Old Potter’s Field Cemetery in Way of Forest Preserve

Forest Preserve crews in suburban Oak Forest have run into a problem – some of the land the county bought to expand the forest preserve district overlaps with the old potter’s field (cemetery for unclaimed bodies), which was in use mainly from 1912-1940, when the county had stopped using Dunning as the main Potter’s field and started using Oak Forest, southwest of Midlothian. The last burial took place there in 1971, far later than some of the news stories are implying. It stands around 159th and Cicero on the grid. It was formally known as Cook County Cemetery late in its era; the county stopped using the term “potter’s field” in the 1950s.

Space there ran out in the early 70s, after which grounds in Archer Woods became the Potter’s Field for a while.  Prior to Dunning in the 1870s, the Potter’s Field had been about where the Lincoln Park baseball fields are now.   Bodies were buried in simply pine coffins with numbers stenciled on them so they could be removed if the family wanted them put in another cemetery, at least within the first ten years or so. After that, they would have deteriorated enough to be hard to identify.
As of a 1929 Tribune article, it was estimated that about 16,000 graves were at Oak Forest, with another 4-6 being added every day, on average (though shipments came from the morgue every other week). Most were in the “main field” at the time, though several hundred each were in the Catholic and Lutheran sections, which were maintained by members of those faiths.  When bodies were not identified in the morgue (but not dead of anything contagious), they would be held for about 15 days. Coroner’s staff was said to take exhaustive notes about distinguishing marks and descriptions of bodies that could not be identified and kept in the vault at the coroner’s office, and well into the late 20th century it was said that very good records existed. Whether they’re still available is probably anyone’s guess; the info in the articles above makes it sound like they can’t be found. A 1984 Trib article said that the names of the buried were in nine oversized books at the Oak Forest Hospital’s office of public information. At the time, it was said that families were still having bodies disinterred to be reburied elsewhere once or twice per year. 

Chicago-made 1916 Sherlock Holmes Film Recovered!

As some of you know, this spring I’ll have new book out on silent film production in Chicago. Co-written with Michael Glover Smith, Flickering Empire will be published by Wallflower, the film studies imprint of Columbia University Press.

In the draft, we talk a bit about the Sherlock Holmes film that Chicago’s Essanay studios made in 1916, towards the end of their period of relevance.  It was one of the film hits of the year; William Gillette had worked with Arthur Conan Doyle on a theatrical script about Holmes in 1899, and had spent the previous decade and a half traveling the world starring in it. He’d had several offers to adapt it to a silent film, but turned all of them down until George Spoor of Essanay made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Offhand, I’m not sure what the offer was, but a few contemporary articles say that Gillette made an unprecedented sum on the film, and that the seven-part picture was so expensive to make that only a couple of movies had ever cost more to make. One 1916 article notes that actual 1890s London cabs were brought in for the production. A Richmond paper noted that part of what made Gillette pick Spoor was that he was able to find parts of Chicago that looked just like the worst parts of London needed for the filming; Spoor had recently declared that Chicago was the perfect town for movie-making and determined to shoot every foot of his films there (though he had experimented with California before – 1916 was just about the end of Chicago’s time as a major film hub)

The movie was a hit; reviewers loved it and called it “a sensation.” They were especially taken with Gillette himself.

We spend some time in the book lamenting that the film is now lost, like 99% of Essanay’s other output (and like the vast majority of silent films in general). However, as I always say when talking about lost films, they’re always finding long-lost films in barns and yard sales, so you never know.

And sure enough, at the 11th hour before we finalized the book, Sherlock Holmes has been found. There was a print in a vault in France, and the film has now been remastered.  Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll be able to see it in time to write much more about it in the book. No Chicago screening has yet been scheduled; it will make its US premiere in San Fransisco next year. It first played in Chicago 98 years ago at the VLSE theatre on the 600 block of South Michigan Avenue, and was in a few other theatres throughout that summer before vanishing from the city.  I hope it makes it here soon; I’ll be fascinated to see if any of the Chicago locations are still recognizable today (which is a real treasure hunt with any Chicago-made films that we can find today).

You can read the whole story of the film’s rediscovery at the Cinematheque Francais in this article in Variety. 

You can also hear Mike and I exploring the remains of Essanay Studios on our 2011 podcast, “Inside Charlie Chaplin’s Vault” . Click the link or simply listen in below:

JUST KILL ME announced

Just a quick break from our regularly scheduled program of death, disease and destruction for a little announcement:  In 2015, Simon and Schuster will be publishing my new novel, Just Kill Me, a black comedy about a teenage intern at a Chicago ghost tour company who is accused of murder after rumors spread that the company is making tour stops more haunted by killing people at them.

This’ll be a fun one for Chicago history and ghost-lore fans, as it will have references throughout to Lillian Collier, the Couch Tomb, H.H. Holmes, Resurrection Mary, and other topics I tend to cover a lot on here. I usually avoid writing myself into books as much as I can, but in the rough draft of this one I actually have a character named Adam Selzer (he’s a former star in the ghost business, now a gin-soaked recluse with a terrible secret). I’ll probably change his name at the last minute, though!

While I’m at it, here’s a quick plug for the book of mine S&S is putting out in August, Play Me Backwards. 

Human Heads at O’Hare

A package of more than a dozen severed human heads is currently being holed up at O’Hare. Officials are acting like this is no big deal, but I would have loved to see the TSA agent’s face when the coolers containing them went through the x-ray.

See more from the Chicago Tribune.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for headlessness. Here’s statue from Graceland Cemetery:

A new look, a new name. CHICAGO UNBELIEVABLE!

It’s probably been long overdue that I disassociate this site from Weird Chicago, since I haven’t actually worked with them in a long time now. So I’m pleased to announce the launch of CHICAGO UNBELIEVABLE!  Watch for a rebirth of this blog in coming weeks, with more podcasts, more ebooks, and other cool stuff!

As an update from me, I’m under contract for a number of cool Chicago history books, including Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks From Chicago History, due next year from Globe Press. I’m very excited about a book about how Chicago created the film industry that I’m writing with Michael Glover Smith, and both Troy Taylor and I will have several articles in an upcoming book about American ghost stories and hauntings.
Chicago is an unbelievable city, full of unbelievable stories. And we’ll be digging them up and showing them to you here at CHICAGO UNBELIEVABLE!

Old Town Tatu on Ghost Lab (long post)

The Weird Chicago Team started investigating Odin Tatu (formerly the Klemundt Funeral Home, currently Old Town Tatu ) before Weird Chicago even existed – we were all still working for another company at the time. And the first investigation (June, 2006) of the tattoo shop was different than the more recent ones have been; back then, we were just looking for ghosts from the funeral parlor. Richie “Tapeworm” Herrera was the owner of the place then – it was on that first investigation that he pointed to the staircase and said “you guys see that staircase?…..twice, when I was walking down those stairs, I felt like someone was trying to push me. And that freaked me out, because everyone knows you can’t fight BACK with these cats, right? So the first time it happened, I said ‘listen! if I die in this place, it is ON!'” (those aren’t his exact words – I’m basing this on my notes from that night – the recorder wasn’t running at the time – and cleaning up his language a LOT, as I try to keep things clean(ish) around here).

Anyway, by now you probably know the story – Tapeworm died a few weeks after that first, somewhat informal investigation, and since then people have focused on looking for HIS ghost there. And if there was ever a ghost I believed in, it’s his. Many times, I’ve felt someone in that basement flicking my ears and pulling my hair – all the ways guys like Richie would pick on nerds like me.

Tapeworm had several stories for us that first night – what he told us, and the events of that night, are chronicled extensively in Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps and on our podcast (16mb mp3), which includes some of the audio. The short version: Tapeworm had seen a guy in a brown suit, another guy in a powder blue suit, a little girl, and a woman in white. I think he was making the woman in white up – my impression of him that night was that he genuinely thought the place was haunted, but had some misinformation about the place and wasn’t above exaggerating. Exaggerating when you tell ghost stories is hardly unusual. Almost everyone does it – and Tapeworm probably would’ve copped to it sooner or later. He was a cool cat.

We’ve had just a handful of experiences there on the occasions that we’ve brought tour groups there (which we can’t often do – just occasionally). There have been a handful of interesting pictures, but I haven’t seen anything REALLY exciting. There’ve also been a few nights when the basement suddenly began to smell of formaldahyde.

Anyway, going into the ghost lab show, there have been some mysteries:
1. For how long has there been a funeral parlor on the spot? Oral tradition has it dating to the 1880s. The Klemundt Funeral Parlor on the site was built in the 1920s, but the basement is clearly the foundation of an earlier building (there are places where you can see where the windows were). What this building was has never been determined. Also undocumented is the notion that the garage was once a stable and that some 30 bodies were buried on the grounds at one point (members of the Klemundt family I’ve spoken to seem to disagree on the history of the place, though they HAVE thought it was haunted for years).

2. Who was “Walter?” On that first investigation, the EVP mic picked up a ghost that identified itself as Walter. Tapeworm got all excited and said that Walter Klemundt was the last owner of the funeral parlor to die. We later learned that there was no Walter Klemundt (or that there WAS a Walter, but he wasn’t dead yet, depending on who you asked). I suspected that there may have been someone in the building messing with us on this one. It happens.

Trying to get to the truth of the matter on anything ghost-related is rough going. I often compare ghost hunting TV shows to professional wrestling – some of the moves might be “real,” but, whatever the intentions of the investigators, most of the shows are 90% showmanship. Trying to get “answers” to any of these mysteries from a show is usually a fool’s errand. They may learn information that contradicts the stories they’ve heard, or find a good explanation for the evidence they gather, but those scenes will probably end up on the cutting room floor.

Pointing out the problems of these shows and the evidence they gather tends to make me look like a spoilsport (at best), but, hey, if we want to find any real ghosts, we should learn to separate the misinformations and outright fictions that generate around any well-publicized “haunted” place from the real history and sightings, especially if we’re ever going to go so far as to actually declare a place to be haunted. I’ve never said that for sure about any place myself, even though I’d probably make a lot more money if I were willing to go on TV and say “it’s a shadow person! Dude, this place is freaking HAUNTED!” However, there are a handful of places I’d put in the ol “it practically MUST be” category – and Old Town Tatu is one of those.

When the Ghost Lab guys contacted me over the summer to get my permission to use the audio I recorded there, I certainly got the impression that these guys were doing their level best to get the facts straight and conduct scientific investigations. That hasn’t always been the impression I got from the show itself, but, hey, that could always just be the editing.

Anyway, on to tonight’s episode:
Glad they like my “Walter” EVP (I recorded the “walter” voice that they played on the show in the basement back in 2006 – Ken, who appears in the show, was also in the basement at the time). I’m not buying their “turn me on” one, though. Sounds like a mechanical noise to me. I can’t pass judgement on their other one without hearing it unedited. Certainly seems like something Richie would say, though.

The released-endorphin theory is a fun idea. I won’t be getting a tattoo during a tour, though.

Old Irving Park (it’s not actually anywhere the neighborhood known as Old Town) is hardly what I’d call the rough side of Chicago. I mean, it’s on the North side. Everyone knows (thanks to Jim Croce) that the SOUTH side is the baddest part of town. One could argue that the west side is worse now, but the Irving Park and Kimball area isn’t bad at all.

I heard about their findings about there being a Walter in the Klemundt family – a guy named Walter Loeding – last summer, during their investigation. It’s a great find – I had Walter Loeding’s obit among the handful of Walters whose funerals or wakes were held there, but the obit didn’t mention that he was a relative of the family. If there is a ghost named Walter, he’s as likely a candidate as anyone.

However, I don’t think that he is the person Tapeworm was talking about. He certainly never owned the place, and I doubt Tapeworm would have heard of him. Even most of the members of the Klemundt family I’d spoken to didn’t know about him.

Anyway, one story about Walter Loeding – who died in the late 1960s – that has gone around in the last couple of months is that when he died, he didn’t own a suit, so the family bought him a brown one, making him likely to be the guy in the brown suit Richie told us he’d seen. There’s also a story I’ve heard that during his funeral, a guy wearing a powder blue suit crashed his car into the place and died – Tapeworm also talked about seeing a guy in just such a suit. The story about Walter being buried in a brown suit sounds reasonable enough, but I’m not sure I’m buying the idea that a guy fatally crashed into a funeral and that the story somehow didn’t make the papers.

In summary, The Ghost Lab team still seems like they believe everything they hear to me – and they repeated some misinformation (which I thought they KNEW was misinformation from the family) about the history of the building, particularly the basement. BUT, they didn’t make any totally outrageous claims, didn’t waste time showing any orb pictures (I’d say the odds they got those in the basement are about 100%), and they did dig up some good stuff.

Klemundt Funeral Home, currently the home of Old Town Tattoo (alias Odin Tatu) on the North side of Chicago.

“Orbs” in the basement at Odin / Old Town Tattoo, emerging, it seems, from Ken’s butt. The shape of this one gives it away as a dust particle (which is pretty generally what orbs turn out to be – very few reputable ghosthunters believe that orbs are ghosts). This one may prove my own pet theory – orbs aren’t ghosts, they’re ghost FARTS. 🙂

Tapeworm, who challenged the ghosts in his the Odin Tatu building to a fight in the event of his death – which, tragically, came three weeks later.

“Orbs” that appear to have faces in them are almost invariably just “matrixing,” a trick of the mind the makes us look for faces and other such patterns in random visual noise (and no serious ghost investigator still claims that orbs are ghosts to begin with). But the “face” in this one at Odin Tatu sure does look like Tapeworm! It’s one of two distinct “faces” that tend to show up in this location – the other looks like the guy on the Quaker Oats box. I never hold orbs up as ghost evidence, but this one is kinda neat. It was taken about a year and a half after Tapeworm’s death.

The gravestone in the fireplace at Odin / Old Town Tatu. They found this in the attic when they moved in.

This, not the mask shown on Most Terrifying Places, was the mask Tapeworm said tended to fall off the wall. This was taken during the first investigation, just after he showed it to me.


Ghosts at the Congress Theatre?

We’ve covered the Congress Hotel, its fascinating history, and its supposed ghosts, frequently here. But the Congress Theatre? The one that was on Ghost Hunters lately? We’ve never mentioned that.

That’s because it’s never really been thought of as a haunted location around the city before. None of the other ghost tour guides in the city had heard about it, either.

That said, though, had anyone asked me, I would have assumed the employees here had a ghost story or two to tell. As Jim, a lifelong theatre employee who works on our team, says: “If you ask a theatre person to tell you a ghost story, they WILL do it.” There’s hardly a theatre in the city that isn’t said to be haunted. However, stories to back up the hauntings at the Congress Theatre seem awfully flimsy – the old “the mob used to meet in the basement” story goes around here in Chicago even more that the ol’ “Indian Burial Ground” story. And, of course, all old theatres are full of strange noises and dark corridors and basements, and most have bars. Selzer’s First Theorem (which I suppose I can call this now, since it’s been published in a book available at most major bookstores) states that any vaguely spooky place where people get wasted will eventually show up on a book, tv show, or website about ghosts. It just took this one longer than most.

I’m not saying the place ISN’T haunted or anything – I’ve never been there, so I shouldn’t really pass judgement. But it certainly seems like one of those places that people say is haunted just because it looks like it ought to be – or, in this case, because it would look good on TV.

I’m not the business of criticizing TAPS or anything (I don’t really watch the show very often), but I certainly have gotten the impression that The SyFy channel is starting to pressure the TAPS crew to find stuff wherever they go. You have to take ANY ghost hunting tv show with a certain grain of salt – no matter how honorable the intentions of the actual investigators are, they still have to filter their shows through the suits at the network who usually have a final say in how the show is edited. I’ve always had a pretty good idea that if I were more willing to say places were really, truly haunted and risk looking like a jackass, I’d be making a lot more money in this business.