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 Horseman of 49th Street

Once again, I’m a sucker for a good headless ghost. Many “haunted Chicago” type books mention a headless horseman who has been seen riding down the railroad tracks on 49th Street near Loomis. If I were a headless horseman, this is exactly where I’d want to hang out. LOOK at it in the shot on the right!

According to legend, the ghost is the spectre of a cavalryman killed July 7, 1894 during the bloody riots that resulted when Pullman workers went on strike to protest their boss being, shall we say, a bit of an ass who lowered their pay, but not the rent in the company town. 

Things did indeed get rough on 49th Street that day. All over the stockyards area, railroad cars were overturned, and at 49th street rioters tried (unsuccessfully) to destroy passing trains. July 7 was probably the bloodiest day of the strike; a couple of men were killed, and many more were wounded, some of them fatally. The rioters did some damage of their own (Chief O’Neill thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as reports indicated), and members of the Illinois National Guard fired guns into the crowd, which some reports say numbered eight to ten thousand people. 
above: the guards fire on the crowd at 49th, 1894.

However, though newspapers gave a detailed list of who had been killed or wounded and how, I haven’t found any mention of anyone getting decapitated.  There was one officer killed by a train at the end of the month – he appears to have tried to jump off the moving train while patrolling it near Damen. He was badly mangled and soon died, but apparently with his head still attached, and not while riding a horse.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ghost isn’t real – just that the backstory isn’t quite right. There were many other injuries, and it’s likely that some didn’t make the papers; in particular, reporters were only able to speculate about injuries among the strikers and rioters, since those who were hurt were generally afraid to seek medical attention, and several news reports indicate that many dead or dying rioters were being carried off by their friends. Certainly one can see how a legend of a man being decapitated during the riots would grow and thrive in the neighborhood.

And what if this ISN’T just the way that memories of the Pullman strike continued to survive in the neighborhood? Who’s to say that the ghost is necessarily from the strike, or that it has to have happened at Loomis? A headless horseman is, by nature, in motion, and could really be the ghost of any number of people. There was a terrible accident at 49th and Halstead a year before the strikes in which a train crashed into a street car; three people were killed, including an man (identified as a plumber named Finn) who was cut to bits. What his ghost would be doing on a horse is a whole ‘nother question – I would say that the number of people decapitated while riding horses is going to be awfully low in cities with no history of people firing cannons at each other.

Finn probably wasn’t the only one to lose his head on the Grand Trunk tracks, though – the tracks at the time were still grade-level, and fatal collisions at grade-level crossings were really, really common. When the tracks were raised up to their current place in 1891, it was noted that in the previous month there had been 18 fatalities at such crossings, including one at 49th and Ashland, right near 49th and Loomis.

The Murder Castle “Ghost Audio”

It was about four months ago now that I went into the basement of the post office on 63rd street – the one built over a portion of the site where the H.H. Holmes Murder Castle stood. Pictures and video are available here.
I was officially just there as a historian, but naturally I did a bit of ghost hunting while I was at it. I had an audio recorder running as I sat in the old tunnel, which runs right into the castle footprint. For lack of a better idea, I started whispering the names of the known victims who likely died there (there are only a few known ones, really, not dozens or hundreds).  I didn’t hear anything at the time, but when I played the recording back, there was this voice – the sort of thing ghost hunters refer to as EVP (“electronic voice phenomenon”)

I’ve no idea what that is – the only “logical” explanation is water running through the pipes, but it sounds awfully human for that. If it’s a ghost, the most likely candidate would be Pearl Conner, who disappeared along with her mother, Julia, around Christmas, 1891. As near as I can transcribe it, she’s saying “Sorry Beefalow,” which sounds like the worst Chef Boyardee product ever. There’s a recipe linked at the site above.

Others, however, have suggested that it’s “buried deep below.” Women, in particular, tend to hear “Why did she go,” which would be presumably a reference to her mother, who had been carrying on an affair with Holmes (according to her ex-husband, to whom Holmes subtly bragged about it). Assuming it’s a ghost, it could be any of these things; perhaps the lack of vocal chords makes it hard to form the sounds one intends to.

The three women whose names I’m whispering – Emeline Cigrand, Julia Conner, and Pearl Conner – are the three people I’m most confident Holmes killed in the castle. Anna Williams and Emily Van Tassel might have been killed on the north side, and the whole thing with Minnie Williams is just weird: alone among his wives and lovers, she seems to have had some idea of what was going on, and is the only woman he called his “wife” who vanished. That she killed Anna herself, as Holmes claimed, isn’t exactly impossible, and the possibility that she ran away instead of being murdered isn’t out of the question. Those are just about the only known Chicago victims. Most of the stories you hear about there being dozens or hundreds more come from 1940s pulps.

What DO you hear in the audio? “Why did she go?” A toilet flushing? I’m not normally one to get too interested in equipment readings; they usually require a of imagination to make you think they’re ghosts, and most can be explained away without too much trouble. That’s why I generally throw in a terrible recipe or something along with the “evidence” – as a researcher, this isn’t the sort of thing I take too terribly seriously. But little imagination is required with this one.  Here’s a recipe for Sorry Beefalow!

A New Hull House Ghost Shot

You know what I say, folks: there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. Well, here’s a cool one for you. This was taken on one of my tours this past weekend, and shows what looks like a baby on the staircase at Hull House:

A close-up, with the contrast adjusted very slightly:
My first instinct when she showed it to me was to look for an ad at the bottom of the screen – usually, when someone shows me a picture that seems this clear, it turns out to be one of those “ghost capture” iphone apps that insert ghostly images into photos. It’s always a bit of a dilemma for me, because you can’t go around accusing your customers of fraud or anything, but the most logical explanation when you see one of those “too good to be true” ghost pictures is to assume that someone is trying to trick me.  However,  none of the “ghost apps” I have include a baby quite like this one, and I’ve no reason to think that the photographer, Jean Marie Andersen, was faking it. She seemed genuinely surprised by the shot; I think her friends noticed it before she did.  
And it’s not TOTALLY clear – there’s a big missing chunk where the mouth and chin ought to be, and that won’t usually be the case with fakes. Beyond that missing bit, though, it seems very well proportioned; our brains are wired to see faces in random noise (one usually uses the words “matrixing” and “simulacra” here), but one’s brain sure doesn’t have to put in much effort to make one see a baby’s face – and possibly arms and body – in this one. 
So, COULD it be fake, or COULD it just be a light or smear on the window that happens to look a lot like a baby? Well, sure! That’s ghost hunting for you; there’s a MILLION possible explanations. That’s why I always refer to things like this as “weird shit,” not “paranormal activity.” But in several years of taking people to Hull House, I’ve never seen another light or smear look so baby-like. Since this one was taken I’ve tried to figure out a place where you could stand that would get  a street light to reflect on this spot, but I can’t reproduce anything like this yet.
Now, there was at least one baby who died at Hull House – Jane Addams wrote about how upset the neighbors were when they found that they planned to have a newborn abandoned baby who died in the nursery buried by the state, not with a proper religious funeral, a case in which they misjudged the culture of the neighborhood and lost some trust with the neighbors for a while. That would have been about 1898. However, it was in the building next door (where the garden is now), and I think that baby was younger than the one in the picture above appears to be. If a baby died inside the house, it would be news to me (though not a surprise).
What do YOU think? Just a trick of the light? A real ghost? I often mention the baby story here, and of course this time of year there are 2-3 busloads of people hearing about the “devil baby of hull house” rumor from 99 years ago nightly. Have our brainwaves MADE a ghost on the spot?

For much more on the devil baby and Hull House:


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.

Ghosts of the Luetgert Sausage Factory

The Luetgert Sausage Factory Murder is a hard story to tell – any time the words “sausage” and “murder” are right in the title, the story is going to be anti-climactic if nobody gets eaten.

And no one did get eaten here – Luetgert, from what the cops could piece together from witnesses, had killed Louisa, dragged the body in the basement, then mixed up a caustic, stinky red mixture in one of the cure vats. The janitor hired to stir it spoke little English, but eventually described the mixture as “schleimish,” and everyone knew just what he meant.  The body was dissolved except for a few bone fragments.

In a twist that we run into a lot, the sausage factory itself is often said to have burned down over a century ago; one book I read even has experts discussing where it wold have been, with one contending that part of the foundation was still visible only a couple of decades ago. In fact, the building is still standing. There was a fire, but it failed to destroy it. And ghost sightings have come in sporadically.

Luetgert himself was apparently seeing ghosts there, because during the investigation he loudly accused the police of “hiring” ghosts to scare him. A neighbor and witness, Agatha Tosche, even had to swear in court that she’d never dressed up as Louisa’s ghost and walked the halls of the factory.
Years later, a police officer patrolling the area said that he chased a ghost through the basement. This is the same officer who claimed to shoot at the Sambrero Man who appeared and disappeared in Lincoln Park.
And, more recently, a family who lived there in the 1970s had stories about poltergeist activity in the basement.
The building, of course, is condos now, located at 1735 W Diversey. The eastern portion is new; the the west side is the original factory. I haven’t heard many ghost stories from current residents. 

There are some other Luetgert ghost stories going around, mostly centering on bars at the old Flounders Bar on Webster and Clybourn. In some versions of the story, this location was actually the butcher shop where “Louisa Links” were sold, and where he killed many other family members, but these are WAY off (there’s one particular guide in town who seems to have a real flair for making up stories about Adolph Luetgert).

Luetgert did have a tavern on that corner, but only until 1879 (the current building was built a few years later). There’s no evidence whatsoever that Luetgert killed his first wife or any children in that location (those who died clearly did of natural causes, according to records). He may, however, have killed an annoying customer / nearby loiterer by shoving chewing tobacco down his throat during his time there, though. The scenario the police imagined when they found the body was that Luetgert had warned him to quit spitting tobacco on his sidewalk, and when he didn’t, flew into a rage and rammed a wad of it down his throat, choking him to death. There was no proof of this, though (later stories that he split the guy’s throat in half are modern exaggerations).

Luetgert was not a serial killer – just a Ron Swanson-esque brute with some SERIOUS anger management issues.

The Murder Castle: Today (or: Good Grief, More HH Holmes) #2

So, is there anything left of the infamous H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle?”

“The Holmes Castle” was a well-known building in Englewood well into the 20th century; contrary to popular belief, the 1895 fire did not burn it to the ground. The top two floors had to be rebuilt and remodeled, but the place was still standing until the late 1930s, when it was torn down to make room for the new post office. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who still remember the place from when they were kids – the story was generally forgotten then, but people were still superstitious about the buildings.

above: Adam in the “tunnel” in the post office basement while filming with the History Channel in 2012. It’s not open to visitors and Adam hasn’t been back in since! 

The post office doesn’t occupy the EXACT same footprint as the castle, though. In fact, there’s not much overlap at all. Most of the castle would had been in the grassy area directly east of the castle. The railroad tracks were grade-level at the time the castle stood.  Climbing the back tree might take you right into the airspace of the “asphyxiation chamber.”

By lining up the three versions of the fire insurance maps (two from when the castle was there, and one from the post office), we can see that it did overlap with the portion of the post office that juts out on the left – between a third of it to all of it, depending on how you measure things (lining up these hand-drawn maps is not an exact science, though lining up the railroad tracks helps a lot).  Here’s an overlay of two of them, with the castle shaded in. You can see just a bit of overlap:
And here’s my best attempt at superimposing the castle where it would have done.


So, this brings up the major question: is there anything left? Perhaps of the old foundations? Certainly some of the basement overlaps with the original footprint. Recently, I had the chance to explore the place on a TV shoot with the History Channel.

Down below, there’s a point where you can climb a step-ladder into a hole in the wall that leads to a sort of tunnel/crawlspace. The ceiling is about 5.5 feet off the ground in the tunnel, and there’s one line of bricks:

According to the post office, this was an escape hatch from the “castle.” Now, I’ve never actually seen any account of there being a tunnel down there, and no such thing was mentioned during the investigation in 1895. But these were the same investigators who found a large tank filled with gas and emitting a noxious odor, and decided to light a match to get a better look.

It’s a bit west of the castle site; it’s possible the 1895 investigators could have found it if they knocked out a western wall.  I sent some close-ups of the bricks to Punk Rock James, our official archaeologist, who said that the bricks look right for being from the 1890s; the lower couple of rows were probably underground foundation lays, and the upper ones show some fire damage (which is just what you want to hear if you want to imagine that these are from the castle).  This portion of the tunnel is west, and probably a bit south, of the foundation, so I’d say they’re more likely from a building next door, if it’s not actually an escape hatch.

But at the end of the tunnel it takes a left hand turn to the north, and this part certainly goes RIGHT into the castle footprint:

So, this brings us to the big question: is the place haunted?

Well, I did some some pictures and an audio recording – see our static Murder Castle Ghosts page:

I always say that there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. But this is, as far as I know, the first cool ghost evidence ever collected at the castle site.

I’m a snot-nosed skeptic about all this stuff, though. I’m even skeptical about about the castle itself – I would only say with confidence that three people were killed there. Six to eight tops, including a couple of who died off-site after being given poison there.   Holmes probably only burned a couple of bodies in the castle before deciding that destroying a body in a crowded building was too much trouble and shipping them off-site to one of his “glass bending” facilities (he had a weird pre-occupation with bending glass; people eventually guessed that he was probably really using the massive furnaces he built for that purpose to get rid of bodies. He sure as hell never used them to bend any glass).

I tend to think of Holmes as a swindler, first and foremost, who happened to kill people now and then, not as a regular serial killer. His suspected number of victims stood at 9-12 in his lifetime, and didn’t start inflating until about the 1940s. Nowadays it seems to go up by a hundred or so every Halloween. But as far as hauntings go, the story still checks out – a few murders are more than enough, and as long as ANY of the current building overlaps, I think it’s fair game to look for ghosts there. If you can come back from the dead, you ought to be able to make it down the hall.

So, I’ll have more info for you guys eventually. In the mean time, consider one of Chicago Unbelievable’s line of Holmes-lore ebooks, or the new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book.
Our MURDER CASTLE OF HH HOLMES, a collection of eyewitness accounts, diagrams, and more primary sources has now been expanded into a full-length ebook with tons of new info – everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault!

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Other Holmes-lore ebooks:

Did the people who participated in the trial that sent Holmes to the gallows die mysteriously? The Holmes “evil eye” was not just a story invented by pulp writers years later; papers were speaking of it even before Holmes died, and continued to retell the story for years. Find out all about it in this mini ebook! Amazon (kindle) BN (Nook)
And for more on Punk Rock James, there’s a whole interview with him in The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing, which includes everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century resurrection man – the Smart Aleck way! We here at Chicago Unbelievable strongly suspect that Holmes chose to attend the University of Michigan because of its reputation as a hub for body snatching.


Ghostly Piano on the Tour (again!)

The ballrooms of the Congress Hotel are not a regular stop for me these days – I can’t guarantee that we’ll be allowed in when we go there, for one thing. But last night one of our usual stops was definitely a no-go, so I took a chance and was able to bring a group into the notorious Florentine Room – the gorgeous old ballroom where, just about a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt announced he was leaving the GOP to be a third party candidate. He’s sometimes said to haunt the place – he didn’t DIE there, but from a certain point of view, his career did. He never held elected office again.

One night, a few years ago, someone asked me if I knew what kind of music they might have played at those rallies, so we could try some “era cues.” That’s a trick where you play music from a ghost’s era to see if it will make them want to show up. I’m not sure that it WORKS, but it’s fun to try, and it probably can’t HURT anything. The Bull Moose Party’s theme song in 1912 was the Battle Hymn of the Republic – people would spontaneously break out in full-throated renditions in the middle of TR’s speeches.

So, when first asked, i strolled up to the piano and picked out a scratchy soprano version, stopping in the middle of a phrase. Nothing happened, but it sounded so cool and spooky in the darkened ballroom that I decided to try it every time I was in the room.

One two occasions over the next year or so, there was another soft piano note as I walked away.

On the tour last night, there were FOUR of them.

As usual, it wasn’t the RIGHT notes to come next in the tune, but no one ever said that ghosts were good piano players!

For the record, I didn’t hear it, but just about everyone else on the tour did. A few people asked me why I hadn’t reacted, and then a show of hands on the bus indicated that practically everyone else had heard four more notes as I walked away.