Bughouse Square #1 – The Bird Woman

Bughouse Square, the park formally known as Washington Square on Clark Street just above Chicago avenue, was known for decades as Chicago’s Free Speech Park. People used to gather nightly to make speeches and heckle other speakers – up to 3000 people per night would show up when the weather was good. It was THE place to be for Chicago area weirdos for nearly a century up until about 1960. Today, we launch a new series that will feature some of these historical Chicagoans individually, beginning with…


While not known to make speeches, the Bird Woman was a familiar site in the park around the 1930s and 40s. She was sort of like the “Feed the Birds” woman from “Mary Poppins,” with one major difference: she was psychotic!

During this time, Bughouse Square was pretty generally thought of as a real dump, littered with drunks, bums and garbage. But the little old bird woman would stake out a spot early each day, asking “have you fed the birds today, dearie?” to anyone passing by.

If you were so foolish as to say you had not, she would work herself into a fever pitch with a tirade that the Tribune quoted at length in 1942:

“And the life of man who walketh upon the Earth is not worth one cent!” she would rail, “while the life of birds who fly in the air transcends all! And you, you transgressor who feedeth not the birds, your life is not worth half of one cent! I am the one appointed by God to feed his birds! God in heaven smiles at me, but you, but you….”

At this point, according to reporters who dared not quote her further, the speech would descend into a mix of religion and profanity as she chased the poor people through the park.

For more on Bughouse Square, see here.

“Al Capone, a punk hoodlum…”

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of running a mini walking tour of a Capone site for a group of 11 year olds from Evanston who were part of a book group that just read an excellent book called “Al Capone Does My Shirts.” We got snowed on pretty badly, but I, for one, had a great time.

Capone walking tours are tricky, because the few actual Capone-related sites left in the city aren’t really walking distance from one another. There’s hardly a building in the city that Capone isn’t said to have owned or used as a hang out, but practically none of those stories are true. Capone was only in charge of the city for about five or six years, spent most of that time at his Miami retreat, and had to keep a low profile when he was in the city to keep from getting killed. Buying up buildings wouldn’t have been safe for him, as it would have made it that much harder for him to cover his tracks and his finances. Strip away the myth from the man and what you have is a thug with a great sense of PR. It’s true that Capone and his fellow gangsters had tunnels all over the place, but they didn’t BUILD them; they just used them. Most of them were built for drainage, coal delivery, etc. They certainly were convenient for the gangsters, though!

By way of getting some of the real facts about him, the IRS has just released several historical records related to Uncle Al, one of which describes him as “a punk hoodlum.” Fascinating stuff!

The Foolkiller Submarine

NOTE: the post below is from the very early days of the blog. We now have a FAR MORE DETAILED POST ON THE FOOLKILLER HERE



original post:

For all our talk of ghosts and murderers, my favorite thing to talk about may be The Foolkiller Submarine that was found in the Chicago River in 1915. We even have old advertisements for it on our bus!

It was found a few months after the Eastland Disaster by “Frenchy” Deneau, a diver who had dragged up about 250 bodies after the infamous disaster, and raised very late in 1915. In 1916, they found the remains of a dead guy and a dead dog inside of it. For a while, they put the thing on display on South State Street – for a dime you could see the sub, the bones, and a speech by Deneau himself. If you brought 10 or more kids on Saturday morning, they got in for half the price. Imagine: “Hey kid…wanna see a dead body? Got a nickel?”

So, how long had the sub been in the river? Who was the dead guy on board? What happened to it?

The short answer is, we don’t know. The Tribune initially said it was a craft built, and sunk, around 1870, then was raised, and promptly sunk, by Peter Nissen. They may have said this just because it seemed like the kind of thing he would have done, though. Then they started saying it was owned by a guy named WILLIAM Nissen, but that may have simply been a mistake. Most of the recent speculation is that it was built by an Indiana shoemaker named Lodner Darvantis Phillips in the 1840s. None of these stories is necessarily the correct answer, though.

One again, we now have far more info right here!

H.H. Holmes in Wicker Park #1

We’ve dug up more information that makes us feel that we can now confidently say that the Frank Wilde who owned Frank Wilde’s Fruit and Candy Store was actually just an alias for H.H. Holmes, the murder castle builder of newfound “Devil in the White City” fame. The location of the place was variously given as 1151 or 1152 Milwaukee in the Tribune, but other papers went with 1151 and it seems as though 1152 was never an actual address. After the 1909 renumbering, that would put the location of H.H. Holmes’ candy store at what is now 1513 N. Milwaukee.

See where the AT&T building is? It would have been right there. The building itself is, like just about every Holmes’ building, long gone – we’re working on a database of all the buildings he rented, owned, or even worked in, and haven’t found one (with the possible exception of one wall) in Chicago that’s still standing. In descriptions of his buildings, you run across the words “ramshackle” and “rickety” a lot. Not the sort of stuff that lasts a century.

It was at this spot, though, that Holmes seduced -and probably killed – Emily Van Tassel. Not one book on Holmes has quite gotten this story right; most say she worked for Holmes at his murder castle. In fact, she worked at the candy store, having previously been employed by a photographer a few doors down. She lived with her mother at a Damen street home right about where the Pritzker School is now, across from Wicker Park.

Her mother said that she met Holmes four times, and that she accompanied them on a date once or twice, for long walks and ice cream, but that Emily, who was 16 or 17 and taught Sunday School, was a “good girl” and wouldn’t have gone off with him without telling her. She went missing one day, and Mrs. Van Tassel knew what had happened the moment she saw a drawing of Holmes in the papers.

The police questioned her and her neighbors at great length before deciding to believe her, but as of 1895 they were confident that Wilde was a Holmes alias (the 1890 census only exists in fragments, but there’s certainly no one by that name in the 1880 or 1900 ones in Chicago). For a time, it was believed that he had stashed her body in the basement of the candy store, but most decided that it was more likely she was taken to the castle, murdered, and disposed of in such a way that would leave no trace. Even more likely, though, she would have been taken to the house and “glass bending” factory” Holmes was in possession of a few blocks North of the candy shop.

The Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes #2

From our historical files, here’s a political cartoon from the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean the week that they were first excavating the basement of Holmes’ “Murder Castle:”

Other than the Hawaiian annexation part (which I suppose we can now safely say wasn’t the end of the world), a good chunk of this shows that people in the 1890s argued about a lot of the same stuff we do today! You come across the now-archaic spellings “grewsome” and “clew” a lot in this research.

Check out our Murder Castle ebook – featuring maps, diagrams and first-hand accounts that haven’t been printed since the 1890s, including a long-lost interview with Holmes himself. Now expanded to full length!

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The Massacre Tree

In July of 1824, a small band of settlers from Ft. Dearborn, the first major settlement in the area, fled the fort, fearful of a British invasion. They were accompanied by about 500 Potawatomi warriors, whom they had enlisted to help them make it to Ft. Wayne, which, apparently, the British didn’t care much about. Capt. Nathan Heald had offered them guns, ammo, and whiskey for help, but his other officers, fearing that giving potentially hostile people guns and booze might not be so bright, threw the guns down a well and poured the booze into the Chicago river.

They made it about a mile – to where about where Prairie Ave and 16th are now – before the infamous Ft. Dearborn Massacre started. The settlers, outnumbered roughly 2:1, were routed. Those who weren’t killed were sold as slaves to the British (who, to their credit, promptly let them go). The fort was burned to the ground.

Decades later, some of the descendants of these Potowatomi warriors were on “display” as part of the midway at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

By that time, Prairie Avenue, between 16th and 18th, was known as the home of the richest people in town – those few mansions that still stand there were really a site to see.

And outside of the Pullman mansion, by many accounts the fanciest of the lot, stood The Massacre Tree: a tree that still contained bullet holes from the Ft. Dearborn Massacre.

The tree stood until August of 1894, when it fell in a storm. Crowds gathered to dig up chunks of the roots as keepsakes. Newspapers illustrated it as follows:

The Chicken Man of Chicago

Driving around the city on tours, there are a handful of Jawas (which is what Ken and I call the wandering junk mechants) that we see regularly – the most recognizable of the bunch is probably the one I call Fagin, a sleazy-looking gent who’s always trying to sell me a watch, necklace, or other such shiny thing. I just know the guy has a whole army of street urchins picking pockets for him.

But wandering performers and junk merchants are a dying breed in Chicago. The flute-playing guy who plays Star Wars music (and not just the main title, either; I’ve heard the guy bust into “Yoda’s Theme” and “Luke and Leia”) is far and away my favorite today, but none of them hold a candle to the late, great Chicken Man, alias Chicken Charlie, who was seen so often all over the city than people wondered if there were more than one of him. He’d show up at Bughouse Square, on Maxwell Street, on the El…everywhere.

His act was simple – he had a trained chicken that would ride around on his head. Sometimes the chicken would dance, and sometimes he’d have it walk across a tightrope. Decades after his prime he became a character in several Daniel Pinkwater books, including The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, my favorite book of all time, which also introduced me to two other nearly-forgotten Chicago landmarks: Bughouse Square and The Clark Theatre. I’ll cover those in other posts, of course.

Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can now see The Chicken Man for yourself – it’s even stranger, and more wonderful, than I imagined it would be!

There’s also this one, which starts out with a minute or so of footage from another aspect of Chicago life that is lost and gone forever – Maxwell Street:

The Legend of Dillinger’s Ding-a-Ling

Continuing our Dillinger series in honor of Johnny Depp coming to Chicago to start as Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” here a bit on our very favorite piece of Dillinger lore.

In the last post, I noted that to break out of prison with an obviously-fake gun, Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells. Well, that’s actually not far off from the legend. Rumors have gone around for years that Dillinger had a 23″ member that is now on display at the Smithsonian. Here’s the picture of his corpse that started the legend:

Rigor mortis had set in, causing his arm to be bent at the elbow, creating this tent-like protrusion above his crotch. See how the onlookers (except for that one woman) look awfully impressed? It does indeed LOOK like he’s awfully happy to be on the slab.

Once again, if the cast of “Public Enemies” wants to take the best tour in town, we’ll be happy to oblige!