Some New Hull House Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadows at the Body Dump?

Some interesting shots from the tours lately.  First of all, for you Hull House fans, the last tree in the adjacent courtyard (subject of much ghostlore and superstition) fell down some time in the last week:

The garden / courtyard area is the subject of a lot of real nonsense stories that go around – people like to say that it was an Indian burial ground, an abortion graveyard, or any number of thoroughly debunked stories.  But not every story about it is untrue, and we do have some weird nights there on the tour. 
On the Saturday tour, Amanda K. picked up a shot at the HH Holmes “Body Dump” site, where he had a building he claimed was a glass bending factory (we’ve talked about this place a lot here; it was well north of the famous “castle,” but very near the homes of about half his known Chicago victims, and, well, there’s a short list of things a known multi-murderer who didn’t really know how to bend glass would have been doing with a 150 foot long furnace). We get pictures of shadowy figures here quite a bit – look in the background of this one, back behind me and to the right:
This is a detail of a larger shot, with the exposure turned up a bit. My guess would be that the figure in the background was just a person on the tour that the photographer didn’t notice (though she was certain that there was no one there). The fact that it casts a shadow is certainly a mark against it being ghostly, but when I tried to reproduce the effect on the 10pm tour I couldn’t quite find a way to stand in that area that would make my shadow go in quite the same direction (it’s all artificial light).  You know what I always say: there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. 
And hey, while I’ve got your attention, we’ve been re-releasing all the Smart Aleck’s Guide ebooks this week, including our guide to Grave Robbing, which features several Chicago grave robbing stories:


Everything you need to launch YOUR career as a 19th century Resurrection Man, the Smart Aleck way! A complete history of one of the oldest professions, with tips and tricks of the trade. Fully illustrated, with an active table of contents. 2.99 on kindle

There’s more on Holmes, the “body dump” and Hull House in our Ghosts of Chicago book (Llewellyn 2013),  and our newly revised and greatly expanded Murder Castle of HH Holmes ebook

Some shots from our Tumblr

Now and then I’ll have some fun with instagram filters and post stuff up on our tumblr. Here are three recent ones:
Floor 12N on the Congress Hotel. This is the floor the staff always tells me is the spookiest one.
This blank space on that floor may have inspired the legend of “the room so haunted they sealed it off.” I just can’t seem to convince people that that story isn’t true, or that the hotel wasn’t the inspiration for 1408, even by pointing out the sheer unlikelihood that Stephen King would have ever stayed at the place. 
One of the urban myths that bothers me most is the story that Jane Addams buried a devil baby alive in the courtyard next to Hull House. The devil baby was just a myth (one that came up in many cities, and apparently just came up AGAIN in Indiana), but even if it was real, this wasn’t a courtyard at the time, and Addams never, ever, EVER would have buried it alive anyway. If you wanna say HH Holmes killed hundreds more people than he actually did, it doesn’t really hurt much. Slander that guy all you want. I don’t think he killed or tortured nearly as many people as they say, but he did kill quite a few and was a big enough jerk that I don’t really feel like I ought to defend his honor or anything.  But slandering Jane Addams is not okay. 
 But I’m not above cheap pranks that’ll melt away. 

100 Years of the Hull House Devil Baby

Chicago Examiner, 10/31/1913

On Halloween, 1913, exactly a century ago, the Chicago Examiner broke the story that the west side of Chicago was alive with rumors that a “devil baby” had been brought to Hull House, the settlement house Jane Addams operated on the West Side. By then, it was all they’d been hearing about at Hull House for six weeks (though Addams kept up a very busy schedule with other matters).

The story was generally ridiculed in the press at the time; Addams went on to write a book about the phenomena entitled The Long Road of Woman’s Memory in 1916. Though the rumors that the baby was real persist, there was never any evidence to support it. There may, as Addams have mentioned, been a deformed baby on the West Side someplace, but it was certainly never brought to Hull House.

Rather, what happened was a sort of sociological phenomena that was given to happen in urban areas made up largely of recent immigrants; one of the hardest adjustments people had to make was finding out that things they’d grown up believing were regarded as local superstitions outside of the “Old Country.” In particular, Addams wrote, it was hard on the women, who found themselves neglected by their successful children, many of whom drifted away from their parents’ old world religious views. With the Devil Baby, they were in their territory.  To them, it was a validation of all of their old ways, the ones that their families had rejected and even ridiculed. Even Addams herself tended to feel bad about having to tell them that the baby wasn’t real.

Chicago, 1913, was not the only time Devil Baby rumors went around; the same story went around in Cleveland in 1888. One major difference, though, is that when it went around other cities, people would line up planning to kill the thing. At Hull House, they lined up offering to pay admission to see it. It may have been baby steps, but it was progress.

One still hears all sorts of stories about the baby. Some say that it was real and that it haunts the Hull House. Some say that it was the inspiration for Rosemary’s Baby. Some say that Addams later admitted that there was a baby with harlequin ichthyosis who was brought to Hull House and inspired the story. Some even say that Jane Addams buried it alive in the garden next door (If you’re slandering Jane Addams like this, then we’ve got business!) None of these are true. As far as can be determined, the story simply came out of nowhere, as it did now and then (a similar rumor was widespread enough to make the papers as recently as the 1980s in Virginia).

Even now, it seems that no matter what I tell people about the baby on tours, many get the impression that it was real. Last year the fountain in the courtyard was removed, leaving a bare, circular patch of dirt in the center. I get a lot of questions about whether that patch of ground is the devil baby’s grave!

We recently covered the story here:
Devil Babies: Hull House and Beyond

Why, we even have an ebook available from Llewellyn Worldwide:
Devil Babies by Adam Selzer

Some Hull House Ghost Myths and Realities

Seeing as how October is coming around, I thought I’d clear up some things people are likely to start hearing about Hull House, the 1856 mansion that Jane Addams turned into a settlement house where she basically invented American social work.  That the house is haunted is a story going back to at least 1889, and some ghost sightings and weird stories there are quite well documented. But stories about the house, and especially the garden/court yard next door, get a bit wild. Most ghostlore and crime lore breeds some exaggerations, and much of it is fairly harmless. There’s no evidence that HH Holmes really tortured people in his basement, but there’s no real harm in thinking he did; it’s not like your besmirching the honor of a good man. However, if you’re going to go around slandering Jane Addams, we’ve got business.

Some stories I get questions about:

1. The garden next door was an Indian burial ground.
Not that anyone knows of. Without extensive archaeological work, we can’t say it for SURE (there were burials all over), but such a dig bringing anything like that up would be a surprise.

2. There used to be a well on the grounds of the garden next door, and  Jane Addams used to throw dead babies and fetuses into it.
Actually, the site next door a garden in Jane’s day at all – there was always a building there. First apparently an undertaking parlor (which ought to be spooky enough), and then a children’s center. Now, there was at least one baby who died in the children’s center. This was early in Jane Addams’ time at Hull House, and the original plan was to have the county bury it. This provoked a HUGE uproar in the neighborhood, cost them a lot of goodwill, and was eventually seen by Addams as a big mistake on their part, and a big failure to account for the culture of the neighborhood. Even if there was a well there, she would most emphatically not have thrown babies down it. Please, please do not show up at the Hull House museum with a shovel.

3. Jane Addams buried the Devil Baby alive in the garden.
A century ago, in autumn of 1913, a rumor went around the neighborhood that a “devil baby” with red scaly skin, horns, and the ability to swear in three langauges had been born nearby and was being hidden at Hull House. It was all the staff heard about for a good six weeks. This same story went around in a few other cities over the years. There’s no evidence at all that the baby was real, or even that a baby with some sort of deformity inspired the story. And even if there was, Jane Addams would never, ever have buried it alive. Again, please, please do not show up at the Hull House museum with a shovel.

The garden on a misty night in 2006.

4. Indians performed a “Ghost Dance” on the grounds in 1812 after the Battle of Fort Dearborn to curse the grounds.
The Ghost Dance movement came decades after 1812, for one thing. For another, given that Jane Addams won a Nobel Peace Prize, it would have been a fairly incompetent curse.

5. There’s a ghostly girl named Becky or Rebecca who haunts the house.
In the summer and fall of 2006, we got a LOT of photos on tours of what appeared to be a girl about 8-10 years old. Just, a LOT of them. And good ones, too – the kind that don’t require a lot of imagination to make you think it’s a ghost. No one had ever really talked about a ghostly girl there before, and the photos seemed to stop after about 2007, though I’ve seen one occasionally since then. We have many people who describe themselves as psychic on the tour, and in 2006 two of them said the girl was named Rebecca. For two psychics to tell us the same thing is pretty unusual, so we sort of went with it. The story has snowballed a bit over the years. I’ve never found good documentation of a girl named Rebecca – or, indeed, any girl that age – dying there.

6. The “haunted room” was really a “smush room.”
This is one that a few people have speculated on – that the real source of the “rustling noises” in the room Addams herself called “the haunted room” was really just lesbians having sex, and the “ghost” story was something they made up to cover for it. The exact nature of Addams’ relationship with Mary Rozet Smith, with whom she was spending a night in the room when she claimed to see a mysterious woman in a rustling dress, is up to speculation, and I’m in no position to say with any confidence what went on in their shared bed. However, a few of the stories about the haunted room and the woman in the rustling dress can’t be explained away with this explanation, and it’s all in the realm of speculation, anyway.

That said, here’s a basic rundown of some true stuff (much more is in the book linked in the banner at the bottom):

1. The grounds where the garden now stands was the site an an undertaking parlor when Addams moved in, and eventually was the site of the Hull House children’s center. At least one baby died there.

2. The house itself is probably the place where Millicent Hull died. Charles, her husband, was a spiritualist, so it isn’t impossible that he was holding seances in there in the 1860s. One of his sons may have died there as well (his other children died elsewhere).

3. In the 1870s, the house served as a home for the elderly run by a group of nuns. Many people died there in those days.

4. There was one bedroom that even Jane Addams herself referred to as “The Haunted Room,” and she herself thought she may have seen a ghost there one time – a woman in a rustling dress.

5. Even after taking literally hundreds of tour groups out there, even now I still have nights when I’ll step into the garden and get so freaked out that I step right back out.

6. Though I’m pretty conversant with all the things that can generate false positives here (various things like lamps and fireplace mantels can look remarkably like feminine forms in photos taken through the windows), now and then I still see one I truly can’t explain.

Some recent “ghost” shots from the tours

Kiersten, a tour passenger on Friday night, snapped this cool shot – it was the hit of the tour when shown off on the bus! While I’m generally inclined to think of these “stairs” shots as reflections and smears (reflected ears are a common culprit), this is a really nifty one appearing to show two vaguely humanesque forms. I’ve adjusted it just a tiny bit to make it more visible:

Cool! As I always say, there’s no such thing as good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence. But sometimes I don’t even care about the fact that there’s probably a more “rational” explanation, because the photo is cool enough on its own terms, even if it IS just an optical illusion. 
As far as “women on the stairs” at Hull House go, there was a woman on the tour recently who told me she was a clairvoyant, and that there was a ghostly woman who came to the stairs to say hello to me every night. I always take these things with a grain (if not a whole shaker) of salt, but stories about a woman haunting the place go back well over a century; Millicent Hull died there around 1860, and a number of other women quite likely did during the 1870s, when it served as a home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. 
While we’re on the subject of recent Hull House shots, a number were taken like this recently:
On phone screens, in particular, it can look like a feminine form in the window. Having seen a few lately, I took this one myself in attempt to reproduce the effect, and confirmed that it was just the fireplace. A picture frame on the mantel forms the “head.”

Elsewhere in town, we’ve had a number of nifty shots at the “alley of death and mutilation” behind the site of the Iroquois theatre.  There was one woman on my tour on Saturday who said that she felt like a hand was touching her face in the alley, and in one picture of her, it does look as though there’s a handprint on her face. This calls to mind all SORTS of folklore motifs, like the story of the “banshee’s hand” leaving permanent marks on people’s faces, or stories of handprints never fading away, which show up all over the world, including Chicago’s Frank Leavey story.

Now, one thing worth noting is that sometimes it’s been said that women or are pregnant or new mothers feel as though a kid is holding their hand in the alley. If the woman in question now finds out she’s expecting, that’ll be one heck of a story!

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 “Glinda Orb”

I suppose that on any website that deals with ghostlore, we have to deal with “orbs” from time to time. Orbs are little white or grey balls of light that often appear in photos, and some say that they’re ghosts. Most of the time, they turn out to be something else – dust, the result of a camera dealing with low light, light refraction, or such like. I seldom mention them on tours, though on many tours I’ve had people who’ve heard of them elsewhere getting excited to get photos of them. I don’t want to spoil their fun or anything, though I also don’t want people going around posting orb pictures and saying “Adam Selzer says these are ghosts.”

Here’s an example – one that backs up the pet theory I joke about sometimes: that orbs aren’t ghosts, they’re ghost farts:

All that said, though, now and then we’ll go through periods where we get one particular one over and over. In that same basement above, we used to get a couple where the visual noise in the center kept looking like two specific faces (one looked like the former owner of the building, and the other looked like the guy on the Quaker Oats box). I remember that some years back we used to get one oversized one at the Eastland site that we called “Sherman.” (I’m sure we had a good reason for this, but damned if I remember what it was!) Both of those things went through a brief period of showing up often, then stopped showing up altogether. 
In the last few months, we’ve had a lot of shots of a really, really big one in the courtyard next door to Hull House. We call it “Glinda,” because it looks like something the Good Witch of the North might float in on. Here’s one example, in a shot by Josh Finehan:

Now, I always assume that orbs can be explained away easier than most ghost photos (and there’s no such thing as a “million dollar photo” that will truly convince anyone who didn’t take it), but I’m amused by the Glinda orb. In seven years of taking tour groups there I can’t think of any other time when we were getting this specific shot over and over. Did something in the environment change? Is it a quirk of the cameras that are popular this year? Or COULD it be something else? Between the closing of the Hull House foundation and some of the political stuff going on this primary season, there have been few months in history when Jane Addams’ rest would have been more disturbed.