

While I was the University of Chicago library today, I ran across an 1867 book (pamphlet) really that I’d never even heard of Sketch of the Life of Charles J. Hull.  I knew about Charles Hull, of course – the house he built in 1856 is a landmark of Chicago history for the work Jane Addams did there, and a regular stop on ghost tours. I’d his read Charles’ own book, Reflections from a Busy Life, a few years ago at the Newberry Library, and found it fascinating. Charles was a guy who owned a tavern when he was 12, and tore it down at 15. He found his way to Chicago, worked his way through both medical and law school, and became a real estate dealer, activist, and something along the lines of a motivational speaker.

Now, a lot of nonsense is told about Hull House, the house he built in 1856 at Halsted and Polk. Though there were already rumors that it was haunted when social work pioneer (and future Nobel laureate) Jane Addams moved in in 1889, there’s no evidence that the land was built on an Indian burial ground, that Addams had a well of aborted fetuses on the grounds, or that the devil baby was a real, supernatural creature that Addams buried alive  (and geez, it’s not so bad when people exaggerate, say, the crimes of H.H. Holmes, but when people talk crap about Jane Addams, that’s pretty low. These stories drive the people who work at the museum up the wall).  And for the stories that Potawatomie Indians did a ghost dance there in 1812 to curse the white man…I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with that.

And we don’t even NEED those stories to explain any ghost sightings there. We know that the place was a home for the elderly run by nuns in the 1870s. We know that Mrs. Mellicent Hull died there in 1860, and that her son Charley died there in 1866.  And when Addams moved in, there was an undertaking parlor next door. Charles himself was a spiritualist, at least on some level, so it’s not impossible that he held seances there.

A portrait of Charles I hadn’t seen before; the
drawings I’d seen always depicted him with the beard he has
in his statue at Rose Hill.

Though I’m no longer employed by a ghost tour company, I still feel that ghost enthusiasts deserve better than what they’re getting. All of these made-up stories, discouragement from checking sources and encouragement to jump right to supernatural explanations for things don’t help anyone, they just muddy the waters and jerk people around.

Anyway, from the new volume, I can clear up a little more: though previous sources didn’t say how Mrs. Hull died (Charles only said she died peacefully), Sketch of the Life specifies that she died of consumption (which we now call tuberculosis).  Charley died of cholera at the age of 19, after a very short illness.

Sketch also notes something I hadn’t heard, but wasn’t surprised at: Charles Hull was particularly incensed by the fugitive slave law of 1860, and there after helped “many a wandering stranger” who was escaping to freedom in Canada. It’s just one line, but it raises a strong possibility that Hull House was, at times, a sort of informal stop on the Underground Railroad!

My new company, Mysterious Chicago Tours, is not a ghost tour company, per se, but I’m still available to run ghost tours for private groups and schools. In the Spring, we’ll add historical cemetery walks, some of which feature the Hull plot pictured above. Get on our mailing list for dates!

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.”

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.

Carl Wanderer’s Last Song

Carl Wanderer
photographed by the Chicago Daily News

(expanded and updated from an older post after watching the first episode of  Fargo. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it reminded me a little of this guy’s story)

One day in 1920, Carl Wanderer came up to a drifter on Madison Street and told him he needed a favor. He was in the doghouse with his wife, who was about to have a baby and didn’t think he was enough of a man to be a father. Wanderer had hatched a plan.

“If you come up and pretend to mug us,” he said, “so I can punch you in the face and look like a hero in front of her, I’ll give you ten bucks.”

The drifter agreed, and Wanderer loaned him a pistol to make it all look more authentic. The next day, as he and his wife walked home from the movies, the drifter jumped from the bushes, held out the gun, and waited for Carl to punch him.

Instead, Carl Wanderer shot the drifter to death.

Then he turned and shot his wife to death, as well.

Exactly what was on Carl’s mind depended on who was telling the story later. Some said he wanted to get back into the army. Others say he was in love with an army buddy. Others still say he wanted to marry a 16 year old named Julia with whom he’d been having an affair. In any case, he’d made plans to kill his wife and blame it all on the drifter.

For a couple of days the papers thought he was a tragic hero who’d lost his wife while trying to save her life, but I don’t think the cops ever really believed him. They thought right away that it was odd that he and the drifter had the same kind of gun, and Wanderer’s response, “Oh, they were both my guns. But he took one from me. I don’t know what I was thinking when I said he had a gun!” didn’t make them put any more weight into his story. Why would the guy have taken two guns to the movies? How many people did he expect to have to shoot?

He was soon arrested, and the trial went on for a while. The defense tried to use plays he’d made in poker games to prove he was insane at one point. He was initially sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, but outcry from the press calling to give him the gallows was so strong that he was rushed back into court to stand trial for the death of the drifter. The drifter was never positively identified (several identities for him have been put forth over the years), and the defense tried to claim that since the man hadn’t been identified, he didn’t legally exist and couldn’t possibly be murdered. But it didn’t hold. Carl was eventually sentenced to hang.

And so, in 1921, Carl Wanderer stood on the gallows near Dearborn and Illinois, ready to hang for the murder of his wife and a “ragged stranger.” As he stood there, reporters asked if he had any last words.

“Not really,” he said.

“Come on, Carl,” shouted one. “Sing us a song!”

And so he did – he sang “Old Pal,” a song popular enough in 1920 that TWO movies would be based on it that decade. It was a real crowd pleaser – one reporter noted that “he should’ve been a song plugger,” though another said that he should have been hanged just for his voice.

“Old Pal” is one depressing song – as parlor songs were wont to be. Some say it was a love song to his wife, but that was probably just reporters selling the drama. Here are the lyrics:

Old pal old gal,
You left me all alone;
Old pal old gal,
I’m just a rolling stone.
Shadows that come stealing,
Thru the weary night;
Always find me kneeling,
In the candle light.

Old pal, old gal,
The nights are long and drear;
Old pal old gal,
Each day seems like a year.
No one left to meet me,
After all I’ve toiled;
No one here to greet me,
It’s an empty world.

The long night through I pray to you, 
Old pal why don’t you answer me?
My arms embrace an empty space,
The arms that held you tenderly.
If you can hear my pray’r away up there;
Old pal why don’t you answer me?

Some say that they’ve heard the ghost of Wanderer singing this song in the space where the gallows stood – I’m almost inclined to believe them just because I don’t know how else they’d know how the song goes!

Scaring up a good recording of it isn’t easy nowadays. Singing the song to tour passengers is a good way to torture them today, but as a song, it’s a heck of a lot better than the song another Chicagoan, Charles Guiteau, sang on the gallows. Guiteau, the forgotten assassin of a forgotten president, sang a song called “I’m a-Goin’ to the Lordy” that he had written all by himself. It was even worse than it sounds.

For more on the courthouse/gallows in Chicago, see the new e-edition of the gallows book:

fataldrop button

Ghost pic in the alley?

I only occasionally post “ghost” pictures here, partly because I rarely see any thing I think are all that interesting. You know what I always say – “there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence.” Well, here’s some of that. One of my most common tour stops is the alley behind the site of the Iroquois Theatre, which the Tribune once called “The Alley of Death and Mutilation” (look at the clip from the paper on the right if ya don’t believe me!). Like any place, we go in and out of periods where people seem to be seeing ghosts there. For a month or two, someone will think they saw something every night, then it’ll quiet down for a long while.

In any case, countless people died here during the great Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, some were trampled, some died of burns, and some were shoved over the rails of the useless fire escapes (there were fire escapes, contrary to common stories).

But, anyway, dig this pic from the tour, with a vaguely humanesque form back behind the woman on the right’s head. All I’ve done to edit it is blur the faces:

This was taken on the tour and emailed to me immediately, so I can at least say he didn’t photoshop it in later, and it doesn’t look much like one of of those “ghost app” shots (after all, those apps paste ghosts over your image, and this one is overlapped by the woman’s head).

The most obvious explanation here is that it’s a trick of the light, but I can certainly a detect a humanesque form. In fact, it almost looks like Nelly Reed, the trapeze artist who was killed by the fire (see image on left), though one could also connect it to any number of women who were killed in the tragic fire. Nellie is one of the women most frequently said to haunt the place, though she’s usually said to appear as a silhouette on the wall, particularly the garages on the opposite side of the alley from the theatre (more commonly back when they were painted blue). 

More on the theatre and its associated ghostlore is in the new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book!

Tune in tomorrow for a neat new discovery from the archives.

Lincoln’s Phantom Funeral Train described in 1872

I’m finishing up the draft of my new book on Lincoln ghostlore for Llewellyn Worldwide – it’s been fun tracing all the stories back to their origins! Here’s one find that I should really wait on, but I got so excited by it that I just had to post it. The Lincoln Funeral Train is sometimes said to haunt Chicago (it pulled in around where Michigan and Roosevelt intersect today on May Day, 1865), so it’s relevant to this blog as well as the book.

Many books that mention the “phantom train” have quoted from an Albany newspaper that described the ghost train. Lloyd Lewis quoted about 200 words of it in his seminal Myths After Lincoln, and other sources since have been paraphrasing Lewis’s excerpt. None of them ever seemed to give the actual title or date of the article, so it took a little bit of searching, but I eventually did track it down. It turns out that the story was published in the Albany Daily Evening Times on March 23rd, 1872. 1872! Not quite seven years after the actual train had rolled through. This makes it a very early source for Lincoln lore, most of which wouldn’t start to be published for a couple more decades.

Anyway, the article was entitled “Waiting for the Train,” and is a story in which a reporter talks to night watchmen who work on the railroads. The relevant section is worth reprinting in full here – the books that mention it only contain about half of it, and the whole thing is really quite incredible:

There is a supernatural side to this kind of labor, which is as wild as its excitement to the superstitious is intense. Said the leader, “I believe in spirits and ghosts. I know such things exist, and if you will come up in April I will convince you.” 

He then told of the phantom train that every year comes up the road, with the body of Abraham Lincoln. Regularly in the month of April about midnight, the air on the track becomes very keen and cutting. On either side it is warm and still; every watchman when he feels this air steps off the track and sits down to watch. 

Soon after, the pilot engine with long black streams, and a band with black instruments playing dirges, and grinning skeletons sitting all about, will pass up noiselessly, and the very air grows black. If it is moonlight, clouds always come over the moon, and the music seems to linger as if frozen with horror. 

A few moments after the phantom train glides by. Flags and streamers hang about. The track ahead seems covered with a black carpet, and the wheels are draped with the same. The coffin of the murdered Lincoln is seen lying on the center of a car, and all about it, in the air, and on the train behind are vast numbers of blue coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning upon them. It seems that all the vast armies of men who died during the war are escorting the phantom train of the President. 

The wind, if blowing, dies away at once, and over all the air a solemn hush, almost stifling, prevails. If a train were passing, its noise would be drowned in this silence, and the phantom train would rise over it. 

Clocks and watches always stop, and when looked at are found to be from five to eight minutes behind. Everywhere on the road about the 20th of April the time of watches and trains is found suddenly behind. This, said the leading watchman, was from the passage of the phantom train. 

One informant had commenced with another story of the “death engine” which preceded every train to which an accident would happen, when the stationman called out “train coming!” and we reluctantly came away from this garrulous watchman, whose life-work, both physical and spiritual, seemed a perpetual romance.

Just about every “Lincoln Ghost Train” story descends from this article. It’s hard to take it completely seriously (surely they don’t expect us to believe that ALL of the soldiers who died were carrying coffins on the train, but that it could go by in five minutes, right?) Still, the  prose here is just terrific – it would do any horror writer proud.  Look for the Lincoln ghostlore book next year!

HH Holmes as a Ghost Dog (Sort Of)

Well, gosh. It’s been a few weeks since we had an HH Holmes story to tell. But here’s a nifty one: in 1899, the Philadelphia Inquirer told an interesting ghost story about Holmes. It was in Phillie that Holmes had been imprisoned, tried, hanged, and buried, and the Inquirer covered the story very well (they were not, as is often claimed, a Hearst-owned tabloid).

Philadelphia Inquirer engages in a
bit of whimsy, March 26, 1899

According to the story, one young newspaperman in Philadelphia who attended the trial took a liking to Holmes – he knew he was a murderer and all, but found him impossible to dislike personally.

“One day,” said the man, “just a few weeks before his last day, we were discussing the theory of metempsychosis – the passing of the soul after death into another body. Holmes believed in it firmly. Before I met him I would have laughed at such a thing as being highly ridiculous. Under the influence of his voice….I felt willing to believe well-night anything.”

” ‘I know,’ said he, ‘as well as you do, and everybody else, that on the 7th of May I shall be hanged until my body is dead…moreover, I feel the same confidence in the fact that my soul will immediately transmigrate to another animal. Do you believe me?  I will prove it. At 12 o’clock midnight of of the 7th I shall in all probability have been dead thirteen or fourteen hours. If you will stand in the middle of City hall court, just at the stroke of the hour, I will appear to you…just as the clock ceases to strike, a little yellow dog will run into the court and up to where you are standing. The dog’s body will contain my soul. Now it is barely possible that a dog of that sort might happen along just at that time. In order to prove that there is no mistake, you must throw a stone at me. I shall come up to you in spite of it, and after barking three times will lick your hands. If it is not, the dog will assuredly run away when he is hit.’

“Well, fellows (the reporter went on), I felt rather queer until (the date of the execution). At five minutes of 1 I took my post in the center of the court. I felt foolish and frightened alternately, and as the minutes passed you could have heart my heart beating. After what seemed an hour, the strokes of the clokc began. One, two, three…and just on the twelfth, I saw a little yellow dog come running half sideways into the west corridor. It came straight toward me, and I remember that I was shaking all over with excitement, and I made two or three fumbles at a stone I reached for before I got it. Almost as carefully as I could, I shied it at the dog, which was then about twenty feet off. It hit the cur square on the head, and with an almost human yelp, he turned and ran.

“And the thought struck me square in the head that no matter how much Holmes amounted to as a man, he certainly wasn’t cutting much ice as a ghost.”

Whether any of the story is true, not just a tall tale the young newspaperman liked to tell, is probably anyone’s guess. It may be that Holmes knew that a dog was in the habit of running into the center of the court when the clock struck and wanted to mess with the guy. It may have been that the whole thing is pure bunk. But I’m sure there are those who believe that HH Holmes really did come back as a dog, only hours after his death!

Congress Hotel Ghosts: Just the Facts

Having published that last article on the truth about the “Hand of Mystery,” I see that there are a LOT of web pages about ghosts at the Congress Hotel. Most of them appear to be the stories I’ve been telling about the place for the last several years after having gone through about five rounds of a game of “telephone.”  One could look at it as an object lesson about just how little research most web pages and TV shows do on the ghost stories they tell.

For a time I was able to take tour groups in here regularly, but those days are over; they’re much less free with letting groups past the lobby anymore (and refused to let the show I filmed a segment for there on Friday talk about anything to do with ghosts – they’re less open to this sort of thing now than they used to be).

But in that period of time I got to know the history and ghost lore of the place pretty darned well. I also (and this is pretty critical) learned to tell when a guard was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear. Which they did quite a bit. I think that these days, every time someone calls and asks which room is the most haunted, they tell them a different room number.

That said, though, even my general skepticism, I’ve been known to say that if the Congress Hotel isn’t haunted, no place is haunted. Lots and lots of gruesome stories can be traced to it, and ghost stories do circulate.

Here’s a basic rundown of some of the place’s “greatest hits”:

The Little Boy
The boy is supposed to haunt the 12th floor, and is presumed to be the ghost of Karel Langer, a 6 year old who was thrown out the window by his mother, Adele, along with his brother, Jan Tommy, in the late 1930s. They were refugees from Prague; Adele was afraid they were going to be sent back and had a nervous breakdown. The story was widely reported in the press at the time; the only real confusion is whether the driving factor behind Adele’s breakdown was fear of being sent back to Nazi rule or oppression at the hands of German Americans. The press at the time reported it both ways. Several security guards say they’ve seen it, and several employees have felt as though they were being chased down the hall. That happened to me once, too.  Though different guards and front desk workers will tell you different things if you ask which room is the most haunted, the 12th Floor of the North Wing is pretty well agreed to be the spookiest one. I do know of employees who won’t go there if they can possibly help it.

This one’s my fault, guys.

The “Hand of Mystery.” 
This one is my fault. It started as a joke, then snowballed. See here.  No evidence that anyone was ever walled up inside the place, and the wall in question isn’t nearly thick enough. The hole in the wall where it resides is not typical available to the public (and may not be entirely safe). I’ve only been in the place where you can see it a handful of times.

Peg Leg Johnny
A few workers have told me, back as far as 2006, that they’ve seen a guy with a peg leg lurking around the south tower. When we first heard the story, a guy I was working with told me he’d found an article about a hobo with a peg leg being murdered there. I’ve still never seen the article, though, and don’t really have much reason to think it really exists. (edit to add, 8/2015): HOWEVER, I did have to think of Peg Leg Johnny when I read about Conway, the One-Legged Killer Clown, who was never seen again after escaping from prison in 1925. The Congress is just up the road from the site of a murder he was linked to, so, hey, why not? Rumors put him in Ohio after his escape, but I’d love to imagine that he died in the Congress Hotel. The Peg Leg ghost is one of the wilder stories, but there are several first hand witnesses, which is more than you can say for a lot of better known ghosts.

“The Shadow Guy”
This one gets reported by guests a lot – a shadowy figure who shows up and, for some reason, scared the crap out of people. One guard tells me he chased it up to the roof one time. We have some theories as to who it could be the ghost of, the most common of which is Captain Lou Ostheim, a Spanish American War vet who shot himself in the hotel in 1900, apparently after waking from a nightmare (though details are sketchy, and rely mainly on what the guys at the inquest landed on). The nightmare angle might be used to explain why it scares people so much; I’ve been on plenty of ghost investigations where we see a weird shadow, and when you actually see them, the typical response is, “Oh, there goes one now!” Not the screaming hysterics one sees on TV.

Al Capone
Never owned the hotel and never lived there – stories that he did are confusing the place with the Metropole and the Lexington. He probably was there a time or two and we can connect many members of his gang to it, though; some of his gang even held a guy prisoner there, probably on his orders, for a while. And one of the best ways to connect Capone to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre was that someone called his place in Florida from the lobby of the Congress a bit before and a bit after the shooting.   A number of gangsters – both from his gang AND the other local gangs – did live there in the 1920s. There are occasional reports of a ghostly guy dressed up like it’s the 1920s.

Disco Man
I’ve heard reports of a guy who appears and disappears looking like he just came out of a disco circa 1978, but never from a reliable source.

HH Holmes
Holmes can be traced to a couple of buildings nearby – like, a block or two away – but there’s no evidence putting him in the hotel itself. Given his connection to nearby buildings I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he came in to look around or have a drink when it first opened, but there’s never been any data unearthed connecting him to the place, but he wasn’t in town all that long after it was opened, and stories that he used to meet potential victims in the lobby are firmly in the realm of fiction.

The Sealed Room
The stories that one room is so haunted they had to seal it shut probably grew from the old stories about room 666 being sealed off (really, there’s an office where room 666 would be).  Lately I’ve heard a lot of stories about room 441 being the most haunted, but those are of fairly recent vintage – for a long time they’d just come up with a random room when you used which was the most haunted (though since this post was first published I think they’ve settled on 441, after it was written about a few times and a ghost tour company started staring their tours in the lobby). . The story that any of them were the basis of Stephen King’s 1408 is outright fiction that Ursula Bielski invented for her article on it in one of her books – in the book she says that “some researchers have come to the conclusion” that King used the story as the basis, but didn’t say which ones or how they arrived at that conclusion! Frankly, you show me a researcher who concludes that, and I’ll show you an idiot. King himself never mentions the hotel in his intro to “1408;” he just says that it’s his attempt at the old “haunted room at the inn” story that every horror writer should try out eventually.  While I was working for her at one point I called Ursula on it, and she just said, “Well, it makes a good story.”  I don’t work for her anymore, and can’t imagine I ever will again (she’s way into Donald Trump these days), so I suppose I can say that now.

The Florentine Room
Plenty of stories here – whispering women, humming men, phantom gunshots, and even Teddy Roosevelt (whose career died here, from a certain point of view, in 1912). Some of the coolest pics I’ve ever seen were taken here, and I’ve heard the piano play itself. Not a whole sonata or anything, just a couple of random notes, but a note or two is enough to give me the creeps. Several guards have stories about hearing music coming from the place. This is another place where there have been employees occasionally who don’t like to go near the place.

The Gold Room
Spookier-looking than the Florentine, but there’s really not as much ghost lore behind this one. One guard did tell me that he’d seen the peg leg guy here once. There are stories about the adjacent kitchen area, though. Disconnected equipment is said to start itself up.

Peacock Alley
The tunnel connecting the place to the Auditorium Theatre has been bricked off for years; one guard and I had a plan to bust into it with sledgehammers for a while. But where the entrance is depends a lot on who you ask; the basement isn’t accessible to the public. It’s pretty neat, though, especially if you like old mattresses and toilets. It’s like an ancient toilet burial ground down there.   (New band name: “Ancient Toilet Burial Ground.” I call it).

By the way: My favorite “death” story there isn’t ghost related: in 1928, G. Herb Palin, the sloganeer who coined the phrase “safety first” died there. It would be a great ironic story if he fell down the stairs, but it was heart issues. This comes up more than you’d think; for my filming there the other day they were doing some odd and deadly-looking chair stacking to get us seated at the right height, it was fun to point out that the guy who first said “safety first’ died in the place.

Well, that’s a pretty decent cheat sheet if you’re googling around looking for ghost stories about the place. I’ve got no respect for teams who think that running around with an EMF meter and taking pictures of “orbs” is a substitute for doing your homework. If you’re serious about looking for ghosts, remember what Indiana Jones said: we cannot take mythology at face value.

Not to make this a shameless plug, but for MUCH more detail see The Ghosts of Chicago book, which covers the place in a lot more depth. See also: some other Congress posts on this blog.