Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

Listen above, at archive.org or check out the podcast on iTunes!  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago papers published a number of articles about how many ghost stories there were on Sheridan Road. One of them came up just a bit in my HH Holmes research – the legend of a woman who dreamed for several nights that a body was buried in the Evanston Woods, near murderer Holmes’ old house in Wilmette. Upon sending her husband to dig in the spot, a skeleton was found.

I’d never given the story too much though, but further research today finally dug up some news stories from when the skeleton was first found in September, 1896. And checking the microfilms for Chicago papers back then blew the whole story wide open. Give a listen to the podcast to see what happened!

Podcast: Searching for the Grave of Cap Streeter

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

I’ve been speaking about Captain George Wellington Streeter since my very first tours. Though I doubt very much that he really put a “curse” on the landfill he created – and declared to be his own country – his story is a uniquely Chicago sort of tale, a story that sounds like something from the 1600s happening in the 20th century!

It occurred to me that I’d never seen a photo of his gravestone before, if he even had one, but a newspaper write-up of his funeral indicated that he was interred at Graceland Cemetery. After my recent tour there, I went to track him down, joined by a tour guest who’s written a novel about ol “Cap” Streeter. Listen in!

Private Graceland Cemetery tours are available year round – great for school groups! Email for info.

Podcast: Thomas Neill Cream – Antique Serial Killer

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

o-DR-THOMAS-CREAM-570A 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.

Listen in above or on iTunes or archive.org!

Podcast: The Bloody Handprint of West Randolph

(new podcast! Click above, or see archive.org or iTunes
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 .

0-handprint (1)

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.

All of the details are in the podcast!

The Fool Killer Submarine: 100th Anniversary Podcast and New Theories!

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This month, January of 1916, marks the 100th anniversary of the day they found bones in the wreck of the Fool Killer, the mysterious submarine found in the Chicago River in November, 1915. It’s one of my favorite Chicago mysteries, and the first one that really sent me down a rabbit hole.

Fool Killer raising

Raising the Fool Killer, Chicago Daily News.

Our most complete article is The Fool Killer: All We Know from several years ago. The short version is this: In 1915, William “Frenchy” Deneau was digging a trench in the river bed to lay down some cables, and came across the wreck of a 40 foot long homemade submarine. In January it was found to have bones onboard – human and dog. In February, 1916, it was on display on South State Street.  For a dime you could see the submarine, and the dead guy, and the dead dog.foolkillerraising

It traveled around a bit from there – it was on display in Iowa in May, and at Riverview, on Western Ave, in June. From there, besides an ad in a magazine saying that it’s for sale, it vanishes from the record. It was probably sold for scrap in World War 1, though no one knows for sure. It could still be in a warehouse someplace.

We’re also left with the mystery of who built the thing, exactly – I’ve got some new clues down at the bottom of the post. The press at the time said it was built by an “Eastern man” who sold it to Peter Nissen, a daredevil / accountant.  around the time of the World’s Fair in 1893.  Nissen had several crafts called The Fool Killer, including this miniature steamship in which he was filmed shooting the rapids at Niagara Falls.

George C. Baker's craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

George C. Baker’s craft from 1892. More football-shaped than the foolkiller.

But no known evidence really connects Nissen to this submarine. The federal inspector of Rivers and Harbors, though, said at the time that he’d heard of a submarine built by a naval architect sunk in the river about 15 years ago. The dates are a little off (you know how you still think of 1990 as being ten years ago?), but this would line up fairly well to a submarine invented by George C. Baker, and tested in Lake Michigan in 1892, near the Calumet River. I looked this one up when I was first digging into Fool Killer and brushed it off as not being the same craft. It’s a different shape.

But at the time, I hadn’t seen the thing with Monville talking about the naval architect. And looking up Baker now, I see that Baker was commissioned by the Navy to build more than one; he didn’t live to do it, but maybe someone else did?

One of G.C. Baker's patents. Was this the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

One of G.C. Baker’s patents. Was this the design for the Fool Killer that ended up in the Chicago River?

Baker had several patents to his name, including 533466A and 525179A, which both look a LOT like the submarine Frenchy Deneau found. There’s even an article or two in out-of-town papers saying that his craft was forty feet long, just the length the Fool Killer was said to be.


Looking more into Baker now, there are some photographs of his ship, but it doesn’t quite look right; articles on him indicate that he hadn’t built more of them as of 1894, when he died. At that time his widow had the craft towed into Lake Michigan, filled with sand, and sunk. It’s probably still out there.


If I had to bet I’d be inclined to ascribe the Fool Killer to Baker, just based on those patents, but by all accounts to football-shaped craft was his only one. The bones were probably a publicity stunt on Deneau’s part – all available evidence indicates that the man was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story!

Get the podcast above, and don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes


Baker at the wheel of his craft, from Pacific Marine Review

Did H.H. Holmes Kill Dr. Holton? (podcast)


Tickets to our first public tours are on sale now, including one of the H.H. Holmes tours that I’ve been running since 2007. The tours have evolved as I’ve researched Holmes in more depth, and I’m quite confident now that they’re the most informative and entertaining Holmes tours in town. If Devil in the White City piqued your curiousity, you won’t want to miss this (or the “Unsolved Mysteries” tour I’ll be running immediately afterwards!)

And in honor of the tour announcement, here’s a new podcast….

One of my favorite posts ever on this blog was the one about H.H. Holmes and Dr. Holton.  In Devil in the White City (and most every other book about H.H. Holmes), there’s a lurid story about Holmes buying a pharmacy at Sixty-Third and Wallace (across the street from the site where he’d build his famous “murder castle” starting in 1887) from old Dr. Holton’s wife. In the story, Dr. Holton is an old man dying of cancer while his hapless wife tries to run the pharmacy herself. She’s only too happy to sell to Holmes, though, as is his fashion, he never pays. When rumors of a lawsuit circulate, Dr. and Mrs. Holton disappear, and Holmes tells everyone they’ve gone to California….

This story was pieced together from scattered bits of info on Dr. E.S. Holton that were available to researchers in days past – newspapers alluding to Holmes’ buying a pharmacy from “Mrs. Dr. Holton,” and Holmes himself alluding to buying a pharmacy from a physician who was eager to sell owing to ill health, and a few later stories hinting that Mrs. Dr. Holton wasn’t seen around much anymore. From these bits of data, an early 20th century writer put the story together, and writers up to the modern day have repeated it without really questioning it. But the critical information is a lot easier to find for me than it was for researchers in the days before Google Books, when finding the one book with the right data was a lot more luck-of-the-draw.

Several articles stated that “Mrs. Dr. Holton” had some trouble getting the money for the pharmacy, but I could never find a lawsuit on file. The most detailed info I have (which is hearsay from more than a decade after the fact) comes from an 1898 Chicago Inter Ocean article in which one G.A. Bogart, a jeweler who ran a shop a bit further west on 63rd, said that “from the first day he was engaged by Mrs. Holton to run the drug store which he afterward bought from her, he determined to have a busiess of his own; and to that end began carrying off the stock, piecemeal. Every time he left the store he carried something away, and very materially reduced the stock before he made a bit for it. After he concluded the deal he only paid his notes at the muzzle of a gun.”

In our research into who Dr. Holton was and what became of the Holtons, we found a completely different story from the one normally told. Listen in above, check out our podcasts page  or subscribe on iTunes!  And we’ll be back next week with another Holmes story/podcast that I promise is a real doozy!   And don’t forget to check out our upcoming Holmes Tour with Atlas Obscura!

cemetery selfie with Dr Elizabeth Holton's grave

My cemetery selfie at Dr. Holton’s grave

Podcast: Revolution in Rosehill?

Following my post the other day about William Duvol, a soldier said to be a Revolutionary War vet buried at Rosehill, Ray Johnson said he’d been working on the same case. We headed out to Rosehill and recorded a quick podcast at the grave – I hope this can tide people over until our next big one!

November 19: A Revolutionary War Grave?

Pictures and More

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William Duvol: Chicago’s Only Revolutionary Soldier?

Updated! new info at bottom.

There are a couple of Revolutionary vets buried out in Elk Grove, but only one revolutionary soldier is known to be buried in Chicago proper: William Duvol, who died around the 1830s and whose headstone is at Rosehill Cemetery.  (note:  David Kennison, who is buried in Lincoln Park, claimed to be a vet, but was almost certainly lying).

Duvol was probably originally buried in one of the city’s first two official cemeteries, one of which stood near the water tower site (Chicago and Michigan), and one of which was down around 23rd Street on the lake shore. Neither were in use for long, and he was likely moved to City Cemetery in the 1840s, which stood on the site where Lincoln Park is now, before being moved to Rosehill in the 1860s, when City Cemetery closed. His 1830s-era gravestone remained at Rosehill from the 1860s until 2004, when it was replaced after becoming nearly illegible.  The original stone at Rosehill said “William Duvol: Soldier of the Revolution” and stated that he had died at the age of 75. The new stone identifies him as a Continental Line soldier; I’m not sure what was done with the old stone, or how they determined even that much about his service.

So, who was this guy? Early Chicago history books (which tend to be somewhat exhaustive in giving data about everyone of note who lived in the area) don’t mention Duvol at all, and the main William Duvol who comes up in searches of genealogy sites is an Englishman who was still an Englishman decades after the war.  A 1959 article on the gravestone stated that nothing historical could be found on Duvol at all.

Major William Duval – a false
positive in the case. 

When the new gravestone was dedicated in 2005, it was said in an article or two that he came from Henrico, Virginia, which sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole.

The Virginia “William Duval” (or Du Val) was certainly a revolutionary soldier; in fact, he was quite a prominent citizen around Richmond in the early 19th century; his son went on to serve in congress in the 1830s, as well as serve as the first civilian governor of Florida. The Daughters of the American Revolution has a bit on him, as well, and various sources specifically state that he was from Henrico. I can assume that the articles stating that the William Duvol at Rosehill was a Henrico man were assuming that the man beneath the stone was Major William Duval. But I’m not sure how they determined that, and, if so, they were wrong; Major Duval died at his plantation in Virginia in 1842.

So that takes us back to the drawing board, and the identity and story of William Duvol remains a mystery.

Some of the records may have been lost in the Great Chicago Fire, but some may still be out there, waiting to be discovered.  It may be that he, like Kennison, was simply telling his neighbors that he was a soldier. It may be that when he died, some neighbor who paid for the stone simply had the impression that he’d been a soldier. It may be that he changed his name somewhere along the line. It may be that he was a soldier who didn’t make it into any early records.

One other thing: it’s entirely possible that Duvol isn’t in Rosehill at all. In many cases, when gravestones were moved from City Cemetery to Rosehill or Graceland, the stones were all that were moved, and bodies were left behind. Other bodies couldn’t be moved, because they’d already been stolen by grave robbers working for medical schools (it’s known that this was a problem in the early cemeteries). David Kennison was far more prominent and better known that Duvol seems to have been, and had died more recently when City Cemetery was closed, but his remains were certainly never moved. It’s quite conceivable that Duvol remains at rest in Lincoln Park as well, or even near the Magnificent Mile or the South Loop.

It turned out Ray Johnson was working on this same case! He found a 1929 register of veterans that actually listed Duvol as a Civil War vet, though with no further information to show how they came to think that. He also found some mention of a William Duval in Illinois Civil War muster rolls (who disappears from the record right after the muster), so there’s a chance that this is actually a Civil War vet. This, though, doesn’t explain the “soldier of the revolution” mark on his original tomb.

Ray and I met up at the cemetery today to look things over and compare notes. Right behind his grave is the boulder marking the burial site of Ebenezer Peck, at whose mansion Lincoln decided who would be in his cabinet.  We recorded a short podcast that I hope will tide you over until we can get the Johann Hoch one done!