John Dillinger’s Great Escape

In honor of Johnny Depp coming to town to film a Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, here’s a post about John Dillinger’s great escape. In 1934, Dillinger, America’s favorite bank robber, was imprisoned in Indiana, awaiting trial and a sure death sentence. But he carved a fake gun out of wood and used it to break out of prison, leading to a five month man-hunt ending in the infamous Chicago “shoot out” – which was actually probably either an assassination or a hoax, depending on who you believe – outside of the Biograph Theatre, which still stands on Lincoln Avenue.

Here’s a picture of the phony gun:

Dillinger must have had balls the size of church bells to pull a scheme like this – that gun wouldn’t fool anyone who looked at it for even a second. I’m no gun nut, but I don’t think the words “colt 38” are normally actually written on the side like that. According to most versions of the story, no one really SAW it – Dillinger stuck it in a guard’s back, said “stick em up!” and soon had acquired several REAL pistols from the guards.

The alley where Dillinger was shot is now between two Mexican restaurants and features of a mural of a guy playing a guitar. Until its recent touch-up job, the painting always made me want to say “hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Here it is, pre-touch-up:

Incidentally, if the cast of “Public Enemies” would like a tour, we’d be happy to oblige 🙂

Al Capone’s World War I Draft Card

From our extensive historical file:

Capone never served, but everyone had to register for the draft. This would have been a couple of years before Torrio brought Capone to Chicago to work at the Four Deuces club on South Wabash.

While digging through the draft card registry, I also found one for my great grandfather which indicated that he had served in the Russian infantry for three years. Boy, must THAT have sucked!

Strangers With Candy

Lately, every bit of research I do leads me to some candy store or another. Here are some spooky candy shops (mostly long gone, of course) of Chicago:

1. Frank Wilde’s Fruit and Candy Store – Milwaukee Ave. Though different addresses were given for this place, I’m reasonably confident I’ve figured out where it was – it was certainly on Milwaukee, between Ashland and Damen. In the 1890s, a teenaged girl named Emily Van Tassel worked here. Exactly who Franke Wilde was is not known for sure, but it’s believed that he did not exist, as such, and was just an alias for the true owner of the store: the murderous H.H. Holmes. She is listed as one of Holmes’ victims, and was thought to be buried in the basement of the store. I’m pretty confident that the building no longer stands.

2. Sorenson’s Candy Store – Elizabeth and Grand. Only a handful of blocks from Frank Wilde’s, this is the candy store we’ve mentioned many times lately that was owned – and burned for insurance money – by Belle Sorenson, wife of the owner, Max Sorenson. Under the name Belle Gunness, Gunness became one of the most prolific murderers in history. The exact name of the candy and stationery store has not been determined.

3. Terry’s Toffee – 1117 W. Grand. This current AWESOME shop happens to be in the site once occupied by Rose’s Sandwich Shop, where Richard Cain, an FBI/mafia double agent who is sometimes said to have been involved in the Kennedy assassination, was murdered in one of the mob’s most public hits in 1973. Joey “The Clown” Lombardo is thought to have been behind the hit. Right down the road from the Sorenson’s site – be careful buying candy in River West!

4. 63rd and Wallace – In the days when H.H. Holmes ran his “murder castle” in Englewood, one of the other businesses in the building was a candy store. The other day I saw an article that named the owner, but now I can’t find it again! I want to say the name was something like Mrs. Gloomis. I’ll post an update if I can find it. EDITED TO ADD: Found it! It was buried in the midst of our hundreds of files on holmes. The candy store owner was named Mrs. Barton.

5. 321 E. 43rd – here stood a candy store run by Nathan Higgins, who was accused of murder in 1965.

Peter Nissen: Chicago’s Forgotten Hero

You might reasonably ask: who are these people, and why are they standing around a giant raisin?

Actually, it’s the Foolkiller 3. Not to be confused with the Foolkiller Submarine – that’s a topic for another day!

Peder Nissen, hero.

Peter Nissen of Francisco Street was an accountant by day, but, like many accountants (I assume), he dreamed of a more exciting life. He built a miniature steam boat known as the Foolkiller in which he shot the Niagara rapids. The boat actually featured an open design so that he could wave to the crowds – if he hadn’t thought to install shoulder straps at the last second, he surely would have died.

In 1904, after shooting the rapids in The Foolkiller and its successor, The Foolkiller 2 , Nissen decided that he just hadn’t cheated death enough and decided to invent a new ship, The Foolkiller 3 (pictured above), in which he would discover the North Pole. The craft was really little more than a big canvass balloon – the main inner workings were simply a hammock-type seat hung from the axel; Nissen would steer by moving the basket back and forth across the axel. The idea was that the thing would roll over both land and sea.

After testing it on land and running into a pole, people started to think Nissen was a little bit nuts. One cold winter night, he shocked the city by setting out in the strange vessel to cross Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana. A tug boat followed, begging him to turn back, but Nissen carried on, undaunted.

Exactly what happened to poor Peter Nissen is a bit of a question mark – there are conflicting reports. All we know for sure is that the wrecked Foolkiller 3 was found on the shore, not far from Nissen’s body. He didn’t survive the trip, but he DID make it across. And we here at Mysterious Chicago admire his spirit!

The Devil Baby of Hull House

Many people come to this site (or, even worse, go to Hull House) looking for photographs of the “Devil Baby.” There aren’t any. If you see any on other sites, they’re fake. The Devil Baby story was just a rumor that went around in 1913 (after having gone around in other cities many times before). Though Jane Addams saw a lot of value in the story (and in folklore in general), and even speculated that perhaps a deformed baby had been born somewhere on the West side, no such baby was ever brought to Hull House.

The story goes as follows:

In the early 20th century, rumors went around that the devil had been born (in baby form) somewhere around the Levy district and dropped off at Hull House, the settlement house on South Halsted. Exactly how this came to happen varied (largely depending on the ethnicity of who was telling the story), but most variations stated that the baby had red skin, horns, and spoke English, Latin and Italian fluently. Hundreds of people came to Hull House demanding to see it. When I tell the story on tours, people tend to snicker.

But in those days, people really believed…..oh, who am I kidding? Some people STILL believe that the story was true. They give me dirty looks for saying that it wasn’t, and for saying that the devil baby’s ghost doesn’t haunt Hull House to this day. Some of them even go to Hull House and bug the staff about it, just the way people did back in the old days. It’s in the realm of possibility that some poor, deformed baby was brought there (it’s a safe bet that fetal alcohol syndrome was rampant in the neighborhood, and pre-natal care barely existed), and someone saw it and let their imagination get carried away with them, but Jane Addams denied that the story had even that much truth to it, and I’m willing to take her word.

So I’ll just say this once: there was never a devil baby, and there’s no devil baby ghost, at Hull House. There may be some ghosts in there (I had enough weird nights on tours I brought there in 2006 to at LEAST give it a “maybe”), but the devil baby isn’t one of them. Some legends that aren’t true are harmless, or even beneficial to a city and its view of itself. Some of the rumors about Hull House, though, aren’t harmless. There are enough TRUE stories about the place that the legends and rumors should be presented as legends, and nothing more. However, a couple of tours, in particular, have been spreading some real crap about the place. It’s irresponsible on their part, since there are plenty of TRUE stories about the place that they usually ignore (if they know them at all).  Devil Baby stories (a common urban legend at the time) could get ugly – in one town, a family had a mob at the door wanting to sacrifice their (perfectly normal) infant.

Most of the more famous stories about Hull House – and most of the pictures – are bogus.  Smudges and glare on the window leads to a lot of ‘ghost on the stairs’ shots, and every “monk ghost” picture I’ve seen has turned out to be (I swear I’m not making this up) the reflection of someone’s ear. There is no headless ghost that will follow you home if you don’t cross yourself before entering the garden. The garden is not a burial ground. I’m not out to spoil anyone’s fun here, but I don’t think it’s worthwhile to waste time hunting for ghosts that I know aren’t real.

In 2006, during renovations to the building, I did run a lot of tours in which weird stuff happened there. We heard babies crying from inside the garden one night (there’s no graveyard in there and no portal to the netherworld; but when Jane Addams first moved into the house, that spot was occupied by either a brothel or an undertaking parlor). For a couple of weeks the shutters were opening and closing, apparently of their own accord. And we did get a few pictures that I’ve yet to explain and don’t really expect to.

While doing research today, I came upon a BIG article Jane Addams, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Hull house herself, wrote about the Devil Baby for Atlantic Monthly in 1916. You can read it yourself here, and I highly recommend that you do. It’s a fascinating read – does anyone know which ballad she’s referring to when she talks about a ballad in which a mistress demands that her lover bring her his mother’s heart on a plate? I pride myself on knowing my gory folk ballads, but this one has me stumped.

Anyway, while it may be haunted, DON’T believe everything you hear, and, for goodness sake, don’t go bugging the people who work in the building about ghosts, and certainly don’t show up with equipment expecting to be allowed to run some hunt for the ghost of the devil baby.

Devil baby stories have been told for years—stories of infants born with horns, hooves, and claws . . . and a habit of using profane language with ministers. Join paranormal authority Adam Selzer as he investigates the legendary Devil Baby of Chicago’s Hull House, the famous Jersey Devil, and the satanic baby reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1888. You’ll never look at babies the same way again!

The Murder Castle of the Consummate Villain: Holmes!

This week’s research topic for me has been H.H. Holmes, one of Chicago’s most prolific serial killers. Getting to the bottom of this story is just about impossible; when you get right down to the old files, you find entire storylines and characters that never turn up in any of the books nowadays, and some stories that changed a lot after 1895. The fact that Holmes had countless aliases makes it even trickier to find his trail.

Take, for instance, the case of Emily Van Tassel, one of his supposed victims. Most things written since 1896 say that she was an employee (usually a secretary) of Holmes who worked for him at the murder castle. However, prior to 1896, every mention of her said that she worked at Frank Wilde’s fruit and candy store on the North side and disappeared after meeting Holmes three or four times. At the time, it was suspected that Frank Wilde may not have existed, but, in fact, that candy store was actually run by Holmes, but this is tough to confirm, especially in that the tribune gave two slightly different addresses for the place. I hope to have an update about this north side candy store – and the Van Tassel residence – very soon!

While digging through the archives, I finally found a good, legible copy of the Murder Castle map.

Sorry about the watermark, but a certain person has been ripping us off a lot lately.

update: for several more diagrams, drawings, and everything else you need to know about the castle, right down to the combination to the soundproof vault, check out our Murder Castle ebook, newly expanded for 2014:

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
Don’t have a kindle? No problem! Get aFREE Kindle App for Your Smartphone, Tablet, or PC!

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.

Rising from the Suburbs….Belle Gunness!

Belle Gunness, the female blue beard, has finally been dug up.

We usually think of Gunnesss as an Indiana serial killer; we have plenty of our own around here, so we don’t mind letting them have this one. Sort of throwing them a bone, if you will. It was in Indiana that Belle set up a farm where she would lure wealthy bachelors with lovelorn classified ads, then murder them and feed them to her hogs. How many men she killed isn’t known; some suspect that it was upwards of 100.

But there’s a Chicago connection – Belle was, in addition to being a killer, an insurance fraudster. One of her first major schemes involved burning down a candy store that she and her husband ran at Grand and Elizabeth in Chicago in the 1880s (right around the same time that her male counterpart, HH Holmes, was getting his start). From there she moved to the suburbs. After she died in a fire at her Indiana farm, which also killed her daughters, she was brought back to Chicago, where she lay buried in Forest Park. Until now.

The body found at the Indiana farm was headless. The head was never found – the only things to identify Belle were a couple of dentures. Most people don’t lose their heads in fires, and no one chops their own head off and hides it before dying. There has, therefore, long been speculation that Gunness’ death was faked, and now we’re going to find out for sure:

Chicago Tribune: Belle Gunness exhumed

This isn’t the first time that stories of a faked death have led to exhumation; Jesse James was dug up a year or so ago to see if it was really him (which it certainly was). I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I do enjoy a good faked death story; they tend to seem much more plausible than conspiracies that require thousands of people to keep a secret. Some skeptics claim that no one has ever successfully faked their death, but there’s sort of a catch: if we knew about it, it wouldn’t have been successful! Of course, they won’t be able to say that at all if the headless corpse is someone other than Gunness!