Hyena Jim Terrorizes Chicago, 1897

Newspaper archives are full of odd stories about the Lincoln Park Zoo (which was, after all, built on top of the old City Cemetery). One particular story that amused me last week concerned a guy in the early 1920s who was devastated to hear that his pet monkey was the wrong kind of monkey to use for “gland transplants,” a then-in-vogue operation in which ape…parts…would be surgically attached onto one’s one in order to rejuvenate one’s youthful vigor. The article about the guy ended with him hopping a cab to the Lincoln Park Zoo to scope out the action at the monkey house to see if any of the apes had more suitable…glands…that he could use.

But few zoo stories stayed in the news quite as long as the tale of Jim, the hyena who escaped from the zoo in 1897, a story that lasted a good week and kept the north side in a state of panic.

Skeleton of a “cave hyena” from an 1880s issue of
Scientific American

Jim escaped from the zoo by gnawing a hole into his cage in June, 1897. Since hyenas can be deadly, mothers on the north side were told to keep their children indoors – as the Tribune put it, “the watchful mothers of Buen Park were kept in a constant tremor all day by the dear that their little ones should be picked out to supply the “piece de resistance” of a black Forest feast. Reporters noted that the north side ws awfully quiet; in an age when kids generally roamed free in the streets, scarcely any were allowed outdoors for fear that they might meet with Jim.

 Forty-eight hours after the escape, Jim had taken up residence in Graceland Cemetery, where he scared the crap out a night watchman – imagine being a night watchman patrolling a cemetery and have the shadowy, lanky figure of a hyena cross your path. By the time the zookeepers arrived, the whole north end of the cemetery was full of laborers who had stories to tell about “how narrowly he escaped from being devored alive.” One employee said that “Jim” was as big as any lion, and twice as vicious.

A storm came down and put a stop to the hunt, and Jim took the opportunity to flee the cemetery – workers continued to scour graceland, then expanded the search to Calvary cemetery, as well, figuring that perhaps Jim had decided that cemeteries were the place to be. The next day, he was found to be lurking around Edgewater, then apparently made his way out to the west suburbs, where he was finally shot outside of an old folks’ home near Forest Park.  By then, his reign of terror had lasted nearly a week.  His body was supposed to be stuffed and mounted, though I’ve no idea what became of it.

Even now, large animals still find refuge in Graceland now and then. Coyote sightings there are common.

“Miracle” on Ashland Blvd, 1931:

In 2005, traffic was ground to a standstill when a salt stain said to resemble the Virgin Mary appeared at the Fullerton Underpass.

This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened – and another time it not only attracted what may have been an even bigger crowd, but turned out to be the result bouncing off the window in the home of a former gangster!

In mid July, 1931, a man walking down Ashland noticed a glowing image that resembled Mary and the Baby Jesus on a brick wall at 1105 S. Ashland, just near Roosevelt Road. He fell to the ground in devotion. Another guy nearby though he had fainted and ran to help, then saw the image and knelt down himself.

Within hours, the crowd had gotten so big that 400 police officers had to be brought in; some papers say that 50,000 people filed past to see the mysterious image, including several hot dog and ice cream vendors. There’s some newsreel footage out there someplace, and a lot of shots of the crowd, but I don’t think the image photographed well; all I could find in the newspaper archives down at the library was some pictures of the wall space where it was supposed to appear.

above: images from the American and the Herald

The newspaper men seemed, to a man, not to think there was anything holy about it, and most just saw dim light, not something that looked like Mary unless you were really looking for it (not unlike the salt stain – I couldn’t never tell what they were looking at there myself), but were still unable to figure out what the source of the light could be. On the second day, they were scraping it with knives trying to see if it was just phosphorescent paint – but to no avail. The image remained, glowing brighter as the night got darker, and the “miracle” was reported in newspapers around the country.

On the second day, though, the mystery was solved – the image a street light that was bouncing off a window across the street, being distorted into its odd shape by a lace curtain on the window. To what must have been everyone’s great surprise, the police knocked on the door of the flat where the window was located and found it was the home of Sam Genna of the Genna Brothers, the gang that had controlled Little Italy until three of Sam’s brothers were killed in rapid succession a few years before.

“I don’t know nothing about any miracle,” Sam said. “Get out.”  One can only imagine what he’d been thinking of the crowd on his lawn up until then; another named, a grey haired man known as Dr. Stoll, was particularly annnoyed at the whole thing. “Terrible, terrible it was,” he said. “I told ’em it was all a crazy humbug or something, but I couldn’t stop ’em. Neither could the police. They just trampled into my yard, broke into my house, sat on my back steps and watched that silly light on the wall.”

The police, no longer afraid of the once-notorious Genna Brothers by 1931, pushed right past him, despite Sam’s protestations that he had company, and despite the fact that such an unwarranted search was not remotely constitutional, and firmly established that moving the curtain up and down could make the “apparition” appear and disappear. The police announced to the crowd that it was all a “big fake,” and the crowd dispersed. Sam Genna lived relatively quitely for the next twenty years until his death of natural causes.

At the left here is the Tribune’s shot of the crowd, which they estimated to be around 7000 at the time the photo was taken.

I’m not sure that providing a rational explanation like that would make so many people disperse so quickly these days – the shrine around the spot where Our Lady of the Underpass appeared is still there today, going on eight years later. At least a large handful of such a crowd now would probably stick around saying unkind things about scientists and skeptics. Lt. Joseph Pierott’s announcement that everyone should go home and go to bed or he’d “run them in” would surely be seen by some as anti-Catholic suppression. The talking heads and pundits would have a field day.

BTW – here’s the inside of the Genna Brothers’ tomb at Mount Carmel; Tony Genna’s crypt is on the lower left; he was shot at Grand and Aberdeen in 1925, at a grocery store that stood where the pest control place is now.

Cryptic Vandalism: He Whom Waits Behind the Rose

One of those mini-mysteries that pop up now and then – this odd phrase was found scrawled on the memorial sign at the Eastland Disaster site on the tour on Friday night:  He whom waits behind the rose.

The phrase doesn’t come up at all when typed into google. Is this a scavenger hunt clue? An odd bit of graffiti? If we’d looked at all the OTHER signs on the river walk, would we find that this was one line or a larger poem, like a Burma-Shave sign?  I’m always amused by cryptic vandalism.

The “Demon Bank” on North Clark

No, this isn’t one of those “occupy” posts. But there’s one bank on North Clark that seems to have demons carved right into the facade – at 2021 N Clark. Would you go to a bank with demons on it?

Up close, you see that the thing actually has horns and everything. Is this supposed to be the devil? Does this mean I can sell my soul at this bank? Finally, a way to get a mortgage!

I’d say it’s actually more likely Pan, the greek god, than Satan, but I’d really love to find out what was going through people’s heads when the place was built, back in 1935. I’m not sure there was a bank in the space then (there has been since at least the 1970s), but 1935 was exactly the time period when a builder could probably get away with putting a demon on a bank and acting all coy about it. People would take his side. Look how many took John Dillinger’s side for robbing the banks (this is about half a mile, give or take a few blocks, from the Biograph Theatre, where he saw his last movie before being shot in the nearby alley).  Of course, putting Pan on a bank doesn’t make a WHOLE lot more sense than putting Satan on one.

 The building is actually mainly residential; most of it is a high rise:

The main residential entrance is on the other side of the building, on North Lincoln Park, and is kind of creepy itself (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).

Anyone know more about this place? The fire insurance map from the year it was built is sort of unreadable.

The Disco Salad Bar

Hi, guys. You’ll never believe what I discovered today at the Holmes Murder Castle site. I was there all day with a TV show, including a trip into the basement. I’ll have more details and stories later (and LOTS of photos), but for now all I can do is tease.

So, anyway, the mysterious discovery: Nearby the murder castle apparently once stood….THE DISCO SALAD BAR!

Now, the salad bar appears to have been closed for years. However, it WAS operational in the last quarter century. Rory, who has been the security guard at the post office that occupies part of the murder castle site since 1986, told me he used to go there for lunch sometimes. “It was okay,” he said. 

The Chiditarod!

When you’re walking down to the UPS store and see a bunch of guys in chicken suits crossing the road, you should pretty generally go see what’s going on. I crossed the road myself and saw a bunch of costumed guys and decorated shopping carts.

I had stumbled onto The Chiditarod, which was described to me as part costume contest, part talent show, part food drive, part pub crawl, and all awesome. My distaste for running pub crawls in my Weird Chicago days was legendary, but this is one I can get behind! Scattered between 11 bars in the city, 165 teams are competing this year. They’ve raised something like ten TONS of canned food. How wonderful is that?

The creativity I saw from some crews was astounding – it was like Odyssey of the Mind for adults!

This is Roger McCubbins and Kip Burgess, who came in full Doctor Who regalia with their Tardis-themed shopping cart. Check out Roger’s Tumblr!

And here’s some video footage of the line:

Chicago and the Cardiff Giant

This “petrified cuss,” as he has been irreverently called, was made to order, and made very well. Of course he was made well, because he was made in Chicago. We can manufacture antiquities as easily almost as we make pork out of hogs. – The Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 1869.

The Cardiff Giant, the 10 foot “petrified giant” dug up in Cardiff, New York in 1869, has been called one of history’s greatest hoaxes – a statue that fooled the world. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have fooled very many people. When George Hull, a Cardiff farmer, announced that he had found the petrified giant while digging for a well on his farm, it attracted plenty of attention, but geologists knew that there was no good reason to dig a well where he was digging, and sculptors recognized the chisel marks. Even the most optimistic scientists merely called it an “ancient statue.” Still, various preachers announced that it was proof that a line in Genesis about giants who once walked the Earth was true, and that therefore the entire Bible was true. The giant immediately became a huge attraction, and P.T. Barnum rushed to produce his own (and to call the one dug up in NEw York a fake). Cardiff Giant

In 1866, the farmer, George Hull, had gotten into an argument with an Iowa clergyman about the line from Genesis. If that was real, he asked, why are there no artifacts? Hull, an atheist, decided to have some fun with religious people, and acquired a 20 foot block of gypsum, which he transported by rail to Chicago where he hired Eduard (or Edwin – sources differ) Burkhart, a sculptor who specialized in angel statues for cemeteries, to carve it into a 10 foot reclining nude man. When it was built, Hull buried it on his farm and left it underground to “season” for a couple of years before digging it back up and presenting his hoax to the world. He wound up selling it to businessmen for, depending on which source you’re reading, between 20 and 40 thousand dollars. The new owners tried to sue Barnum for calling theirs a fake, and when the case looked as though it was heading for trial, Hull got nervous and admitted the truth. Barnum was found not liable – there was nothing slanderous about calling a fake giant a fake.

Burkhart carved the giant in a barn which a 1985 Chicago Tribune article states was at 940 N. Clark. They don’t say whether that was the address before or after the 1909 street renumbering, but I suspect it’s the current address. In 1866 940 N Clark would be roughly where Clark and Fullerton is now – further North than most people lived then, and right in the middle of City Cemetery (which would have been fairly convenient, since Burkhart’s work was mainly for cemeteries). 940 N. Clark on the current grid is right across the street from Washington Square Park (alias Bughouse Square). Either way, the barn is long gone now. If it was at the current 940 N, it would have burned up in the Great Fire. It might’ve been safer near Clark and Fullerton, but the only barn around there now is in the petting zoo at Lincoln Park.

Today, the giant is still on display at Cooperstown, NY (though it spent a good chunk of the 20th century in an Iowa rumpus room). One of the copies is near Fort Dodge, Iowa. Barnum’s own replica is on display at a museum in Detroit. I think it’s high time Chicago got its own version. It’d be interesting to find out if any of the angels Burkhart made are still in cemeteries – many were probably for City Cemetery (which is now Lincoln Park). He died shortly after the carving, and his family doubted that he knew that it was intended for use as a hoax (though I don’t really see how he couldn’t have).

Here’s some info about Burkhart from his descendents

Museum of Hoaxes Entry on the Cardiff Giant

Our Lady of the Underpass

A staple of our tours from Day 1 has been the infamous Virgin Mary Salt Stain – the salt stain on the underpass near Fullerton and Damen that some claimed was a visitation of the Virgin Mary, which they claimed it resembled. The traffic jams to see it died down a few weeks after it’s “discovery” in April 2005, but the shrine around it – featuring candles, wreathes, and (I’m not making this up) a headless Jesus statue remained.

(update: I’m no longer with the company I worked for when this post went up in 2009, but as of 2012, I still pass by it occasionally on certain routes for Chicago Hauntings, my current company, and even if the stain is gone, the shrine remains – it was rebuilt shortly after this post went up). 

Ken just called from the tour and told me that it’s gone. There’s nothing left, from what he’s told me, except for some burn marks. Basic detective work leads us to believe that it was set fire to by some weirdo, and the rubble was hauled away by the city. The fire could also have been started by one of the candles, I suppose. There are a LOt of candles set up most of the time – candles plus plants are probably an accident like this waiting to happen.

The stain has fallen on hard times lately – some months back it was covered by a spray-painted devil face, and has since been covered with a portrait of Mary. It was only a matter of time until it joined the House of Crosses in the ranks of “Great Tour Stops Gone By.”

It was a tricky stop for me, since I always felt that I OUGHT to be fairly respectful of it. As a paid, professional smart aleck (see my upcoming “Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History,” due early next year), there were some jokes I just couldn’t leave out…

– I was never sure what people were seeing in the stain, exactly. Apparently Jews can’t see it.

– I’d like to be a fly on the wall at Mary’s meeting in which God says “Mary, I need you to go be a salt stain in Chicago. That’ll send a powerful message. I know you’re already appearing on a sandwhich in Dubuque, but hey, I’m EVERYWHERE. You can’t be two places at once?”

– The “shrine” around it changed all the time. One time we went out there and found a pyramid of Dr. Pepper cans – perhaps a reference to the scriptural “Thou art the pepper of the earth*…would not thou like to be a pepper, too?” I believe it’s in Paul’s Letter to Mr. Pibb (which opens “yo, Pibb…why you always gotta be a pepper hater?”

So long, salt stain.