A few months ago I had to take a quick trip to Madison, WI and made a side trip along the way to Garden Prairie, IL, searching for the grave of Daniel Stott, which lies in a quiet little graveyard surrounded by farmland. Most of the gravestones there are faded out and hard to read, but you can’t miss Stott’s, pictured above, which even gives his cause of death: “Poisoned by his wife and Dr. Cream.”
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream may qualify for the mantle of “Chicago’s first serial killer,” though it depends a lot on what you count as a serial killer (there’s a lot of debate here, but he qualifies for it at least as well as H.H. Holmes, who arrived in Chicago five years after Cream was imprisoned). We discussed him here before with Did Thomas Neill Cream kill Alice Montgomery, a look a murder in his neighborhood that sounded a LOT like his handiwork. She died from strychnine-laced painkillers after an attempted abortion, which was his usual m.o. An Madison Street doctor by trade, he performed abortions on the side, and had a habit of tampering with medicines to add more strychnine, then trying to blackmail the pharmacist.
To get more on Dr. Cream, this podcast includes a skype chat with Amanda Griffiths-Jones, the first to examine Cream’s prison record from Joliet, which she used for a novel entitled Prisoner 4374, all about Cream’s career based on her unique findings. She was a pleasure to chat with! Check out her book for a lot more info on Cream and what sort of killer he was – including her theory on where the idea that he was Jack the Ripper came from.
Yes, Cream is sometimes said to be a Jack the Ripper suspect – legend has it that on the scaffold, when he was eventually hanged in London, his last words were “I was Jack The…” It’s generally not taken seriously, since Cream was in prison in Joliet while Jack the Ripper was active in London. Some research into the story told me that the story came from an article published in a number of newspapers after the hangman, Jack Billington died – apparently a UK paper had a huge article of the hangman’s stories, retold by one of his friends, and the friend said that Billington always believed that Cream was the ripper. A number of 1902 papers worldwide carried the bit about Billington being the Ripper, and one book later included an excerpt of another story (I tell it in the podcast), showing that it’s part of a larger article. But no accessible paper that I can find (so far) included the whole article, and the Bolton, England paper in which the article originated is only on microfilm – possibly only in Bolton! I’m not going that far for an article.
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In 1888, a book of anecdotes about early Chicago retold a heck of a ghost story: one night on West Randolph, a woman heard ghostly footsteps up and down the stairs, then saw a disembodied hand shoving her apartment door shut. She ran away, then came back to find her baby in the oven (but alive), her dog dangling from a ribbon, and a bloody handprint on the door.
This story is a blast, because it seems like an embyronic version of a LOT of 20th century urban legends, like the old yarn about the babysitter putting the baby in the oven, and the classic ghost story about “your dog isn’t the only one who can lick your hand,” not to mention the folklore motif of “the handprint that never faded away.”
We’ve had more than one “ghostly handprint” stories in Chicago over the years – in the podcast above we mention Frank Leavy’s hand, of which a photograph surfaced fairly recently .
A 1939 Chicago Times photo of the Leavy handprint – probably retouched a bit for publication, but appears to be marked off with some sort of official seal. I’ll see if I can find this article for Halloween…
With few details in the 1888 book, it took some elbow grease to find the original source of the story! A regional reprint of an 1866 issue of the Chicago Post was eventually located, and gave the original ghost story in far greater detail – the story originally had a few more characters, took place over the course of two nights, and had a lot more objects flying around the room. By 1888, the story had been conflated and pared down to its basic urban legend components.
The house, said to have been the sight of “many dark deeds,” was given in the 1866 article as 128 West Randolph, which would be 645 West Randolph in modern numbering (where the Fiat dearly is now, across the corner from the Haymarket monument – so close that it may be one of the four story buildings in the photograph of the intersection of Randolph and Des Plaines above). As far as dark deeds, all I could find was a story of adultery and threatened murder going on there a few months before the hauntings began.
When John Lennon apologized for his infamous “Bigger than Jesus” remark at the Astor Tower Hotel, it’s quite likely that he was sitting several floors atop a network of lost pre-Fire tunnels.
It’s hard to get rid of a tunnel. You can fill it with damp sand, like the LaSalle Tunnel under the river, or block it off, like the one connecting the Congress Hotel to the Auditorium Theater, but unless you tear it all away to make room for a new basement or something, the tunnel will still be there. In most cases, workers know where the tunnels are. But the John A. Huck Brewery Tunnels of the Gold Coast remain a mystery.
For some background, John A. Huck was a Chicago brewer; I first became aware of him by running into his nifty tombstone at Graceland, which features a bas relief portrait of him. Every time I need a neat one with a name I don’t recognize, I look the name up. It’s amazing how often they turn out to be brewers.
Huck’s first Brewery, Chicago and Rush.
In the 1840s, Huck opened the first lager brewery in Chicago at Chicago and Rush, back when the area was still practically the wilderness. In the 1850s he moved to a new location at Banks and Astor, just south of the Catholic portion of City Cemetery (now Lincoln Park), which started at Schiller. The area seems to have been bounded by State and Astor at the West and East, and from Banks to Goethe from the North to South – a full square block, across the corner from the future Playboy mansion, though one source says that it went clear north to Schiller. In what was then quite an innovation, the brewery featured a whole network of subterranean tunnels and vaults for brewing the beer at low temperatures year round – a 1901 book about brewing history says there were two full miles of them in total.
The brewery was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but the tunnels remained.
They first seem to have made the news in again in 1910 when vandals broke into the mansion of Charles Plamondon, 1344 N. State, and spent a day stealing and destroying things, having what seemed to be a hell of a food fight, destroying priceless art and furniture, and generally trashing the place. Though a burglarly on a grand scale, the food fight led police to belief that it was simply the work of neighborhood boys, who then abandoned much of the loot in the old brewery vaults nearby.
“Three deep caverns at this corner (Banks and Astor),” wrote the Tribune, “have been known for years among the boys in the neighborhood as the ‘robbers’ dens.’ They were formerly the underground vaults of a brewery and are covered with the exception of three entrances facing Astor Street.”
The robbers went through all of Miss Marie Plamendon’s wardrobe, breaking one of her
Mare Plamendon (right) and a bit of her home from the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, Aug 31, 1910
old dolls, throwing letters and ribbons and photos everywhere. More than half a century later, Miss Plamendon, now in her 80s, was reached by the Tribune when they first heard the story of the tunnels in 1963.
“Certainly I remember the tunnels!” she said. “When we were kids we played in them all the time, and believe me, we got many a scolding and spanking for going into them. We thought they were our discovery, and tried to keep them a secret from the adults, but it didn’t work. There were tunnels underneath a lot of the property on Banks Street, near Astor…. I remember once when our house was burglarized while we were in the country, we found all kinds of stolen things – ribbons, odds and ends – down in the tunnels. We always wondered if the robbers were lurking down there.”
The Tribune had contacted Miss Plamendon while following up on a letter sent to them by Gilbert Amberg, who thought of them when the Ambassador prepared to teardown some brownstones nearby. “The entire half block on State between what is not Goethe and Banks was the site of a brewery,” he wrote. “The area was honeycombed with tunnels that were used as storage areas for aging the brew. Some of them were dug up for the Ambassador East hotel foundations in 1927, but you’re going to see a lot more of them when the old brownstones come down.”
Reached by phone for a follow-up, Amberg laughed and said “I was pretty young then, and I don’t know if I can trust my memory on this, (But) I do remember walking through the tunnels; they were probably well over six feet high. My guess is that they were made of either brick or stone. There were two connected tunnels that ran under our yard, and they had high arched roofs. I suppose they were perhaps 30 feet underground, because we only discovered them after the lot had been excavated…it’s quite possible that the tunnels weren’t discovered when the brownstones were built, because the foundations for those homes only went down about six feet below the basements.”
Huck’s tombstone at Graceland
Amberg’s brother John, a minister, added to his account: “There was a solid brick wall along our property line, and when the excavation for the hotel had been made, the construction workers found a doorway in the wall about four feet under the surface of the yard. This was the entrance to the tunnels, which sloped down under our yard and ran for some distance. They were caved in a little to the north. It explained something that had always puzzled us. There was a vacant lot next to our house where we children used to dig. We could never get very deep without hitting a solid stone-like surface. We must have been hitting the roofs of the tunnels, of course.”
The Tribune also tracked down Walter Fisher, who remembered playing in the tunnels around 1900 (but probably declined to ask if he was one of the burglars). “We boys used to make candle lanterns out of tin cracker boxes; in those days crackers came in shiny tin boxes that made wonderful toys. We would explore the tunnels, which we were strictly forbidden to do, because our parents suspected that tramps slept there…they were perhaps 10 or 15 feet deep, and filled with rubble, but they were wide enough for several boys to walk abreast. They were made of brick, I think, and the roofs were arched; they were more like vaults than tunnels.”
Jospeh Cremin had lived on State as well, and noted that when they “had the devil’s own time” trying to lay foundations for the hotel because of the tunnels, it cleared up an old puzzle for him. “For years, we had tried to freeze our back yard for skating, but the water would soak right into the ground and disappear. We even had the fire chief out to inspect the yard, and damned if he knew what was wrong, either. We found out later that the water had been draining into the tunnels.”
In a particularly enterprising bit of reporting, the Tribune even tracked down Joseph Beuttas, president of the construction company that had built the Ambassador East decades before, who was away on a Norwegian cruise. “I saw (the tunnels),” he said. “I walked in them. They were about 8 to 10 feet high, built of stone, and were about 20 feet below ground. They extended to the east and to the south. We destroyed the ones where we were building, (but) no doubt more tunnels will be found when they start excavating for the addition to the Ambassador East.
Now, newer construction has probably resulted in basements now occupying some of the space where the tunnels used to be, and it’s worth noting that the memories of just how deep they went seem a bit fuzzy and conflicting. But James Jardine, water commissioner as of 1963, told the Tribune that it was hard to tell – since they were private property, there might not have been a record of their construction to start with (not to mention the loss of records in the Fire). “Of course,” he said, “when the public utilities were installed, the engineers might have run into these tunnels, and undoubtedly they would have made a note in their log books. But the log books aren’t part of the public record, and they’re probably buried deep in some warehouse.”
Given the sheer scope that the tunnels seem to have covered, it’s unlikely that all of them have been destroyed. There may be no way to access them without some heavy-duty equipment by now. With such patchy records, it’s impossible to know how far the tunnels went, where exactly they’d be, or anything else. But with such an extensive network, it’s to be assumed that some are still around. I keep hoping some kid playing Pokemon Go will find something completely unexpected….
There’s a scene in Citizen Kane when Kane is celebrating his wedding to his new bride, Susan Alexander, whom he’s promised to make into an opera star. “Charlie says if I can’t (sing at the Met) he’ll build me an opera house!” Ssuan squeal. “That won’t be necessary,” Kane laughs. From there, the film immediately cuts to a headline: “Kane Builds Opera House.” She proceeds to flop.
The story gets repeated on a lot of Chicago architecture tours – lots of them claim that utilities kingpin Samuel Insull built the Civic Opera House so that his wife, rejected in New York, would have a place to sing. It’s frequently said that Insull built it to look like an armchair with its back facing east so he could figuratively turn his back on the big apple out of spite.
Many tour guides will quickly say that this is a myth – Mrs Insull would have been 60 years old in 1929, hardly an ingenue (in some versions of the story he built it for his daughter or girlfriend, though he had no daughters). I’d long assumed that the story was just the result of some tour guide who’d seen Citizen Kane a few too many times. After all, wasn’t it pretty well known that the Susan Alexander part of the plot was based on William Randolph Hearst pushing Marion Davies’ film career?
But on digging in a bit, I found more than meets the eye here – Orson Welles did say that there really was a millionare who built an opera house for the “soprano of his choice,” and that the character of Kane was partly based on Insull (particularly visually; if you look at the cover of Time that Insull graced you can see a certain resemblance to Charles Foster Kane). He apparently denied that Insull’s wife was the soprano, but co-writer Hermnan Mankiewicz did apparently say the the next scene in the movie, in which a reviewer passes out drunk after writing one line of a review calling that soprano “pretty, but hopelessly incompetent,” was based on his own experience reviewing Insull’s wife on stage. In this version of the story, Mrs. Insull appeared on Broadway, and Mankiewicz was outraged to see an old woman playing a teenager in a “production bought for her like a trinket,” in biographer Richard Merryman’s terms. Herman wrote just one line, calling her “an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur,” before passing out. This was the incident that worked its way into the screenplay. Hollywood historian Maurice Zolotow, who worked on the Times at the time, told Pauline Kael that Mankiewicz did in fact pass out from a mixture of booze and rage while trying to write a review of Mrs. Insull’s stage skills about four years before the Civic Opera House went up.
Welles and Mankiewicz may have been stretching the facts here a bit if they said the passing-out scene happened just as it does in the movie, but that wouldn’t be out of character for Orson. There’s a delightful scene in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles in which his assistant describes one of Orson’s stories as “according to Orson, which means it probably isn’t true, but it ought to be.” There is certainly SOME truth behind the story, though the real one doesn’t line up QUITE with the plot of Citizen Kane, or have much of anything to do with the building of the Civic Opera House.
Insull’s wife did appear onstage in 1925 on Broadway, but she was not an opera singer, and wasn’t even really an amateur. As a young woman in the 1890s, she’d been a professional actress under the name Gladys Wallis, retiring around 1900 to become a millionaire’s wife.
But the theatrical bug never left her, and in 1925, at the age of 56, she put together a charity run of performances of Richard Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, The School for Scandal, starring herself as young Lady Teazle, to raise money for a children’s hospital in St. Louis. It was so successful that Mrs. Insull decided to take it Broadway.
And, by all accounts, the production was a reasonably good one; such New York reviews as I could find were very kind (or at least very polite). The Daily News said that “without conscious effort, , she carried it to something very like a legitimate triumph.” About the worst review I could find was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which gave the production a good review overall, saying only that “Mrs. Insull as an actress is not, to be sure, inspiring. She carries herself well, is not easily abashed, trips smilingly through the comedy without stumbling literally or figuratively and also without anything approaching brilliance. She has a nice manner and is hopeful that manner alone will answer for the many graces and subtleties an actress playing Lady Teazle should be heir to.” They do seem like they’re being very courteous here, rather than simply saying “she was just okay,” but it’s a far cry from calling her an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur.
No particularly bad review ever ran in the Times; if Mankiewicz did write a line about her being a hopelessly incompetent amateur, it didn’t run. Several sources cite the New York Times article in question as one from 1925 entitled “Mrs. Sameul Insull Returns to the Stage,” but that article was a preview, not a review, written several months before she hit New York. The actual review that ran was very polite – Kael called it “a masterpiece of tact” – and said Mrs. Insull’s Lady Teazle was “as pretty as she is diminutive.” To call her an amateur wouldn’t exactly have been fair; she was a retired pro, though if Mankiewicz had some sort of grudge against Insull (and as rich and powerful as Insull was, he might have), one can imagine him being filled with rage over his wife being onstage and feeling any pressure to be tactful in his response. Look at how many people go ballistic when some viral video star gets a TV deal.
The Kane connections don’t quite stop there, but for further events to have inspired the movie, we’d have to use the term “very loosely based.” Insull did not build the opera house just to give his wife (or anyone else) a place to sing, but his wife did fail in the theatrical business in 1926, and Insull did built the opera house around the same time.
After her 1925 Broadway run, Mrs. Insull returned to Chicago for a few more performances that were kindly received by the press (who had no fear of criticizing the Insulls or printing gossip about them). Months later, Samuel leased out the Studebaker Theater, where his wife attempted to start a repertory company (and the Tribune did joke about it just being an excuse to do School for Scandal again), though Mrs. Insull worked mainly behind the scenes as producer, intending only to take a role now and then. The company was a flop, and Mrs. Insull brushed it off with a laugh and a frank admission that it was a waste of money – Chicago, she said, just wasn’t the right town for it.
It was around this same time that Insull started work on getting the Civic Opera building built, though he’d started well before his wife’s stint at the Studebaker went down – in December, two months after the New York run of Scandal, he first laid out his plans for the building. Already deeply involved in the local opera business, he initially wanted a 7.5 million dollar home for the opera – at the time, everyone thought the Auditorium Theater, where operas were usually staged was outdated and would be razed any minute. The plans eventually grew larger, until the new theater became a 20 million dollar building. Office space in the “arms” of the armchair-shaped building was to generate money to cover the costs of the opera, which was not a self-sufficient venture at the time; putting an opera on cost more than ticket sales alone could generate in the smaller Auditorium; there would be more seats in the new theater, but another source of income couldn’t hurt.
The Civic Opera building opened with a performance of Aida on November 4, 1929, only days after the great market crash. Mrs. Insull never appeared there, and it seems that no one connected to Insull personally did, either, in the brief period between the time when it opened and the time when he lost all his money and fled to Europe. He’d been involved enough in local opera before that he could have gotten a love interest onto the stage without building her an opera house.
It’s generally known that characters and events in Kane are composites of real people, real events, and pure fiction; it’s not impossible that Kane and Mankiewicz were thinking of the Studebaker stint when they wrote about Kane buying his wife an stage, at least a little. Maybe they even noticed that the Civic Opera went up right around this time.
So there are bits of truth behind the connection between Citizen Kane and the Insulls, but the facts appear to have been mixed with other stories and given a fictional gloss, after which a little bit of muddy research turned into a misunderstanding that evolved into the grander urban myth that the Civic Opera building was built so that Insull’s paramour would have a stage on which to perform. All too often, this is how history works!
In my gig as a tour director for student groups, I take a lot of other peoples’ boat tours, bus tours, and walking tours. One thing I’m always curious to see is how they’ll tell the story of Al Capone throwing parties in the dome of the Jeweler’s Building at Wabash and Wacker. According to most tales, the dome was once home to the Stratosphere Club, a speakeasy that was either owned or frequented by Al Capone, depending on who’s telling the story. Some are quick to point out that Capone’s connection is just a rumor, others really double-down on saying it was true.
Capone stories almost always fall into the “Not true, but it should be” category of Chicago lore – and that of other cities, as well. I can’t even tell you how many tourists have assumed that I know all about their small town, because it was where Al Capone had his summer home/hideout/warehouse. It seems that there’s hardly a town in the midwest where kids aren’t told that Al Capone used to hang out in town a lot.
The other story of the Jeweler’s Building is that it once housed an elevator for cars, so that jewelry dealers who worked in the building would never have to step out of their car with their valuable stock and into Roaring 20s Chicago, even for a second. Instead, they could drive right into the building and be lifted right up to the floor where their office or showroom was.
Digging into the newspaper archives, it’s quite clear that the elevator story is true: much was made of the car elevator when the place was built; the twenty-three story garage took up about 25% of the total building’s space at the time. A 1924 article in the Tribune said that it would be the tallest garage in the world. It didn’t totally protect the builders – shortly after it opened (and was quickly renamed The Pure Oil Building), there was a big jewelry robbery there in 1926; three young bandits burst into a gem shop with pistols and made off with $25,000 in jewels.
And the Stratosphere Club in the dome was certainly a real place – but it wasn’t a speakeasy, and there’s no way that Al Capone was ever there.
When the 40-story Jeweler’s Building was first built in the 1920s, the dome seems to have sat empty for some time. In 1932 it was reported in the Tribune that a hawk had taken up residence in the dome and was preying on migratory birds in the loop. A reference or two in the archives seems to indicate that it was used for storage.
A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay
The creation of the Stratosphere Club was announced in the press in the Jan 10, 1937 Tribune article entitled “City’s Highest Restaurant Being Built.” Owned by Paul Streeter and taking its name from a club that had been in Rockefeller Center in New York, the club was set to open in March, and would cover four floors – a kitchen on the 37th, a regular restaurant on the 38th and 39th, and a cocktail lounge on the 40th, with decorations to make it look as though one was in a hot air balloon. By March of 1937, when it opened, Capone had been in Alcatraz for some time, and liquor was perfectly legal again.
The club was a hit, by most accounts, but my 1954 the space had been converted into a showroom for a commercial artist (and still using the old circular bar at the time); it’s now the showroom of architect Helmut Jahn.
None of the necessarily proves that there wasn’t a speakeasy there in the 1920s, after it was first built, but people were generally pretty open in reminiscing about their favorite speakies in later days, and I’ve never found a reference to indicate that there was one in the dome. It’s one of those Chicago stories that isn’t quite true – but it should be.
If you look closely at the clock on top of the Wrigley Building, you’ll noticed that it doesn’t have numbers. Some say that the symbols are all the letter W, but if they are it’s in a rather abstract, just-close-enough-for-tour-guides-to-say-so sort of way. It’s as subtle an ad for chewing gum as can possibly exist.
And on April 4, 1920, Al Chase of the Tribune enthused that Mr. Wrigley wasn’t going to make more of a statement – against all expectations, since Wrigley was known for his huge chewing gum ads in Times Square. The new skyscraper was expected to become the tallest, most visible building in Chicago, and the advertising space would have been awfully lucrative.
“Pretty nearly every one of us,” wrote Chase, “has paid our nickels and worked our jaws towards financing what will be Chicago’s tallest building – to loom 398 feet above the plaza at the north end of the new Michigan Boulevard bridge. The strangest feature of this great cloud-tickling monument to spearmint is that, although it will be on the most commanding site in the middle west for a wonderful electric display for the virtues of William Wrigley Jr’s chicle sticks, there won’t be an advertisement on the building.
“When one realizes that Mr. Wrigley pays a good fraction of a million dollars annually just to let the mazdas flash the fame of his gum to Times Square passersby in Manhattan, his modesty and restraint in keeping snaky electric advertisements from luring the eye of the boulevarder in Chicago to his magnificent building is something to commend.
“This $3,000,000 structure, which Mr. Wrigley is striving to make the finest office building in the world, will have a simple brass plate at the main entrance on the plaza, with merely the words ‘Wrigley building.'”
Just pointing this out to Mr. Wrigley’s neighbor, Mr. Trump. That’s all.
Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)
When built in 1930, the 600 foot Board of Trade building that anchors LaSalle Street was the tallest building in Chicago – an honor it held for decades. Though now dwarfed by the supertall skyscrapers around it, the art deco building is still stunning to behold, and pointed out by every architecture tour. But if you take a few, you might notice something strange: no two tour guides seem to agree as to why the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture who stands atop the building, doesn’t have a face. Some say that it’s just an art deco thing, and others say that the sculptor figured that no other, taller building would ever be built nearby, so no one would be able to see the face, anyway. Some say outright that they’ve heard a lot of theories, but nothing totally convincing.
The truth, according to sculptor John Storrs’s own statement in 1930, lies somewhere in between – though the style did keep it in line with the art deco style of the building itself, he also figured that details were less important than outlines, given how far away most people would be from the statue.
Storrs, a Chicagoan himself who spent much of his time in Paris, explained his design and ideas in great detail to the Tribune in their May 4, 1930 issue, about month before the statue was to be put in place:
“When I was given the order to execute a sculptural piece to cap the tall Board of Trade building, I had two major points to consider. First, I wanted my work to be in architectural harmony with the building on which it was to stand. Second, I wanted it to be symbolical of the business which the organization the structure was to house.
“The first point I have accomplished through treating the subject in an extremely modern manner. The vertical lines of the building itself are retained in the lines of the statue. Because of the great height at which it will stand the matter of detail did not have to be taken into consideration. The outline of a woman’s figure is suggested rather than rendered exactly.
Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)
“As to the second point, I borrowed a thought from the classical period. Ceres well symbolizes the activity of the Board of Trade, so I took this goddess sister of Jupiter for my subject. However, while the thought is classical, the treatment is thoroughly modern.
“From the street the statue will appear to pedestrians mostly in silhouette. The hands holding the sheaf of wheat and the sample bag extend from the body abruptly instead of being attached to arms. The face, too, is suggested, inasmuch as there are no regular features.”
He also noted that he considered the top of the Board of Trade to be “one of the most commanding positions for a statue to be found in America.”
Chicagoans were very enthusiastic about the design when it was built. However, there was another reason why ignoring details was probably wise – within just a few weeks of being placed, the statue was completely blackened by soot from smokestacks, and didn’t get a bath for 12 years!
We used to call it “The Body Dump.” It was a little bit of a stretch to give it a name like that, but really… who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Right near the homes of half of his known local victims?
The site of the building that papers said was H.H. Holmes’ “glass bending factory” was a regular tour stop of mine for nearly a decade, but now it’s about to become condos. Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains invited me to come check it out. Here’s a special half-hour video featuring the whole story of the site, stories of what we enountered there on tours over the years, and clips from the “excavation.” It’s available both as a video and audio podcast, and an article summarizing it all is right here, below the video:
Excavating along the approximate site where the “Glass bending factory” was. Holmes pretended he was starting a glass bending business several times in different locations, but never convinced anyone he knew how to bend glass.
In the course of human events, sometimes we lose a good tour stop. The House of Crosses was once a popular attraction, and we were lucky to get to interview the owner about its history before it was torn down. Now we’ve lost the site I used to call The Body Dump. It’s being dug up for a large condo complex. The original building was already long gone, but the new condos going up will sap a lot of the spookiness from the place, as well as making it harder to access. However, I did get to assist on digging through the rubble, so that’s cool.
I try not to make EVERYTHING be about HH Holmes around here, but he’s my number one research topic; my book on him will be out in 2017. Holmes, of course, is the guy who’s advertised as “America’s First Serial Killer,” and the subject of the smash hit Devil in the White City. According to legend, he rigged his Englewood building with secret passages and hidden chambers to prey on visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair, of whom he may have killed hundreds. Now, how TRUE all that is is a whole other question (and evidence that it’s mostly fiction is strong), but if people say this guy killed a lot more people than he really did, well, it’s not like we’re besmirching the honor of a good man here. He did probably murder at least 9 or 10 people, and ruined the lives of many more.
I started running tours based on him back in 2006. Now, that year I was still running one of the ghost tour companies in town, and one of my partners sent me a little 1895 article he’d seen about ANOTHER Holmes castle, discovered shortly after a fire at the Englewood building ended the police’s investigation of it. This new place was no castle – just a one-story unnumbered brick building, the only address being “where 65 Sobieski Street ought to be,” near where Robey (Damen) and Fullerton intersected, and northwest of the railroad lines, not far from an apartment Holmes had rented for one of his girlfriends and her sister in 1893. By the time a private detective discovered the place, all that was left inside was some of Holmes paperwork, some mysterious ashes, and the wreck of a 150 foot long furnace.
The body dump as it appeared until recently
Now, who can think of a reason a known multi-murderer would want a 150 foot long furnace? Papers suggested that Holmes was cremating bodies there. It was right next to a coal yard, and in those days you could have tossed ashes into a coal yard and no one ever would have found a thing.
Now, there is no Sobieski Street anymore, so figuring out where this place was presented a challenge for me, and helped me learn about things like Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, street name guides, and renumbering guides. It turned out that was a little dead end street, now a part of Seeley Avenue, not only near the Wrightwood place but also near the home of one of his other suspected victims, a girl named Emily Van Tassell. She and the other two, Minnie and Nannie Williams, actually represent about half of Holmes’ known Chicago victims (the World’s Fair murder stories mostly came out of a tabloid article). And this “Sobieski Street” site would have been a much better location for getting rid of a dead body than the castle itself actually was.
And for every person who vanished from the castle, there was a story about Holmes needing
The “Body Dump” with its Tim Burton-esque Tree.
help carrying the large trunks out of the place. It’s quite possible that he had this off-site place to do his cremating, as the Chicago papers suggested at the time. It’s even likely that Emily Van Tassell and the Williams girls would have been killed there, not at the castle. It was a more isolated area, not many neighbors spoke English, and the Luetgert Sausage factory, just a few blocks away, might have even been running by then to cover up smells.
So, one of my partners and I went out to Seeley Avenue, and even though the building itself was long
gone, the area seemed nice and spooky. A dead end street, an overgrown vacant lot, and a couple of trees that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. And, weirdly, even though it hadn’t been Sobieski Street in years, there happened to be a billboard up for Sobieski vodka, which sure seemed odd in the heat of the moment. The real bonus for us is that it was RIGHT on the tour route at the time, in between the Liar’s Club and the Virgin Mary Salt Stain. We came to call the place The Body Dump; I dearly loved getting people on the bus after looking around at Hull House and saying “All right, folks, who wants to go to the body dump?” It was a standard stop of mine from about 2008-2014, and I even wrote it in as a location in Just Kill Me, my new novel about a ghost tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people at them, which’ll be out through Simon and Schuster in August:
“…the dead end street does look pretty ominous, even in the glaring summer daylight. The curling weeds look like they’re beckoning us all to our doom. There’s something about the place that just doesn’t feel right. When I step off the bus, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The breeze seems like it’s cooler than it ought to be, and everywhere I look there are little touches that make this space seem eerier than the average dead-end street. There’s even some sort of blood-red sap oozing from a tall Tim Burton-style tree at the edge of the lot.” – from Just Kill Me
Now, the stories about this being a “body dump” for Holmes could have all been BS, and I was pretty upfront about that. The same could be said of all the castle stories, after all. Evidence he was involved with the place were fairly strong, but it was never fully investigated in the 1890s, so this might have just been some random factory that Holmes had little connection to. Maybe his ex janitor was just getting rid of old paperwork there. We just started going there as a historical curiosity, since the “murder castle” site was way too far away to be a regular stop.
The spooky old tree.
But here’s the thing: More weird stuff happened there than anyplace else I went on ghost tours. Early on I remember nights when people said they heard moans coming from the ground. In the summer some sort of blood-red sap would drip out of one of the creepy trees – probably just iron oxide in the soil, but when you go to what may have been a serieal killer’s body dump and see a black branch with blood that keeps dripping, it’s creepy.
There was also a flood-light that seemed to turn off and on like clockwork when people said the name “Emily Van Tassell” some nights.
I remember one night we pulled in and there was snow on the ground at the vacant lot. There were flurries going on, but it wasn’t sticking anywhere else. Just there. Which is another one of those things that I’m sure CAN be explained, but don’t ask ME how, and it was spooky in the moment.
Another night there were chickens. Six or seven of them, just crossing the road. And here you thought that only happened in jokes.
Besides the general weirdness, we had a lot of reported ghosts there, including a number of sightings of a ghostly woman in a black dress who’d be there one second, and gone the next. I never figured out if it was someone messing with us or what. We got a number of ghostly photos beyond the usual “weird lights” and “if you look closely at the random visual noise” stuff – the top three are in the video.
Sometimes the vacant lot would get so overgrown the weeds would be as high as your head. Cops told us that besides the Holmes stuff, bodies were found there in the 80s pretty regularly. I’m not sure if they were telling the truth, but it looks like a good place to stash a body.
There was even one night when we thought we hit the ghostly woman on the bus. The windows on the bus were fogged up, and as we were backing the bus up, we hit something. We heard the THUD and felt the impact. I thought we’d hit someone’s car. The driver said it was just a tree. But some people in the back said “No, there was a woman back there!” I ran ouside and around the back and found nothing anywhere near us – no car, no tree, no fire hydrant, no footprints. I reported it on the blog at the time. I’m interested now to note that it was in October, as I seem to recall there being snow. Maybe the windows were just fogged from the heater – it happened a lot on that bus.
So, since we first started going there, I’ve researched the place about as much as I could – which isn’t much. By the time the place was discovered in 1895, neighbors were still around to identify Holmes as the owner of the place place, and to identify Pat Quinlan, Holmes’ right hand man, as the guy who’d cleaned out cartloads of rubbish a month or two before, but the cops in Chicago were fed up with the Holmes case and didn’t care to investigate it any further. We do know from some letters Holmes wrote, though, that the night he killed a boy named Howard Pietzel outside of Indianapolis, he hopped on a train to Chicago and spent the next day there, and while he was there he went to the factory and talked to Pat Quinlan. He alluded to the place in a couple of his writings.
Fire insurance maps indicate that the building may have still been there in 1914, though it was listed as “vacant.” The site’s connection to Holmes was simply forgotten about until that night when my then-partner and I went to check it out. For the next several years it was regular stop for me, and the History Channel occasionally shows me strolling around the vacant lot looking all pensive. But it’s a stop I knew wouldn’t last; a vacant lot in Bucktown isn’t going to stay vacant forever. My understanding was that the lot was buried under a ton of foreclosure lawsuits from 2008 that would take years to get through, but those years seem to be up: last week they started digging the lot up for condos. The trees are totally gone, and we only have pictures to remember them by.
A bit of bone. Presumably chicken bone, but what am I, an anatomist?
Chunks of glass.
Bits of bottles.
Several bricks that are likely bits of the “factory.”
As with a lot of Holmes locations, there’s a lot we’ll never know about this place. The actual site of the factory was likely about where the sloping metal garage is now, which is still standing, so it might still work as a tour stop now and then. But without the old tree and the vacant lot, the atmosphere just won’t be the same.
So, farewell, body dump! At least I got a cool video, a neat book location, and a lot of great tour stories out of you.