The Cop Who Cried Wolf

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Pictured above is Officer Curran. In 1925, he was working the desk at the County Building, where gangsters John Scalisi and Albert Anselmi had just been brought in . They’d been arrested after a chaotic day in which they’d gone out with Mike Genna to shoot Bugs Moran. Genna himself ended up being killed along with two cops, in one of Gangland Chicago’s busiest and most chaotic days – it would later be said that Scalisi and Anselmi were really working for Capone (they certainly would later) and had secretly been planning to kill Mike Genna, not Moran, the whole time.

People in the county building heard the sound of two gunshots, and Sgt. Elbridge H. Curran told everyone that a bushy-haired man with a “swarthy” complexion had come in and shot at him, possibly mistaking him for State’s Attorney Crowe, who was going to be prosecuting Scalisi and Anselmi.  He believed that the gunman had escaped into the freight tunnels, the 60+ mile network of tunnels forty feet below the loop that connected every major building. There were countless nooks and crannies where a man could hide, and lots of ways that he could steal food from loading docks. A man could have lived there in hiding for months.

The 1925 manhunt in the tunnels has been written about many times – including a few articles and books that I wrote myself. Papers all over the country covered the it. But they mostly went quiet about it the next day, and never published the results. I always assumed that they gave up on looking for him and assumed he’d left the tunnels and gotten away; the gangster specifically suspected of being the fugitive, Tony Spano, was shot to death in a barber’s chair the next year.

It turns out that the reason the story fell out of the news is that the whole thing was a hoax. There was no shooter hiding in the tunnels at all. Curran had made the whole thing up.

Forty-eight hours later, when the tunnel hunt was winding down, Curran burst into the Maxwell Street police station to announce that he’d been shot at in his patrol car at 18th and Loomis. But after a bit of questioning, he admitted that not only had he made up the whole thing about the guy in the tunnels, but he’d shot the bullet holes into the patrol car himself. It was all just for publicity.

And it wasn’t even the first time he’d done this sort of thing. Early in his career, four years before, he’d announced that some giant robber had beaten him up, and there was a manhunt for that guy. In 1923 he said he’d been chased by a car full of gangsters who sprayed him with bullets before driving off.  And now they’d put 250 officers with tear gas bombs onto a dangerous manhunt, all because he wanted to be famous.

And so, Sgt Curran was…. temporarily suspended. That’s the craziest thing – dude was put BACK on the force after a short suspension, and stayed there, continuing to do the same stuff, for at least another six years before he was suspended in 1931 for showing up drunk (which, besides being against the code of conduct, was still illegal in 1931). After that he drops from the news, from what I can find. He died in 1948. Listen to the podcast above for more details, and watch for his story to come up on the new Effing Chicago gangster tours, which are coming soon!

 

Podcast: She Dreamed of a Skeleton

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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

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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

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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 .

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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.

The_Baker_Submarine

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

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

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

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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?

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